The massive American industrial effort during WWII allowed numerous companies, such as Boeing, Electric Boat, and General Motors to prosper when the war ended. Two companies which did not survive the transition to peace were Curtiss-Wright and Brewster.
Part I: The end of Curtiss-Wright
Unlike Brewster, Curtiss-Wright was already a household name in America. It’s most famous early warplane was the JN-4 Jenny, the most successful trainer of WWI and in fact one of the most successful trainers of all time. The Jenny’s success was followed in the 1920s and 1930s by a variety of good designs.
(A gallery of Curtiss-Wright’s successful WWII aircraft; going clockwise: the SB2C Helldiver naval dive bomber, the SOC Seagull seaplane, the SC Seahawk seaplane, the C-46 Commando transport, and the P-40 Warhawk fighter. Some of these planes, such as the Helldiver and Commando, were crucial to the American victory and the Seahawk was regarded as the best battleship scout ever made.)
Unsuccessful WWII designs
The C-76 Caravan
Before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Army requested that Curtiss-Wright design a transport of “non-strategic” wood and canvas, as it feared American entry into WWII might result in high losses of the company’s successful C-46 Commando at the same time aluminum supplies would be critical. Curtiss-Wright’s head designer, George A. Page Jr., was assigned to the XC-76 project as the company foresaw it as leading to huge orders.
Plans were made to manufacture it at Curtiss-Wright’s factories and by Higgins Boatyard in Louisiana, famous for it’s wooden-hulled PT boats. Baldwin (of grand piano fame) was contracted to help work the mahogony plywood. This ended up being the C-76’s handicap as it had to be kept at certain temperature and humidity round-the-clock to make it usable when it was time to hand-assemble the planes.
The prototype C-76 was not ready until 1943, by which time fears of an aluminum shortage had faded. The prototype, underpowered and unstable, crashed on it’s second flight killing two of Curtiss-Wright’s best test pilots.
Higgins dropped out and only another thirteen Caravans were hand-assembled during the war. The adhesive used to keep the plane together was of serious doubt, and another twelve Caravans were rejected by the military.
In October 1945, a month after the end of WWII, the US Army declared all C-76 Caravans “terminal inventory” and all were flown to collection airfields for scrapping. None ever saw combat. The Caravan project cost $31 million (about $400 million in 2015 dollars) and spoiled the good transport-builder reputation Curtiss-Wright had earned in Congress via the C-46 Commando; so badly in fact that Curtiss-Wright never again entered a military transport bid, which is stunning considering the Commando’s wartime success. The company itself lost two test pilots and wasted the talents of George Page Jr. when he could have been designing other things.
The XP-55 Ascender
Like the Caravan, the Ascender project started before the USA’s entry into WWII. On 20 February 1940, the US Army issued “Request For Data R-40C” inviting companies to submit unconventional fighter designs. Known as a “circular” in the industry, these vague requests were a method for the military to develop aircraft technology at private risk rather than taxpayer expense. Curtiss-Wright’s flying wing, forward-canard P-55 was the most unusual and was selected for development.
In 1942 the Army ordered three prototype XP-55s for tests at Scott Army Airfield, IL; across the Mississippi River from the St. Louis factory where Curtiss-Wright hoped to build the plane. The first crashed in November 1943.
By then better fighters were already in combat, and Curtiss-Wright questioned the future of the Ascender. The Army egged the company on into continuing the project. Test flights continued, with Curtiss-Wright engineers tied up with trying to resolve all the stability and control problems the layout caused.
The program continued throughout 1944, by which time Curtiss-Wright executives were clearly agitated as it was less and less likely each day the government would order a prewar design. At the start of 1945, the now-pointless Ascender project was unbelievably still going on. On 27 May 1945, nineteen days after Germany surrendered, one of the two remaining XP-55s crashed and the project ended.
The XP-55 project consumed company resources for the entire war, resulting in no contract. Meanwhile Curtiss-Wright’s rival, Bell, was already producing P-59 Aircomet jets so any knowledge gained in the pusher-propeller configuration was obsolete anyways.
