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On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright capped four years of research and design efforts with a 120-foot, 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. Prior to that, people had flown only in balloons and gliders. The first person to fly as a passenger was Leon Delagrange, who rode with French pilot Henri Farman from a meadow outside of Paris in 1908. Charles Furnas became the first American airplane passenger when he flew with Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk later that year.
On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright capped four years of research and design efforts with a 120-foot, 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. Prior to that, people had flown only in balloons and gliders.
The first person to fly as a passenger was Leon Delagrange, who rode with French pilot Henri Farman from a meadow outside of Paris in 1908. Charles Furnas became the first American airplane passenger when he flew with Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk later that year.
The first scheduled air service began in Florida on January 1, 1914. Glenn Curtiss had designed a plane that could take off and land on water and thus could be built larger than any plane to date, because it did not need the heavy undercarriage required for landing on hard ground. Thomas Benoist, an auto parts maker, decided to build such a flying boat, or seaplane, for a service across Tampa Bay called the St. Petersburg - Tampa Air Boat Line. His first passenger was ex-St. Petersburg Mayor A.C. Pheil, who made the 18-mile trip in 23 minutes, a considerable improvement over the two-hour trip by boat. The single-plane service accommodated one passenger at a time, and the company charged a one-way fare of $5. After operating two flights a day for four months, the company folded with the end of the winter tourist season.
World War I
These and other early flights were headline events, but commercial aviation was very slow to catch on with the general public, most of whom were afraid to ride in the new flying machines. Improvements in aircraft design also were slow. However, with the advent of World War I, the military value of aircraft was quickly recognized and production increased significantly to meet the soaring demand for planes from governments on both sides of the Atlantic. Most significant was the development of more powerful motors, enabling aircraft to reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour, more than twice the speed of pre-war aircraft. Increased power also made larger aircraft possible.
At the same time, the war was bad for commercial aviation in several respects. It focused all design and production efforts on building military aircraft. In the public's mind, flying became associated with bombing runs, surveillance and aerial dogfights. In addition, there was such a large surplus of planes at the end of the war that the demand for new production was almost nonexistent for several years - and many aircraft builders went bankrupt. Some European countries, such as Great Britain and France, nurtured commercial aviation by starting air service over the English Channel. However, nothing similar occurred in the United States, where there were no such natural obstacles isolating major cities and where railroads could transport people almost as fast as an airplane, and in considerably more comfort. The salvation of the U.S. commercial aviation industry following World War I was a government program, but one that had nothing to do with the transportation of people.
By 1917, the U.S. government felt enough progress had been made in the development of planes to warrant something totally new - the transport of mail by air. That year, Congress appropriated $100,000 for an experimental airmail service to be conducted jointly by the Army and the Post Office between Washington and New York, with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia. The first flight left Belmont Park, Long Island for Philadelphia on May 14, 1918 and the next day continued on to Washington, where it was met by President Woodrow Wilson.
With a large number of war-surplus aircraft in hand, the Post Office set its sights on a far more ambitious goal - transcontinental air service. It opened the first segment, between Chicago and Cleveland, on May 15, 1919 and completed the air route on September 8, 1920, when the most difficult part of the route, the Rocky Mountains, was spanned. Airplanes still could not fly at night when the service first began, so the mail was handed off to trains at the end of each day. Nonetheless, by using airplanes the Post Office was able to shave 22 hours off coast-to-coast mail deliveries.
In 1921, the Army deployed rotating beacons in a line between Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, a distance of about 80 miles. The beacons, visible to pilots at 10-second intervals, made it possible to fly the route at night.
The Post Office took over the operation of the guidance system the following year, and by the end of 1923, constructed similar beacons between Chicago and Cheyenne, Wyoming, a line later extended coast-to-coast at a cost of $550,000. Mail then could be delivered across the continent in as little as 29 hours eastbound and 34 hours westbound - prevailing winds from west to east accounted for the difference which was at least two days less than it took by train.
