The conquest of the air--at taxpayers' expense

August 11, 1991|By Neal Lipschutz

BARONS OF THE SKY. Wayne Biddle. Simon & Schuster. 366 pages. $22.95. The military-industrial complex is riding high these days, flushed with the successes of high-tech hardware in the hands of U.S. armed forced in the Persian Gulf War. So much was written about the "Nintendo war" and its various aspects, from the missile-busting Patriots to the "smart" bombs dropped from super-sophisticated and super-expensive aircraft.

Gone, at least for the moment, are front-page worries about sucthings as cost overruns, billing irregularities or quality problems, items that have marked the long and tangled relationship between government and the aerospace industry.

Because of its role as market for warplanes and munitions, the federal government has long played a dominant role in U.S. aerospace. It's the contention here of journalist Wayne Biddle, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for "star wars" reporting, that government entanglement with airplane manufacture dates almost as far back as the Wright brothers' flight from Kitty Hawk. He says "1916, not 1946, saw the beginning of a military-industrial complex."

Mr. Biddle writes that despite efforts to find a commercial market for large-scale airplane manufacture, "unlike automobile LTC manufacturing, which could be sustained by a middle-class consumer economy, aviation was always a super-luxury endeavor that could not thrive without massive government aid. And throughout this bellicose century, government aid for technological enterprises has carried a military imperative."

He devotes much of the book to the early years of modern aviation, intertwining biographies of some of the names that still adorn America's big aerospace companies (Glenn Martin of Martin Marietta; Donald Douglas of McDonnell Douglas; Jack Northrop of Northrop) with an overview of the industry and how it developed its military leaning.

The author mainly lets the facts speak for themselves in this well-researched book, but the sheer volume of names, dates and numbers sometimes works against the creation of a powerful and taut narrative. A lot of people and companies in their formations and various reformations are being tracked here, and sometimes the focus blurs. The book is best when Mr. Biddle seeks to generalize from the facts laid forth.

He finds the "unbroken historical thread" of a "technological business based on advanced weapons" begins with Glenn Martin, a man of odd character, whose fortune it was to "come of age when aviation was turning from a dream come true into workaday reality."

Martin was born in 1886. His entry into the airplane business came at a time of undercapitalized ventures that built planes in garages and abandoned churches, manned by people blissfully

free of technical know-how. Often money was made taking tourists on quick jaunts. The industry blossomed in Southern California, nourished by "balmy weather and adventurous millionaires."

Donald Douglas, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stood in contrast to these early pioneers. He went to California to work for Martin's company and later recalled that "at this time, there was practically no engineering, it was all done by good judgement."

Despite the primitive state of the technology, the connection between airplanes and warfare had already been made. In 1912, as part of a carnival-type exhibition that marked much of early aviation, Martin and some other fliers staged a mock "bombing" near Los Angeles. Mr. Biddle writes that "middle-class air-show crowds were not shocked, but enthusiastic. The act of aerial bombardment was greeted with cheers."

Apparently urged by the Navy (the company's big customer at the time) to move to the eastern seaboard, Martin incorporated in Maryland in late 1928, amid a local political battle about the building of an airport and a large aircraft factory. The early going was not auspicious: "In 1930, the first full year of Baltimore operations, Martin had sales of $2.2 million. . . . This was not the surging enterprise Glenn Martin had promised the citizens of Maryland."

The years preceding U.S. involvement in World War II were a boon to American aircraft makers, as the belligerents were armed, and the industry took on a whole new character once the United States entered the war.

A few numbers illustrate the enormity of the manufacturing effort. From 1939 to 1945, 304,139 aircraft for the military services were manufactured. Between 1939 and 1944, the industry increased total annual output, measured in pounds of airframe, by 13,500 percent.

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