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Flight in the Depression


Curtiss P-40E. See more ­flight pictures.
United States Air Force Museum

In 1934, aviation began to emerge from the dark recesses of the depression, shaking off the exuberance of the past and becoming far more professional. All over the world, new designs were on the drawing boards of both military and commercial manufacturers. These aircraft would dictate both the pace of civil aviation progress and the military prowess of nations, particularly those aggressor countries who were determined to go to war. 

Flight Pictures

In commerce, there would be a flowering of excellent types, beginning with the Douglas DC-3 but extending across frontiers to the British Empire series flying boats, the German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, and the French Dewoitine D.332 and Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.M.75 trimotors. Business aircraft had a similar burst of international brilliance that included the Beech Model 17 Staggerwing, de Havilland D.H.88 Comet, Messerschmitt Bf 108 Taifun, and Caudron Simoun. And for the private individual, there were the Piper Cub, the de Havilland Puss Moth, and Henri Mignet's amusing but dangerous Pou de Ciel (Flying Flea).

­Around the world, there were gains in the number of aircraft in service, the number of passenger miles flow­n, the acres of crops sprayed, and the return on investment from aviation companies. There were gains in performance, too, as the official land speed record rose to 469.22 miles per hour in the Messerschmitt Bf 109R (Me 209 VI) and the altitude record to 56,046 feet in a Caproni-161bis biplane. Howard Hughes, having designed and built his own Hughes H-1 racer with which he set both a land speed record and a U.S. transcontinental record, chose a Lockheed Model 14 to make the swiftest trip around the world, taking only 3 days, 19 hours, and 8 minutes.

But there were tragic losses as well, highlighted by the dramatic explosion of the dirigible Hindenburg over Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. This was followed soon after by the disappearance of the revered Amelia Earhart on her second attempt at a round-the-world flight in 1937. There were military losses, too, as the smaller wars in China, Spain, Ethiopia, and South America were superseded in 1939 by World War II.