The Contract Air Mail Act of 1925
By the mid-1920s, the Post Office mail fleet was flying 2.5 million miles and delivering 14 million letters annually. However, the government had no intention of continuing airmail service on its own. Traditionally, the Post Office had used private companies for the transportation of mail. So, once the feasibility of airmail was firmly established and airline facilities were in place, the government moved to transfer airmail service to the private sector, by way of competitive bids. The legislative authority for the move was the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925, commonly referred to as the Kelly Act after its chief sponsor, Rep. Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania. This was the first major step toward the creation of a private U.S. airline industry. Winners of the initial five contracts were National Air Transport (owned by the Curtiss Aeroplane Co.), Varney Air Lines, Western Air Express, Colonial Air Transport and Robertson Aircraft Corporation. National and Varney would later become important parts of United Air Lines (originally a joint venture of the Boeing Airplane Company and Pratt & Whitney). Western would merge with Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), another Curtiss subsidiary, to form Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). Robertson would become part of the Universal Aviation Corporation, which in turn would merge with Colonial, Southern Air Transport and others, to form American Airways, predecessor of American Airlines. Juan Trippe, one of the original partners in Colonial, later pioneered international air travel with Pan Am - a carrier he founded in 1927 to transport mail between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. Pitcairn Aviation, yet another Curtiss subsidiary that got its start transporting mail, would become Eastern Air Transport, predecessor of Eastern Air Lines.
The Morrow Board
The same year Congress passed the Contract Air Mail Act, President Calvin Coolidge appointed a board to recommend a national aviation policy (a much-sought-after goal of then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover). Dwight Morrow, a senior partner in J.P. Morgan's bank, and later the father-in-law of Charles Lindbergh, was named chairman. The board heard testimony from 99 people, and on November 30, 1925, submitted its report to President Coolidge. The report was wide-ranging, but its key recommendation was that the government should set standards for civil aviation and that the standards should be set outside of the military.
The Air Commerce Act of 1926
Congress adopted the recommendations of the Morrow Board almost to the letter in the Air Commerce Act of 1926. The legislation authorized the Secretary of Commerce to designate air routes, to develop air navigation systems, to license pilots and aircraft, and to investigate accidents. The act brought the government into commercial aviation as regulator of the private airlines spawned by the Kelly Act of the previous year.
Congress also adopted the board's recommendation for airmail contracting, by amending the Kelly Act to change the method of compensation for airmail services. Instead of paying carriers a percentage of the postage paid, the government would pay them according to the weight of the mail. This simplified payments, and proved highly advantageous to the carriers, which collected $48 million from the government for the carriage of mail between 1926 and 1931.
Ford's Tin Goose
Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, was also among the early successful bidders for airmail contracts, winning the right, in 1925, to carry mail from Chicago to Detroit and Cleveland aboard planes his company already was using to transport spare parts for his automobile assembly plants. More importantly, he jumped into aircraft manufacturing, and in 1927, produced the Ford Trimotor, commonly referred to as the Tin Goose. It was one of the first all-metal planes, made of a new material, duralumin, which was almost as light as aluminum but twice as strong. It also was the first plane designed primarily to carry passengers rather than mail. The Ford Trimotor had 12 passenger seats; a cabin high enough for a passenger to walk down the aisle without stooping; and room for a "stewardess," or flight attendant, the first of whom were nurses, hired by United in 1930 to serve meals and assist airsick passengers. The Tin Goose's three engines made it possible to fly higher and faster (up to 130 miles per hour), and its sturdy appearance, combined with the Ford name, had a reassuring effect on the public's perception of flying. However, it was another event, in 1927, that brought unprecedented public attention to aviation and helped secure the industry's future as a major mode of transportation.
