Today, America tries to get off the ground in WW-I.
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.
"Why," wondered National Air
and Space Museum Director Walter Boyne, was "the
United States, which had given birth to the
airplane ... so absolutely indifferent to its
development [before WW-I]?" Then he goes on to tell
us about the deHavilland DH-4.
By the time war began in 1914, Germany had spent 45
million dollars on military aviation, Russia 23
million, and France 13. America had spent hardly
400 thousand dollars on military aircraft. Boyne
answers his own question. There was no apparent
money in aviation. We'd invested everything in
railways and highways.
All we had was the Curtiss Jenny. In 1915 it went
to war, not against Germany, but against Pancho
Villa in Mexico. Eight Jennies and ten pilots were
no match for the harsh Southwest. Jennies weren't
meant to go more than about fifty miles from their
base. They crashed and got lost. Pershing never did
catch Pancho Villa.
When we finally entered the War, we appropriated 13
million dollars for airplanes and went to the
European airplane builders for designs. The British
deHavilland Company had built a series of
airplanes, the best of which was the
Rolls-Royce-powered DH-4. The British finally sent
us one to use as a template.
So we set out to build DH-4s. In the end, we spent
640 million dollars on them. We switched from the
British system of hand-crafting airplanes to our
automobile production methods. We developed our own
so-called Liberty Engine -- a large 400 HP
water-cooled V-12 machine. The American-built DH-4
was renamed the Liberty Plane. At first it had so
many design bugs people called it The Flaming
Coffin. When my father joined the Air Service,
late in the war, he trained in Jennies. The Liberty
Plane never did reach him.
But it did reach France in May, 1918. The DH-4's
combat service was not distinguished. It was far
too ponderous to dogfight the German Fokker triplanes and biplanes.
It didn't carry enough load to be a useful bomber.
It was a clear matter of too little and too late,
but there's more to the story. Thousands of DH-4's
were left in America on Armistice day, and even
more Liberty Engines. The DH-4 hadn't been worth
much in combat, but it was a big solid stable
biplane with a tubular steel frame and what turned
out to be a fine engine. When you crash-landed a
DH-4, you walked away alive.
Right after the war, the Army began airmail service
with DH-4s. DH-4s with skis served in the Arctic.
Engineers modified them every way imaginable. The
Liberty Engine was so good we relied on it instead
of moving ahead. It probably slowed American
aircraft engine development. And so the DH-4 takes
a strange place in aviation history. It couldn't
stand up to the famous WW-I airplanes. Yet the
forgotten DH-4 was still in service when all that
remained of Fokkers and Spads were the legends that
lingered after them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds