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The Heart of the Golden Age of Flight

The Spirit of St. Louis. See more flight pictures.
Warren M. Bodie Collection

Aviation matured during this decade, going from the reckless youth of global war through a rebellious adolescence that paralleled the ribald excesses of the Jazz Age and finally emerging ruefully adult and sobered by the depression that wracked the world. Some of the most famous aviation manufacturers would begin business; some of the most beautiful aircraft in history would be created; and some of the most famous flyers would blaze their way across the horizon. Civilian aviation would first catch up with and then surpass military aviation in performance and technology. Aircraft would be used in wars around the world. Although small in scale compared to World War I, these conflicts illustrated an ongoing need for the air weapon--even in minor battles.

Flight Pictures

­­Like the rest of the business world, the business of aviation would see a boom and bust during this decade. Military spending was at a standstill despite the desire--even the need--for improved military aircraft. Most nations adopted the policy of fostering the survival of aircraft companies by sharing out very small contracts as widely as possible so each management team and its engineers could be maintained intact, along with a small skilled workforce.

­The military also adopted the very sound practice of using its aircraft and pilots to set records that grasped the public's attention. Thus, in 1924, the United States sent its four Douglas World Cruisers on the first successful aerial circumnavigation of the world. Great Britain, Italy, and the United States battled it out for the honor of winning the Schneider Trophy, and Great Britain succeeded with its remarkable Supermarine seaplanes. Germany, still recovering from the violent economic aftermath of losing the war, contributed with the magnificent Graf Zeppelin, by far the most successful of all the great airships. For its part, France set dozens of speed and distance records, making the names of flyers like Joseph Sadi-Lecointe, Dieudonne Costes, and Maurice Bellonte famous around the world.

It was also in 1924 that aviation contributed one of the most important innovations in its history, the introduction of crop dusting by the Huff-Daland Dusters. This was the start of what is now known as "agricultural aviation." The Dusters were originally used to spray insecticides on crops, but the aircraft were soon used for disease control, planting crops, stocking fish, fighting forest fires, and a hundred other compassionate uses that saved tens of millions of lives and trillions of dollars in commerce.