At 7:52 a.m. on May 20, 1927, a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh set out on an historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris. It was the first trans-Atlantic non-stop flight in an airplane, and its effect on both Lindbergh and aviation was enormous. Lindbergh became an instant American hero. Aviation became a more established industry, attracting millions of private investment dollars almost overnight, as well as the support of millions of Americans.
The pilot who sparked all of this attention had dropped out of engineering school at the University of Wisconsin to learn how to fly. He became a barnstormer, doing aerial shows across the country, and eventually joined the Robertson Aircraft Corporation, to transport mail between St. Louis and Chicago.
In planning his trans-Atlantic voyage, Lindbergh daringly decided to fly by himself, without a navigator, so he could carry more fuel. His plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, was slightly less than 28 feet in length, with a wingspan of 46 feet. It carried 450 gallons of gasoline, which comprised half its takeoff weight. There was too little room in the cramped cockpit for navigating by the stars, so Lindbergh flew by dead reckoning. He divided maps from his local library into thirty-three 100-mile segments, noting the heading he would follow as he flew each segment. When he first sighted the coast of Ireland, he was almost exactly on the route he had plotted, and he landed several hours later, with 80 gallons of fuel to spare.
Lindbergh's greatest enemy on his journey was fatigue. The trip took an exhausting 33 hours, 29 minutes and 30 seconds, but he managed to keep awake by sticking his head out the window to inhale cold air, by holding his eyelids open, and by constantly reminding himself that if he fell asleep he would perish. In addition, he had a slight instability built into his airplane that helped keep him focused and awake.
Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Field, outside of Paris, at 10:24 p.m. Paris time on May 21. Word of his flight preceded him and a large crowd of Parisians rushed out to the airfield to see him and his little plane. There was no question about the magnitude of what he had accomplished. The Air Age had arrived.
The Watres Act and the Spoils Conference
In 1930, Postmaster General Walter Brown pushed for legislation that would have another major impact on the development of commercial aviation. Known as the Watres Act (after one of its chief sponsors, Rep. Laurence H. Watres of Pennsylvania), it authorized the Post Office to enter into longer-term contracts for airmail, with rates based on space or volume, rather than weight. In addition, the act authorized the Post Office to consolidate airmail routes, where it was in the national interest to do so. Brown believed the changes would promote larger, stronger airlines, as well as more coast-to-coast and nighttime service.
Immediately after Congress approved the act, Brown held a series of meetings in Washington to discuss the new contracts. The meetings were later dubbed the Spoils Conference because Brown gave them little publicity and directly invited only a handful of people from the larger airlines. He designated three transcontinental mail routes and made it clear that he wanted only one company operating each service rather than a number of small airlines handing the mail off to one another. His actions brought political trouble that resulted in major changes to the system two years later.
Scandal and the Air Mail Act of 1934
Following the Democratic landslide in the election of 1932, some of the smaller airlines began complaining to news reporters and politicians that they had been unfairly denied airmail contracts by Brown. One reporter discovered that a major contract had been awarded to an airline whose bid was three times higher than a rival bid from a smaller airline. Congressional hearings followed, chaired by Sen. Hugo Black of Alabama, and by 1934 the scandal had reached such proportions as to prompt President Franklin Roosevelt to cancel all mail contracts and turn mail deliveries over to the Army.
The decision was a mistake. The Army pilots were unfamiliar with the mail routes, and the weather at the time they took over the deliveries, February 1934, was terrible. There were a number of accidents as the pilots flew practice runs and began carrying the mail, leading to newspaper headlines that forced President Roosevelt to retreat from his plan only a month after he had turned the mail over to the Army
By means of the Air Mail Act of 1934, the government once again returned airmail transportation to the private sector, but it did so under a new set of rules that would have a significant impact on the industry. Bidding was structured to be more competitive, and former contract holders were not allowed to bid at all, so many companies were reorganized. The result was a more even distribution of the government's mail business and lower mail rates that forced airlines and aircraft manufacturers to pay more attention to the development of the passenger side of the business.
