Fighting Against the 'Air Trust' Stigma: The Manufacturers Aircraft Association and the Politics of Military Aircraft Procurement, 1917–1926

The Manufacturers Aircraft Association (MAA) came into being on July 24, 1917, to facilitate a cross-license agreement for the aircraft industry. The product of lengthy negotiations among owners of the Wright and Curtiss patents and government representatives, the MAA operated a patent pool that soon included nearly 200 aeronautical patents. The cross-license agreement offered a means for the United States Government to secure access to a multitude of aeronautical patents without the need for individual negotiation or lengthy litigation in the Court of Claims. Nevertheless, the MAA and the cross-license agreement immediately came under attack as an illegal restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Accusations that an “Air Trust” continued to control military aircraft procurement ensured that an aura of illegality hung over the MAA, one that provoked numerous investigations in the interwar period. This paper analyzes how the MAA and its members responded to these persistent charges between World War I and the 1926 Report of the Select Committee of Inquiry into Operations of the United States Air Services. Drawing upon a wide array of archival materials, it details how MAA Secretary Samuel S. Bradley worked with member companies and individuals within the executive branch to defend against attacks from non-members such as James V. Martin, Henry Woodhouse, and Augustus Herring. Two overarching ideas shaped this response: the need to secure state-of-the-art aircraft for the national defense and shifting conceptions of expertise in an emerging field. Scholars have shown that debates over antitrust and monopoly revolved around a tension between deep-seated republican virtues and desires to harness new corporate efficiencies. By addressing how this debate manifested itself in the early aircraft industry—a sector wholly reliant on federal contracts—this paper provides further insight into the contested nature of monopoly during the interwar period.