Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Belated Technological Appendix for April, 1950: Sites and Things

First impressions come when they come. I read G. C. Edmondson's 1965 The Ship that Sailed the Time Stream and its sequel, 1981's To Sail the Century Seas at a very young age (too young, apparently, to pick up the casual racism and sexism), long before my callow transformation into a young Reaganite, of which the less said the better. All the more wonder that I still and so vividly record the protagonist realising that he had returned to 1970s San Diego waters when he picked up one of the local radio commentators. The vividness of the memory probably has something to do with the author's palpable disgust for paleo-conservatism. Whatever: It is a first impresson.San Diego=appalling, hateful, racist, anti-communist conservatism. Got it! 

Nuance is surely badly wanted, but this technological appendix isn't about politics --well, it's not going to escape labour politics, but that's another matter. It is about the San Diego-built Consolidated/Convair PB4Y-2 Privateer. such as, for example,  "Turbulent Turtle."  BuNo 59645 belonged to the "secret Special Electronic Search Project," but was attached to VP26, then stationed at Port Lyautey, Morocco, was sub-detached to Wiesbaden for a ferret flight along the Baltic coast of the Soviet Union, during which it was shot down by a La-11 of the PVO on 8 April 1950. 

I was tempted to write an appendix about the ferret flights, since they're clearly pretty important to the history of technology on many levels, but the Defence Department seems to think that they're secret or something. Ten men were lost with "Turbulent Turtle," but we know very little about the equipment they operated, and it is probably a great deal less interesting than that carried in more modern "ferret" missions. There is far more to say about the politics of it all, but I will keep it to the service politics for now, as it would hardly do to tread on the heels of the Korean War,  rapidly advancing into view. 

The most effective "ferret" missions were flown by Air Force B-29s. These had the performance to fly deep into Soviet territory, coming in too high and too fast for a realistic interception, at least in 1949. The Privateer was the  best the Navy could do at the time. It had nothing like the altitude performance and speed of the B-29, although such communications intelligence as has been declassified shows that the PVO still had some trouble intercepting it. This is probably why the Lockheed P2V Neptunes replaced it in the lists soon after. It seems that the Navy felt that it had to keep up with the Air Force somehow. Or maybe these were entirely sincere efforts. We've seen that Time is convinced that the Reds are in the midst of building a massive snorkel submarine fleet, and the Navy was apparently convinced of the same purported Soviet threat.  This might have something to do with the ongoing Battle of the Pentagon --it is hard to make a budget argument without a threat to meet. So it may well be that ten men lost their lives in a not-very suitable aircraft because the Navy was looking for an institutional reason for its own existence. 

I want to make it very clear that just because the Privateer was the wrong plane for a ferret mission does not make it a bad plane. On the contrary, it was a very good one, by far the best in the whole series of Consolidated four engined bombers that began with 1938 Air Corps and 1940 French orders. 

The first aircraft pictured is from the first tranche. It is Consolidated LB-30 AL504 "Commando." Flight is being coy here. "Commando" is remembered by posterity as Winston Churchill's personal transport, and not the pioneer of Transport Command's Pacific route. 

This is a handy graphic showing the differences of what I am going to indiscriminately lump together as the second tranche, the various versions of the B-24 from D to J. The Navy and British lingo may somewhat obscure the production designation, but the bottom two aircraft are from the definitive production type, the B-24H. Between the Liberator I and the B-24H you have the B-24D, designed and equipped for combat to an RAF/USAAF standard, but lacking a nose turret. (Exactly what the Armee de l'Air was thinking when it approved the Liberator I as a combat aircraft is unclear, and since it had other things on its mind at the time, it is possible that the earliest service makes of the Liberator just kind of grew.)

This, finally, is the Consolidated/Convair PB4Y-2 Privateer:

The Navy was in general quite pleased with the B-24 (PB4Y-1), but saw room for some fairly significant improvements, which were implemented in the Privateer. Externally, it differed from its predecessor in being a slightly longer aircraft (to accommodate a flight engineers' station), and by having a single tailplane instead of the oh-so-late-Thirties double rudder that afflicted the B-24 and so many other contemporary designs. 

Wikipedia says that 739 Privateers were built for the Navy, most completing after the war. However, if you have the time to watch the video clip above, the pilot will tell you that this particular aircraft had only got as far as a modification centre, where it was waiting for armour when the war ended. Incidentally, the photograph at the head comes from a 1944 Aviation article about modification centres. That's why it's there. It has nothing to do with my really, really liking it. The Coast Guard eventually picked the aircraft up, but used it little enough that it could bepassed on to a firefighting company and from there to the air show circuit. 

