aviation comes of age
the creation of NACA
the development of air power
advocates of strategic bombing
Billy Mitchell and the bomber
the U.S. Air Corps
the start of air mail
the growth of airlines
Imperial Airways
the flying boats
the clipper ships
  a Russian experiment


the aircraft come of age

In the period between the wars, various means of transportation were improving steadily—automobiles, trains, and ships—so that flying was not the conveyance of choice for most travellers. Aside from being dangerous (when something went wrong with an aircraft, the results were often catastrophic), passengers were subject to cold air at higher altitudes, the constant nerve-shattering vibrations and deafening noise of the engines, air sickness and pressure on the ears during takeoffs and landings, cramped quarters, and the claustrophobic confines of the aircraft cabin.

The statistics comparing various means of transportation are a bit deceiving: the nearly 1.9 billion passenger miles logged in the air worldwide in 1934, one of the strongest years before World War II, represented a great increase from 1929 (sixty-six million passenger miles), but still represented less than 2 percent of all means of intercity transportation, and even less when considered on the basis of fare dollars or trips taken.

By 1934 the people prepared to hazard flying had taken their first flight; the remainder were going to be hard to coax onto an airplane. The industry’s response was a technological one: planes had to become more comfortable, safer (and appear safer in design to the average person), and more stable; they had to be able to fly higher to avoid the turbulence of lower atmosphere weather, which meant sealing the passenger compartment and treating the air within it; and they had to develop many more safety systems, especially for takeoffs and landings, the most dangerous phase of most flights.

Airplanes also had to vastly increase their speed and range to provide clear and obvious advantages over other long-range transportation options if the benefits of flight were to be worth the risks. Virtually none of this was in place during the 1920s, and only the merest glimmer of light was apparent during the 1930's. It is therefore one of the remarkable aspects of the history of aviation during this period that the men and women of aviation, traditionally a hot-blooded and impatient lot, exercised great patience in solving each technological problem in turn. The impetuous character that had undermined the French in the first decade of the century was not apparent in these decades, at least not in the development programs of the airplane manufacturers.

This newfound sense of responsibility was the result of several factors. The industrialists had good reason to believe that they had the time and would have the resources to develop aviation slowly and carefully through the 1930s. For one thing, it was clear that governments were on their side. Legislation continually favoured the industry over other means of transportation (just as the railroads and the road-builders and car makers had received government support). When it was clear that manufacturers and airlines would not be able to turn a profit for some time, ways were found to support them, either by providing contracts for services such as mail delivery or army transport, or by outright purchase of aircraft far in excess of the government’s current needs.

This latter form of support became so integral a part of the aircraft industry that it has lasted right to the present day, causing no end of problems even as it keeps the industry afloat. Second, governments themselves undertook the research programs that were going to be necessary for the industry to grow. Ostensibly these programs were motivated by purely scientific and, to a lesser degree, military concerns, but the shape and size of the programs made it abundantly clear that it was civil aviation that was meant to be the beneficiary.

Very little of the research done by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) or at the Institute Aerotechnique remained secret, especially not after it was applied to one of the aircraft produced by Lockheed or Breguet. With Germany forbidden from carrying out aeronautical research of any kind in secret (but getting around that by building aircraft that could be converted easily to military uses), a hope may have existed in American and British circles that open technological development would discourage military development of aviation. This turned out to be a false hope; after the war, the use made by the Germans and Japanese of data made public by NACA and other research facilities would be used as an argument against shared technology as an antiwar strategy.

The world of commercial aviation was to see its beginnings during the 1920s and have its first modest blossoming in the 1930s. The steps taken were halting ones, to be sure. The issue of airships had to be put to rest—as it finally was with the Hindenburg disaster, though the air transportation industry had already realized airships were not going to become a mainstay of air travel—and even the great flying boats had to run their course, though for a while they appeared to offer a feasible approach to the problems of air transportation. By the late 1930s, airports began to be designed that could accommodate the new transports, and airports like Idlewild and Croydon, built near water in anticipation of a great deal of flying boat traffic, adapted to land aircraft and provided the services both aircraft and passengers would need to make flying a safe  and pleasant experience.