SIFCO and the History of Aerospace in Cleveland

Ohio has long been known as the home of aviation innovators. Although many had tried, it was Wilbur and Orville Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who successfully flew the first heavier-than-air machine on December 7, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

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C.H. Smith Sr.

Ten years later, in 1913, the Steel Improvement Company in Cleveland, Ohio, came into being. In 1920, C.H. Smith Sr. joined the company as sales manager, and the company that would come to be called SIFCO would never be the same. By 1925, Mr. Smith was made president of the company, and in so doing led SIFCO into the very industry that his fellow Ohioans from Dayton had begun.

At the start of World War I, the aircraft industry was fledgling. By its end, it became clear to the manufacturing base of the United States that aircraft would have tremendous commercial value as well as national security importance. Cleveland’s Steel Products Company—later Thompson Products, Inc.—transferred technologies from automobiles to aircraft, and other Cleveland companies soon followed. Cleveland was in the center of the aircraft industry.

Innovations abounded: Steel Products Company built engine valves that powered Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. Thompson purchased a cow pasture and constructed an airplane hangar. To complement the new company, headquartered at 16800 St. Clair Ave. in Cleveland, Thompson brought in an historic influx of talent—a kind of “super-group” of early aircraft pioneers. The creative and eccentric airplane designer Glenn L. Martin came from California with many of his employees, including Larry Bell, who would go on to become the founder of Bell Aircraft and developer of the helicopter and the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to exceed the sound barrier; Donald Douglas, chief engineer of the new company, would go on to be the founder of Douglas Aircraft, later McDonald-Douglas, which would be a major producer of military and commercial aircraft for decades; and “Dutch” Kindelberger, the future president of North American Aviation, which evolved into Rockwell, was Thompson’s chief draftsman. One could not be faulted for saying that Cleveland was the American city that claimed a “Who’s Who in Aviation” for this period of time, when so many brilliant and innovative aviation minds worked together.

The History of the Glenn Martin Bomber from the Discovery Channel program Wings:

The first airplane built with the sole purpose as a bomber, the Martin MB-1, was designed and manufactured in Cleveland. The Glenn L. Martin Company built a new World War I combat plane and also designed the first single-winged, aluminum-skinned aircraft while still in Cleveland, though it was eventually built on the East Coast.

1928 SIFCO new Location

SIFCO moved to its current location in 1928.

Upon being promoted to President of SIFCO, C.H. Smith, Sr., began construction of a new and larger facility. Just as the company completed its move, the 1929 stock market crashed. SIFCO, along with the rest of the country, sought ways around the financial crisis.

SIFCO looked for customers in two new markets: the growing petroleum industry and, more significantly, in the growing aircraft field. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight had electrified the country, and interest in aircraft was reaching new heights.

SIFCO Forge in 1928

SIFCO Forge in 1928

Cleveland became one of the busiest air routes for the new U.S. air mail service. Even without the Martin-Marietta plant, which had moved to another city, the aircraft industry was established in Cleveland by 1935. SIFCO was firmly in place under the direction of Smith when war broke out in Europe, and the Bristol Aeroplane Company in England needed forgings for its burgeoning aircraft engine production. Thompson Products Company recommended SIFCO. Consequently, SIFCO became the supplier for numerous parts for Bristol, such as the airscrew shaft, articulating rod and master connecting rod. SIFCO was rapidly expanding.

Before the end of the war, SIFCO had produced tooling to manufacture every design of forging used by Bristol. Rail cars full of forgings were shipped every day across the Atlantic Ocean to Bristol, England. Navy cruisers or destroyers were sometimes used in order to speed delivery of the critical forgings.

SIFCO forged torpedo propeller dropped from aircraft

SIFCO forged torpedo propellers, used on torpedoes dropped from aircraft

Two more of SIFCO’s forgings would contribute to the Allies’ victory in World War II: a torpedo propeller that could withstand the impact of hitting the water when launched from an aircraft, and a turbosupercharger, which allowed an aircraft engine to develop additional power at high altitude. One was used on the Lockheed “Lightning” P-38, known to the enemy as “the fork-tailed devil.” During World War II, 9,923 of the P-38s were built.

After the war, SIFCO continued to be a vital and innovative supplier to the aircraft industry, both military and commercial. SIFCO moved along with the industry into the jet age, supplying forged turbine wheels for GE, for example.

Today, as SIFCO celebrates its centennial, virtually ever airplane in the sky has a SIFCO part on it—landing gear components, engine components, gearboxes, engine shafts, wheel and brake assemblies, hydraulic actuator components, structural supports, engine mounts, propeller hubs, turbine disks or hook shanks, to name a few.

SIFCO’s aviation business continues to grow with aluminum forgings, examples of which include emergency door handles and doorstops on the Boeing 737 aircraft.

SIFCO produced forgings for the British two-seat, bi-plane bomber, the de Havilland DH-4, which began flying in 1916, as well as Glenn Martin’s American Cleveland-made MB-1 bomber, which first flew in 1918. Under the leadership of the visionary C.H. Smith Sr. and his successors, the company has remained a reliable supplier for both military and commercial forgings for the aerospace industry. While many of Cleveland’s first aerospace pioneers are gone or have moved elsewhere, SIFCO remains a vital part of the community, and it intends to do so for another 100 years.