As the Second World War engulfed Western Europe and the Mediterranean region, the Stearman Aircraft Company received massive orders for its Model 75 primary trainer that would train thousands of cadets and prepare America for a conflict it hoped to avoid.
By 1936 the “New Deal” policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the United States Congress were beginning to make life a little better. Wall Street was still weak but stocks were trending upward and trading was active, the banks had stabilized, as had the national money supply, and people were beginning to spend their hard-earned cash to further stimulate the economy.
The American aviation industry was slowly experiencing a cautious resurrection with all-metal airplanes such as the pioneering Boeing 247 and, in particular, the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 that established a new technological benchmark for the airlines. Small airframe and engine manufacturers also were benefiting from the upswing in business. For example, during the autumn of 1936 in Wichita, Kansas, the Stearman Aircraft Company factory was bursting at the seams with orders for primary training biplanes worth an astounding $450,000. The factory had never experienced such a high level of activity since the halcyon days of 1929, and company president Julius E. Schaefer wasted no time hiring more workers. In addition, he placed his 400 employees on a two-shift schedule in an effort to meet rising demand and tight delivery dates.
In August 1936 the United States Army Air Corps handed Schaefer an order for 50 Model A75L3 aircraft designated as PT-13A, following up the existing order for 26 PT-13 trainers of which only half had been completed when the new contract arrived. Three months later the Air Corps exercised its option for an additional 30 PT-13A biplanes and ended the year by signing for another 28 aircraft in December.
Demand for Stearman trainers, however, was not limited to the United States. By the mid-1930s the export market was heating up, too. In 1935 Argentina ordered 10 Model 76D1 for its navy, three Model 76L3 had been purchased by the Philippine Constabulary Force in March of that year, and in 1937 the Brazilian air force plunked down an order for 30 of the Model A76C3 (export version of the Model A75) that featured a more powerful radial engine and light armament for ground attack missions.
It should be noted here that the Stearman company was not alone in achieving success. Walter H. and Olive Ann Beech, who had co-founded the Beech Aircraft Company in 1932, informed the Wichita press that their workforce had built twice as many Model B17-series biplanes in 1936 as were manufactured in 1935, and more than 300 men and women were on the payroll. Across town on Franklin Road, the Cessna Aircraft Company was building an increasing number of the four-place, nimble and handsome Model C-34 monoplane. According to general manager Dwane Wallace, the factory was approaching full capacity and he anticipated that 1937 would be a banner year. The Wichita Eagle newspaper reported that, “Wallace did not hesitate in predicting that Cessna would double the 1936 business during the coming year, based on predictions of fast-growing demand for the speedy and economical little plane.”1
Stearman’s PT-13A trainers ships were powered by nine-cylinder Lycoming R-680-5 static, air-cooled radial engines rated at 225 horsepower. As the hot, Kansas summer of 1937 settled in, the factory had finally reached its maximum production capacity of 15 airplanes per month, or about one trainer every other day.
Julius Schaefer knew that if additional orders were received, the manufacturing facilities would have to be expanded to keep pace with demand. In September the Air Corps ordered another 20 PT-13A trainers, and Army were quick to voice their approval of the Model 75: “The primary training planes have proven to be highly popular and efficient at the Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas, facilities. When the present contract is filled, there will be 125 Stearman planes in service there, all Wichita-built.” As production rates slowly increased, a steady stream of Air Corps pilots traveled to the factory almost every week to accept delivery of three aircraft at a time and ferry the biplanes south to Texas.
During the autumn of 1931, Randolph Field became the Air Corps’ primary training base. The flying schools at March Field in California and Brooks Field in Texas were relocated to Randolph along with 11 airplanes from both airfields. By the late 1930s a majority of Air Corps cadets came directly from civilian ranks, although others were graduates of West Point or were line officers that that had transferred to the Air Corps. In addition, there were officers from the Army Reserve and National Guard units who wanted to earn their wings. To qualify as a flying cadet, applicants had to be between the ages of 20 and 27, unmarried, a citizen of the United States and had completed at least two years of college.
