04 December 2015

The Humble Birth of Grumman Aircraft

Leroy Grumman (Time Magazine)
In October 1920, the head of the Loening Company, Grover Loening, had been supervising the construction of a two-seat naval floatplane at two locations- at Loening's own plant at 31st Street on the East River in mid-town Manhattan and at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia that Loening convinced one of the Navy's test pilots to resign his commission and join his company. That young 25-year old naval lieutenant was Leroy Grumman. The young Grumman rose quickly to the top ranks of Loening's company and by 1924 Loening had hired two other talented individuals to support Grumman- Jake Swirbul and Bill Schwendler. Loening's company prospered right until the 1927 when Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic sparked the imagination of American business which was already riding a bull market in Wall Street. Though well-run, Loening began to falter and in 1928 Grover Loening sold his company which was to be absorbed by the Keystone Aircraft Company which at the time was building a twin-engine bomber for the US Army Air Corps. In less than a year, Keystone itself was purchased by Curtiss Wright. Under the terms of the sale, Loening's Manhattan factory would be shut down and all the employees were assured employment if they moved to Keystone's main facility in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

Leroy Grumman and his two closest friends, Jake Swirbul and Bill Schwendler, weren't happy about having to move to Pennsylvania as they had settled in the New York City area and had families that would have to be moved. So in 1929 the trio decided they'd form their own aircraft company and stay in the New York City area. Since Grover Loening and his brother were barred from forming another aircraft company as part of the terms of the sale, they decided that investing in Grumman's fledgling enterprise would be the next best thing. Their first act was to hire Loening's treasurer who also happened to be from a prosperous New York family that offered to invest with Grumman as well. In contrast to the businesses of the day, however, Grumman decided that control of the company would rest only with a few individuals and to not canvas Wall Street for further investors. It proved to be a wise move with the Wall Street crash just over a month away. 

Grumman then set about to recruit the thirty most skilled employees at the Loening plant. His years of service under Loening endeared him to many of the Loening workers and all asked, with the exception of one or two, threw their fate into Grumman's hands. In addition, Grumman, being a financially cautious individual, decided that his new company would only seek the business of the US military, preferably the US Navy given Grumman's background as a naval aviator and their long history of doing business with the sea service during their employment with Loening. In order to fund their day-to-day operations, they would repair existing Loening amphibians at a rented facility in Long Island. 

On 5 December 1929, Leroy Grumman and his five founding associates met for the first time and the following day the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company was born. Much of the company's initial capital came from Grumman's severance pay from Loening. Jake Swirbul's widowed mother worked for a wealthy Long Island family that so much of her that they lent Swirbul enough money to become the first vice-president of Grumman. A few months later in March 1930, the rest of the tiny company's employees were allowed to purchase stock (On the eve of the maiden flight of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, those employees' initial investment over 40 years had multiplied by a factor of 7,700!). 

Their first design proposal was for the US Navy, which at the time had a two-seat scout biplane, the Vought O2U Corsair. The Corsair could be fitted with floats for operation from cruisers and battleships or it could be fitted with landing gear for operation from aircraft carriers. Grumman's proposal was for a new float that was not only lighter and stronger than the existing main float used on the Corsair, but it would also incorporate a fully-retractable landing gear to allow true amphibious capability. In 1930, fully-retractable landing gear were a novelty- on the Loening amphibians, the landing gear simply swung upward out of the way but what Grumman and his team proposed was a streamlined arrangement in which the gear would be fully retracted into the sides of the central float. 

Vought O2U with the Grumman-design center float (Wikipedia)
The Navy was intrigued by this modification of its O2U scoutplanes, and asked Grumman for a demonstration. Many in the Navy were skeptical that a float lighter than the existing float could be stronger, let alone be strong enough to accommodate a full-retractable landing gear. But Grumman's design was an early pioneer in monocoque construction in which the skin of the float carried a good portion of the stress loads and as such, didn't need a heavy internal framework that was the standard in aircraft construction of the day. The Navy paid Grumman $33,700 for two such prototype floats for testing at the naval yards in Anacostia in Washington, DC. The floats would be attached to Vought O2Us that would be launched from test catapults as that was the most stress anticipated on such a float arrangement. The landing gear was manually operated, but was designed so that either mechanical or hydraulic power could be added.

On the day of the flight tests, the Navy couldn't find an observer willing to sit in the second seat of the modified scoutplane. Many thought Grumman's float would either crumple up on launch or collapse on landing either on land or on water. Not wanting to delay the flight tests, both Leroy Grumman and Jake Swirbul both volunteered to sit in the observer's seat on different flights to prove their faith in the monocoque design. The day's test flights were of course successful and Grumman walked away with his first Navy contract for what was called the Grumman Model A float. In addition, the Navy had asked Grumman the possibility of using the retractable landing gear on its single seat carrier fighters. Grumman offered to go one better and on February 1930 began work on what would be come the first Grumman fighter, the FF-1. Grumman's landing gear design would go on to be used on not just the FF-1, but also the F2F and F3F biplane carrier fighters and on the F4F Wildcat used in the Second World War. 

Source: The Grumman Story by Richard Thruelsen. Praeger Publishers, 1976, p17-41.

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