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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AEROSPACE INDUSTRY - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AEROSPACE INDUSTRY. Although Cleveland seemed unimpressed by the first flight of a heavier-than-air machine by two Ohioans from Dayton, Orville and Wilbur Wright, the city played an important role in the early development of the airplane. Prior to World War I, the skies were the domain of daredevils flying variations on the "Wright Flyer," a biplane consisting of double wings supported by wire struts and rods, fabric-covered fuselage with open cockpit, and simple piston engine. One such barnstorming pilot was itinerant Paul Beck, who in 1912 delivered the first official airmail souvenir postcards to residents on farms within a radius of several miles of Cleveland.

However, it was not until European recognition of the military importance of the airplane during World War I that Cleveland, like the rest of the country, realized its commercial potential. Thompson Products, Inc., then known as the Steel Products Co., successfully transferred the complex valve technology of the automobile engine to the airplane. Thereafter, as other local companies made this transition, Cleveland became known as a major producer of aircraft engine parts. In 1917, near the end of World War I, 10 prominent Clevelanders raised enough capital to attract a talented, though somewhat eccentric, airplane designer, Glenn L. Martin, to the city. The new company built the city's first aircraft factory on St. Clair Ave. Martin brought with him a striking array of talent: chief designer and engineer Donald W. Douglas, who founded the Douglas Aircraft Co. on the West Coast in 1920; Lawrence Bell, later of Bell Aircraft, the designer of the first supersonic plane; and James H. "Dutch" Kindelberger, founder of North American Aviation, Inc. The Glenn L. Martin Co. produced a commercially successful plane, the Martin MB bomber, which, according to historian John Rae, was "probably the best combat plane designed in the U.S. during the war; although it was not ready for wartime service, it became the Army's first-line bomber for a good many years."

Faced with a surplus of pneumatic tools produced for World War I, in 1918 Cleveland Pneumatic Tool Co. (see B.F. GOODRICH CLEVELAND PNEUMATIC LANDING GEAR) developed a new product, the Cleco-Gruss shock absorber for cars and trucks. Application of the Cleco-Gruss air-oil principle (oil to cushion the shock and air to give spring) to airplanes was the next step. It seems no coincidence that in 1926 the first "aerol struts," or hydraulic landing gear, were designed for a Martin airplane. Cleveland Pneumatic president, Louis Greve, personally tested the aerols day after day, riding a board suspended under the body of a plane to take moving pictures of this innovation. The company's "aerols" quickly became standard equipment on all airplanes and ensured the commercial success of the firm until the end of World War II, when the companies with whom Cleveland Pneumatic Tool had shared its aerol technology to assist in the war effort became competitors.


Martin played an active role in making the city aware of the need for a suitable airport. An active member of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Subcommittee on the Airplane Industry, he served on a special committee to study possible sites in 1918. The committee helped establish the first regular airmail service between Cleveland and Chicago in 1919, but failed to get the city to act on its recommendation for a municipal airport. With the threatened loss of a position on the coast-to-coast airmail route in 1921, the city approved the airport plan of City Manager WILLIAM R. HOPKINS† and issued $1.25 million in bonds to purchase 700 acres of land at Brookpark Rd. and Riverside Dr. The city hired Major John Berry, a renowned airfield expert, to design the airport, site of the present CLEVELAND-HOPKINS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, and Berry remained in Cleveland to become first the manager of the airport, and then commissioner of airports. Its strategic location on major airmail routes made the new airport one of the busiest in the U.S. by the late 1920s, serving 4,000 aircraft when it opened and reaching 17,600 in 1928. The federal Air Mail Service moved its division headquarters to Cleveland in 1925, and improvements to the airport were made at government expense. After the Kelly Act was passed in 1925, the Detroit-Cleveland air route, run by Henry Ford, became the nation's first commercial airmail venture. Regular air passenger service was established between Cleveland and neighboring cities, and by 1930 volume was high enough to warrant installation of the first radio traffic-control system. Just as Cleveland was a major transportation center in the days of the railroad because of its strategic location, it became a major link on transcontinental air routes.

However, in 1929, just as the future potential of an aircraft industry in Cleveland seemed assured, Glenn L. Martin made the decision to move his company to Baltimore. Frequent plane crashes near the plant had led the City of Cleveland to refuse the company additional landing sites needed for larger aircraft. The Martin all-metal monoplane, suitable for both commercial and military aviation, was then at the forefront of American aircraft manufacturing. Whether the city could have prevented the Martin Co., later the Martin-Marietta Corp., from leaving Cleveland is a question that requires further research. The GREAT LAKES AIRCRAFT CO., a locally sponsored company that built navy torpedo planes, took over the Martin plant, but not its tradition of innovation. By 1935 it was out of business.

Despite the Martin Co.'s departure, LOUIS W. GREVE† and FREDERICK C. CRAWFORD† continued to believe in Cleveland as a center for AVIATION. In 1929 they made a strong bid to hold the NATIONAL AIR RACES at the Cleveland Airport because of its excellent facilities and, location, which offered "a level, well-graded, perfectly drained area one mile square with approaches as nearly perfect and free from hazard as ever greeted a man from the air." After the enormously popular first race in Cleveland, the city was host to the races through 1939 (with the exception of 1930, 1933, and 1936) and resumed after the war. The races were a proving ground for increasing the speeds of aircraft, and some of the improvements made by ingenious mechanics were later adopted by the aircraft engine industry, which at the time did little research of its own. They attracted such nationally known fliers as Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Doolittle, and Amelia Earhart.

