Corporation was established in August 1929 with the merger of Curtiss
Aeroplane and Motor Company and Wright Aeronautical. A number of smaller
companies, including Curtiss-Robertson, Curtiss-Caproni, Keystone, Loening
(through Keystone), Moth, and Travel Air, also became part of the holding
company. There were three main divisions: the Airplane Division for
military aircraft, Curtiss-Wright Airplane for civil aircraft, and Wright
Aeronautical for engines. Guy Vaughan, who had risen through Wright Aero,
became president in 1930.
The Great Depression
affected business, which plodded along in the first part of the 1930s. The
corporation posted losses for several years even while it remained the
country's largest aircraft firm. Undoubtedly, it was export sales,
particularly to China, and Wright Aeronautical that saved Curtiss-Wright
during these lean years. During the first half of the 1930s, more than
half of the company's revenues came from Wright Aero, which provided a
cushion that helped the other divisions survive. The nature of the
industry helped Wright here. There was really only one company—Pratt &
Whitney—competing with Wright for the engine market, and the extreme
precision needed to produce engines prevented other companies from joining
the industry. The fact, too, that a particular airplane typically used a
single engine model for all its units ensured a fairly steady stream of
orders as long as that aircraft was being used. Engines wore out faster
than airplanes, which also led to steady demand.
Other business came from
the Airplane Division and from Curtiss Airplane. The Airplane Division
designed the all-metal A-8 attack aircraft in 1930, the first Curtiss
monoplane combat aircraft. The prototype flew in June 1931 and beat out a
similar design from Fokker Aircraft, winning an order for 13 test craft.
This led to the purchase in 1934 of 46 A-12 Shrikes, but no more were
ordered. Curtiss Airplane produced the popular Curtiss Robin mail plane
until 1932. The Condor airliner, developed from the B-2 bomber, first flew
on January 30, 1933. It featured retractable landing gear, better
streamlining, and was more comfortable than earlier airliners, but it was
still a traditional biplane design with fabric and metal tubing
construction. A total of 45 were sold domestically and abroad. Although it
provided some badly needed cash, it was out-of-date as soon as it was
built and failed to lead to any more designs.
In 1934, the company was
forced to divest itself of its various subsidiaries when the Air Mail Act
of 1934 became law. The Act required the aviation holding companies to
Thomas A. Morgan, earlier
with Sperry Corporation, was elected chairman in 1935. The company
continued to develop the Wright Whirlwind series of small air-cooled
radial engines, the more powerful Cyclone radial engine, and the
liquid-cooled Curtiss Conqueror series, the best liquid-cooled engine
around. Company resources went to vastly increasing the Cyclone's power
and making it more durable. In 1935, Wright introduced the R-1820 Cyclone
F-50 series, which produced up to 820 horsepower, and soon after, the
Cyclone G, rated at 950 horsepower. In five years, Wright engineers had
managed to nearly double the power of the Cyclone. This paid off with
contracts from the Navy for engines for its large patrol planes and Hawk
fighters and for the Air Corps' B-10 bomber. Wright engines also powered
the DC-1/DC-2, and DC-3 aircraft and enabled Douglas to design the DC-1 as
a twin-engine plane rather than as a tri-engine. A later Wright engine,
the R-3350, which was troublesome at first, would power the B-29 bomber.
In 1937, Curtiss-Wright
Airplane became the St. Louis Airplane Division. The CD-25 Coupe business
aircraft, which later became the AT-9 Jeep in wartime service, was
developed at St. Louis under a federal Bureau of Air Commerce contract.
St. Louis also developed the CW-20 twin-engine airliner in 1937, to
succeed the Condor as the Curtiss airliner. Although never to see
commercial airline service, it became the famous C-46 Commando of the
Second World War.
As war approached,
business picked up. The P-36 was selected as the standard Air Corps
fighter in July 1937, and from 1938 also was ordered in quantity by the
British and French. The P-40, developed from the P-36, first flew in
October 1938. Practically the only fighter the United States had in 1941
and 1942, it continued to be the mainstay of the U.S. Army Air Forces
until 1943. Although not an exceptional performer, it was available in
large numbers. The total number is officially listed at 13,738 units—the
third most numerous fighter of World War II after the P-47 and the P-51.
Curtiss also produced the SB2C Helldiver naval scout-bomber, which first
flew in December 1940, but didn't enter service until 1943 because of an
unstable design and other problems that had to be overcome. More than
7,000 were produced, and the plane went on to perform well in most of the
Pacific campaign's major air battles during the last part of the war.
But even in times of war,
Congress and the public were bothered by shoddy contract performance and
possible profiteering. The Truman Committee was established in 1941 to
investigate contractors and programs for graft and waste. One major
investigation focused on Curtiss-Wright and its Wright engine plant in
Lockland, Ohio. A 1943 report criticized the company for having poor
management policies and inferior products. This set the stage for a
lasting lack of confidence between the company and the government that may
well have affected the company's decline in aircraft after the war.
the largest aircraft firm through the war period in terms of total
business. But despite its wartime importance, the company faced severe
post-war difficulties. It failed to sell any of its post-war designs to
the military, and shut down most of its plants. Its new president, Roy
Hurley, reduced the engineering group, effectively ending the company's
airframe business, which was officially abandoned in 1950.
The Curtiss Airplane
Division closed in March 1951, as the company focused on engine and
propeller manufacturing. Curtiss propellers went on several major
airliners, and the R-3350 engine evolved into an efficient power plant,
which was used until jets became dominant. A Wright engine powered the
DC-7. The company's first foray into the jet age was with the British
Sapphire jet engine, produced under license as the J65 beginning in 1952.
It powered a number of military aircraft.
As the era of the
reciprocating engine ended and sales of the R-3350 plunged, the company
diversified and it became an aerospace industry subcontractor. It
developed flight simulators for military and commercial aircraft,
manufactured plastics, and produced military nuclear rod control
equipment. Other business included automotive components, heavy road
earth-moving equipment, a metal extrusion facility, production of the
Wankel engine, and the U.S. distributorship of Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
In 1960, T. Roland Berner
became chairman and president of the company. At the time, the company had
a reputation for poor-quality products, and he embarked on a course to
restore its credibility. He also decided to concentrate on a few key
areas. In the meantime, the company had been hurt by the government's
decision to cancel its contract with Curtiss-Wright for the rocket engines
that powered the Polaris missile and to remove the company from its list
of aero engine providers. This signalled the end of J65 production and
effectively eliminated Wright from the jet engine market.
Beginning in 1960,
Curtiss-Wright developed several convertiplanes, marking its return to the
aircraft field, although only on an experimental basis. Its X-19A featured
four lifting propellers, mounted in tandem on each side of the fuselage on
stubby wings, which then tilted forward for forward flight. The project
lasted through 1965, when the government cancelled the program.
The company continued to
diversify, entering the electricity-generating business and
nuclear-product industry, and servicing and providing components for jet
engines. By the early 1980s, the various divisions and subsidiaries were
producing a wide range of products for U.S. industry. The company had
become a diversified, multi-industry, multinational concern. After a
period of decline, Curtiss-Wright was selected to be included in Forbes
magazine's list of America's 200 Best Small Companies for 1999 and
Aviation Week magazine's list of Best-Managed Small Companies.