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Curtiss-Wright came into existence on July 5, 1929, the result of a merger of 12 companies associated with Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company of Buffalo, New York, and Wright Aeronautical of Dayton, Ohio, and was headquartered in Buffalo, New York. With $75 million in capital, it was the largest aviation company in the country.
There were three main divisions: the Curtiss-Wright Airplane Division, which manufactured airframes; the Wright Aeronautical Corporation, which produced aeronautical engines; and the Curtiss-Wright Propeller Division, which manufactured propellers. After 1929, most engines produced by the new company were known as Wrights, while most aircraft were given the Curtiss name, with a few exceptions.
Throughout the 1930s, Curtiss-Wright designed and built aircraft for military, commercial, and private markets. But it was the Wright engine division and the longstanding relationship with the US military that would help the company through the difficult years of the Great Depression. In 1937, the company developed the P-36 fighter aircraft, resulting in the largest peacetime aircraft order ever given by the Army Air Corps. Curtiss-Wright also sold the P-36 abroad, where they were used in the early days of World War II.
During World War II, Curtiss-Wright produced 142,840 aircraft engines, 146,468 electric propellers and 29,269 airplanes. During this period, it became the second largest company in the United States, employed 180,000 workers, and had an annual revenue surpassing $1 billion for two consecutive years (behind only General Motors).
Aircraft production included almost 14,000 P-40 fighters, made famous by their use by Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers in China, over 3,000 C-46 Commando transport aircraft, and later in the war, over 7,000 SB2C Helldivers. Its most visible success came with the P-40, variously known as the Tomahawk, Kittyhawk, and Warhawk, which were built between 1940 and 1944 at the main production facility in Buffalo, New York. Along with the Buffalo plant, major aircraft production was at Columbus, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and Louisville, Kentucky. Engine and propeller production was at plants in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
In May 1942, the U.S. government assigned Curtiss-Wright a defense production factory for wartime aircraft construction at Louisville, Kentucky, to produce the C-76 Caravan cargo plane, which was constructed mostly of wood, a non-priority war material. However, after difficulties with the C-76 (including a crash of a production model in mid-1943), as well as the realization that sufficient quantities of aluminum aircraft alloys would be available for war production, plans for large-scale C-76 production were rejected. The Louisville plant was converted to C-46 Commando production, eventually delivering 438 Commandos to supplement the roughly 2,500 C-46s produced at Buffalo. The C-46 cargo plane was fitted with two powerful radial engines, and could carry more cargo at higher altitudes than any other Allied aircraft. Consequently, it was used extensively in the China-Burma-India Theater.
Richard J. Eskow, senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and columnist for the Huffington Post, wrote in a 2011 column that his uncle Jack Temple “died in World War II.” He died after taking a new bomber out for its first flight in the South Pacific. Apparently, his plane’s engines were sold to the military even though manufacturer Curtiss-Wright knew they were defective. Curtiss-Wright’s senior executives were fired and a general went to prison as a result of Sen. Harry Truman’s investigation. Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons is based on this incident.
Eskow references a 2006 op-ed by Sarah Anderson that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and on AlterNet. Anderson states that Curtiss-Wright “had sold leaky motors to the government and covered it up with forged inspection reports.” As a result of the investigation, wrote Anderson, “heads rolled at Curtiss-Wright and one general wound up in prison.”
Curtiss-Wright failed to make the transition to design and production of jet aircraft, despite several attempts. During the war, the company hadn’t invested as much as it should have in research and development, having to spend most of its resources keeping up with wartime production orders. This was especially true in the first few years of the war, when Curtiss-Wright had most of the government aviation contracts, and was producing about as many aircraft as the rest of the industry combined. This allowed other companies the time to design more advanced aircraft and slowly ramp up their production lines. Aviation technology was progressing very rapidly then, and a year or two of technology lag made all the difference. The final nail in the coffin was the choice of the Northrop F-89 Scorpion over the XF-87 Blackhawk; after the F-87 was cancelled October 10, 1948, Curtiss-Wright shut down its entire Aeroplane Division and sold the assets to North American Aviation.
While this marked Curtiss-Wright’s departure from preeminence in the aviation industry, one notable spin-off involved Curtiss-Wright’s flight research laboratory, founded in 1943 near the main plant at the Buffalo airport. During divestiture of the airframe division, the lab was given to Cornell University along with a cash gift to finish construction of a transonic wind tunnel. Cornell Aeronautical Labs, or CAL as it was known, was eventually spun off from the university as a private company, Calspan Corporation, which has been responsible for many subsequent innovations in flight and safety research. For an aircraft company that failed largely due to lack of sufficient research and development during World War II, it is ironic that Curtiss-Wright’s flight research division was one of the few parts of the once-huge aviation conglomerate to survive to the present day.
After the Government gave the development of the Whittle jet engine to GE, the company concentrated on reciprocating engines and propeller production for military transport and civilian airliners. With the approaching twilight of the big piston aircraft engine, Curtiss-Wright needed new design inspiration. For a brief time, Curtiss-Wright licensed rights to the Wankel rotary engine from NSU in 1958 as a possible aircraft power plant. For this major innovative engineering project, Curtiss-Wright relied extensively on the design leadership of NSU-Wankel engineer Max Bentele.
In 1954 United Airlines bought four flight simulators at a cost of $3 million dollars Curtiss-Wright that were like the earlier ones produced in the late 1940s for airliners plus they had visuals, sound and movement. This was the first of today’s modern flight simulators for commercial aircraft.
In 1956, financially strapped automaker Studebaker-Packard Corporation entered into a management agreement with Curtiss-Wright as a means for the nation’s fifth largest automobile manufacturer to avoid insolvency. The relationship lasted until 1959 at which time Curtiss-Wright withdrew from the agreement. The shift of civilian aircraft to jets left the company with little of its old business, and during the 1960s it shifted to components for aircraft and other types of equipment, such as nuclear submarines, a business that was still being conducted in 2009.
In 2010, Curtiss-Wright acquired Hybricon Corporation for $19 million in cash. Hybricon is a leading supplier of high performance electronic packaging for the aerospace, defense and commercial markets, and provides electronic subsystem integration expertise, which generates more efficient product development and reduced design and manufacturing risk for its customers.
In 2011, Curtiss-Wright acquired Ireland based Acra Control for $61 million in cash. Acra Control is a leading supplier of data acquisition systems and networks, data recorders and telemetry ground stations for both defense and commercial aerospace markets.
In 2005, Kirk W. House produced a historic photo book, Curtiss-Wright, in the Arcadia Publishing “Images of America” series. House is the former director of the Glenn Curtiss Museum. The book primarily covers from the time of the merger through the aftermath of World War II.
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