In another major change, the government forced the dismantling of the vertical holding companies common up to that time in the industry, sending aircraft manufacturers and airline operators (most notably Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, and United Air Lines) their separate ways. The entire industry was now reorganized and refocused.
For the airlines to attract passengers away from the railroads, they needed both larger and faster airplanes. They also needed safer airplanes. Accidents, such as the one in 1931 that killed Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne along with six others, kept people from flying
Aircraft manufacturers responded to the challenge. There were so many improvements to aircraft in the 1930s that many believe it was the most innovative period in aviation history. Air-cooled engines replaced water-cooled engines, reducing weight and making larger and faster planes possible. Cockpit instruments also improved, with better altimeters, airspeed indicators, rate-of-climb indicators, compasses, and the introduction of artificial horizon, which showed pilots the attitude of the aircraft relative to the ground - important for flying in reduced visibility
Another development of enormous importance to aviation was radio. Aviation and radio developed almost in lock step. Marconi sent his first message across the Atlantic on the airwaves just two years before the Wright Brothers? first flight at Kitty Hawk. By World War I, some pilots were taking radios up in the air with them so they could communicate with people on the ground. The airlines followed suit after the war, using radio to transmit weather information from the ground to their pilots, so they could avoid storms
An even more significant development, however, was the realization that radio could be used as an aid to navigation when visibility was poor and visual navigation aids, such as beacons, were useless. Once technical problems were worked out, the Department of Commerce constructed 83 radio beacons across the country. They became fully operational in 1932, automatically transmitting directional beams, or tracks, that pilots could follow to their destination. Marker beacons came next, allowing pilots to locate airports in poor visibility. The first air traffic control tower was established in 1935 at what is now Newark International Airport in New Jersey
The First Modern Airliners
Boeing built what generally is considered the first modern passenger airliner, the Boeing 247. It was unveiled in 1933, and United Air Lines promptly bought 60 of them. Based on a low-wing, twin-engine bomber with retractable landing gear built for the military, the 247 accommodated 10 passengers and cruised at 155 miles per hour. Its cabin was insulated, to reduce engine noise levels inside the plane, and it featured such amenities as upholstered seats and a hot water heater to make flying more comfortable to passengers. Eventually, Boeing also gave the 247 variable-pitch propellers, that reduced takeoff distances, increased the rate of climb, and boosted cruising speeds
Not to be outdone by United, TWA went searching for an alternative to the 247 and eventually found what it wanted from the Douglas Aircraft Company. Its DC-1 incorporated Boeing's innovations and improved upon many of them. The DC-1 had a more powerful engine and accommodations for two more passengers than did the 247. More importantly, the airframe was designed so that the skin of the aircraft bore most of the stress on the plane during flight. There was no interior skeleton of metal spars, thus giving passengers more room than they had in the 247.The DC-1 also was easier to fly. It was equipped with the first automatic pilot and the first efficient wing flaps, for added lift during takeoff. However, for all its advancements, only one DC-1 was ever built. Douglas decided almost immediately to alter its design, adding 18 inches to its length so it could accommodate two more passengers. The new, longer version was called the DC-2 and it was a big success, but the best was still to come
Called the plane that changed the world, the DC-3 was the first aircraft to enable airlines to make money carrying passengers. As a result, it quickly became the dominant aircraft in the United States, following its debut in 1936 with American Airlines (which played a key role in its design).
The DC-3 had 50 percent greater passenger capacity than the DC-2 (21 seats versus 14), yet cost only ten percent more to operate. It also was considered a safer plane, built of an aluminum alloy stronger than materials previously used in aircraft construction. It had more powerful engines (1,000 horsepower versus 710 horsepower for the DC-2), and it could travel coast to coast in only 16 hours - a fast trip for that time.
