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.

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.

Aviation Popularity

The DC-1 was the first of a Douglas dynasty of airliners.
The DC-1 was the first of a Douglas dynasty of airliners.
McDonnell Douglas Corp

The new and powerful sentiment for aviation was reflected in the popular culture of the time. Aviation films, including the first film ever to win an Oscar, Wings, were extremely well received. For the wealthy, it became as socially progressive to own an aircraft as to own a yacht, and the fine old magazine The Sportsman Pilot lovingly recorded the comings and goings of the rich and famous all over the country. Aircraft were used by businesses for practical tasks suc­h as flying along pipelines, making swift delivery of photographs for newspapers, and, to a very limited degree, serving as executive aircraft.

But records and racing caught the public imagination, and heroes emerged to follow in Lindbergh's mighty footsteps. Among them was Amelia Earhart, who resembled Lindbergh so much in physical appearance and in her mannerisms that she was inevitably called "the Lady Lindy." Jimmy Doolittle, who had earned his doctorate in aeronautical engineering at M.I.T., flew a series of record flights and performed the first outside loop. After leaving the service, he became America's premier racing pilot in the Granville brothers' hot Gee Bee racer. He had a host of colleagues, including Wiley Post, Frank Hawks, Roscoe Turner, Clarence Chamberlin, and others, all of whom had a devoted following in press and public.

The American aviation experience was replicated around the world. Great Britain honored its great flyers, including Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, Jimmy and Amy Mollison, Flight Lieutenants John Boothman and George Stainforth, and many more.

­As hotly contested as the races were, so was the technology of transports. Boeing created the first modern transport in 1933 with its twin-engine Model 247, beginning a ­dynasty of Boeing transports. Douglas countered the same year with its remarkable DC-1, the sire of the famous DC line. These would lead to a revolution in the air transport industry, since the Douglas series of aircraft would for the first time make flying passengers profitable without a subsidy.

­The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression put a damper on the aviation firestorm Lindbergh had created, but it did not extinguish it. Aviation was still a young and vital industry with the capacity to draw from its own resources all that was necessary not only to survive but to progress. For the next chapter in the history of flight, check out Flight in the Depression.