Tulsa Made WWII Contributions Through Spartan, Douglas
By CHARLES CANTRELL
BOMBERS, BOMBERS AND MORE BOMBERS: During the Second World War Tulsa’s Big Bomber Plant turned out 962 “Liberator??? bombers like the ones shown here stretching out almost as far as the eye can see.
Courtesy Tulsa Historic Society
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth 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 an industry that has become a major part 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.
Before the United States’ entry into World War II, between the months of July and October of 1940, a historic battle was fought in the skies over Great Britain. It was The Battle of Britain and it was a monumental event in the history of modern warfare. Warplanes of the German Luftwaffe were attempting to eliminate Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) before Germany’s planned sea and airborne invasion of Britain could take place. The RAF was significantly outnumbered, but Britain’s superior pilots and planes overcame immense odds and defended the country’s air space. It was the first defeat experienced by the mighty Third Reich and prompted Prime Minister Winston Churchill to issue his famous declaration, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Among those “so few” were many pilots trained in Tulsa’s Spartan School of Aviation, consequently Tulsa aviation was involved in the war before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Once war was declared, Tulsa, along with the rest of the country, focused on gearing up and winning. Tulsa aviation, off to a great start with the help of community leaders and oil money, was positioned to play a big role in the war effort. WW II would mark a time when aviation in Tulsa would take a giant leap forward.
During the war years the largest manufacturer of aircraft in Oklahoma was the federal government. Fueled by the government’s Protective Mobilization Plan initiated to provide the country with more wartime manufacturing capacity, large aircraft plants began to spring up across the Midwest. The plants were very similar in design to speed up completion and in turn the wartime buildup. Oklahoma City was awarded one of the plants and Tulsa city leaders, including W. G. Skelly, began to fan out across the country and in particular Washington D.C. in search of military aviation contracts and landing a plant location for Tulsa.
Douglas Aircraft Company was awarded many of the management contracts for these large manufacturing plants. It was Skelly that convinced a skeptical Donald Douglas that Oklahomans could build aircraft and in fact had a ready aviation workforce at hand by virtue of Spartan School of Aviation and Spartan Aviation. It made for a convincing argument and Tulsa was eventually awarded a contract by the War Department to build the largest of the newly built plants in the Midwest. It would be called Air Force Plant Number 3 (AFP3), and thus Tulsa was poised to make a sizable contribution to the war effort.
Before the end of the war AFP3 and many hard working Tulsa men and women turned out 615 A-24 dive-bombers, 962 B-24 heavy bombers and a whopping 1,343 A-26 attack bombers. In addition the growing aviation complex adjacent to the municipal airport continued expanding to include the Tulsa Douglas Modification Center, a facility of strategic importance that allowed alterations to be made on war-weary aircraft without disturbing the production lines of major bomber plants like AFP3. The question once raised by skeptics of whether Oklahomans could build and repair aircraft was permanently laid to rest.
After WW II, as the military aircraft fleet converted to jet propulsion and grew increasingly more sophisticated, Tulsa’s “Big Bomber Plant” would simply retool and continue producing military aircraft like the B-47 Stratojet and the B-66 Destroyer.
Spartan School of Aviation continued to pour out aircraft mechanics and pilots to feed the local, state, national and international aviation industry. During the war years the school drew students from rural farm areas of the state and redirected their career paths to well-trained, highly skilled, urban wage earners. The growth of Tulsa aviation during the war played a decisive role in changing the economics and demographics of the region from rural to urban dominance. And most importantly the war period established Oklahoma and certainly Tulsa as major centers of aircraft manufacturing and modification.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Battle of Britain was it proved once and for all the major role air power would play in military conflicts. It was instrumental in mobilizing the United States to make large investment in developing bigger, better and faster warplanes. Once peace returned many of the advancements made were adapted to commercial aircraft. Growing commercial and corporate aviation companies absorbed the skilled laborers and pilots. Tulsa aviation was in the right place at the right time to take maximum advantage of a situation brought on by a world war and it would continue to stay in the fray building on its tradition of entrepreneurship and love of aviation.
For more information, go to www.tulsaairandspacemuseum.com or www.tulsahistory.org
Next month: Ideas that Flew– Built in Tulsa.