Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation rose through the murky waters of the Great Depression to become a key player in World War II.
During the period after World War I, the world grappled with the Great Depression and a looming war. The economy was sinking into oblivion and industries were suffering as others shut down. As the war became a reality, it became more apparent that the United States may not be a neutral observant as pressure increased on the government to be ready for the war. Indeed, the country, when compared to the axis forces, was ill-prepared for the war, as it had no sufficient weapons and manpower to participate in the war. The country was particularly far behind in the area of military aircraft superiority, which belonged to the east. However, the period between 1927 and the 1930s became the “the American Golden Age of Aviation”. It was during this period when the aircraft manufacturing center shifted from east to west. The attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the United States to start preparing for the war. The president, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent out new directives with very high aircraft manufacturing targets for the aviation industry. The directives led to a boom in the industry with the creation and expansion of new facilities and existing factories that worked round the clock, 6 to 7 days per week. The existing American aviation companies such as Boeing, Martin, and Douglas became developers of Bomber aircrafts, while Curtis, Grumman, and Lockheed focused their attention on manufacturing fighter jets.
These boom in production of military aircrafts shifted the center of power to the United States as the country became a superpower with military weapons that even the enemy forces could not march when combined. Indeed, this was proved further in 1943, during the Teheran Conference, when Josef Stalin stated: “the most important things in this war are machines, and the United States is a country of machines”. Without any doubt, thus, the role that the military aircraft played during World War II was critical to the Allied forces` victory. The United States only produced almost 300,000 military aircrafts during the war, and Grumman Aviation was at the heart of this great mobilization. The war led to the boost in the growth of the aviation industry as there was an increase in federal spending to purchase military aviation aircrafts. The growth propelled increased demands for the working force, and expansion of the production lines. Labor movements rose to protect the rights of the workers as many of them were being underpaid and overworked by most of the manufacturing companies. Skilled labor was limited as there were not many schools, which trained students in aviation engineering. These challenges and many others make the success story of Grumman Aviation all the more appealing. The corporation rose at a critical time to play an important role in the future of the country. It designed military planes, which facilitated in strategic bombardment, superiority and interdiction over the enemy.
The existence of the company is attributed to the ingenuity of three engineers, who had the tremendous ambition to succeed where many others failed. The story begins in 1928, when Grover Loening accepted an offer to sell the Loening Aircraft Engineering to a group of investment bankers. The implication was that the assets of Loening firm would be merged with that of the Keystone Aircraft Company and, thus consequently, the operations of Loening would be moved to Keystones plant in Bristol, Pennsylvania. What this move meant was that the workers of Loening Engineering Corporation would only be guaranteed their work if they agreed to move with the company to Bristol. As would be expected, most of the employees found this unacceptable, citing home ties, family bonds and the cost of moving as the reasons for not moving to Bristol.
Before making their decisions, Roy Grumman, Jack Swirbul and Bill Schwendler, decided to visit the Keystone production line in Bristol. They were not impressed and thus they decided to start their own aircraft manufacturing company. These three man were the ones responsible for the running the Loening Aircraft Engineering Corporation and thus were aware of what was needed for such a company to succeed. The success of this company was dependent on them making three very critical decisions. Firstly, there was the issue of initial financing of the corporation; the three men decided to do an out-of-pocket venture and invest their own assets, which they held into the corporation. Thus, each of them brought his assets to provide the company`s initial capital. Secondly, there was the issue of skilled labor force; this was a particularly tricky issue due to the fact that the company was new and thus it was difficult to attract skilled labor. The gentlemen thus approached the Loening Company`s skilled workers and convinced them to sign up a contract with them instead of moving to Bristol. This, incidentally, proved to be a heaven sent answer for the workers who had no desire to move to Bristol and were not sure if they would get new jobs, thus they signed up a contract with the new company. Finally, with initial financing already secured and skilled labor force in place, the three men had one more decision to make. The final issue was on best area that offered the greatest opportunity for success and this was decided to be the military market. The decision to venture into the military field proved particularly critical as the economy of the country suffered a critical blow during the Great Depression, as the stock market crumbled and the commercial aviation business went down with it.
The company made spirited efforts to find a suitable location, which was not expensive to set up the company`s headquarters and on January 2, 1930 the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation officially started its operations. In the first weeks of opening, the company mainly did repair works for Loening Aircrafts although the work was not enough to keep all the employees occupied. Its first contractual assignment came from Motor Haulage Corporation to manufacture four aluminum track bodies and the company did not disappoint the client. The work done was of such high quality that the client offered more contracts to make more track bodies. In the field of aviation, little work was coming by and Grumman had to make use of his contacts in the military to get the work started. Therefore, the first aviation order came when the Navy accepted an improved model of float equipped with a retractable landing gear that had been designed by Bill Schwendler.
Following this work, Grumman proposed a new fighter design, with two-seats and a retractable landing gear. The corporation had to wait for over 378 days before the proposal could be accepted and when finally accepted, it marked a new beginning in the working relationship between Grumman Corporation and the military as a whole. The company started working on the fighter jet; a contract was signed to manufacture a single fighter aircraft, designated the XFF-1. The work was completed on December 29, 1931 and the aircraft was handed over to the military to run tests on it. With an exception of a few minor flaws, the design was exactly as promised in the Grumman`s proposal. The jet had extensive handling and maneuverability with adequate climbing and ceiling. It was faster than any of the Navy’s single-seat Boeing F4B-4 fighter. The success of the new plane gave the Navy more confidence in the work of Grumman Aviation and thus more contracts were handed to manufacture XSF-1, the XJF-I amphibian prototype, and another contract for 27 FF-I fighters. These contracts guaranteed Grumman’s place in the aviation industry with an account totaling almost $800,000.
These contracts cemented the company`s role in the coming war as it proved to be a capable maker of fighter jets, needed in the war. The company thus grew at a very fast rate, as it moved three times, searching for bigger working space. It employed more skilled workers to increase the rate at which the work was done. The Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation was now fully functional and it was there to stay.
Working Class and Labor Regulations
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the working class in America consisted predominantly of the white people and more specifically, the male white people. High-paid jobs were, therefore, reserved for the whites, while labor intensive and less skilled jobs with poor wages were reserved for other ethnic minorities in the country. Women were largely discriminated against and thus were placed in the kitchen at home. However, the situation changed dramatically when the U.S entered the war. This involvement in the war led to an increased demand for manpower in almost every field. In the manufacturing factories, there was an increased demand for military equipment, such as clothes, vehicles, planes, and ammunitions and thus the existing labor market could not meet these demands. Similarly, a military draft had drained the labor force of millions of young men, and as such, employers had to give opportunities to many of those, who had been locked out of high-wage skilled labor positions, particularly, African-Americans and women.
Therefore, under these circumstances, the working class at Grumman Aviation had to change and encompass women. The first women workers at the company arrived in 1942; barely three months after the United States had joined the war. By the end of 1943, the total number of women employed by the Grumman War Productions Corp. had reached a total of over 7800. These women worked in different positions such as control operators, technicians, and construction workers. Their ability to remain calm and patient was particularly of great value to the industry. They were patient with the repetitious and monotonous nature of aircraft manufacturing, and, in addition, they had dexterous fingers, exhibited docility in taking orders, and an ability to squeeze into small awkward places. These characteristics endeared them to the corporation and thus their population grew tremendously to represent a margin of 30% of the work force at Grumman Aviation. The women came to dominate in some areas where men used to be kings, for instance, the Electrical Department Plant 14 had an impressive number of 52 women against two men. The corporation offered 6-10 weeks training programs to women, where they learned the rudiments of reverting, blue-print reading, sub-assembly, and other semi-skilled functions associated with aircraft manufacture. College educated women were recruited as apprentice engineers to assist male Grumman engineers in aircraft designing. Such women were given further lessons in designing, drafting, calculus, mechanics and aerodynamics. Grumman Corporation, therefore, set pace as the first company to employ women to test military aircraft as they came off the production line. The women thus became very efficient in their new roles as quality control inspectors, putting together electrical components, and operating drill passes. Consequently, as a result of these changes, 37.3% of the country’s population was represented by women and 52% of these women were married, divorced or widowed.
The Grumman aviation also sought to form the African-American community at the onset of the war. The growth of the manufacturing industry, along with federally mandated desegregation in the war industries, provided new opportunities for blacks to obtain well-paid jobs. High-wages and other employment incentives empowered African-Americans and, in particular, those from the North, who had been long stifled by a culture of segregation and racial violence, to move to the west where industry jobs were most plentiful. By 1940, only a mere 200 black people had been employed in the industry nationwide. The leaders of the black community thus put pressure on the federal government to force companies to hire more black workers, thus resulting in the executive order 8802, which ordered the employers to “provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin”. The Grumman Corporation was one of the companies cited for discrimination and thus it embarked on a program to change this image. The company started to train every qualified African-American male in Nassau and Suffolk counties. As a result the number of blacks working for the company hit over 8000 by the end of 1943.
