Have you ever had a friend who was getting to be of a certain age, and you noticed that he or she was beginning to slow down, not taking the stairs two-at-a-time anymore, reluctant to stay out late at night, a little more forgetful than usual? (O.K. this applies to a lot of us, but just go with the analogy.)
Companies, particular aviation companies are afflicted much the same way. They start out young with a burst of enthusiasm, grow large, do great things, and then, bit by bit begin to show signs of aging. Sometimes the aging takes a downward turn toward corporate senility, and sometimes, but more rarely, the company will take a new lease on life and, doing the industrial equivalent of buying a Porsche Carrera and taking on a trophy wife, will have a renaissance.
This Rare Bird, the Curtiss XP-31 Swift, is symbolic of a company getting older and entering a decline; its opponent in an Air Corps fighter competition, the Boeing P-26A, is symbolic of a company in the process of taking a new lease on life.
The mighty Curtiss aviation empire had started with a prize-winning bang, with Glenn H. Curtiss, using experience gained working with the Aerial Experiment Association, and drawing broadly on the Wright Brothers’ format, created pusher biplanes that won the Scientific American Prize and the Gordon Bennett Cup. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Engine Company grew large during World War I, with more than $20,000,000 in contracts and producing 5,221 aircraft (including a single S.E.5a that was billed at $544,716!) Its primary product was the famous JN-4 trainer, but it dabbled in many others things, especially Curtiss’ forte, aircraft engines.
Established firmly as the premier American aviation firm during the immediate post-war years, Curtiss went on to carve out a piece of every aviation market, usually setting records and making history in the process. It built flying boats for the Navy, including the famous NC-4. It continued its trainer line, but branched out into transports, bombers and sport planes, and merchandised them all over the world. The Curtiss company had a great sales organization that took care of its customers’ needs, anticipating their requirements, and trying to fill them. It carefully nurtured its contacts in government buying positions around the world establishing strong relationships with procurement officers everywhere. Now this does not imply corruption—it implies a diligent attention to the customers’ needs that engendered confidence. South American countries and China became steady clients.
Curtiss made headlines building a series of swift, beautiful racing planes that challenged the world and won top prizes, including the Pulitzer and Schneider Cup races. The sleek biplanes, powered by Curtiss engines, set many speed records, and were flown by the aviation giants, including Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, Bert Acosta, Jimmy Doolittle and others. Innovation was the order of the day, with advanced engines and sleek low-drag radiators conformed to the wing surfaces helping streamlining.
The racers led in turn to a classic series of fabric covered wood and metal fighter biplanes, beginning with the sleek Curtiss Hawk P-1of 1923 and continuing on through to the sale of export Hawk III and IV aircraft in the late 1930s. Some of these, such as the beautiful P-6E, captured the imagination of the public and still are featured in paintings and photos of the time.
A line of Falcon observation planes was created and sold, like the fighters, to the Army, Navy and Marines. These were similar in appearance and detail to the Hawks, using the same type of construction, similar airfoils, and maintaining the same reputation for quality and performance.
Yet Curtiss had strong competition in every market. It contested with Boeing for fighters (and Boeing actually sold more fighters than did Curtiss), Martin for bombers and patrol aircraft, Ford for transports and Vought for observation planes. Overseas, there was strong competition from foreign manufacturers. The company’s magnificent Wright engines were also facing stiff competition from Pratt & Whitney.
But as Curtiss got older, it got more conservative, and it began to stretch its aircraft designs. In the economy of the Great Depression, it was often more important to have a lower price than better performance when it came to selling aircraft. As a result, Curtiss designs became successively more obsolete. Each later model of the Hawk or the Falcon had some performance improvement, but only at a minimum level. The Curtiss manufacturing line up began to look more and more old-fashioned, especially when its competition, including the upstart Boeing from Seattle, was producing one new idea after another. Boeing invested the money necessary to build ground-breaking prototypes, beginning with the all-metal Monomail, the YB-9 Death Angel twin-engine bomber and the Model 247 transport. These led directly to the Boeing B-17 series. And, it did not neglect fighters, for it produced a famous transitional aircraft, the Boeing the Boeing P-26 Peashooter—the XP-31’s direct competitor for contracts.
