commercial aviation history to 1966

America’s commercial aviation industry, along with the rest of the world’s, began following the cessation of World War I in 1918. The surplus of airplanes left over from WWI would be made proper use of by private companies out for a profit, if the planes were not to be sold on the cheap to any and all takers or reduced to scrap. The World War I planes were simple affairs, lightweight biplanes of wood and metal, with open cockpits, open air water cooled engines, fixed landing gear, and a cruising speed of 100 mph. The warplanes would be converted to peacetime use, their holds reconfigured to accommodate anywhere from two to eight passengers.

By the mid 1920s both France and Germany had established successful commercial air services, and the United Kingdom was getting its Imperial Airways up to speed.

In 1918 the United States made use of its surplus of biplanes by establishing an airmail service. The Federal government maintained the service, with the day to day responsibilities of the operation devolving to the Post Office Department. At this time a plane could go great distances only in relays, flying from leg to leg; and it would take no less than fifteen refuelling stops in landing fields in successive states for a mail plane to cross the country from New York to San Francisco. In 1922 the first lighted airway strip was opened between Dayton and Columbus in the mid eastern state of Ohio. In mid 1924 coast to coast service for airmail would take just under thirty hours flying east, and thirty four hours flying west (against the prevailing headwinds). In 1925 Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown decided to put the airmail service in the hands of private companies. The Kelly Act of 1925 allowed the commercial aviation industry to run itself without government intervention.

Wealthy Americans including Henry Ford and William Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney began to invest in commercial aviation, and a hodgepodge of small airlines began appearing, vying for mail routes.

Airmail carriers were paid by the ounce, so reducing extraneous weight that could be replaced by mail was rewarded, as was speed that allowed more trips. Aircraft designers coalesced into aircraft companies which would eventually grow into industrial behemoths of the present day such as Boeing and Douglas and Lockheed. military would have an intrinsic role to play in the development of aircraft as well. Navy had sponsored the development of an air cooled airplane engine, known as the «Wasp», and William Boeing of the Boeing Aircraft Company a Seattle company the young man started in 1916 used the Wasp engine in his Boeing 40 airplane which was introduced to great success in 1925. The Boeing 40 won Boeing the right to the Chicago to San Francisco airmail route. Donald Douglas started Douglas Aircraft in Los Angeles in 1920, built ‘Douglas World Cruisers’ torpedo planes for the Navy in 1924, and would become a millionaire a decade hence. Then there was John K. «Jack» Northrop, designing planes with the Loughhead brothers who pronounced their name Lockheed in Santa Barbara, California. In 1927 these confederates produced the Vega, a monoplane with a Wasp air cooled motor, seating for six passengers, and a flying speed of 170 mph More than three dozen airlines would buy the Lockheed Vega over the next six years.

Up to this point, flight was not regulated. Aircraft were not required to be safe, pilots were not required to be qualified, and flights were at random, sometimes colliding, paths. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 introduced regulation by a Bureau of Air Commerce in the Department of Commerce, which dictated that the industry would have to adhere to a series of regulations to insure the public safety. Now a pilot would have to pass tests to receive a pilot’s licence. Planes would need certificates of airworthiness. Louis in May 1927, America became inflamed with the romance of the skies. Lindbergh, a polite, self effacing Midwesterner who had once been a mail pilot, became an international hero and a posterboy for all that was best about America he had vision, courage, the technological acumen and ‘can do’ brio. He might not have been the first to attempt an airplane flight from New York to Paris, but he was the one who followed through, flying the 3,610 miles in 33 hours, 30 minutes. Returning from Paris in a naval cruiser, Lindbergh was cheap jerseys welcomed by an American population flush with pride and admiration. Overnight Lindbergh became one of the most famous men alive, and in the process did a world of good for the airline industry.

Suddenly air travel became the latest «thing». Between 1927 and 1930 a series of smaller airlines began amalgamating together, creating larger airlines which would eventually develop into the industry leaders of Eastern Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, TWA and Pan American Airways. These companies, which would at first remain primarily mail carriers, where the real money was, were established by power barons including Clement Keys, Averell Harriman, and Robert Lehman who would have to compete to win contracts for mail routes from the Federal government. Army Air Forces in World War II, and whose president and general manager was Juan Trippe won the rights to fly the Mexico, Central America and Caribbean routes, and became the biggest airline in the world. For two decades Pan Am would enjoy a virtual monopoly on commercial overseas flights until the appearance of multimillionaire aviator and businessman Howard Hughes on the scene. into four sectors: three coast to coast routes, northern, central, and southern; and the eastern seaboard. One carrier was to be chosen to service each route. Eastern Airlines which developed out of the merging of a series of connections served the Atlantic coast. United Airlines an amalgamation of Clement Keys’ National Air Transport, which flew from New York to Chicago, and William Boeing’s United Aircraft, which flew from Chicago to San Francisco won the rights to the northern route. The rights to the southern route went to American Airways the product of the merging of five smaller airlines. Standard Airlines, Maddux Airlines, Transcontinental Air Transport, and Western Air Express merged together to become Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), and won the central route. First chairman of TAT’s Technical Committee in 1928 had been none other than ‘Lucky Lindy’ himself, Charles Lindbergh. When Howard Hughes buys in to TWA in 1939 40 he will not only be acquiring the nuts and bolts of a successful airline but the reputation and romance of «The Lindbergh Line» as well.

