The First Century of Transport Aviation

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2003, p. 22
By C.V. Glines, Contributing Editor

The Wright Brothers’ first powered flights, 100 years ago this December, have led far beyond their wildest imaginings.

Benjamin Franklin, after witnessing a balloon ascension in Paris in 1783, wrote that the balloon “appears…to be a discovery of great importance and what may possibly give a new turn to human affairs.” Although a man of great vision, he never foresaw that winged vehicles someday would be able to carry scores of passengers and do so daily at near-sonic speeds. Neither did the Wright Brothers when they first flew their “aeroplane” in December 1903, but their invention did indeed “give a new turn to human affairs.”

We can now look back on the past century of flight and trace the many deeds and undertakings that have enabled us to travel great distances by air on schedule and with safety. After the Wrights soloed, they took up individual passengers, and Louis Bleriot made the first airplane flight in which two passengers were carried, in France in June 1909.

Carrying passengers in heavier-than-air craft was essential so that aviators could prove that no one suffered any ill effects from the wind or altitude. But carrying passengers was not a new idea. “Aeronauts” in balloons and airships had begun taking up small groups of passengers in the mid-19th century. In October 1909, DELAG, a German company, established a commercial passenger-carrying airline using Zeppelin dirigibles and started regular mail and passenger service between German cities. Between 1910 and 1913, DELAG boasted having carried 14,000 passengers more than 100,000 miles without an accident.

Meanwhile, progress was being made with heavier-than-air craft as air races and record-seeking brought innovations and improvements through trial-and-error experimentation after 1910. Almost daily, airplanes were being flown higher, faster, and farther. Passenger loads increased as engines and aircraft structures improved and the scientific community in Europe and the United States focused on the science of aerodynamics. Although flying was considered mostly a sport at first, serious thought was being given to using the airplane for carrying mail.

The first official government air mail flight took place in India in February 1911, when 6,500 letters were flown from Allahabad to Naini Junction, and the Universal Postal Union established regular service there. Air mail exhibition flights were authorized in Germany, France, and England. At the coronation of George V in August 1911, 130,000 cards and letters were flown between London and Windsor Castle. The air mail exhibition fever also hit the United States, and for the next 7 years mail-carrying flights took place all over the country, usually in conjunction with county and state fairs. All flights were made with the approval of the Postmaster General at no expense to the U.S. government.

In March 1911, Louis Breguet carried 11 passengers on a 3-mile flight in a single-engine biplane in France, and the first air cargo transported by an airplane was a large case of General Electric lamps flown in a Valkyrie monoplane from Shoreham to Hove, England, on July 4, 1911.

The first U.S. air express shipment was a bolt of silk that Phil O. Parmalee flew in a Wright air plane on special order from a Dayton merchant to Columbus, Ohio, in 1912. The inauguration of the first air cargo service in the United States is credited to Harry M. Jones, who flew a case of baked beans from Boston to New York in a Wright B model on Jan. 13, 1913.

Before the first decade of fixed-wing flight was completed in 1913, Calbraith Perry Rodgers had flown across the United States in 49 days, and flying schools were being established in the world’s progressive nations. Igor Sikorsky produced Bolshoi Baltiskii, a 4-ton, four-engine, biplane designed to carry eight passengers in August 1913. This was followed the next year by his giant four-engine Ilya Muromets, which took up 16 passengers. The cockpit was fully enclosed, and passengers enjoyed a heated lounge. The slow-moving giant airplane even featured an outdoor promenade deck.

First scheduled air service

Britain’s first scheduled air service was launched in July 1914 between Leeds and Bradford. The first scheduled airline in the United States was the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line, which inaugurated service in January 1914.

Although the original use of the first military aircraft was for reconnaissance purposes, France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain considered using aircraft in more aggressive roles before the second decade of fixed-wing flight began. The world’s first air raid had taken place in Libya in November 1911, when Italian flyers dropped bombs on the Turks in the war to control that country. Mercenary pilots dropped bombs on Guaymas, Mexico, in May 1913. Under the demands of war, most airplanes being developed during World War I were solely for military use. The emphasis was on armed single-engine fighter and scout planes, and the development of bombers and transports was largely ignored during this period.

However, many wondered what commercial uses could be generated by the flying machine, and the idea of flying the mail on a regular schedule persisted. The first official U.S. air mail flights began on Sept. 25, 1911, when Earle L. Ovington flew a Bleriot monoplane with more than 36,000 cards, letters, and circulars over a 9-day period between Nassau Air Park and the post office at Mineola on Long Island, N.Y. The Post Office Department then requested funds to start an experimental air mail service, but Congress refused. Requests were made each year during World War I, until in early 1918, Congress appropriated $100,000 for development of an experimental air route between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Army Air Service pilots and airplanes were assigned, and service began on May 15, 1918.

The experiment ended on Aug. 12, 1918, and, although a few mishaps and forced landings occurred, it was deemed a success. The Army pilots had successfully completed 92 percent of their scheduled flights, had carried 194,000 pounds of mail, and had flown 128,255 route miles without a fatality. Their achievement marked a major milestone in the history of U.S. air transportation.

