Mechanical Drawing: The Art of Aviation Engineering

By Scott Spangler on September 4th, 2023

Guided by triangles and French curves, pencil applied to paper is how ideas made the transition to all things aviation. Mechanical drawing was its moniker and the artists who precisely lined each part of some aeronautical creation so hands-on craftsmen could create in three-dimensional material were known simply as draftsmen. With the dominance and unrivalled benefits of computer aided design and its digital cousin, computer aided manufacturing, mechanical drawing might become a forgotten and unappreciated skill if not for the Aircorps Aviation’s traveling exhibit—Drafting: The Art of Aircraft Engineering in WWII—now in Telling Gallery at the EAA Aviation Museum In Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

The gallery is in the corner behind the XP-51 and Cavalier-modified P-51D on display in the Eagle Hangar. The juxtaposition is important because the drawings on display are the originals North American Aviation used to build the P-51 and some of its other aircraft such as the B-25. They would not exist were it not for Ken Jungeberg, a draftsman who started working at North American’s Columbus, Ohio, facility in 1969. Columbus is where the company stored most of its World War II engineering drawings, and with no further need of them, North American was going cremate them. When Ken learned of the plan, he rescued more than 50,000 drawings and preserved them for more than 30 years. In 2019, they became the eponymous Ken Jungeberg collection at Aircorps Aviation in Bemidji, Minnesota. (For the rest of this fascinating story, don’t skip the exhibit’s detailed video.)

To get a fuller appreciation of the artistry you’ll see on the displayed drawings, start at the drawing table that displays the Tools of the trade. For those unfamiliar with the implements necessary for mechanical drawing (and do middle and high schools even teach it today?) each of them, from triangles to compasses and the French curves that connect the lines they draw, is labeled.

The drawings displayed make it clear that draftsmen not only created one for each part of an airplane no matter how large or small, they included every measurement and material needed to fabricate them on the factory floor (and the video said Aircorps Aviation uses those appropriate to its restoration efforts, such as the P-51C Thunderbird). And it explains each element of the drawing: the part number, its description, its specifications and bill of materials, its finishing (such as heat treating), scale and size, changes to the drawing, the next assembly the depicted part connected to, and the name of the draftsman who put pencil to paper.

The display also introduces the curious to the names on some of the drawings, like that of the rudder pedal that went into almost every P-51, B-25, and T-6/SNJ. Clyde Maulding started at North American in 1936, when he was 22 years old. He retired exactly 33 years later. During that time, he worked as an engineer and draftsman on the O-47A, P-51, B-25, T-28, B-45, F-86, GAM-77 Hound Dog missile, XB-70, and that rudder pedal.

There are different types of drawings, and the exhibit explains examples of the isometric, orthographic, oblique, and perspective. The most fascinating is the exploded view, all of which are undeniable works of art. Not every draftsman can create them because the good ones demand complete cooperation and communication between the left and right lobes of the artist’s brain. My dad was an industrial designer who wore bow ties because they did not drag across his drawings as be bent over his table. He created exploded views for most of his creations because the more clearly illustrate how the parts create a technical item. And, he said, they weren’t so hard to draw. “I dismantle the thing in my mind, move the parts where they need to be, and then draw what I see in my head.” Maybe for him and artists like Eugene Clay, who exploded the P-51, but for others, I’m guessing, not so much. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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One Response to “Mechanical Drawing: The Art of Aviation Engineering”

  1. Paul Beshears Says:

    Great article. I worked as a design engineer at Ford Motor during the transition from hand drawings to CAD drawings. We definitely lost some of the artistry in that transition but in my time the skill of the drawing “checker” was unmatched. Those guys really understood the drawing and could help the engineer get what was needed from the product by getting the right requirements on the print.

    The early CAD systems were wireframe based, not solid based like today. You saw through the part which many people couldn’t get their minds around. It seemed to be a skill like that of the exploded view discussed in the article. Some people easily understood it but it was really difficult for others.

    I loved the note about wearing a bow tie so it wouldn’t drag on the drawing. To this day, when I roll up my sleeves, I roll them inside the sleeve rather than outside because that’s the way the draftsmen taught me.

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