Finally, and completely unrelated to the above, here's a plane that shows up frequently around here, the Convair B-36, 

which I mention solely because it was built in Fort Worth, one of the three "sites" that go with these "things:" Consolidated San Diego, Willow Run and Convair Fort Worth. Consolidated was one of a number of aircraft manufacturers to get its start (roughly, as its earliest digs were in Connecticut) in the Buffalo, New York "nursery" before fleeing to the superior climate of California. It launched its first PBY Catalina into San Diego Bay in 1936, and flew its first LIberator from Lindbergh Field in December of 1939. I distinctly recall an Aviation, or possibly Aero Digest tongue bath for the "300mph" bomber, which I thought pretty outlandish at the time. It turns out, per Wikipedia, that the initial USAAC specification did call for a top speed of 311mph, not surprisingly unmet. Consolidated was San Diego's largest employer by the fall of 1941, when owner Reuben Fleet sold his shares for $10.4 million, so that the company could benefit from the superior social capital of financier Victor Emmanuel, while Fleet could benefit from having millions of dollars in the bank, something he spent the next thirty years doing. While he doesn't sound like a man with politics I would appreciate, we should all be so lucky!  

Like Fleet, Convair continued to operate in San Diego until 1994, and no doubt this had some influence on the politics of the surrounding region, although you'd think that all the Navy retirees would have more. The company opened up a separate production facility in Fort Worth, Texas in 

Meanwhile, American mobilisation seemed to demand a gargantuan production of the Air Corps' favourite bomber, and when massive production is called for, the mid-century American mind turned to mass production, Detroit, Henry Ford, and Henry Kaiser. The last is in more of an eclipse that the first three, but there was a time when every American knew Henry Kaiser's name as something more than the founder of the first HMO. Anyway, thus Willow Run, which either The Economist once seriously described as a "Gargantina," or I had a copying error. I've written about Willow Run in several old  posts. (1, 2)

Recall that, at the time, Archie Sinclair was trying to persuade the Prime Minister to let Eighth Air Force continue its daylight operations over Europe. The balance of power had tipped so drastically against General Eaker because he could muster only about 150 bombers for a given raid. This is a pretty derisory number at a time when American aircraft construction was soaking up over three million hands for an annual production of 80,000 aircraft including 30,000 bombers. It turns out that it's hard to "build 'em by the yard and chop 'em off by the foot," or whatever the original quote is. Almost half of all B-24s were made at Willow Run, but they tended to come out late and overweight. Willow Run is a long, cautionary chapter in David Hounshell's From the American System to Mass Production, a book with a great deal to say to modern times if anyone cared to read it. Although even at the time the key point that aircraft production depended on workforce, and with workforce growth stalling out at 3 million or so, there were not going to be any more aircraft than there were. Ultimately, Eighth Air Force did get more than enough B-24Ds and even Hs, but it was when the plants were ready to deliver them. 

My bullet point summary of the key issues at the Willow Run aircraft plant is that assembly line production requires that assembly line workers be able to physically handle the piece.Aircraft are big. Therefore, trouble ahead. I mean, it's not the only problem --mass production also doesn't go well with precision manufacture or frequent design changes-- but it is a pretty glaring one. The fact that we don't grasp this everyday reality of the plant floor tells us something about the way that ideas get in the way of practical realities and obscure workplace social relations. In particular, deskilling is a social construct more than a real one. Just to quote me at at a little more length:

[T]he B-24 was chosen for production at Willow Run, and it was a disaster. ust to put things in perspective, as official historian Irving Holley, does, the aviation and automobile industries were completely, utterly different. In 1937, aircraft workers worked an average of 42.3 hours at an average compensation of 67 cents/hour. Automotive workers did 35.9 hours at 89.1. The difference in pay is accounted for the difference in output value, of $4400/year vice $15,000, and that difference by the relative capitalisation of $800 versus $2600. This doesn't necessarily mean that the aviation industry was undercapitalised, however. Much of the spending in the automotive sector was on jigs and gauges that made it possible to build automobiles on production lines. Aircraft are big, so they can't be built on production lines, making jigs and gauges pointless.

Unless you build the aircraft in parts, and then erect them in a final stage in a semi-production-line method. There's some weird disconnect in the literature where if you get a work that's early enough, or out-of-touch enough(5), this is the future of aviation, since mass production is better than anything. Then someone noticed, perhaps about the time of David Hounshell's deevastating indictment of the "American system," or more likely those exciting days when Japan was going to rule the world real soon now with "flexible production," that the world didn't actually need that many of a lot of things

It's not that the aviation industry wasn't pretty heavily capitalised by that time itself, but it was mainly with machines for making high-temperature high-stress high-strength thingies. They weren't doing that with the B-24. It was about the last generation of planes that were built with raw materials ordered out of an industrial catalogue and arranged into a final structure using the traditional methods of boat-building. 
All the skilled metal working involved in that leaves me scratching my head a little about the difference in pay as between automotive sector and aviation sector employees. I'm not sure that it would have been possible were it not for the fact that Consolidated was off in San Diego, far away from Detroit. I'm just not entirely clear where Consolidated was getting skilled metalworkers at the edge of the American west, and how this reservoir of skilled labour was holding on. On the other hand, we are talking about the late 30s here. It's not clear that the Consolidated labour model would have continued to work through the war years. [Something weird is going on at Blogspot, or I'd link to me; but since I'm quoting me, I don't have to!]

Even years after first reading Irving Holley on the subject, I'm still a bit flabbergasted by the stark contrast in pay and hours between aviation sector and automotive sector employees, and curious as to whether it continued into the war years, and more specifically, at Fort Worth.

Ultimately, Fort Worth, Texas built all of 2,743 Liberators, out of Convair's share of 9,468. It turns out that Convair Fort Worth even has its own Wikipedia page, according to which it is actually United States Air Force Plant 4. A gigantic, air-conditioned new plant, it didn't exactly cover itself with laurels during the war. Besides the low B-24 output, the Air Force told Consolidated to build the B-32 there, saving San Diego for the Catalina, with disastrous results. (Or maybe the results were baked into the B-32 design to begin with.) The B-36, also built there, was not exactly famous for its production quality. It is also associated with the B-58 Hustler and the General Dynamics F-111.

Oy. Well, at least it did a good job on the F-16, and is now producing the F-35, which is a good thing, since if it is ever closed it goes on the Superfund list and bankrupts the Air Force. 

The upshot here is that the Privateer is both a San Diego product and a stunning success when set against the sorry tales of the B-24, B-32 and B-36. (In the postwar era, while Fort Worth was struggling with the Convair Liner and B-58, San Diego built the Atlas, F-102 and F-106 (with a licensed version of the Bristol/Rolls Royce Olympus, which I did not know).

Compare the B-24J with the Privateer, using Wikipedia data for both because I'm too lazy to dig out my design analysis:

  • rew: 11 (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, nose turret, top turret, 2 waist gunners, ball turret, tail gunner; PB4Y-2, 11, although the information seems suspect.
  • Length: 67 ft 2 in (20.47 m); 74ft 7" to accommodate flight engineer
  • Wingspan: 110 ft (34 m); Ditto, same high aspect ratio wing
  • Height: 17 ft 7.5 in (5.372 m); No tailskid, so comparison not very relevant
  • Wing area: 1,048 sq ft (97.4 m2); See Above
  • Empty weight: 36,500 lb (16,556 kg); 27,485lbs
  • Gross weight: 55,000 lb (24,948 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 65,000 lb (29,484 kg) plus: Ditto
  • Powerplant: 4 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-35 Twin Wasp, R-1830-41 or R-1830-65 14-cylinder two-row air-cooled turbosupercharged radial piston engines, 1,200 hp (890 kW) each
  • Propellers: 3-bladed Hamilton Standard, 11 ft 7 in (3.53 m) diameter constant-speed fully-feathering propellers; Ditto, more or less, because engine power claims are a bit to wade into here. 


  • Maximum speed: 297 mph (478 km/h, 258 kn) at 25,000 ft (7,600 m); 300mph
  • Cruise speed: 215 mph (346 km/h, 187 kn); 175mph, again something to wade into
  • Stall speed: 95 mph (153 km/h, 83 kn)

Wikipedia goes on at length with range performance statistics of dubious relevance given all the auxiliary and ferry tank arrangements on various makes of the Liberator and Privateer. No overload takeoff weight has been published for the Privateer, but it would have had the same range performance as the Liberator providing we are comparing apples to apples, enginewise. Cruising speed is determined, at least in comparing two such similar airframes, by the engine's lean-mixture response, and there's an interesting industrial history to the way in which engines reached ever lower engine stall RPMs as their production proceeded. As a rule of thumb, the lower the rated power an aircraft can achieve as a proportion of maximum power output without engine stall, the older the engine. 

What I'm trying to say is that I think that the Navy could have asked the same prodigies of range performance from the Privateer as from the Liberator, but never chose to do so. That said, check out the 9000lb reduction in empty weight between the two aircraft. That is a . . . lot of improvement. Apart from the changes to the tail and the omission of the redundant tail skid, that's all detailed internal changes executed at San Diego. 

So the moral of the story is that factories and work forces embody capabilities that are not nearly so interchangeable as industrial planners realise, and we deserve to be paid more, even if there isn't a university degree available for our particular job. (My employer briefly experimented with sending promising management candidates to a post-graduatey-schoolish-think-tankie-thingie, but that was years and an asset-stripping sale ago. I'm also not sure how much school training you need to realise that culling and cleaning are the key to controlling fruit fly infestations. But what do I know?)


  1. Perhaps the lesson is that it took about 20 years to grow an aircraft workforce in both San Diego and Fort Worth?

  2. Yes, that's the lesson. I'd go on about the difference between actual workplace skills and the things that we think are skills, but it would involve invoking the image of a grocery store full of rotten fruits and vegetables and me making that age-old complaint about how everything goes to hell when indispensable me goes on vacation.