Skip to content

Aerospace Manufacturing Is Flying High

Aerospace manufacturing has influenced our world in innumerable ways, including employment and the global economy. In fact, it’s one of the world’s largest manufacturing industries in terms of people employed and value of output.[1]

According to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), the U.S. aerospace and defense industry employs 2.4 million workers, representing approximately 2 percent of the nation’s total employment base and 13 percent of its manufacturing workforce. Also according to the AIA, the U.S. aerospace and defense industry generated $872 billion in sales revenue in 2016. Plus, it generated $143 billion worth of exports in 2017. In addition, aerospace and defense exports grew by 26 percent over a period of five years, from $113 billion in 2012 to $143 billion in 2017. [2]

Obviously, aerospace manufacturing has come a long way since the Wright brothers took their first flight in December 1903, secured a U.S. Army contract to build a single aircraft in 1908, and then licensed their patents to the Astra Co. to allow it to manufacture aircraft in France. In fact, France and other European countries became the early leaders in aircraft manufacturing. By the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, French firms had built more than 2,000 aircraft, German firms had built about 1,000, and Britain had built slightly fewer. In contrast, American firms had built less than a hundred, and most of those were one of a kind. [3]

The situation reversed itself during World War II, when America led Europe in mass production of aircraft. Between 1940 and 1945, American firms built more than 300,000 military aircraft, including more than 94,000 in 1944 alone. In the previous six-year period, American firms built fewer than 20,000 aircraft, most of those civil. In 1943, the aviation industry was America’s largest producer and employer — with 1.4 million people involved in aircraft manufacturing.[4]

But that all changed with the end of the war. On V-J Day — Aug. 14, 1945 — the American military cancelled all orders for aircraft, and assembly lines ground to a halt. While total sales by American aircraft firms were $16 billion in 1944, they slipped to only $1.2 billion in 1947. Production never again reached World War II levels, despite a minor increase for the Korean and Vietnam wars. Instead, research became the industry’s top focus. Americans invested in their belief in the doctrine of air power, and for the next half-century set the agenda for the global aircraft industry.[5]

The next incident to change aircraft manufacturing was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a symbolic conflict in which perceptions of aerial might played a key role. American aircraft firms rushed to incorporate the technological advances of World War II into their designs, with the preeminent result being the massive Boeing B-47 long-range strategic bomber, featuring six engines and swept wings. Following the first flight of a B-47 in December 1947, Boeing built 2,000 of them, emerging as the dominant builder of strategic bombers and large airliners such as the B-52 and the 707. Also symbolic of the Cold War was the needle-thin, rocket-powered Bell X-1, which became the first aircraft to break the sound barrier and was the first in a series of experimental aircraft that competed with Soviet aircraft to set speed and altitude records.[6]

These new technologies prompted a massive restructuring of the industry. Established airframe firms shifted from manufacturing to research, while the military channeled funds to technology-specific startup firms. Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs, formed in 1954, then fueled a micro-level restructuring of the industry. Advertised as “winning weapons” to replace massive numbers of aircraft, ICBMs introduced the ideals and techniques of program management and systems engineering to high-tech industries worldwide.[7]

Things changed again after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October 1957. The space race was on, the focus was on spacecraft and rockets, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed, and the term “aerospace” came into use — spurring the U.S. Aircraft Industries Association to change its name to the Aerospace Industries Association of America, and prompting people both inside and outside the industry to replace the term aircraft manufacturing with aerospace manufacturing. Following the success of 1969’s Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA invested ahead of demand to create the space shuttle for regular space access, then struggled to find ways to industrialize space.[8]

Fast forward to today, when NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.[9]

[1] The History of the Aerospace Industry,” Economic History Association, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-aerospace-industry/.

[2] Aerospace Industries Association, https://www.aia-aerospace.org/research-center/statistics/industry-data/.

[3] The History of the Aerospace Industry,” Economic History Association, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-aerospace-industry/.

[4] The History of the Aerospace Industry,” Economic History Association, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-aerospace-industry/.

[5] The History of the Aerospace Industry,” Economic History Association, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-aerospace-industry/.

[6] The History of the Aerospace Industry,” Economic History Association, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-aerospace-industry/.

[7] The History of the Aerospace Industry,” Economic History Association, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-aerospace-industry/.

[8] The History of the Aerospace Industry,” Economic History Association, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-aerospace-industry/.

[9] “NASA’s Journey to Mars,” https://www.nasa.gov/content/nasas-journey-to-mars.