The experiences of the Great Depression awakened Congress and the federal government on the need of proper regulations in the labor market. The common consensus on the cause of the Great Depression by economists, politicians and scientists was that it occurred as a result of under consumption where the wages had not kept up with productivity. Therefore, when the employment hit an all-time high and unemployment disappeared with companies competing for employees offering them attractive offers such as high wages, reasonable working hours, on-the-job training, insurance coverage, maternity leave and day-care facilities, there was a great need for proper regulations. Congress thus embarked on a mission to encourage the formation of trade unions, which would help end the depression fight for the rights of the workers. The trade unions thus gained popularity and legitimacy in this period of industrial boom in employment opportunities. This period was largely characterized by manufacturers, who believed that factory workers should be paid high wages in general; however, none of these manufactures was willing to execute this belief when it came to their own workers. The trade unions, thus, acted as a kind of proletarian policeman, insuring uniform wages, thus eliminating wage cuts or long working hours as a competitive advantage by some businesses over others.
Congress enacted laws that favored the formation of trade unions not only for the limitation of the depression and raising wages but also to promote free speech, democratic participation, discipline, obedience, and deference expected in the workplace. This was based on the reconceptualization of the American liberalism, predicated on the belief that the greatest threat to the system of the republic form of government came from concentrated capital rather than from an overweening state. Therefore, it was the responsibility of the government to support the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order, thus calling for the constitutional entrenchment of factory governance to ensure that the Americans working in factories, mills, and offices had the same rights, due process, free speech, and the right of assembly and petition that the constitution guaranteed them elsewhere in society.
Therefore, the Wagner Act of 1935 was enacted by Congress to facilitate the formation of trade unions and certified such unions as legal bargaining agents, and penalized employers who deprived workers of their newly acquired rights under the union. The Act, defined as an “unfair labor practice”, included a wide variety of management practices, for example, intimidation and firing of union workers, failure to bargain in good faith, and meddling in the affairs of the union that represents the employees.
The labor regulations in the west were particularly stringent in view of the fact that the region had many defense factories and thus was critical to the war. With the formation of trade unions, the workers found a way of expressing themselves through industrial strikes and in a period of war, this was particularly risky. The federal government, thus, set up the National Defense Mediation Board (NDMB) with the mandate to address the grievances of the workers and alleviate any possible strikes; it had also the duty to look into the wages of the workers and address any work tensions that could be arising. The Board had the very basic goal of alleviating strikes at every possible cost in defense industries. However, in 1941, the Board failed this responsibility when a strike took place in California. The federal government moved strongly to discourage union militancy and political radicalism in order to avoid work stoppages in these critical industries. The striking workers were protesting low wages and poor working conditions as their grievances were being ignored by the manufacturers. The president declared the strike a “wildcat” or unauthorized work stoppage and sent there over 2600 active-duty troops to contain the situation and disperse the gathering workers within a one-mile radius of the factory. Consequently, the grievances of the striking workers were granted as their wages were increased and the strike was broken off within two days.
The labor regulations in the west were therefore in line with the federal laws on labor, which promoted the formation of trade unions in order to protect the rights of the workers in the factories. However, the downside of these trade unions was that whenever they had an issue, they told workers to strike and this greatly hampered the operations of the manufacturing aviation industries. Despite of this, they were considered a necessary evil, if the rights of the workers in factories were to be realized.
The Grumman aviation corporation grew at a very fast pace, facilitated by the U.S Navy contracts that it received. Within a short period of time, the company established a number of assembly lines around California so as to be able to facilitate the competition of their contracts. Two of the most known assembly lines were the Grumman Bethpage, New York, plant 2 and the Grumman Bethpage, New York plant 3. During the war the Grumman Bethpage plant 2 recorded its highest employment record of over 27,000 employees. These employees were drawn from every corner of the country, comprising of blacks, women, Hispanics and even Japanese. However, the working conditions were poor as the employees were subject to poor pay and long working hours. The plant was working at a maximum capacity with a view to maximizing profits and thus paid its employees poorly in order to save on the cost of productio. Over 100 F7F’s were manufactured on this plant throughout the year of 1946 making a total of over 400 aircrafts. The plant continued to be under the care of Grumman Company until the early 1990’s when it was bought by Northrop Grumman Corporation. Today, the plant has been redeveloped to accommodate both commercial and residential real estate.
The second assembly line was plant 3 in Bethpage, New York, which was constructed from scrap steel from the New York City EL, specifically for the production of F6F Hellcat. When World War II began, the line assembly achieved an employment population of over 24,000 workers comprising of whites, blacks, women and even aliens. The line managed to produce hundreds of aircraft which were used in the war. Similarly, the assembly line was purchased by the Northrop Grumman Corporation and redeveloped to accommodate both commercial and residential areas.
Formed at the time when the country was suffering from the Great Depression, the company had very little chances to survive. It experienced a lot of hardships as it struggled to cement its status in the aviation industry as a force to be reckoned with. As if the bad economy situation wasn’t hard enough, a war was brewing and the United States was increasingly unlikely to take the passive role. However, this would prove to be a blessing in disguise, although the surrounding problems were there to stay. Firstly, the demands of the war exerted considerable amounts of pressure on a relatively new company with little experience and virtually no capacity to produce at a first rate everything what the war needed. The company was thus ill-prepared for production of high-altitude jet fighters, which could put the US Navy above the rest. This was simply because there were an insufficient number of experimental models at advanced stages of development necessary to facilitate production. The manufacture and production of military planes was not that much developed before the attack on Pearl Harbor and thus very few experimental models existed that could be put into immediate production.
Secondly, wartime changes in production process also hampered the operations of the company. The process of manufacturing any product depends not only on the product itself but also on the volume of output. Therefore, the volume of output of the planes required by the military reached its peak in 1944 and thus the manufacturing process could no longer be confined to the mere duplication of tooling processes used in the previous manufacturing processes. Thus, in order to product new military planes at a large volume it was required to accelerate sound production of military jets by organizations that were strong in tool engineering and production control, specialized airframe production know-how and adequate manufacturing information. The problem, hence, was that in the 1940s, most tool engineering and production control organizations were either weak or non-existent and thus had to be developed from scratch. Similarly, the nucleus of men with the knowledge of this accelerated production was limited and thus sources of such know-how were outside the airframe companies. This meant that the company`s procedures for controlling and reproducing manufacturing information under conditions of rapid acceleration were inadequate.
Thirdly, the company also experienced the hardship of the organization of production. Essentially, before the manufacture of any product, however unique or independent it may be, there must be sound organization within the company for proper coordination in the production process. Therefore, there must be an overall plan and the organization of people that make the overall plan for the proper production process. Consequently, the company experienced problems in persuading foremen and other supervisors, who had grown up under job shop conditions, to adapt to engineering discipline that the large-scale production required. Most of the employees were used to working conditions in job shops where the rate of production was low and thus not much discipline was required. Thus they found it difficult to adapt to the new changes under large-scale production, which demanded changes in design and processes that they were not accustomed to. With the need for rapid accelerated production, failure to adapt was always going to be a problem.
There was also the problem of industrial strikes as organized by the trade unions demanding for increased wages and recognition. The strikes that took place during the war period provided a major challenge for the Grumman Corporation, which was under the increasing pressure to perform their contractual obligations within the shortest time possible. The strikes led to delayed completion of the timed aircrafts, needed by the Navy, and thus hampered the fight in the war.
Finally, the government also played a critical role in hampering the operations of the aviation industry through a number of ways. The government contributed to the problems of the aviation industry by failing to plan carefully the introduction of design changes, not reducing the number of minor differences between models, setting the initial production goals of individual manufacturers at levels far below those ultimately required, and introducing an unnecessary large number of changes.
Despite many problems that the Grumman Aircraft Corporation faced, the company achieved much in the history of the country. The role that the company played in the Second World War was critical as its planes helped save the United States of America. Firstly, the company was distinguished for its unique designs, which met the needs and specifications of the US Navy. This distinction brought it a lot of success and the military relied on it for planes manufacturing that became vital in the war. The planes produced by the company were fast, durable, rigid and easy to handle and maneuver. They had protective shields that protected the pilots and could withstand excessive damage due to the quality of the materials used for their production.
Perhaps the most notable achievement by the company was the manufacture of the XF4F-4 Wildcat, which had the innovative wing folding mechanism (STO-wing). This design was the first of its kind in military planes and it increased the plane’s performance because of the reduced drag and incorporated features to protect pilot and vital aircraft equipment so that the damage was minimal.
The Grumman Corporation manufactured many designs that played a vital role in the Second World War. However, some of its most famous designs included the Grumman F4F Wildcat. This was an American carrier-based fighter aircraft, which went into operation in 1940. It was the only plane that could perform at high altitudes at that time. The second famous model was Grumman F6F Hellcat, which was a carrier-based fighter aircraft designed to replace the F4F Wildcat. This plane could also perform at high altitudes. There was also the Grumman FBF Avenger, which was a torpedo bomber plane and was one of the heaviest planes during the war. The others were Grumman F9F Panther, Grumman XF10F Jaguar, Grumman XP-50, and Grumman AF Guardian among many other designs.
In conclusion, the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, currently known as the Northrop Grumman Corporation, is a leading U.S. defense and global security company that began its operations in a garage in Bethpage, New York, and against all odds it played a very critical role in the war. The innovativeness of its founders and their desire to manufacture only what was relevant for the market proved to be a critical tool in the growth of the company. Despite many problems that the Corporation faced, it still stands tall today.