This was the best of Curtiss-Wright’s WWII designs. First flown in July 1943, the XP-62 was a “heavy fighter” powered by a supercharged engine turning contra-rotating propellers. The cockpit was sealed, air-conditioned, and pressurized, and the plane could undertake high-altitude interceptions as well as low-level ground attack missions. Eight 20mm autocannons were fitted. The US Army was impressed and ordered 100, however the government overruled the Army and cancelled the deal. It wanted Curtiss-Wright to keep license-building a competitor’s product, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The lone prototype was scrapped, it’s development costs never recouped.
This dive bomber never made it off the drawing board. A development of the successful SB2C Helldiver, it followed an unfortunate Curtiss-Wright trend of trying to stretch out existing designs instead of starting new. The design required use of 145 octane aviation fuel which was not standard, and the US Navy selected a competing design from Douglas, the BTD Destroyer. Curtiss-Wright exited the dive bomber market.
The XF15C Stringaree
The Stringaree was the result of a WWII US Navy request for a “mixed-propulsion” (jet and piston engines) carrier-based fighter. At the time, it was thought that jets would be too fast to safely land on a carrier. The plane would use both the jet and propeller on takeoff and during combat, but just the propeller when landing. The XF15C was test-flown in February 1945. Three prototypes were built, of which one crashed. By this time, the Navy already selected the Stringaree’s mixed-engine rival, Ryan’s FR Fireball. There was nothing particularly wrong with the design, it was just that Ryan’s was better. This was the last naval plane and last propeller plane that Curtiss-Wright designed.
Failed Warhawk Offshoots
While there was no real one single cause for Curtiss-Wright’s demise, these three planes played a big part. They illustrated how the company remained centered on stretching the P-40 Warhawk concept past the point when it should have been abandoned.
The XP-46 was an effort to blend the best features of the P-40 with the Spitfire. After the US Army passed on it, the RAF placed a small order which was cancelled before any were delivered. Trying to save the project, it was again offered to the US Army, which discovered that not only was it not better than competing designs, it was actually inferior to a regular Warhawk. Next, a second try, the XP-53, was cancelled while it’s prototype was being built.
Perhaps foolishly, Curtiss-Wright decided to stick with the Warhawk layout and fielded several versions of the XP-60.
Several versions flew, including the XP-60B with a liquid-cooled supercharged Allison engine, and the XP-60C with an air-cooled Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine and contra-rotating props. Altogether twelve different engine, canopy, and armament combinations were tried. Curtiss-Wright was basically “throwing everything but the kitchen sink” into saving the basic P-40 Warhawk airframe. None resulted in a production order and the company wasted several million dollars when it should have moved on to something completely new.
Curtiss-Wright after WWII
All subcontracted orders for P-47 Thunderbolts were cancelled when WWII ended. Meanwhile production of the C-46 Commando had ended in 1945, leaving Curtiss-Wright with no military orders. As far as the postwar airline industry, Curtiss-Wright found itself a victim of it’s own success, as the market was flooded with war-surplus C-46 transports being auctioned off for civilian use.
To keep at least a small amount of cash flow coming in, Curtiss-Wright sold the US Navy some KD2C Skeet target drones. Powered by inexpensive pulsejets, these were to train shipboard AA gunners on defense against jet aircraft.
The XP-87 and the end of Curtiss-Wright
After the cancellation of the XP-60, Curtiss-Wright belatedly put it’s best designers onto the company’s only jet fighter project, the XP-87 Blackhawk. In March 1945, the US Army started a WWII competition for a multirole jet fighter-bomber to succeed the P-61 Black Widow night fighter and several piston-powered attack planes. Curtiss-Wright and five other companies entered bids during WWII, of which Curtiss-Wright and Northrop were selected for the final competition.
The competition was one of the few wartime offers to survive the transition to peace. As Curtiss-Wright realized this was their last gasp to survive, all divisions and facilities except for the Columbus, OH plant were shut down and all of the company’s efforts were dedicated to the Blackhawk.
The XP-87 was powered by four Westinghouse XJ34-WE-7 turbojets in two twin nacelles. The two crewmen sat side-by-side. It had a maximum speed of 522 kts and a 1,000 mile range. It was supposed to have carried four 20mm guns and unguided rockets, but no weapons were ever actually fitted.
The prototype flew in March 1948. Meanwhile the WWII-legacy competition had passed from the US Army to the US Air Force, which became independent on 18 September 1947. The Air Force shifted the competition’s focus away from a multipurpose fighter-bomber to a dedicated interceptor, a role which the Blackhawk was capable of filling, but which Northrop’s XF-89 Scorpion was more suited. (The Air Force had also changed the pursuit “P” category to “F” for fighter.) None the less, in June 1948, the Air Force ordered 87 F-87 Blackhawks from Curtiss-Wright.
This seemed to be the good news the company needed. The plan was to develop the F-87 into a whole family of trainer, reconnaissance, and strike versions which would generate enough funds to restart development of other types.
However this was not to be. The USAF Committee On Evaluation concluded that the Blackhawk and Scorpion were roughly equal, but that Northrop’s plane had potential for future development while the Curtiss-Wright design was an evolutionary dead end. On 10 October 1948, the F-87 Blackhawk contract was cancelled and replaced by a contract to Northrop for F-89 Scorpions.
This was the end of the road for Curtiss-Wright. To preserve something of a going entity, the entire aircraft division was immediately shut down. Most assets were sold to North American Aviation, while the Columbus, OH factory reverted to the government. The corporate name continued as a subcontractor for other defense companies, a role it was successful in and continues to fill in 2015.
The former Curtiss-Wright factory was owned by the US Navy but leased by North American to produce F-86 Sabres during the Korean War.
The facility later made the F-100 Super Sabre of Vietnam War fame. In 1967, Rockwell bought out North American and assumed control of the lease on the old Curtiss-Wright factory. It was used to build OV-10 Bronco aircraft; along with components for B-1 Lancer bombers and the Space Shuttles.
In 1982, the US Navy transferred title of the facility to the US Air Force, which continued to lease it to Rockwell. The facility was shut down in 1996. In the 21st century, it has been converted to civilian use, including a large warehouse for a shoe company. The runways and taxiways were transferred to adjacent Port Columbus International Airport.
Part II: The end of Brewster
Curtiss-Wright’s demise was a “perfect storm” of unfortunate timing, bad luck, government interference, and questionable decisions. Brewster, on the other hand, failed entirely due to corporate stupidity and government meddling.
Brewster was originally a 19th century manufacturer of carriages in Times Square. In 1905, it moved to a factory in Queens and switched to automobiles and boats. Later a small aviation department was started. In 1932, an investor named Jimmy Work bought the company for $30,000 and shut down the automobile division to concentrate on aviation. Initially the company concentrated on making aftermarket parts for airliners made by other companies.
In 1934, Brewster designed a simple carrier plane, the SBN, of which the US Navy bought thirty. The SBN was not successful and quickly forgotten about, but it was Brewster’s foot in the door to military contracts.
In 1936, the company shocked the defense industry by beating out Grumman to win the US Navy’s new carrier fighter competition. It’s F2A Buffalo was selected for fleet use. The surprise of Brewster’s win was substantial; it would be like a private kitplane maker beating Boeing today. The US Navy’s Buffalo order was followed by export Buffalo sales to Finland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In 1939 the company scored another surprising win with a US Navy order for it’s SB2A Buccaneer dive bomber.
The company’s rapid rise was the root of it’s problems. CEO Jimmy Work had a tendency to hire “fast and cheap” and the expanded pool of engineers and draftsmen were mediocre. The old four-story factory in Queens was not laid out for aircraft production, and could barely handle Buffalo orders, let alone any other new design.
Obviously new designs couldn’t be tested over NYC, so on 23 January 1941, Brewster opened a 400-acre, 6,000-employee, $2 million factory and airfield near Johnsville, PN; a small farming town near Warminster. Jimmy Work intended that this would be the hub of his company going forward. Money for this factory came from the New Deal-era Defense Plant Corporation, a government entity, which retained legal title but leased the plant to Brewster for one dollar.
To finance Brewster’s expansion, Work employed a sales team headed by two brothers, Ignacio and Alfred Miranda. Both were somewhat shadowy figures and Ignacio had previously done prison time for illegal arms exports to Bolivia. Their typical sales technique was to snap up any and every deal, without consulting the factory. This led to production bottlenecks and as America entered WWII in December 1941, the company already had a reputation for making big promises it couldn’t deliver on. The Ignacios were not popular with the US military, as it was felt that they only took American orders to finance high-profit overseas deals.
Other money came from a “profit-recycling” scheme, whereby the Mirandas and Work allegedly set up sham companies to buy raw materials and resell them to Brewster, defrauding Brewster shareholders out of $5.5 million of stock dividends.
Brewster during WWII
The company was resting easy when the USA entered the war in December 1941, with little in the pipeline as far as creativity. Besides the completed Buffalo order and the ongoing Buccaneer (called Bermuda by the British) job, Brewster only ever designed two other planes.
The first was a private-venture carrier fighter, the Model 33A. Proposed to the US Navy around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, it never made it past the drawing board.
The second design was a flop and one of the factors which doomed the company. The XA-32 was a 1941 proposal to the US Army for a ground-attack fighter, which the Army selected for further development. It ended up being one of the largest defense boondoggles in American history.
Design of the XA-32 began as the USA entered the war. Almost immediately, it unraveled. The engineering team constantly squabbled with one another. Design deadlines were repeatedly missed. The XA-32 was supposed to start flight trials in early 1942, but by the 4th of July, there were not even blueprints ready. It took five months to put the wooden wind tunnel mock-up together. The prototype wasn’t ready until May 1943, a full year behind schedule. What emerged was a monstrosity of a warplane.
The single-seat XA-32 “light attack fighter” was way overweight, and ended up being heavier than an A-20 Havoc twin-engine bomber. The plane had bulges and protrusions as the squabbling design teams simply put whatever they wanted wherever they wanted, without consideration of other systems. The Double Wasp engine was barely sufficient to power the overweight plane. No exhaust manifold had been designed, and each cylinder exhausted out of it’s own pipe. The cylinders at the top of the engine would emit little flames at the cockpit when they over-carbeurized. This wasn’t dangerous but it was disorienting to the pilot, especially at night. A strange fat spinner was fitted on the four-bladed propeller, with no apparent function other than style. It did however restrict air to the engine, causing overheating problems. The plane would have been a factory nightmare, with asymmetric panels and illogically-placed components. The tailwheel was supposed to retract, but no workable design was ever finished so a fixed tailwheel was used.
The XA-32 was armed with six .50cal machine guns, an internal bay for a 1000 lbs bomb, and two optional wing pylons for smaller bombs. The US Army stated it did not want torpedo capability, but Brewster ignored them and wasted a month designing a torpedo kit for the bomb bay anyways. The company hoped to later get more profitable orders from overseas navies. The US Army was angry when they found out and ironically, the kit never worked right anyways. When dummy bombs were fitted to the wing mounts, they caused the XA-32 to severely vibrate in flight and a furious US Army officer asked the Brewster representative if the company had honestly even done any wind tunnel tests with dummy bombs.
The second prototype was retrofitted with a Wasp Major engine to give more power. It flew in June but by then the military had seen enough. Due to the XA-32 delays, the Army was fielding the A-36 Mustang, simply a P-51 Mustang with dive brakes. This “stop gap” design was loved by it’s pilots and they requested more, which was fine with the government.
Existing Brewster designs during WWII
The Buffalo did well in Finland, but detested pretty much everywhere else. Out of Belgium’s 40 Buffaloes, 39 were shot down by the Luftwaffe in 1940. The Buffalo had a bad showing in Britain’s failed defense of Singapore in 1942. Only one American squadron, the ashore-based Marine Corps VMF-221, actually used Buffaloes in combat. During the Battle of Midway, the squadron lost 13 out of 20 Buffaloes and the type was withdrawn from frontline service. The last American unit flying the F2A was Naval Air Station Miami, FL which used a handful for reservist training until the end of WWII.
(This Brewster advertisement ran in magazines during WWII and is full of groundless boasts. Actually only one carrier, USS Saratoga (CV-3) ever used the F2A Buffalo as it’s onboard fighter wing, and it never flew them in combat. The Buffalo was certainly not a “favorite of the fleet” and was considered a poor second to Grumman’s F4F Wildcat.)
The Buccaneer, or Bermuda in British service, had an even lesser record. The US Navy had ordered 140 Buccaneers and also took 162 from a Dutch order impounded after Germany occupied the Netherlands. The RAF ordered 750 but only 468 were delivered. Australia cancelled it’s whole Buccaneer order because it was tired of dealing with Brewster.
No American Buccaneer ever saw combat. Some were used as trainers or as utility planes. A few were jettisoned into the ocean testing catapults on new aircraft carriers. The last American unit using the Buccaneer was Naval Air Station Vero Beach, FL, where Marine Corps pilots used Buccaneers to tow gunnery targets until the end of WWII. When the war ended in 1945, there were still a few unflown (but paid-for) Buccaneers at the Brewster factory. These were declared “terminal inventory” and flown straight to collection airfields for scrapping in 1946. Meanwhile the RAF was not satisfied with it’s Bermudas and also used them for second-line patrols or training. They were discarded immediately after WWII ended.
The end of WWII and the collapse of Brewster
Brewster’s final decline started with the Buccaneer contract. After the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December 1941, the Buccaneer was made a high priority and deliveries were supposed to start no later than 15 February 1942. By 28 February 1942, not only were there no Buccaneers in fleet service yet, not a single plane was even built. By the end of March there still were no Buccaneers and by mid-April, the government’s patience with Brewster had worn out.
On 20 April 1942, the federal government used emergency wartime powers (of questionable constitutionality) to “nationalize” the Brewster factory. Jimmy Work was ousted as CEO and replaced by George Chapline, a government appointee. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox instructed Capt. George Westervelt to investigate the company. He reported that the Queens factory was only operating at 40%, and both that plant and the larger Pennsylvania facility had major union/management strife and were poorly organized.
About a month later, the US Navy restored civilian control to the plant, but with an aircraft engineer (C.A. Van Dusen) leading a new hand-picked board of directors. Meanwhile Jimmy Work was not going quietly, and briefly wrested back control of the company. In May 1942, Brewster was sued by disgruntled shareholders for $10 million. The government once again took control, and instructed the company to finish the Buccaneer/Bermuda job as fast as possible and begin license-building 1,500 Vought F4U Corsairs (designated F3A in paperwork but identical), along with spare parts for PBY Catalinas.
In 1943 the company finally started to deliver Buccaneers to the US Navy. By then, they were barely even wanted anymore. In February 1943, the legendary businessman Henry Kaiser was told of Brewster’s foibles and decided it would make an ideal “turn-around” project. Kaiser was already well-respected in Washington DC for organizing the east coast’s shipbuilding industry for war, and the government gave the go-ahead immediately. By May 1943, he essentially was running all of Brewster himself.
Kaiser found the Corsair order in shambles. The Pennsylvania factory was locally called the “Bucks County Playhouse” because of the carefree, lazy atmosphere. About $50,000 worth of tools were missing and presumed stolen by employees. Engines and fuselages sat idle because nobody had ordered bolts nor cared to do so. Several employees were arrested by the FBI for wartime sabotage, not on behalf of the Axis but rather because shifts were intentionally causing problems to make themselves look less bad by making other shifts look even worse.
As Buccaneers finally entered US Navy service, quality problems – some potentially lethal – were discovered and it was later determined that quality checks at the plant were falsified. The quality issues were found to also affect Brewster-made Corsairs, which in some cases were delivered to the Navy with parts missing or extra parts sealed inside the fuselage.
The lowest point came on 23 August 1943, when the local United Auto Workers union at the plant went on strike, breaking the overall nationwide “no strikes until victory” motto. The strike was due to petty gripes between union security guards and US Coast Guard personnel patrolling the base. The saddest spectacle was a horrifying interview that the local union boss, Thomas de Lorenzo, gave to the Washington Post newspaper. He stated with no shame that he was fine with American troops dying because of the strike, as long as union privileges were preserved. The national UAW quickly distanced itself from the strike which ended shortly thereafter. (de Lorenzo’s big mouth attracted IRS attention and he was later jailed for income tax fraud.)
Following the notorious newspaper article, Senator (and future President) Harry Truman toured the Pennsylvania plant, which was one of the most inefficient factories in the country at that point. Kaiser laid out his plans to Truman, which were to extricate Brewster from the Bermuda contracts, and to kill off the disastrous XA-32 project; allowing full concentration on the Corsairs. To a certain extent, Kaiser’s plans worked. By the start of 1944, Kaiser had cut the man-hours per Corsair in half, and doubled the per-month output of finished fighters. While certainly remarkable, Kaiser’s turn-around basically just brought the factory up to the minimum of where it should have been to begin with.
Henry Kaiser left Brewster for other tasks in May 1944 and the factory showed signs of backsliding again. On 1 July 1944, the government cancelled all of Brewster’s contracts. Of the 1,500 Corsairs, only 735 had been completed, an average of only 28 per month. Meanwhile Brewster’s $1 lease was revoked and the US Navy took over the Pennsylvania site.
Ironically, none of the 735 Brewster-made Corsairs ever scored a victory. Hardly any were issued to combat-ready units and many of them never even left the eastern United States. The whole fiasco was for nothing.
Brewster after WWII
Cancellation of all it’s government contracts left the company in dire straits. It had no new designs of it’s own in the pipeline. It had no experience with jet engines, radar, helicopters, rockets, or anything else warplane-related that could garnish a future contract, and had no experience with airliners. The 1941-1944 circus at the Pennsylvania factory, combined with the XA-32 debacle, left the company’s reputation in shambles. The Queens building itself was barely able to build the little Buffalo before WWII, and there was no way it’s obsolete layout could ever produce modern aircraft.
When the war ended in 1945, the Queens factory attempted to switch to making aluminum cookware and luggage, which was unprofitable. A scheme to use the machinery which had made replacement wingtip floats for PBY Catalinas to make civilian boats failed.
Brewster’s first peacetime shareholder meeting after WWII was held in April 1946. The company’s prospects were grim, with no current revenue, no forecast revenue, and a mountain of debt. On 5 April 1946, shareholders dissolved Brewster.
Brewster’s former Johnsville, PA factory, which had been requisitioned by the Navy, was designated Naval Air Modification Unit Westminster, or NAMU. During the remainder of WWII and shortly thereafter, NAMU tested modifications and improvements to existing designs.
In 1947, it was redesignated Naval Air Development Center Westminster, or NADC. It was responsible for a range of research and development jobs, including the Reeves Cyclone, a primitive naval supercomputer in 1948. A human cyclotron was built at NADC for NASA’s use during the early space programs, and later some of the F-14 Tomcat’s flight trials were done at NADC.
NADC continued these activities throughout the Cold War. The base was ideal, as the WWII Brewster test runway was large enough to accommodate big planes such as the C-5 Galaxy. After the end of the Cold War, the base began to wind down in 1992, with some activities being transferred elsewhere. NADC Warminster shut down entirely in 1996. In 2001-2003, the base area was reclaimed for local development, and the Brewster-era structures were torn down to make room for apartments. (The cyclotron, which was built post-WWII, is preserved as a NASA relic.) The WWII runway was converted into a walking trail and basketball courts.
(An abandoned building at the former NADC shortly before it was torn down in 2002. The Brewster engraving had been covered up by the US Navy when they took over during WWII. It probably had not seen daylight in 58 years.) (photo by W.M. Dougherty)
Finally there was the Queens building, where Brewster had began. After the bankruptcy, it fell into disrepair. By NYC’s low point in the late 1970s, it housed cheap clothing companies. In 1997, Brause Realty began repairing the building, which still had some WWII-era aircraft machinery remaining inside. During the 2000s, MetLife insurance company leased part of the building.
In 2010, JetBlue airline selected the building as it’s new headquarters. It was thoroughly modernized and today is a first-class office building. The airline acknowledges the building’s past and sometimes refers to it as “the Brewster Building”. So the building came full circle and once again is a center for aviation activity.
For certain much or most of Brewster’s downfall was self-inflicted. None the less, government control of a private company during wartime raises questions. The US Navy forced Brewster to build a competitor’s plane, then left it in the lurch when the additional Corsair capacity was no longer needed. After WWII, some officials all but admitted that the 1944 Corsair cancellation was a designed move, in that it protected the other two companies making the fighter (Goodyear and Vought) from the financial hit, at Brewster’s expense, instead of spreading cancellations fairly between all three. Even so, it’s hard to see how bumbling Brewster could have survived after WWII when an excellent company like Curtiss-Wright couldn’t.
By late 2015, few ex-employees of Brewster are still alive, but there remains a tiny group trying to restore the company’s good name.