The Watres Act of 1930 also cut the mail rates. Suddenly the airlines would have to look for other means of revenue to keep themselves in the air. Passenger aircraft, rather than just airmail carriers, would become a primary concern of airline companies.

Note on Technology in the 1920s

Developments on all fronts material of plane, power of engine, and shape of airframe would lead to advancements in the art of the aircraft. Edgar Dix, a researcher for Alcoa, experimented with the metallurgy of aluminium and discovered a way to make high strength sheets. motors. (Lindbergh’s engine in the Spirit of St. Navy produced the air cooled engine later in the decade.

The 1920s was also the time of the move from bulky biplane to sleek monoplane. «How can we best shape an aircraft body and wings,» designers wondered, «in order to reduce the amount of drag through the air?» The key word here would be streamlining. Streamlined shapes reduce the amount of resistance experienced by an airfoil and in the process increase speed and lift. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, est. 1915) built a wind tunnel at a government research center at Langley Field in Virginia and embarked on three years of study, leading to three developments: (1) engines which were hitherto out in the open would now be housed in enclosures (known as nacelles); and (2) the weight of wings would be reduced; leading to (3) the placing of multiple engines on the wings. Jack Northrup would be a commercial pioneer of these new aeronautical designs. In March 1930 his «Alpha» was tested, an aluminium monoplane with Wasp engines and a cruising speed of 140 mph Boeing introduced its comparable aircraft, the «Monomail», in the same year. In 1931 Lockheed entered the fray with its «Orion», the most up to the minute mail carrier yet, with a landing gear that retracted (manually) to reduce air drag, room for six passengers, and a cruising speed of 170 mph.

The 1930s: The Rise of Aircarriers

Aircraft industrialists would be outdoing each other in heated competition to win large manufacturing contracts from airline companies. State of the art plane followed state of the art plane without pause. Army Air Corps early in 1931. The large, twin engine, all metal B 9 would be the first inkling of the modern passenger airliner. Later in the year Boeing produced the Boeing 247 for commercial use. Cruising at 155 mph, with room for ten passengers, the Boeing 247 was a hit, with United Airlines beating the other airlines to the punch by placing an order for sixty 247s. TWA responded by ordering one DC 1 (with room for twelve passengers) and 28 DC 2s (for fourteen passengers) from Douglas Aircraft.

Meanwhile from the mid 1930s on, engineers in Germany, Great Britain and the United States were working concurrently on designs for jet engines. Germany would be first off the mark with the test flight of the Heinkel He 178, the world’s first jet plane, in 1937. In England Frank Whittle designed a turbojet engine for the Royal Air Force’s Gloster Meteor plane, the one and only Allied jet plane ready for combat in World War II. General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts, built a jet engine of its own in 1941, and Clarence «Kelly» Johnson, chief research designer for Lockheed, designed a plane to fit around it, the XP 80. Army’s first jet aircraft, the XP 80, known as the «Shooting Star», took to the air for the first time for test flights in January 1944, but did not start rolling off the assembly line until after the cessation of hostilities.

In that same year the German Luftwaffe put the Me 262 into combat action; the Me 262 (fighter) was the state of the art jet plane reaching speeds upwards of 500 mph; but Germany was already on the way to defeat and the Me 262 did nothing to alter that fact. Back at Lockheed, Kelly Johnson had been contributing to the design of a second plane at the same time as the XP 80 he was working with Howard Hughes on something called the Hughes Mystery Passenger Plane. But let us backtrack a bit.)

Early in the 1930s United Airlines began the practice of offering «air connections» planned departures from major cities at specified times throughout the day. Other airlines, which had been offering only one flight a day for each route, would take the hint. Then TWA proceeded to trump United. At this time coast to coast passenger travel on one of United’s Boeing 247s still meant at least seven stops along the way, for a flight time of twenty hours. When TWA introduced their DC 2s into their fleet in May 1934, TWA began advertising a coast to coast passenger journey, with refueling stops, in eighteen hours and even offering nonstop service between Newark and Chicago. Moreover, three months earlier the DC 1 had made a transcontinental mail flight, with William John («Jack») Frye former Hollywood stunt pilot, now vice president of operations for TWA in the cockpit, in a record breaking thirteen hours, including refueling stops. American Airlines responded in 1934 by ordering new planes from Douglas Aircraft, the DC 3, with 1000 horsepower engines from Curtis Wright and Pratt Whitney. The DC 3, with twenty one passenger seats, and a cruising speed of 170 mph, was in the air by the summer of 1936, crossing the country in sixteen hours eastbound, and eighteen hours westbound. TWA immediately followed suit with its own order for DC 3s in 1937. In 1934 Pan Am was flying four engine flying boats, three S F2s from Sikorsky and three M 130s from Martin. With these flying boats Pan Am would win great acclaim in 1935. The S 42 stayed in the air for nearly eighteen hours, flying from Miami to the Virgin Islands and back non stop. Then the S 42 was flown from San Francisco to Honolulu and back. Most spectacularly, the M 130 flew to the Philippines and back in thirteen days, putting its black suited Pan Am pilot, Ed Musick, on the cover of Time magazine on December 2, 1935. Pan Am had opened up the potential for lucrative international passenger flights. A round trip ticket on a Pan Am plane from San Francisco to Manila would have set you back over $1400 in 1936.