In contrast to the solid backing of the air races by the Cleveland industrial community, amateur enthusiasm for rocketry in Cleveland failed to attract investment capital on a scale large enough to influence industrial development. A young German, ERNST LOEBELL†, brought knowledge and the dream of space travel to Cleveland. He founded the CLEVELAND ROCKET SOCIETY in 1933 with Edward L. Hanna, who provided substantial financial backing in its early years. However, the society, despite a well-equipped proving ground on the Hanna estate, never launched a successful rocket.

While rocketry languished, the wartime economy stimulated Cleveland's air-related industries. In 1943 an aircraft industry publication, Aerosphere, listed no fewer than 189 firms in the area that contributed to the aviation parts industry, reportedly furnishing about 25% of the wartime needs of the nation's aircraft industries. Thompson Products expanded substantially during the war, as did Cleveland Pneumatic Tool, Cleveland Graphite Bronze, Chase Brass, and Jack & Heintz, Inc. In addition, a huge plant to manufacture Boeing "Super Fortresses" was built by the government adjacent to the Municipal Airport at a cost of $57 million, operated by the FISHER BODY DIVISION OF GENERAL MOTORS CORP.. However, that proved a short-term investment; in 1945, only 2 years after the plant began production, it stood empty, a victim of postwar recession.

World War II stimulated aviation-related industrial research in Cleveland. General Electric's branch at NELA PARK, for example, carried on secret research on radar and special electronic equipment for aircraft, and Cleveland Graphite Bronze did advanced research on aircraft bearings. The Pesco Products Co., which manufactured aircraft pumps, did important testing in its special altitude chamber at its Taft Ave. plant, while the ALUMINUM COMPANY OF AMERICA used x-ray equipment to determine the composition of metals. Case Institute of Technology was also actively involved in wartime research in the development of heat-resistant materials, the chemistry of fuels, and synthetic rubber. However, by far the largest and most important investment in large-scale aeronautical research was made by the, government. In 1940 the Natl. Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) selected Cleveland over 62 other cities as the site for its Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, located at the western end of Municipal Airport. Frederick C. Crawford, then president of the Chamber of Commerce, and Clifford Gildersleeve, the executive secretary, both actively participated in the effort to bring the engine laboratory to Cleveland. Experimental work on a new aircraft power plant, the turbojet engine, had begun in England and Germany in the late 1930s, and during World War II Great Britain, fearing defeat, shared this new technology with the U.S. The completion of the Altitude Wind Tunnel in 1944 made the Cleveland laboratory the premier institution for the fundamental research on jet propulsion, which engine companies such as Pratt & Whitney and GE used in the development of new engine designs.

The 1950s were a time of consolidation and strengthening of existing Cleveland companies. Aircraft technology was too complicated and too costly for new companies to compete with the airframe industry, now concentrated on the West Coast, and the established engine companies in the East. The pioneering days of Glenn L. Martin and Louis Greve were over. However, established companies such as Thompson Products benefited from the research of the Cleveland NACA laboratory. In 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite, and the U.S. hastened to recapture its lost prestige by forming the National Air & Space Administration. Cleveland's NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory became part of NASA, and its research in air-breathing engines was curtailed. Rocket research, particularly development work on upper-stage launch vehicles, became the focus of the institution in the early 1960s.

Some Cleveland industries kept pace with the shift into space. Even before the organization of NASA, Thompson Products was involved in missile work through government contracts. In 1958 it merged with the Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. of California to form Thompson Ramo-Wooldridge, later to become TRW. An extensive involvement in the space program began, which has continued to the present, principally in advanced electronic systems. The company continues to manufacture turbojet components and has an extensive research and development program. With diversification into technology for rocket motors, Cleveland Pneumatic, now a subsidiary of the Pneumo-Abex Corp., joined the small list of Cleveland's aerospace industries, which also includes smaller companies such as Reutter-Stokes, Inc., which specializes in electronic instrumentation for satellites and jet planes, and the Thompson Aluminum Casting Co., Inc., which makes magnesium and aluminum castings for airplanes and spacecraft.

Why Cleveland has played a relatively minor role in the development of the national aerospace industry is a question that has not been fully analyzed. Certainly the city's industrial leaders during World War I anticipated the commercial importance of, aircraft, and they attempted to establish an industry at a time when capital was available and the necessary technology simple. Despite the Depression and the loss of the Glenn L. Martin Co., the city did not lose its enthusiasm for aviation. Its sponsorship of the National Air Races helped to sustain public interest; moreover, the location of the NACA's laboratory in Cleveland in 1940 showed the foresight of Cleveland's leaders. But Cleveland's interminable gray skies meant that the city could not compete with the attraction of year-round flying weather on the West Coast, where the airframe industry was located. Since these same airframe companies became the nucleus for the missile and later space-related industries, it is not surprising that Cleveland industries, with the exception of TRW, failed to become major aerospace contractors.

Virginia Dawson

Cleveland, Ohio

Holmfeld, John. "The Site Selection for the NACA Engine Research Laboratory: A Meeting of Science and Politics" (M.A. thesis, Case Institute of Technology, 1967).

Dawson, Virginia. Engines and Innovation: Lewis Laboratory and Propulsion Technology (1991).

Last Modified: 28 Sep 2002 04:52:37 PM

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