Today we take for granted that metal aircraft were the “next logical step” to replace early wood-framed airplanes during the two decades between World War I and World War II. After all, can you imagine boarding a Boeing or Airbus airliner made out of wood? And yet, the British de Havilland Mosquito, one of the fastest operational warplanes of World War II, was built almost entirely of plywood, a fact that complicates the supposedly straightforward evolution of aircraft design from the 1903 Wright Flyer to the present day. If we step back in time to examine the empirical data available on metal vs. wooden aircraft during the early interwar period, it quickly becomes clear that engineers decided to commit to the path of metal aircraft design long before it actually made sense to do so. Wooden aircraft definitely had limitations. But, it turns out, the new aluminum alloys that were supposed to quickly and easily solve those problems instead introduced a whole new and different set of challenges. These werenʼt just technological “growing pains” to overcome, but instead called into question whether metal was really “better” than wood for aircraft design. Thus, the switch from wood to metal was not an entirely objective decision grounded in empirical data and real-life experience, but instead one based on a widespread, passionate, and unquestioned belief that wood was old-fashioned whereas metal represented the way of the future. As a result of this belief, for years the aviation industry focused its efforts on overcoming formidable problems with metal aircraft at the expense of exploring other potentially viable alternatives. What is most interesting about this case study is not whether these engineers were “right” or “wrong.” Instead, it helps us better understand how subjective (non-empirical) beliefs and biases often play a role in shaping the direction of supposedly objective and rational design decisions. Only when we learn how to recognize these unquestioned assumptions can we begin to truly consider all potentially productive paths to solving problems.
Dr. Alan Meyer
an Associate Professor in Auburnʼs Department of History, where he teaches history of technology and aviation history. He earned his BA in history at Western Michigan University, spent eight years on active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army then returned to graduate school to complete his Ph.D. in American history and history of technology at the University of Delaware. Prior to joining Auburn's faculty in 2009,
Dr. Meyer worked for several years in Washington, D.C., as a civilian historian for the U.S. Air Force. His first book, Weekend Pilots: Technology, Masculinity, and Private Aviation in Postwar America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), explores the intertwined relationships among technology, individual skill, and the construction of identity. His current book project, Flying While Black investigates the slow pace of racial integration in the airline cockpit from the Civil Rights Era to the present. Meyer is a longtime private pilot and a Smithsonian Research Fellow with the National Air and Space Museum.