Airports were appearing with regularity throughout the America of the 1930s due to President Roosevelt’s New Deal Program, public works projects created to generate work for the unemployed. Air traffic control carving up the airspace in the manner of an asphalt interstate highway was introduced for the first time at Newark Airport in 1935. The airport at Newark, New Jersey, was the busiest in America, with a departure or arrival every ten minutes. An employee on the ground would be in radio contact with pilots in order to keep track of and coordinate all the flights. airports quickly followed suit. The Roosevelt Administration introduced the Civil Air Regulations by one Fred Fagg 1937. Then came the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which standardized procedures between the air traffic control centers, which dealt solely with planes crossing a certain airspace, and the airport control towers, which dealt with take offs and landings. Due to these acts of the Roosevelt administration, airplanes were fast becoming one of the safest ways to travel.

In the 1920s the amount of Americans buying tickets for a seat on an aircraft was negligible. By the end of the 1930s passenger numbers on continental aircarriers had grown to consistently profitable levels. The 1930s was the era when airplanes were romantic and pilots were heroes. Children were dazzled by airplanes just as in later years children would be dazzled by 1950s automobiles and then 1970s X wing fighters and then 1980s computers. Businessmen were attracted to air travel primarily for its time saving benefits. Hollywood signalled America’s growing interest in air travel with the release of Flying Down to Rio (1933), the film featuring the first Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers pairing, released by RKO.

The 1934 Airmail Scandal

Financial irregularities engineered by certain airline companies, United most prominently, were discovered by journalists and caused a controversy in President Roosevelt’s Washington. News that insider trading on the stock exchange had fattened airline executives’ wallets brought a series of shocks down upon all of the companies. It was a knee jerk reaction, akin to dropping every Hollywood film out of circulation simply because a couple of particular films might be offensive. Army Air Corps. The Army pilots were not as experienced as the commercial pilots in navigating the continent and the first week occasioned a series of fatalities, injuries, and many wrecked planes. The heat that Roosevelt subsequently felt from the press resulted in the Air Mail Act of 1934. The continental airmail service would be returned to private industry, following the restructuring of the commercial airlines. American, United, TWA, and eventually Eastern would have to be broken from their respective holding companies which might own an aircraft manufacturing plant as well as the commercial airline service and become independent public companies. There would also be a price cap put on mail pay rates. Pan Am remained untouched because it operated outside of the United States. In the wake of the Air Mail Act new airlines appeared, including Braniff Airways and Delta Airlines, both winning contracts for airmail routes. So we see that in 1934 TWA was set free from its holding company General Motors, who also owned Eastern Airlines as well as General Aviation, an aircraft manufacturer setting the stage for Howard Hughes to start gobbling up its stock in 1939.

Howard Hughes and TWA 1940 1945

Jack Frye, now the president of operations at TWA, asked Howard Hughes if Hughes is interested in buying some of TWA’s routes. Frye needs an influx of cash to follow through with an order for Boeing’s new four engine passenger airliner, the Stratoliner. The Stratoliner would have a cruising speed of 220 mph; and a pressurized cabin, to stop passengers from passing out, a not infrequent phenomenon in these early days of commercial air travel; also, the Stratoliner would be able to fly above the weather at up to 20,000 feet, and would make the coast to coast trip in fourteen hours. Hughes, never one to do anything ‘on the small’, decides to buy the whole TWA company or at least controlling interest; and immediately announces that he will initiate the designing of a plane that will far outstrip Boeing’s Stratoliner and every other passenger aircraft, including Douglas’ new DC 4 (airliner), to which United and American were favorably inclined. Moreover, Hughes would not waste any time in getting into a tussle with Pan Am over the rights to overseas routes. Instead of taking it slow with TWA and getting his bearings, Hughes would jump right into the deep end. If Hughes bought TWA, TWA would have to become the greatest airline of them all, a global airline having the fastest and most advanced airplanes in existence. Hughes, ever the dreamer, visualized a superior air carrier that would take advantage of all of the streamlining experiments Hughes Aircraft had accomplished on his airplanes of the later 1930s which had won for him world records and international fame on a par with Charles Lindbergh’s of a decade earlier. Under a shroud of secrecy this Hughes Mystery Plane came to fruition at Lockheed in Southern California under the auspices of Hughes’ determined and inspired eye and Kelly Johnson’s design genius. Hughes was going to push the technology of air carriers forward with the sheer force of his will. The long range, piston driven Lockheed Constellation would be an instant hit when introduced in 1944 and would be a presence in the skies for the next twenty five years. With the advent of Howard Hughes as principal stockholder assuming control of TWA, the company intensified its role as the industry leader in aircarrier technology.

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