Life for a cadet was hard, particularly if he was a civilian with no prior exposure to the military way of doing things. In addition to hours and hours of close-order drill and discipline during the first two weeks, cadets underwent more than 340 hours of ground instruction followed by eight hours of flight training. Maneuvers that had to be learned and demonstrated correctly during that time included takeoff, landing, straight and level flight, turns, climbs, descents, glides, stalls, spins and forced landings. If the cadet mastered these, he would be taught crosswind landings, lazy eights and eights on pylons followed by elementary aerobatic maneuvers such as loops and rolls.
Many of the cadets learned to ignore the Stearman PT-13’s airspeed indicator, relying instead on aerodynamic indications. As one fledgling pilot recalled: “We just didn’t look at the airspeed instrument. A real pilot didn’t do that. We just listened to the sound of the wind in the wires. It was very reliable. When it reached the correct pitch (every airplane was slightly different) the glide was just right. Not too slow and not too fast.” Typically, during his time at Randolph Field a cadet would receive 70 hours of flight training. If he didn’t “wash out” of the program and graduate, the cadet transferred across the field and began four months of training in more powerful airplanes such as the North American AT-6.
The company ended 1937 in the black but also had made a substantial contribution to the Boeing Aircraft Company’s bottom line. Early in 1938 Boeing officials reported a consolidated net profit of $311,683 for a return on investment of $0.51 cents per share of stock. The company held a backlog of unfilled orders worth more than $14 million. Schaefer reported that Stearman Aircraft had delivered 91 airplanes in 1937, and Boeing had delivered 13 “Flying Fortress” heavy bombers to the Army Air Corps and held orders for another 26 of the four-engine monoplanes. In April 1938 Stearman Aircraft was renamed the Stearman Division of Boeing Aircraft Company, and by the end of the year plans were underway to expand both the facilities and the workforce in Wichita. Fresh orders for the Model 75 and the export Model 76 kept the production line humming with activity throughout the year, and by December the Stearman Division had delivered 46 airplanes and exported another nine for total sales exceeding $1.2 million.
When 1939 began, the only problem facing Julius Schaefer was how to create more space to build more airplanes. His concern was valid. In September of that year Germany had invaded Poland, prompting both England and France to declare war on Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. In the United States, however, although the general public was concerned about the invasion, a great majority of Americans clung to their isolationist policy and wanted nothing to do with “Europe’s war.”
Meanwhile, out west in Wichita, Julius Schaefer’s chief concern was how to build more trainers for the U.S. military. Time was of the essence. In fact, only three weeks before the assault on Poland began, the U.S. War Department had issued contracts worth more than $688,000 for training aircraft, and if the Air Corps and Navy chose to exercise an option for additional airplanes that figure could increase to more than $2 million.2
By late 1939 the Stearman Division was swamped with orders for the Model 73-, Model 75- and Model 76-series aircraft and more orders were imminent. That autumn the factory employed about 600 men and women and there was no additional space for production. The only choice was to expand the campus if parent company Boeing Aircraft was to meet its contractual obligations. It was, therefore, no surprise to Schaefer when, on Sept. 20, 1939, Assistant Secretary of War Louis Johnson signed a contract for $3 million worth of Stearman PT-13B primary trainers.
Under terms of the order, the Air Corps was buying 255 of the airplanes in an effort to accelerate pilot instruction. The contract mandated that Boeing enlarge the Stearman Division and hire hundreds of new workers. “The contract is the largest ever received at the Stearman plant and the largest ever signed by any Wichita airplane manufacturer,” reported the Wichita Eagle Sept. 21, 1939. The reporter added that, “A certain amount of rearrangements and conversion of plant facilities to take care of business will be one of the first things on the program.” Plans called for additional machinery to be acquired and installed, and the final assembly line reconfigured to optimize manufacturing throughput. Schaefer added that he expected to hire and train at least another 400-500 people in the next few months, but stipulated that, “Only American citizens of undoubted loyalty will be carried on the payroll.”
In the weeks that followed, every effort was made to implement the changes necessary to boost production. Chief among these was the immediate construction of a large final assembly area costing $200,000 and measuring 205 feet in length and 126 feet in width. It was scheduled for completion in December with workers occupying the floor space late that month. As of January 1940, the facility was fully operational.
The sudden surge in orders experienced by the Stearman Division was only one example of the tremendous boom in Wichita’s airframe manufacturing industry. Local journalists speculated that 1940 could be the year that the city’s aeronautical enterprise would break the old record of building nearly 1,000 airplanes in 1928. “Can this figure be claimed today and can it be truthfully said that the aviation industry here is at an all-time high in productivity,” one newspaper reporter asked. He speculated further that additional orders for Stearman, Beech and Cessna airplanes were anticipated and that workers at all three plants, as well as at smaller companies and subcontractors in Wichita, were laboring at a fever pitch to deliver aircraft to the U.S. military.
As the war in Europe intensified and diplomatic relations between the United States and the Empire of Japan became increasingly strained, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for increased defense funding to the staggering tune of $5 billion, with much of that figure dedicated to building weapons of war and military facilities. Management of the Stearman Division was implementing more plans for expansion that would greatly increase productivity. That expansion could come none too soon as in June 1940, the U.S. Navy signed a contract worth $3.7 million for hundreds of N2S-2 and N2S-5 biplanes, all of this occurring amid frantic efforts to complete hundreds of PT-13-series ships already on order for the Army Air Corps.
When August rolled around, the factory had 1,100 “American citizens of undoubted loyalty” on the payroll working two, eight-hour shifts, six days a week. In September another 300 people were hired and a three-shift schedule put into effect that struggled to keep pace with delivery schedules. At that time the factory was completing a new PT-13 or N2S every three hours, but the goal was five ships per day.
Julius Schaefer’s headaches, however, only got worse Sept. 16, 1940, when the War Department announced that the Stearman Division would be given a contract worth more than $6.3 million for hundreds more primary trainers for the Army Air Corps. The order was one of five handed out that day to the Boeing Aircraft Company, the Glenn L. Martin Company, Douglas Aircraft Corporation and the Lockheed Aircraft Company, aimed at completing the War Department’s modernization program to acquire more than 14,000 new airplanes. In addition to the Stearman order, Beech Aircraft was handed contracts for military versions of the Model D17S and twin-engine Model C18, and Cessna Aircraft had orders to build hundreds of AT-8 multi-engine trainers. As a result of all that activity, as of September 1940, Wichita’s three major aircraft builders were scrambling to manufacture $40 million-worth of “warbirds.”3
From 1939 to 1941 the Stearman Division had received orders from the Army Air Corps for 275 PT-13A trainers, followed by 255 PT-13B and PT-13C (operated as instrument flight trainers), as well as 250 N2S-1 aircraft ordered by the U.S. Navy. As the fateful year 1941 dawned, Julius Schaefer and his growing army of workers were rolling out a new Model 74 every 90 minutes or as many as 12 per day. Army and Navy pilots were ferrying up to 10 new airplanes at a time to training fields that were popping up all across the United States.
By July 1941, more than 12,000 people in Wichita were engaged in the manufacture or support of warplane production for the United States, Great Britain and its empire. As 1941 drew to a close, however, it had become apparent to a majority of Americans that the war raging in Europe, coupled with Japanese aggression in China and its military buildup in the Western Pacific Ocean, would eventually draw the United States into another bloody, global conflict.
Wichita Eagle, Dec. 27, 1936, Page 5.
While Poland was fighting desperately for its survival, thousands of miles to the west the Stearman Division was busy completing orders for the Air Corps and Navy and the Brazilian government. The latter had placed orders for $300,000-worth of Model A76B3 aircraft destined for Cuba, and the Philippine government contracted for 18 Model 76D3 biplanes that cost $355,000.
As the number and size of aircraft production facilities grew in Wichita, so did demand for workers. A survey of aviation companies operating in the city found that, as of October 1940, there were 3,782 people employed by the three major manufacturers. Future estimates put the number of workers at more than 8,000 by January 1941. That month the Stearman factory would undergo a massive increase in employment to more than 4,000 men and women, increasing to 6,500 in June.