Post-World War II Flight

Post-war Air Force Reduction

The Lockheed XP-80 was the first operational jet fighter.
The Lockheed XP-80 was the first operational jet fighter.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

The "outbreak of peace" brought about the swiftest demobilization in history. On V-J ­day, August 15, 1945, the Army Air Forces had 2,253,000 personnel and 70,000 aircraft. Within two years, those numbers had plummeted to approximately 30­0,000 personnel, with 4,750 aircraft fit for combat. Military aircraft production in the United States, which had reached a peak rate of 100,000 per year in 1944, fell to about 700 in 1947. Companies that had employed as many as 100,000 workers were forced to cut back to a few thousand.

Despite this, new designs flourished. The jet age had arrived, along with new jet fighters such as the Lockheed P-80 and the North American P-86 and new bombers such as the North American B-45 and the Boeing B-47.

The war revolutionized flying. Airfields were built all over the world, and new means of navigation and communication made long-distance flying possible. New four-engine transports such as the Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation became available, and in Great Britain, de Havilland was working on a jet airliner unlike anything the world had ever seen.

There were also new political problems. The Soviet Union had not demobilized and instead brought East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary behind its "Iron Curtain." By 1948, a Cold War was going on, with the most obvious signal being the Soviet blockade of Berlin in April of that year. In a stunning application of air power, the United States elected to supply Berlin with all its necessary food and fuel by air with the Berlin Airlift. It was a tremendous diplomatic victory, for it succeeded admirably, and the Soviet Union was obliged to lift the blockade.

A pattern emerged that would persist for another four decades--the Soviet Union would use client states to extend its influence. The first of these was North Korea, which on June 25, 1950, invaded South Korea with the intention of unifying the two countries under Communist rule. The United States led the United Nations to intervene, and for three years, air power was the only means by which the badly outnumbered United Nations was able to contain the huge mass of North Korean and Communist Chinese forces.

The Korean War cast a pall on the economy, particularly on general aviation. Some 35,000 private planes were produced in 1946; by 1953, that number had fallen to 3,788. The bleak outlook was broken only by the brilliance of some of the new designs, which included the Beech Bonanza, Ryan Navion, Cessna 120, and the Globe Swift.

­Unknown to all but a very few, a revolution was brewing. It would come on October 4, 1957, in the form of Sputnik, a simple Soviet satellite that signaled the dawn of a new era in flight. For the next chapter in flight history, check out Jets and Rocket Flight.