Curtiss was not un-experienced in all-metal aircraft designs, having produced a total of sixty of the successful A-8, A-10 and A-12 Shrike ground aircraft. It carried over some of the successful Shrike ideas to the Swift, including the enclosed cockpit, full-length wing slots that opened automatically at fifteen mph above stall speed, interconnected flaps and a well-braced panted undercarriage. The Swift packed four .30-inch machine guns, two in the nose and two in packages on the fuselage side, heavy armament for the day. Unfortunately in the process of converting Shrike technology to the Swift, the engineers lost control of two important factors: weight and drag.
The Swift was none-the-less sleek looking, and with a Curtiss Conqueror G1V 1570F liquid cooled engine and a Curtiss two-blade ground adjustable engine, Curtiss brochures were written enticingly, mentioning the possibility of speeds in the 260 mph range. (Curtiss liked to sell its engines with its aircraft, much as Junkers and Bristol did) In addition to blazing speed, the Swift was touted to have superb maneuverability, thanks to the combination of slots and flaps.
Ironically, the Army Air Corps was never really very satisfied with the Conqueror engine, which had a history of cooling problems, particularly since the introduction of Prestone coolant. Conquerors were difficult to maintain and expensive to overhaul. Worst of all they were heavy—and the Swift was already overweight. A Board of Officers meeting on May 16, 1932 recommended that a radial engine be installed, creating an unattractive hybrid. The XP-31’s lines had been tailored to an in-line engine, and mounting a 700 horsepower Wright Cyclone only compounded its problems. \
The aircraft was swiftly reconverted back to the Conqueror, but performance was disappointing, with the top speed being only 215 mph, 17 mph slower than its sister-ship biplane the Curtiss XP-6F, and a full 20 mph less than the competing Boeing P-26.
Weight was one culprit, with the empty weights of the Swift and the P-26 being 3,334 pounds and 2,120 pounds respectively. The XP-31 in fact weighed in only 338 pounds less than the much-larger Shrike.
Curtiss had built not wisely, but too well. The Swift was purchased by the Army for $40,000 and soon designated ZXP-31, the Z for “Obsolete.” It was flown for a total of 287 hours before being surveyed for “fair wear and tear” on December 10, 1936. But the failure of the Swift in competition against the Boeing P-26 had alarmed Curtiss, and it brought in a brand new engineer, Donovan R. Berlin from Northrop to put life back into its all-metal fighter programs. Berlin, a great big bear of a man, was extremely likeable, and brought new ideas into the company, designing the very successful Model 75, which led ultimately to both the P-36 and the P-40. However, Berlin could not change the company’s rigid methods, and left the firm to go to the Fisher Body Division of General Motors.
All during this time, Curtiss was in a corporate decline, imperceptible at first, but increasingly obvious as the war hurtled to a climax. The venerable firm was unable to get another fighter into production after the P-40, despite building a long series of prototypes, some quite handsome. The ultimate indignity came when the great Curtiss firm was tasked to build Republic P-47s. The last attempt by Curtiss to sell a fighter was the ill-fated XP-87 Blackhawk all-weather fighter of 1948, which was edged out by the Northrop XP-89.
In the meantime, Boeing was doing quite well, having learned that a company has to stay fit and vital, and that it has to take risks to do so.
Wingspan: 36 feet
Length: 26 feet 3 inches
Height: 7 feet 9 inches
Empty Weight: 3,334 pounds
Gross Weight: 4,143 pounds
Maximum Speed: 215 mph
Service Ceiling: 22,700 feet
Range: 396 miles