The Airplane Division of Curtiss-Wright Corporation

When World War II ended in August 1945, Curtiss-Wright Corporation could still claim the distinction of being the largest aircraft manufacturing company in the United States, having produced a total of 29,269 airplanes, 142,840 aircraft engines and 146,468 propellers during 1940-1945. In an amazingly swift tailspin, the last airframe completed by Curtiss-Wright’s Airplane Division (the XP-87 Nighthawk four-engine jet night fighter prototype) rolled out in early 1948, its engineering group—the backbone of any aircraft manufacturing enterprise—was dismissed in 1950 and its last aircraft assembly plant (Columbus, Ohio) closed its doors in March 1951.

What went wrong? The mergers and acquisitions that resulted in the Curtiss-Wright Corporation in 1929 and the premature death of Glenn H. Curtiss in 1930 undoubtedly played a role. From that point forward, Curtiss-Wright was primarily run by corporate financiers and executives, as opposed to being led by pioneers and visionaries (e.g., William Boeing, Donald Douglas, Glenn Martin, Reuben Fleet) as at many competing aircraft companies. In terms of new aircraft designs, Curtiss-Wright moved from being a trendsetter in the 1930s [e.g., A-8/A-12 Shrike (1930), T-32 Condor II (1931), A-18 Shrike (1934), SOC Seagull (1934), SBC Helldiver (1935), P-36 Hawk (1935), CW-20 (1937), P-40 Hawk (1938), SO3C Seamew (1938) and SB2C Helldiver (1939)] to a company plagued by many dead-end projects in the 1940s. The latter included the XP-60 (1940), XP-62 (1941), XF14C (1941), XC-76 Caravan (1942), XSB3C/XBTC (1943), XF15C (1944), XBT2C (1945), CW-20E (1945) and XP/F-87 Nighthawk (1946).

With its wartime production either canceled or coming to an end, Curtiss-Wright suddenly found itself with very few prospects for obtaining peacetime contracts to manufacture new airframes. The postwar civilian airliner market is a good example: A logical evolution of the CW-20/C-46 design would have been the development of an enlarged four-engine “Super-Commando” that possessed intercontinental or even transoceanic range. Such a move, at a minimum, would have placed Curtiss-Wright in a position to compete against Douglas (DC-4/DC-6) and Lockheed (L-049 Constellation) for a share of the long-range airliner market.

Another factor that almost certainly led to the firm’s rapid decline was a serious loss of confidence in the company by the U.S. government. The military services, Army and Navy, had been Curtiss-Wright’s most important source of business dating back to World War I. In 1943 the Truman Committee (a U.S. Senate committee that investigated government contractors for graft and waste) issued a report criticizing the manufacturer for poor management policies, shoddy contract performance and inferior products. The long-standing government relationship finally ended in October 1948, when the U.S. Air Force formally discontinued F-87 development in favor of the Northrop F-89.

Over the next 20 years, after suffering similar declines in aircraft engine and propeller manufacturing, Curtiss-Wright began moving away from its traditional aviation business. The company briefly reentered the airframe market in the early 1960s with the experimental X-19, a turbine-powered four-rotor “convertiplane” that was designed to transition from vertical to horizontal flight. The project was canceled in 1965 after the first prototype was destroyed in a crash; the second prototype never flew.

Today Curtiss-Wright specializes in motion-control components and systems, flow-control products and metal treatment processes for aerospace, defense, automotive and specialty industrial markets. It also seems to have resurrected its reputation—in 1999 Curtiss-Wright was selected by Forbes magazine and Aviation Week as one of the United States’ best-managed small companies.

 

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.