HM - February 2019- Carlson

From a Historian

Swords into Ploughshares: How American Military Aircraft Became Civilian Passenger Planes

By W. Bernard Carlson, University of Virginia

Planes waiting to depart from JFK Airport. 

As the longest government shutdown in US History ended on 25 January 2019, some of the most memorable images in the media were those showing the long lines of passenger planes waiting to take off from major airports.  The images reveal how essential air travel is for everyday life in America and how dependent we are on federal employees--air-traffic controllers and TSA workers—to keep the planes and passengers moving safely.
Yet another question we could ask about such images is where did all these passenger planes come from?  How is it that that we are able to fly regularly on such large airliners?  The answer, you may be surprised to learn, is a story of beating swords into ploughshares, the result of converting military technology to civilian use.
When the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903, they had no idea who might buy or use their flying machine.  Yet, because of the naval arms race going on at the time, the Wrights sold their first plane to US Army in 1909, and the Army planned to use the Wright Flyer for reconnaissance.  More planes were built by a variety of manufacturers during World War I, and they were used by both the Allies and the Axis nations to observe troop movements during the years of trench warfare.
After World War I, military officers around the world began to think that planes could be employed not only for reconnaissance but also for bombing an enemy’s factories, railroads, and cities.  Through the 1930s, the military encouraged aircraft companies like Boeing to develop long-range bombers such as the B-17 and the B-29.  These and similar planes played a major role in helping the US defeat both Germany and Japan in World War II.  Indeed, it was a B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
After the Second World War, American military planners decided that long-range bombers (such as the B-52) should deliver atomic weapons in case of war with the Soviet Union.  Consequently, in the 1950s, aircraft firms like Boeing continued to build planes for the US military, requiring that they maintain large plants.  However, because defense spending periodically went up and down, there were not always enough military orders to keep these facilities operating at full capacity.  In response, Boeing and other companies began using the expertise they had acquired on military projects to create civilian aircraft.
For instance, during the war, Boeing had taken the basic design of the B-29 bomber and converted it to a cargo plane, the C-97.  After the war, it took the C-97 and reconfigured it again as the Model 377 Stratocruiser.

Boeing C-97 Cargo Plane (right)
Advertisement from Northwest Orient Airlines featuring the Stratocruiser (Left)

A few years later, Boeing made a similar conversion to create its first and most famous jet airliner.  In order that B-52s could carry nuclear weapons to targets deep in the Soviet Union, these bombers needed refuel in midair, and Boeing designed the KC-135 Stratotanker.  In 1957, Boeing converted the KC-135 into the Boeing 707 passenger jet.  Although not the first jet airliner, the 707 was the first commercially successful jet passenger plane and it ushered in the passenger jet travel.
While it might be tempting for us and our students to try and keep military and civilian technology separate—to think that we can have efficient passenger air travel without bombers that can destroy entire cities—the Stratocruiser and the Boeing 707 reveal how military and civilian technologies are connected in complicated ways.  Swords and ploughshare and inextricably linked, requiring us to work with our students to think carefully about both the forces that create new technologies and the uses to which we wish to apply these innovations.                                                                                     

(Above) KC-135 Stratotanker fueling a fighter plane

Bernie Carlson is the Joseph L. Vaughan Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. He is also Chair of the Department of Engineering and Society and holds a joint appointent in UVa's HIstory Department.  He works with NCHE teachers at colloquia on Technology's Impact in American History.

Boeing 707

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