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The Heart of the Golden Age of Flight

Civilian Air Industry
Streamlining was not always given top priority during the early 1920s.
Streamlining was not always given top priority during the early 1920s.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

While the government sustained (barely) the military manufacturers, the civilian industry depended on investments to build its factories and sales to sustain them. The 1920s saw three factors that helped the civilian industry greatly. The first was the gradual disappearance of war surplus aircraft due to crashes and wear and tear. It was possible to buy a Curtiss Jenny for as little as $150 in ­1920, but it was more difficult to do so in 1926. The second was the unprecedented boom in the stock market, which, in the United States in particular, made the initial offering of stock sales from virtually unknown and completely unproven companies both easy and profitable. The third was by far the most important and that was the flight of Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris in his Ryan monoplane on May 20-21, 1927. The aviation bonfire was burning when Lindbergh took off, but his flight had the effect of throwing a bucket of gasoline on the fire.

There were a number of explanations for Lindbergh's effect upon the popular imagination. The contest for the Orteig Prize was dramatic; it was a challenging flight that had already incurred several fatalities by the time Lindbergh arrived in New York to begin his attempt. The competition was severe. The well-liked and well-organized Richard Byrd was standing by in his formidable Fokker trimotor, while the disorganized and disliked Charles Levine was casting about for a pilot for his proven Bellanca. Lindbergh was an underdog, and the public likes an underdog. Ten days before Lindbergh took off, two famous French flyers, the great ace Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, were lost in their own transatlantic attempt. The odds seemed stacked against Lindbergh when he made his now-famous bumpy early-morning takeoff from Roosevelt Field.

Lindbergh succeeded where all others had failed. Even more important, he turned out to be a handsome, well-spoken, intelligent individual who, with becoming modesty, perfectly fulfilled the role of hero not only for America but for the world.

­Lindbergh made aviation come alive, giving it a spark that sent it soaring to new heights with the advent of a series of innovations, including the reliable Wright Whirlwind engine that had powered the Spirit of St. Louis.