Another important improvement was the use of a hydraulic pump to lower and raise the landing gear. This freed pilots from having to crank the gear up and down during takeoffs and landings. For greater passenger comfort, the DC-3 had a noise-deadening plastic insulation, and seats set in rubber to minimize vibrations. It was a fantastically popular airplane, and it helped attract many new travelers to flying.
Although planes such as the Boeing 247 and the DC-3 represented significant advances in aircraft design, they had a major drawback. They could fly no higher than 10,000 feet, because people became dizzy and even fainted, due to the reduced levels of oxygen at higher altitudes.
The airlines wanted to fly higher, to get above the air turbulence and storms common at lower altitudes. Motion sickness was a problem for many airline passengers, and an inhibiting factor to the industry's growth.
The breakthrough came at Boeing with the Stratoliner, a derivation of the B-17 bomber introduced in 1940 and first flown by TWA. It was the first pressurized aircraft, meaning that air was pumped into the aircraft as it gained altitude to maintain an atmosphere inside the cabin similar to the atmosphere that occurs naturally at lower altitudes. With its regulated air compressor, the 33-seat Stratoliner could fly as high as 20,000 feet and reach speeds of 200 miles per hour.
The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938
Government decisions continued to prove as important to aviation's future as technological breakthroughs, and one of the most important aviation bills ever enacted by Congress was the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. Until that time, numerous government agencies and departments had a hand in aviation policy. Airlines sometimes were pushed and pulled in several directions, and there was no central agency working for the long-term development of the industry. All the airlines had been losing money, since the postal reforms in 1934 significantly reduced the amount they were paid for carrying the mail.
The airlines wanted more rationalized government regulation, through an independent agency, and the Civil Aeronautics Act gave them what they needed. It created the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and gave the new agency power to regulate airline fares, airmail rates, interline agreements, mergers and routes. Its mission was to preserve order in the industry, holding rates to reasonable levels while, at the same time nurturing the still financially-shaky airline industry, thereby encouraging the development of commercial air transportation.
Congress created a separate agency - the Air Safety Board - to investigate accidents. In 1940, however, President Roosevelt convinced Congress to transfer the accident investigation function to the CAA, which was then renamed the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). These moves, coupled with the tremendous progress made on the technological side, put the industry on the road to success.
World War II
Aviation had an enormous impact on the course of World War II and the war had just as significant an impact on aviation. There were fewer than 300 air transport aircraft in the United States when Hitler marched into Poland in 1939. By the end of the war, U.S. aircraft manufacturers were producing 50,000 planes a year.
Most of the planes, of course, were fighters and bombers, but the importance of air transports to the war effort quickly became apparent as well. Throughout the war, the airlines provided much needed airlift to keep troops and supplies moving, to the front and throughout the production chain back home. For the first time in their history, the airlines had far more business - for passengers as well as freight - than they could handle. Many of them also had opportunities to pioneer new routes, gaining an exposure that would give them a decidedly broader outlook at war's end.
While there were numerous advances in U.S. aircraft design during the war, that enabled planes to go faster, higher, and farther than ever before, mass production was the chief goal of the United States. The major innovations of the wartime period - radar and jet engines - occurred in Europe.
The Jet Engine
Isaac Newton was the first to theorize, in the 18th century, that a rearward-channeled explosion could propel a machine forward at a great rate of speed. However, no one found a practical application for the theory until Frank Whittle, a British pilot, designed the first jet engine in 1930. Even then, widespread skepticism about the commercial viability of a jet prevented Whittle's design from being tested for several years.
The Germans were the first to build and test a jet aircraft. Based on a design by Hans von Ohain, a student whose work was independent of Whittle's, it flew in 1939, although not as well as the Germans had hoped. It would take another five years for German scientists to perfect the design, by which time it was, fortunately, too late to affect the outcome of the war.
Whittle also improved his jet engine during the war, and in 1942 he shipped an engine prototype to General Electric in the United States. America's first jet plane - the Bell P-59 - was built the following year.
