American Aircraft Manufacturing Between the Wars

The Ford 4AT Trimotor, called the "Tin Goose," was Henry Ford’s most successful aircraft.

At the end of World War I, the aircraft industry took a sharp nosedive. Several wartime aircraft companies closed their doors and others barely survived. One year after the Armistice, 90 percent of wartime production capacity had been eliminated. The military did not order any new aircraft at all until 1920. In 1921, total employment in the aviation industry was only 4,000. Furthermore, a large number of war surplus planes flooded the market. And since new aircraft were not being built, technological advances, such as the use of new alloys, more sophisticated instruments, new construction methods, and more powerful engines, had little opportunity to make their appearance in better aircraft.

Some in the government began to recognize the crisis in the industry and its implications for the country. They expressed concern that the sharp contraction in the industry would make gearing up for an emergency difficult and recommended “continuity of production” to maintain necessary skills and facilities. The government began to develop a national aviation policy. The Lampert-Perkins committee, a congressional committee, recommended in 1925 that the government cease competing with private industry through facilities like the Naval Aircraft Factory. The Morrow board, appointed by President Calvin Coolidge, recommended long-term plans and appropriations for aviation that would permit continuous production rather than the “fits and starts” that was the practice. Passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926 and creation of the Bureau of Aeronautics were large steps toward federal recognition of the importance of the aircraft industry.

Passage of the Air Mail Act of 1925 spurred the development of new aircraft both for carrying the mail and for eventually carrying passengers. The government also eventually got out of the business of carrying the mail, further reducing its competition with private industry.

One company that benefited from the new legislation was the Ford Motor Company. Ford, like other automobile companies, had entered the aviation business during World War I, building Liberty engines. After the war, it returned to auto manufacturing until 1925, when Henry Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company. Ford’s most successful aircraft was the Ford 4AT Trimotor—called the “Tin Goose” because of its corrugated metal construction. It used a new alloy called Alclad that combined the corrosion resistance of aluminum with the strength of duralumin. The plane was similar to Fokker’s V.VII-3m, and some say that Ford’s engineers surreptitiously measured the Fokker plane and then copied it. The Trimotor first flew on June 11, 1926, and was the first successful U.S. passenger airliner, accommodating about 12 passengers in a rather uncomfortable fashion. Several variants were also used by the U.S. Army. About 200 Trimotors were built before it was discontinued in 1933, when the Ford Airplane Division shut down because of poor sales brought about by the Depression.

Particularly after Lindbergh’s 1927 flight, demand and output increased. Between 1926 and 1928, total output grew from 1,186 to 4,346 planes, and the value of civilian aircraft sold exceeded military aircraft for the first time. New companies were again springing up and survivors of the post-war slump were beginning to flourish. Grumman, Seversky, Curtiss-Wright, Fairchild, and North American Aviation all began during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Douglas Aircraft went public and expanded its facilities in 1928. Lockheed reentered the field and opened a new plant. Reuben Fleet took Consolidated public in 1929. John Northrop established the Northrop Corporation in 1932. Several large holding companies also formed, and although legislation forced manufacturers to separate from the airlines in 1934, these holding companies formed the basis of companies that would thrive for many years.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Depression affected the aviation industry less than one might expect. The military continued acquiring new aircraft between 1929 and 1932. And although 1933 and 1934 were difficult ones for the industry, by the end of 1934, the industry had become recognized as essential for national security. Professional managers had replaced some of the early aviation pioneers and managed to turn a profit for their companies. Commercial airplane orders had grown, and military leaders sought to keep military production strong. A new government policy spread aircraft work among several firms to keep their facilities busy and up-to-date.

The year 1938 was a watershed year in the aviation industry. In 1938, the aviation industry still had little impact on the American economy. Only 36,000 people worked in the industry, and sales totaled only $131 million. Before the country began gearing up for the next war, a company’s survival depended on its next aircraft order. The bicycle industry had a larger output than did aviation.

But 1938 was the last year that aircraft would be considered a small industry. Beginning in 1939, expansion would be rapid, and except for short downturns, it would never turn back. The U.S. aircraft industry would become one of the largest manufacturing industries and would become a major influence on the worldwide economy.

—Judy Rumerman


  • Bilstein, Roger. The American Aerospace Industry. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
  • Donald, David, gen. ed., The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. New York; Barnes & Noble Books, 1997.
  • Pattillo, Donald. Pushing the Envelope. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

From Centennial of Flight Commission