Today, we try to build a perfect airplane. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In the gathering days of
World War Two, the Air Force badly needed airplanes
and lots of them. So they went to automobile
makers. In 1941 General Motors started making B-29
bomber parts and Ford set up a plant to make B-24
bombers at Willow Run. Then GM hired Don Berlin,
designer of the P-40. The P-40 was the fighter
plane that the Flying Tigers had used in
Up to then, airplanes had been virtually handmade.
Historian I.B. Holley tells us that the biggest
airplane company could turn out three planes a
day while auto makers made three cars a
minute. Henry Ford arrogantly said that,
freed of government red tape, he could make more
than a thousand airplanes a day. He said all he
needed was "a standardized design of a late-model aircraft."
That reminds me of a systems expert who, during the
development of the Engines web site, said we
should mechanize the process so as to work on each
episode only once.
We can do that when we mass-produce simple objects
that remain static. It was certainly out of the
question for anything as fluid as a web site. WW-II
airplanes were not only too sophisticated, but they
had to keep changing. Engine tolerances were higher
for airplanes than for cars, and airplanes
absolutely had to undergo redesign while the
experimental models were being built. After that,
wartime airplane designs were constantly updated as
Allied and Axis airplanes kept besting one another
in a crazy game of leapfrog. Ford grew rich making
Model T's for fourteen years. We would have lost
the war trying to fight it in Model T
But Don Berlin bought into Ford's idea. He went to
the Air Force with a plan meant to tie his skills
as an airplane designer to GM's style of mass
production. He showed them a new fighter plane
design, the XP-75, which would outperform
our experimental fighters. He'd avoid the problems
those planes were giving us, by using the best
parts of other airplanes: the wing of the P-40, the
tail of the A-24, the landing gear of the P-47, and
Like the creations of Pygmalion or Frankenstein,
the XP-75 was to be an assembly of perfect parts.
Unfortunately, the result resembled those literary
creatures. It was an oversized monster that
couldn't begin to compete with planes designed from
the ground up. The Air Force was so sure this beast
would succeed that it went ahead and tooled up to
mass-produce it. When the plane was finally
scrapped in 1944, they'd spent over nine million
dollars building fourteen airplanes. That was a lot
of money in 1944.
Designers must, after all, seek out the harmony of
the many parts that make up a design. They must see
designs whole. Sophia Loren once pointed out that
all her parts were wrong. Her nose was the wrong
shape; her mouth was too wide, and so on. Yet who
can fault her beauty? Components of a good design
must make sense in the context of the whole. And
the XP-75 was not a whole airplane.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Holley, I. B., Jr., A Detroit Dream of Mass-Produced
Fighter Air-craft: The XP-75 Fiasco. Technology
and Culture, Vol. 28, No. 3, July 1987, pp.
Yenne, B., The World's Worst Aircraft. New
York; Barnes & Noble Books, 1987, pp.66-67
This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 67.
For more on the XP-75, see this Wikipedia article. More detail is available in this "Military Factory" article.
The following photos of XP-75s were passed on by
Tom Veselenek whose father, Mike Veselenek,
obtained them when he worked with the Fisher Body
Company during WW-II. The bottom photo shows the
tail of one of the XP-75s that crashed.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.