Another technological development with a much greater impact on the war's outcome (and later on commercial aviation) was radar. British scientists had been working on a device that could give them early warning of approaching enemy aircraft even before the war began, and by 1940 Britain had a line of radar transceivers along its east coast that could detect German aircraft the moment they took off from the Continent. British scientists also perfected the cathode ray oscilloscope, which produced map-type outlines of surrounding countryside and showed aircraft as a pulsing light. Americans, meanwhile, found a way to distinguish between enemy aircraft and allied aircraft by installing transponders aboard the latter that signaled their identity to radar operators.
Dawn of the Jet Age
Aviation was poised to advance rapidly following the war, in large part because of the development of jets, but there still were significant problems to overcome. In 1952, a 36-seat British-made jet, the Comet, flew from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, at speeds as high as 500 miles per hour. Two years later, the Comet's career ended abruptly following two back-to-back accidents in which the fuselage burst apart during flight - the result of metal fatigue.
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, following World War II, helped secure the funding needed to solve such problems and advance the jet's development. Most of the breakthroughs related to military aircraft that later were applied to the commercial sector. For example, Boeing employed a swept-back wing design for its B-47 and B-52 bombers to reduce drag and increase speed. Later, the design was incorporated into commercial jets, making them faster and thus more attractive to passengers. The best example of military - civilian technology transfer was the jet tanker Boeing designed for the Air Force to refuel bombers in flight. The tanker, the KC-135, was a huge success as a military plane, but even more successful when revamped and introduced, in 1958, as the first U.S. passenger jet, the Boeing 707. With a length of 125 feet and four engines with 17,000 pounds of thrust each, the 707 could carry up to 181 passengers and travel at speeds of 550 miles per hour. Its engines proved more reliable than piston-driven engines - producing less vibration, putting less stress on the plane's airframe and reducing maintenance expenses. They also burned kerosene, which cost half as much as the high-octane gasoline used in more traditional planes. With the 707, first ordered and operated by Pan Am, all questions about the commercial feasibility of jets were answered. The Jet Age had arrived, and other airlines soon were lining up to buy the new aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Act of 1958
Following World War II, air travel soared, but with the industry's growth came new problems. In 1956 two aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128 people. The skies were getting too crowded for existing systems of aircraft separation, and Congress responded by passing the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.
The legislation created a new safety regulatory agency, the Federal Aviation Agency, later called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when Congress created the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1967. The agency was charged with establishing and running a broad air traffic control system, to maintain safe separation of all commercial aircraft through all phases of flight. In addition, it assumed jurisdiction over all other aviation safety matters, such as the certification of aircraft designs, and airline training and maintenance programs. The Civil Aeronautics Board retained jurisdiction over economic matters, such as airline routes and rates.
Wide-bodies and Supersonics
1969 marked the debut of another revolutionary aircraft, the Boeing 747, which, again, Pan Am was the first to purchase and fly in commercial service. It was the first wide-body jet, with two aisles, a distinctive upper deck over the front section of the fuselage, and four engines. With seating for as many as 450 passengers, it was twice as big as any other Boeing jet and 80 percent bigger than the largest jet up until that time, the DC-8.
Recognizing the economies of scale to be gained from larger jets, other aircraft manufacturers quickly followed suit. Douglas built its first wide-body, the DC-10, in 1970, and only a month later, Lockheed flew its contender in the wide-body market, the L-1011. Both of these jets had three engines (one under each wing and one on the tail) and were smaller than the 747, seating about 250 passengers.
During the same period of time, efforts were underway in both the United States and Europe to build a supersonic commercial aircraft. The Soviet Union was the first to succeed, testing the Tupolev 144 in December of 1968. A consortium of West European aircraft manufacturers first flew the Concorde two months later and eventually produced a number of those fast, but small, jets for commercial service. U.S. efforts to produce a supersonic passenger jet, on the other hand, stalled in 1971 due to public concern about it's expense and the sonic boom produced by such aircraft.