Tulsa Aviation Reaches New Heights After WWII

Associate Editor

AMERICAN COMES TO TOWN: Tulsa’s postwar economy and aviation industry got a big shot in the arm when American Airlines chose to locate their Engineering and Maintenance Base in the Douglas Aircraft Modification hangars at the city’s municipal airport. The stage had been set for the city to land American by three decades of preeminence in world aviation. Pictured here are DC-6s and DC-7s rolling out of the American Airlines hangar sometime in the early 1950s.

Courtesy Tulsa Air & Space Museum

Editor’s Note: This is the 12th article in a multi-part series about the growth of the aviation industry in greater Tulsa and throughout the region. The series explores the many unique contributions made by Tulsans to what has become a major aspect of the area economy. The editors of GTR Newspapers want to acknowledge and thank the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Tulsa Historic Society for research assistance and the use of many of the historic photos that accompany these articles.

In the early morning of Aug. 6, 1945 the Enola Gay, a refitted B-29 bomber piloted by General Paul Tibbets, Jr., took off from the pacific island of Tinian. In its bomb bay was a single payload unlikely named “Little Boy.” The destination was a city in Japan called Hiroshima. Little Boy detonated 1,800 feet above the city creating unprecedented destruction. Three days latter “Fat Man” detonated over Nagasaki, Japan and together the two bombs ushered in the nuclear age and at the same time facilitated an end to World War II. Japan’s unconditional surrender came aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.

During the war years, Tulsa established itself as a prolific manufacturer of warplanes and a reliable source for well-trained pilots. Much of this was due to Tulsa oil baron and billionaire J. Paul Getty, who took over the reigns of Spartan Aircraft Company starting in February 1942 and guided the company’s manufacturing effort through the war years. Getty’s hands-on management style and unbridled patriotism inspired the work force to rally to the war cause and repeatedly meet and exceed production quotas. His vast wealth and the connections it provided to Washington and the war department was instrumental in helping procure wartime contracts. But it was the work ethics and commitment of the Tulsa area workforce that kept the contracts coming. He left the running of Spartan Aviation School to Tulsan Maxwell Balfour who proved every bit as competent as Getty by turning out hundreds of much needed, highly qualified pilots for the war effort. Tulsa’s aviation industry proved itself worthy in the 1940s, but the ending of WWII would present new challenges as the country returned to a peacetime economy.

The good news was the 1950s lay ahead, a decade ushering in a new era of consumerism. Wartime manufacturing retooled to begin producing retail consumer goods. Returning veterans were treated to educational opportunities through the GI Bill or they found good paying jobs in the manufacturing sector and elsewhere. The focus of the country turned from the prevailing anguish of war to the joys of marriage, family and creating a mighty wave of baby boomers. The family model was wage-earning/husband/father, wife/homemaker/mom with somewhere between three and five offspring for which college would be a must. The family unit not only wanted all the amenities afford by America’s geared up, free enterprise economy, but as members of the growing and formidable middle class with newly found purchasing power, they could well afford such wonders as washers, dryers, electric egg beaters, station wagons and even a magical thing called television. But how did all this impact Tulsa’s aviation industry?

The bad news was the country no longer needed so many planes. Thus the money valve pouring funding into a wartime pipeline gushing forth a steady flow of military equipment was suddenly turned off. Although this was not only anticipated, but prayed for, the rapid drop in demand had a chilling effect on the aviation industry nationwide and to some extent in Tulsa.

This was not so for J. Paul Getty and friends at Spartan Aviation Company. Whereas some airplane manufacturers anticipated a demand for plane ownership fueled by returning air force pilots, Getty had a different idea. He anticipated that returning soldiers would be more focused on reclaiming domestic tranquility and to do that they would first need a place to live. As early as the fall of 1945, the company began manufacturing homes on wheels called Spartan Manor trailercoaches using much of the structural engineering design developed for aircraft. Getty was right on target. As it turned out, fewer than expected Air Force pilots were interested in spending another minute doing something for which they had daily risked their lives during the war. Imagine that. To prove his point, the oil baron took the first Spartan Manor off the assembly line, hauled it out to California and gave it to a homeless veteran and his family, a gesture that revealed Getty’s complex temperament as one capable of effortlessly juggling human generosity, compassion and shrewd public relations.

But Getty’s successful transitioning efforts to consumer product manufacturing wasn’t enough to provide employment for the large number of skilled aircraft mechanics, machinists and assembly line workers pouring out of Douglas Aviation’s Big Bomber Plant. War funded contracts wound down and the company’s only choice was wholesale layoffs. It was a phenomenon faced across the nation, but Tulsa benefited from a helping hand.

In 1946 American Airlines established its Tulsa Maintenance & Engineering Base in two of the four empty Douglas modification hangars located adjacent to Tulsa Municipal Airport. The airline was drawn here for a number of reasons not the least of which was an abundant workforce that had proven itself repeatedly during the war years to be dedicated, efficient and reliable. It also helped that the facility was conveniently centrally located in the country and that well-established support industries like Spartan School of Aviation were in place. Over the years the facility has grown into the city’s largest employer and the largest maintenance facility in the world, serving as the airline’s global maintenance and engineering headquarters.

Before relocating in Tulsa from New York, American had already established itself as a leading innovator in commercial aviation. By 1937 the airline had transported over a million passengers in their renown and reliable Douglas DC-4s. To continue their leadership role and in anticipation of the peacetime growth of commercial air transportation, a new series of aircraft was introduced by the company. In 1947, American’s first Douglas DC-6 entered service followed by the Convair 240 in 1948. By 1949 American had become the only airline in the United States with a complete post-war fleet of pressurized passenger airplanes. In so doing the airline had positioned itself to capture a large share of the emerging middle class traveling consumers of the 1950s. To help seal the deal in 1948, American introduced the Family Fare Plan to enable families to travel together at reduced rates. It also introduced scheduled coach service, an economical and comfortable alternative to first class travel. It was a marketing plan that perfectly fit the times and its overwhelming success substantially facilitated the transition of Tulsa’s aviation industry from wartime to peacetime prosperity. Consequently, American Airline’s facility in Tulsa was the cornerstone of what would become post war aviation in the region.

The WWII wartime economy both gave and took away. What it gave was major advancements in aviation technology and engineering creating bigger, faster, higher flying and safer aircraft that would increase the economically viability of commercial aviation. What WWII took away was the industry’s focus on advancing commercial aviation as a means of travel for world markets. But companies like American Airlines would quickly redirect their attention and convert their facilities to producing products for a peacetime consumer market ready and financially able to travel by air.

There were other postwar factors at play that would impact the nation and Tulsa’s aviation industry. To come was the matter of the Korean War that turned out to be not a war, but a police action ending in a stalemate. But most of all looming on the world horizon immediately after Japan surrendered but before the radioactive dust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had settled, were ominous signs of international discord that would mushroom into a new kind of war; one with an arms race, but without a clash of arms. It was coined a “Cold War.” It would be driven by rapid, sophisticated technology advancements in aircraft weaponry and Tulsa aviation would play a vital role.

The next installment in the series will deal with the Cold War era in Tulsa aviation.

Updated 03-03-2008

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