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 There were military losses, too, as the smaller wars in China, Spain, Ethiopia, and South America were superseded in 1939 by World War II.

Flight after World War I

Messerschmitt designed the Bf 109R specifically to beat the speed record set by the Macchi MC.72 on October 23,1934.
Messerschmitt designed the Bf 109R specifically to beat the speed record set by the Macchi MC.72 on October 23,1934.
Warren M. Bodie Collection

One fascinating aspect of this decade was the proliferation of new military types.­ Within the space of three years, 1934 to 1936, there occurred the debut of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Boeing B-17, Heinkel He 111, Curtiss P-36, Mitsubishi G3M, Morane-Saulnier MS.406, and many others that would see action in World War II. Quite remarkably, given the disparity in the resources of each country involved, these new aircraft had comparable performance parameters, which speaks to the genius of their designers.

In the years after World War I, philosophies of airpower appeared. Some were authored by well-known leaders such as the RAF's Hugh Trenchard, Italy's Giulio Douhet, and the United States' Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. Although there were many differences in their respective approaches, all agreed that command of the air was essential: The way to win a war was to attack the "vital centers" of the enemy--before they attacked yours. While their ideas were sound, they were not backed financially by any of the democratic nations, which allowed their armed forces to fall into complete disarray in the years between the wars. This was in sharp contrast to the totalitarian countries, including Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, where the military budget funded strong air forces.


Germany and Japan were thus endowed with a tremendous advantage at the beginning of World War II. By choosing to determine the date the war would start, they timed the introduction of new technology to their air forces so they could be at maximum strength when war began. Thus, for Germany on September 1, 1939, and for Japan on December 7, 1941, their respective air forces were at the peak of their form. Both had the latest and best aircraft, both had extensive combat experience (Germany's gained in Spain, Japan's in China and in border conflicts with the Soviet Union), and both would use them to overwhelm initially weaker enemies.

­Air power allowed Germany to defeat Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg in swift campaigns that were relatively inexpensive. Air power in fact seduced Japan, allowing it to make the colossal mistake of becoming involved in a World War against China, the United States, and Great Britain. But it also allowed Japan to make a series of sweeping victories in late 1941 and for the first five months of 1942.

World War II Flight

The graceful elliptical wings of the Heinkel He 111 made it one of the most attractive aircraft of the Luftwaffe.
The graceful elliptical wings of the Heinkel He 111 made it one of the most attractive aircraft of the Luftwaffe.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

As expert as both Germany and Japan were in the application of air power against weaker opponents, neither nation had any concept of the scale of air power that was required to fight a global war. Both believed that air forces of 3,000 to 5,000 front-line planes, flown by expert crews, were adequate. Both were wrong by a factor of 15 or more.

Of all the nations involved in the war, only the United States and the Soviet Union understood just how large an effective air force would have to be. They also had the industrial capacity to create such a force. Great Britain understood that a large air force was needed but despite its best efforts could not create one of the necessary size, because it devoted far too many resources to its Bomber Command.


Germany began the war against the Soviet Union with fewer first-line aircraft available than it had a­t the time of the fall of France. In the first few months of the war, the Luftwaffe was able to decimate the Soviet Air Force--but it could not reach either the Soviet aircraft factories or training bases. Japan began the war with clearly superior aircraft and crews but had such a small industrial base and an even smaller crew training system that it could not replace the losses incurred in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.

By 1943, the tide was shifting swiftly away from the once victorious Axis powers to the Allies and to the Soviet Union. In the United States, new aircraft were coming off the factory lines in ever increasing numbers, and pilots and crews were flowing at an inexhaustible rate. The Soviet Union was also beginning to feel its new strength, with more and better aircraft racing off production lines. While Germany and Japan made enormous efforts to catch up, both timing and technology were now firmly on the side of the Allies.

Airpower through 1943 had been important in many instances, decisive in a few but always influential. However, the groundwork in airpower, training, and armament had been laid so that the Allies could forge ahead in the next two years of the war and utterly defeat the countries that had started the war. In the process, they would build the technical foundation for a revolution in civil and military aviation in the postwar period. For the next chapter in flight history, check out Post-World War II Flight.