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Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry

Author(s):Pattillo, Donald M.
Reviewer(s):Dawson, Virginia P.

Published by EH.NET (March 1999)

Donald M. Pattillo, Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft


Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 459 pp. $45.00

(hardcover), ISBN: 0-472-10869-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Virginia P. Dawson, History Enterprises, Inc.,

Cleveland, OH.

Pushing the Envelope by Donald Pattillo is the

first comprehensive history of an industry not quite one hundred years old. Dr.

Pattillo is an educational consultant in Acworth, Georgia, who has spent many

years delving into primary sources and piecing together this intriguing,

convoluted and sometimes

unheroic story. To Pattillo, the “aviation men”

who built this industry were not short-sighted financiers, but risk-takers

willing to invest in innovation. Unlike the automobile industry it is often

compared to, the dependence of the aerospace industry on government

contracting, especially during the Cold War, left it insulated from market

forces and vulnerable to abuses triggered by human greed.

One of the main themes of the Pattillo’s book is how government support

influenced aircraft development during various periods of aviation history.

Pattillo discusses how in the industry’s early years, while European

governments seemed to understand the military significance to the Wright

brothers’ invention, their efforts were viewed with skepticism and indifference

in America. Capital was hard to come by for all the early pioneers of

flight. Glenn L. Martin, for example, used a flair for showmanship to build a

public following and sell aircraft to wealthy sportsmen. Even friendship with

Billy Mitchell could not assure him of military orders. Nevertheless,

government procurement and airmail contracts kept the fledgling industry alive

until Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. The aviation

boom carried the industry through the Great Depression giving rise to new

firms and the emergence of the modern all-metal airliner. Up to 1938, however,

the aircraft industry as a whole was still small, with barely enough domestic

orders to stay viable.

All that would change with the coming of World War II when rapid expansion

made aircraft among the nation’s largest manufacturing industries.

Thereafter it remained an essential element of the defense establishment.

Pattillo regards the decade of the 1950s as among the most “exciting and

fruitful” for the industry–a decade when new models, the transition to jet

propulsion, and missile development reflected a “pace of progress” unequalled

in the history of the industry (p. 199).

The final chapters of the book are in many ways the most enlightening because

they break new historical ground. Pattillo discusses the difficulties and

abuses of defense procurement in the new aerospace industry during the Cold

War. “The inherent dilemma,” he writes, “was that contractors were financially

dependent upon government, while the government remained technologically

dependent upon a concentrated industry”

(p. 247). By the late 1960s the aerospace industry was the nation’s largest

employer, with 834,000 people directly involved in building aircraft.

However, it remained a highly competitive oligopoly, always dependent on the

government for survival. Profits were never high, the financial risks daunting,

and the opportunities for graft and corruption often irresistible.

The value of Pattillo’s work for historians of business is the synthesis that

he has produced. He provides the reader with the sweep of the development of

the industry from its beginning to the present. He has avoided technical

language while paying attention to technology, treated the financial aspects

without excessive detail, and has produced a balanced and critical commentary

on some of the more unsavory aspects of the industry. In addition to Pattillo’s

fine research and strong writing style,

the numerous tables throughout the book, along with a detailed chronology of

the aircraft industry make the book a valuable resource tool. It should be

required reading for all students of aerospace industry.

(Virginia P. Dawson is the founder of History Enterprises, Inc. She is author

of Engines and Innovation: Lewis Laboratory and American Propulsion

Technology and “E.G. Bailey and the Invention and Marketing of the Bailey

Boiler Meter,” in Technology and Culture (1996). She is currently

working on a book on a history of the Centaur program for NASA with co-author

and colleague, Mark D. Bowles.)

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII