Prior to world War I aircraft manufacturing was led by various inventors, ‘shade tree’ engineers, mechanics, and adventure seekers. Before airplanes, trench warfare was a virtual stalemate of death. The effectiveness of strafing and bomb dropping over enemy lines was obvious, and the combatants all needed warplanes no matter what the cost. At this time, only 5 U.S. Aircraft Manufacturers out of the top 20 ever produced more that 10 airplanes. This urgent demand seemed similar to the race to create automobiles early in the century. Thus, aircraft manufacturers naturally sought out assembly line experienced automobile manufacturing leadership. However the complexities of aircraft manufacturing did not lend themselves to assembly line production. Add to this inexperienced military procurement personnel who changed specs, upgrades, and refinements ‘on-the-fly’ :- ) :- ) mid contract. This will be important to remember when we later explore the success of Curtiss-Wright in the surge to build WWII aircraft.
The first aircraft in Fairfield ( then Caldwell Township ) were those few wood- wire-fabric biplanes used by the Armed Forces at the Navy Rifle Range 1918-1919. Apparently they utilized ‘cow pastures’ just as the Wright Brothers did in the ‘Huffman Prairie’ pasture near Dayton, Ohio. This was the beginning of the ‘Golden Age of Aviation’ that would end with WWII.
A couple of years later in 1920, a soon-to-be-famous pilot landed on the Fairfield Dairy property on old Dutch Lane. No - not Charles Lindbergh, Clarence Chamberlin who would also set transatlantic records only two weeks after ‘Slim’ became world famous. (There’s a great book about the race to become the first to cross the Atlantic non-stop : Atlantic fever : Lindbergh, his competitors, and the race to cross the Atlantic by Joe Jackson – Interlibrary 629.1309 JAC ).
Clarence Duncan Chamberlin (1893-1976) was an American pioneer in aviation. Only two weeks after Lindbergh's historic flight in 1927 and delayed by a legal suit, he was the second man to pilot a fixed wing aircraft ( a Wright-powered Bellanca ) over the Atlantic, while carrying the first transatlantic passenger (the airplane's owner Charles Levine). By the time Chamberlin and Levine ran out of gas near Berlin, Germany, the Bellanca had flown a record 3,911 miles. About 300 miles further than Lindbergh. ( Where else would Cham-Berlin land ? :- ) :- )
Clarence Chamberlin draws a crowd in 1920 Caldwell Township ( Fairfield ).
In 1920 there was only one significant airport located in Northern New Jersey : Teterboro Airport. Newark Airport was still eight years away and then only occupying a relatively small 60 acre tract at that. A year later in 1929, a group of Montclair Aviation Enthusiasts led by Walter Marvin invested in a private airport venture on the former Fairfield Dairy property. These were the ‘Roaring Twenties’ when practically any investment or business venture was unlikely to fail. This same year, Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co., Wright Aeronautical, and Keystone Aircraft Corp. merged into a large holding company with about twenty other aviation related businesses under their wings :- ) :- ). The Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss disliked each other for various reasons, but strangely enough, this business arrangement did not involve them. ( Another great book that highlights their early accomplishments and eventual bitter relationship is Birdmen : the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the battle to control the skies by Lawrence Goldstone – FPL 629.13 GO ).
The C-W merger was apparently an effort to become the nations leading Aircraft Manufacturing ( Airframe, Aircraft Motor, Propeller ), Sales, Flight Training, and Aircraft Support Network. Today we call this ‘vertical integration’ but possible thoughts of industry monopolization cannot be entirely ruled out. By issuing stock, the new C-W Corp. raised $ 31 million dollars. Some of which was used to add 12 Airports similar to Marvin Field in Fairfield to their network. Before it was even officially opened, our small grass ‘all direction’ Field was named Curtiss Marvin Airport.
There were many Aviation Clubs forming nationwide and some even called themselves ‘Aviation Country Clubs.’ They had Flight Instructors who were similar to Golf Pros at a Golf Club, Pools, Tennis Courts, and sometimes even Lodging. It’s possible our well-to-do Montclair adventure seekers could fly around Manhattan and party in Hicksville, NY or a similar landing spot near another major city.
C-W was now the largest Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation in the Country. The merger was highly successful as Curtiss Airplane Manufacturing meshed nicely with the Aircraft Motor and Propeller businesses. C-W introduced many new models for commercial and military use yet they still had stiff competition from Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, United Aircraft, and others. ( The best book on C-W is Curtiss-Wright : Greatness and Decline by Louis R. Eltscher and Edward M. Young. Paterson Local History R 629.133 ELT ).
Only four months after the merger the Stock Market plummeted and the commercial and recreational aircraft businesses crashed too :- ) :- ). The military aircraft business survived for two more years because of a five year procurement cycle, but that business also vanished when government funded projects and purchases ended. Of course no one anticipated a long lasting depression at that time, so there was no reason for Walter Marvin, his Montclair Associates, and C-W VIP’s not to plan a colossal air show and official opening celebration. 35,000- 40,000 people showed up for the biggest event Fairfield would ever see ( Sunday October 26, 1930 ).
‘Speed King’ Frank Hawks flew over the Field at 250+ mph, and USN ‘Stunt Marvel’ Lt. Alford J. Williams performed aerial maneuvers seldom seen before.
At the 1930 Fairfield Airshow, a Curtiss Condor ( L ) took hundreds of passengers up for short flights, while the Pitcairn Autogiro ( R ) demonstrated vertical take offs and spot landings. ( Note: These aircraft photos are not from the actual Fairfield Airshow ).
Parachuting, spot landing, and ‘bomb dropping’ competition for $100 prizes wowed the crowds. Hawks and Lt. Williams showed off their skills with a ‘follow the leader’ race full of vertical banks, dives, barrel rolls, and ‘figure eights’. The highlight of the show was a near crash when Lt. Williams’ motor quit in the middle of a low inverted pass. Luckily the Navy Pilot glided the aircraft to a safe landing. It was a long day of exciting events, but I know one person that was glad when it was all over: Chief Constable Morris Collerd ! This must have been one helluva “Woodstock” type of day for him and his Deputies. I’ll bet they uncorked the old dusty cider jug when that day was finally over.
Some good did come out of this downturn in the economy for C-W. The Corporation completely reorganized, restructured and shed all businesses not essential to aircraft manufacturing. New subsidiaries were formed and consolidations implemented with Engineering realigned accordingly. One small example was their Buffalo Facility sending all of their propeller production to Clifton N.J. This times ten, created a strong foundation for eventual future growth. Our small Fairfield Airport stayed in the C-W Family and even expanded later to support the new Corporation that was no longer just a holding company.
Aircraft propeller ‘final inspection’ at the Clifton N.J. Plant
After The Greenbrook Mill Stream and old Dutch Lane were rerouted, the Airport was greatly expanded with two large hangers and three paved runways.
Another subsidiary C-W Export Corporation was gaining strength during the Depression years. Asian, Latin American, and other smaller countries bought aircraft with our governments approval. Of course the most technically advanced and most heavily armed aircraft could not be exported. But these export sales and a few development contracts took C-W through this grim period. Things picked up sharply in 1935 when Great Britain boasted about the strength of their Royal Air Force. Hitler and Goering responded immediately by announcing the formation of their Luftwaffe Aerial Warfare Branch that had already been ramping up significantly in secret. As you can imagine, the panic for advanced military aircraft took off :- ) :- )
C-W was in prime position for adding new business. Even if competitors had better designed prototypes, C-W could deliver their models more than a year sooner. The propeller plant in Clifton was greatly expanded (1938) in tandem with Wright Aeronautical Motor production in Paterson, and airframe plant expansions in Buffalo and St. Louis. This was only the first phase of C-W’s pre-war growth. After acquiring the propeller blade business of Pittsburgh Screw and Bolt Corp.(1939), the second phase included new propeller plants in Fairfield (1940), Indianapolis (1940 ), and Beaver Pennsylvania (1941). Motor and airframe facilities were similarly added when the war broke out in Europe.
C-W Beaver PA. Propeller Plant Drawing. Almost identical to the Fairfield Plant. Even has New Dutch Lane drawn in the background :- ) :- )
C-W was generally reluctant to license production or sub contract components compared to it’s competition. In the propeller business the Hamilton Standard subsidiary of United Aircraft was the top producer during WWII. Of the total 708,000 WWII propellers produced, C-W made 144,863 ( 20% ); H-S made 233,021 ( 33% ); and H-S licensees made 297,114 ( 42% ). ( A local writer once stated that C-W made “85% of all the aircraft propellers during WWII”. But such a claim must have been made in Neko’s Tavern just a few minutes before closing time :- )
Although C-W did not manufacture the highest number of propellers during WWII, per this illustrated example, size and complexity should be considered as well.
There’s obviously a lot more to the C-W story, but that’s almost enough for now.
During my ‘research’ I found a copy of Clarence Chamberlin’s 1917 draft card. It’s significance to me was that it highlighted a dark chapter in our Nation’s history regarding African Americans in the ‘Jim Crow’ era. The bottom left corner of the card states : "If person is of African descent, tear off this corner". Enough said.
I can’t close out any story without a dedication. This one is dedicated to my Aunts Felicia and Agnes Pollio who both worked decades at C-W’s Fairfield Plant. They worked in the ‘Key Punching’ and ‘Tabulation’ Department. God Bless them Both.
For an excellent read on Working Women during WWII see : Our mothers' war : American women at home and at the Front during World War II by Emily Yellin ( interlibrary 940.53 YEL ).
.............Paul Pollio December 30, 2018