Group Think and Paste Wax

Did World War II ground crews apply paste wax to fighter planes in order to make them faster? This particular idea show up on forums now and then. I think it reflects the fact that younger people (I mean younger than sixty) do not remember waxing cars.

Sure, everybody says that you should wax your car. “Car Wax” is sold for this purpose. But now, due to changes in the way cars are painted, you don’t really have to wax them. Besides, the “wax” is fundamentally different than it used to be. Changes in technology have led to changes in how we live. That is one of the major reasons that if you take your everyday experience and try to apply what you know from “common sense” to a P-51 in 1944 you are very likely to go wrong. You may be completely correct in what you know–for the year 2017. But for 1944 what you “know” hasn’t been invented yet.

Take radial tires. Some of my friends and acquaintances are older thanĀ I am and they still have trouble adjusting to the “bulge” on the sidewall of a radial tire. Radial tires have been on the market for a long, long time, but when they see that “bulge” they say “your tire needs air.” It’s a reflex. Today, it’s common to see an after-market tire for a P-51 or Messerschmitt Bf-109G with a “bulge” on it–so it looks like “a tire should look.”

It ends up looking like a modern radial. Not at all like a tire from 1944. What we learn as children tends to color our perception. We see what we expect to see.

Waxing your car, in 1944, was part of the price you paid for being a man. You had an obligation to yourself and to your family and to your community to wax that thing about once a week. I don’t mean spray it down with something, I mean smear on a coat of paste wax, let it dry, then buff it out. It was work. You did it to keep your car looking nice. Not new. Nice. If you didn’t put that wax on there then that car would begin to look shabby right away, and in a few months you’d be driving an embarrassing vehicle with what was called “oxidation.” We called it “oxidation” but it was really a combination of various kinds of decay. Eventually, the paint would no longer be shiny, then it would turn fully flat, then it would fade to a much lighter color. Then it would come off.

In those days, if you cared, you waxed your car. From time to time, a man would become depressed, or have a heart attack and be unable to wax his car, or maybe he would be working very long hours and unable to find the time. Maybe his marriage was falling apart. Maybe his kid was in trouble.

You’d see it in the paint on his car. They may have been good at keeping secrets, but that oxidized Buick in the driveway told another tale. One of the last things that man would allow to happen would be for the paint on his car to oxidize from lack of wax. It was the mark of shame.

Now let’s take that same guy to Europe and put him in charge of a brand-spanking new P-51 Mustang–the Cadillac of the Skies. There’s only one thing wrong with it. The paint! It’s oxidizing!

What do you think that guy’s going want to do? They had to make regulations, and enforce them with serious punishments, to keep the men from waxing the airplanes. I know this because when I was on active duty in 1979 and our brand new F-16’s showed up on the flightline, some guys still wanted to wax them! They would have done it, too, if somebody hadn’t stopped them.

Lt. Julian H Bertram’s P-51D 44-14798 “Butch Baby” of the 357th FG, 362 FS. (Photo: C. Lievens)

When we apply “how things are now” to what we think things “must have been like” back then, we a prone to mistakes.

3 Replies to “Group Think and Paste Wax”

  1. Very interesting for a ‘young’ 40 year old to read. Hey, no wonder I keep coming back here with the complements on offer.

    And you also say those new ‘bulging’ tires they are putting in kits, etc, are actually not authentic?

    1. Not authentic, in general. Certainly not for F-16’s, where I can tell you for a fact that they do not bulge. I would be extremely surprised to see a “bulged” tire on any aircraft. Combat aircraft are heavy. They hit the ground hard even in a “good” landing. If a tire bulged out when it was just taxiing around–upon contact with the pavement (on landing) it would completely “bottom out” and the wheel would puncture the tire and the entire landing gear would fail. That would be a bad thing. A tire on an F-16 has a sidewall several inches thick. The pressure within it is in excess of 200 psi. When these tires are mounted on the wheel and inflated for the first time, it’s done in a heavy steel cage with one inch bars. An explosion is a severe incident. I never saw a tire “blow out” on an aircraft and I saw only one incident where a tire ignited due to heat from the brake assembly.

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