The world will never again see quantities of military aircraft like the air armadas of World War II. In the more than four years when America was committed to global World War II combat, attrition was a reality best answered with increased production.
Efforts were made to retool peacetime industries to war production. When Grumman’s facilities were saturated making fighters, torpedo bombers, and amphibious transports for the Navy, General Motors was brought on board to help in the building of Wildcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers.
The famed Grumman F4F Wildcat shipboard fighter was a potent tool in the hands of combat pilots who understood how to leverage its strengths and avoid any weaknesses in combat with Japanese fighters. Though superseded in performance by the bigger F6F Hellcat, the doughty Wildcat still had a place in fleet operations aboard the emerging group of smaller escort carriers.
But giant auto maker General Motors could not merely pivot from making cars one day to airplanes the next. Materials and engineering rationale were vastly different for each discipline.
General Motors actively sought work for five of its automobile plants in the northeast when it became apparent the production of cars for the civilian market would cease as a wartime necessity. GM’s solicitations to the government came at exactly the right time as the U.S. Navy was grappling with how to expand the production of Grumman Wildcats and Avengers beyond what Grumman could be expected to handle.
A consortium of five General Motors factories in New Jersey, Maryland, and New York became the Eastern Aircraft Division of GM in early 1942. Exploratory visits by GM managers and engineers to Grumman quickly revealed the vast gulf between Grumman’s manufacturing tenets and the car maker’s art. It appeared to some of the GM people that aircraft makers of the day relied on skilled craftspeople to interpret drawings and instructions less specific than what GM wanted for high volume productivity.
Thus began a rapid period of instruction as GM managers worked on the Grumman assembly line and analyzed and redrew blueprints for use at Eastern Aircraft. Meanwhile, starting in the spring of 1942 General Motors stripped automotive production machinery from its intended Eastern Aircraft plants.
The factory at Linden, New Jersey, which had rolled out hundreds of thousands of Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs since 1937, had its roof raised by 26 feet to accommodate overhead cranes for the assembly of Wildcat fighters. Nearby, a brand-new runway and hangar grew from the New Jersey clay. The pace of construction and adaptation was fast, pushed by the urgency everyone felt about the war effort in 1942.
The Eastern Aircraft Wildcat plant at Linden faced many of the same labor issues other manufacturers dealt with. The draft took a significant portion of the former automotive workforce, and aircraft assembly workers with experience were already hired by existing aviation contractors.
GM tried using vocational schools and sending some supervisors to work at other plants to gain experience, but ultimately the best answer for Eastern Aircraft was in-house training to bring thousands of workers with no previous aviation skills up to speed.
The Navy initially furnished the Linden plant with a so-called “dog-ship,” an example of a Grumman-built Wildcat for inspection by the GM workers. But the dog-ship was not to be tinkered with. Instead, the Linden workers got a PK ship, named for its use of Parker-Kalon temporary fasteners that enabled it to be disassembled and reassembled in ongoing aeronautical anatomy sessions that gave the Eastern Aircraft team experience with the product they were to build.
As a newcomer in aircraft construction, Eastern Aircraft experienced some initial difficulties getting vendors for some parts, since the traditional vendors were already engaged to capacity by other plane makers. Perseverance paid off.
The first Wildcat model to be built at Linden was similar to the successful Grumman F4F-4, powered by a Pratt and Whitney R-1830 radial engine delivering 1,200 horsepower. The first FM-1 was essentially a hand-built prototype.
The number one FM-1 flew on Aug. 31, 1942 — an amazing feat, coming from an automobile plant that only signed on to build airplanes in January of that year. And more than two months of that time was spent stripping the old equipment and reconfiguring the plant for aircraft construction. Some demolition chores remained even as aircraft construction ramped up, adding inconvenience and confusion that did not deter the Eastern Aircraft team. Eastern eventually made more than 1,100 FM-1s.
During 1942 and into 1943, GM initially met its delivery obligations by using a lot of hand-fitting of parts while the company worked on ways to merge the best aspects of aircraft assembly techniques and automobile mass production orchestration. Their continuing improvements in this area gained positive notice from the Navy.
Grumman’s XF4F-8, flown in November 1942, used a Wright R-1820 engine of greater power (1,350 horsepower) than previous Wildcats, necessitating a taller vertical fin for correction.
After two Grumman-built XF4F-8s, this variant quickly became the Eastern Aircraft FM-2, ordered into production in early 1943.
The Navy was exploiting small escort carriers fitted solely with FM-2s and TBM Avengers.
The FM-2 was built at Linden by Eastern Aircraft, initially alongside FM-1s. The FM-2 was the most-produced version of the Wildcat fighter. Eastern made 4,127 FM-2s for the U.S. Navy and 340 for England as the Wildcat VI.
With its beefier engine, the FM-2 was called by some at Eastern Aircraft “the Wilder Wildcat,” and its media debut at Linden had the FM-2 bursting through a paper circus wagon like a wildcat run amok.
Long after the end of the war, the Wildcat population in the warbird movement includes numerous FM-2 variants.
With peace in 1945, the Linden plant returned to the manufacture of General Motors automobiles. The purpose-built airfield beside the plant was declared surplus to Navy needs and deeded to the City of Linden, New Jersey.
A big change came in 1999 when airport operations moved to the south side of the field and the old hangars to the north were demolished and the land used for non-aviation purposes. The Linden airport is a reliever for other busy airports in the greater New York area, and handles general aviation and business traffic.
The plant that had been so extensively modified to build thousands of Wildcats went through other iterations as a car maker. The last vehicle to leave the line at Linden was a 2005 Chevy Blazer in April of that year. GM sold the property. Most of the structures were demolished, and a mix of retail and industrial use followed.
The single runway at Linden is a haunting reminder of a time when a car manufacturer bet that it could build fighters for the Navy, and did so in a matter of months.