Air Mail Service pilots, employees of the Post Office Department, took over the task in modified and specially built mail planes. Routes connecting major cities from New York to San Francisco were established along a transcontinental “airway,” and regular transcontinental service began on July 1, 1924.

Air Mail Act of 1925

Because the U.S. government never intended to operate mail planes permanently, the Air Mail Act of 1925 (also known as the Kelly Act) enabled the Post Office Department to contract with private firms to carry the mail by air. Its purpose was “to encourage commercial aviation and to authorize the Postmaster General to contract for air mail service.” This congressional act was the parent of the airlines as it provided aviation interests with the incentive to form operating companies and encouraged private capital to invest in them.

When the bill became law, the Post Office Department issued requests for bids on eight air mail routes. Ford Motor Co. was one of the first to put a contract route into operation. It had already been operating the Ford Air Transportation Service with regularity for 2 years from Detroit to Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo, flying auto parts, company mail, and literature.

Congress in 1926 enacted the Air Commerce Act, which created a Bureau of Aeronautics within the Department of Commerce. The Bureau had a wide range of functions, including issuing certificates, inspecting equipment, investigating accidents, maintaining air navigation facilities, and inspecting airfields. By the end of 1926, contract airlines were shuttling back and forth over 12 routes, carrying mail and air express freight. These and later contract awards gave the United States a comprehensive air mail system and provided a firm basis for the establishment of all-purpose airlines serving all the people.

Two carriers—Western Air Express and Pacific Air Transport—had already begun flying passengers with the mail. WAE had won the route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and began flying it April 17, 1926. WAE inaugurated the nation’s first sustained scheduled passenger airline service on May 23, 1926, when two passengers were carried along with the mail.

The Air Mail Service was phased out over the next year, and in August 1927, the last air mail flight was conducted under the direction of the Post Office Department. The original 218-mile route between New York City and Washington, D.C., had been extended coast-to-coast over 2,680 route miles. During the last year of operation, pilots flew 1,483,280 pounds of mail (the equivalent of 59.5 million letters) over 3.8 million miles. About 40 percent of the mileage had been flown in darkness, and the overall rate of schedules met was 94 percent.

Most of the airplanes modified originally or built specifically to carry mail were too small to carry many passengers, and few contractors bothered to install seats. The U.S. government prodded the air mail routes to become airlines capable of handling people as well as mail bags and small packages; Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown persuaded Congress to change the method of payment to mail contractors. Where they had been collecting revenue on the weight of mail they carried, they were soon to be paid on the basis of the volume of space available for the mail. This encouraged them to buy larger airplanes that could carry passengers as well as mail and cargo.

Despite this progress, the United States lagged far behind in airline development. The Germans had begun scheduled airline service in February 1919; the French started a Paris-London route at the same time and began flights to Morocco. Other European nations followed suit, and aircraft manufacturers began turning out larger airplanes to carry passengers and freight over greater distances at the beginning of the third decade of fixed-wing flight. The year 1924 was highlighted by the first successful round-the-world flight by two U.S. Army Air Service airplanes. Multiengine flying boats were reaching across the world’s oceans, and land planes were also spanning greater distances as engines became more reliable. By 1928, 31 U.S. operators were flying about 270 aircraft.

But scheduled flights were limited by the inability of pilots to fly safely or maintain schedules through bad weather and at night, when they had no visual cues for reference. This had been the basic cause of many accidents. The beginning of a solution took place on Sept. 24, 1929, when Army Lt. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle became the first pilot to take off, fly a course, and land without seeing outside the cockpit. This was made possible by the development of the accurate barometric altimeter, artificial horizon, directional gyroscope, and a radio receiver and vibrating reed indicator that responded to signals from ground beacons. Of these, the artificial horizon was especially important. Doolittle said it was “like cutting a port-hole through the fog to look at the real horizon.”

This accomplishment marked a distinct turning point in the history of airline operations. Airlines quickly adopted instrument flying, and their schedules could be met with more certainty and greater safety. As aviation began its fourth decade, larger transport airplanes were being manufactured to satisfy the demand for flying larger passenger loads. The era of the plywood and fabric-covered airliners was over. They were now mostly made of metal, with retractable landing gear and twin engines that had variable-pitch propellers. The engines were more fuel-efficient, and passenger comfort was of utmost importance.

Increasing seating capacity

In September 1932, the Douglas Aircraft Co. signed a contract with TWA for the DC-1, a 12-passenger transport. The only one of its kind, it first flew on July 1, 1933, and was followed by the 14-passenger DC-2. Although the latter was the best airplane built up to that time for airline use, it could not carry enough payload to make a profit. American Airlines asked Douglas to stretch the design to carry 21 passengers, and the result was the DC-3, which struck the needed balance among speed, gross weight, engine power, payload, space, and wing area. It became, in the words of C.R. Smith, American’s president, “the first plane that could make money just by hauling passengers.” The DC-3 dominated the airline industry, and its success encouraged the development of four-engine transports.

One of the principal legislative developments during the 1930s that helped the U.S. airline industry was the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act, which established the Civil Aeronautics Authority in August 1938. The Administrator took charge of the federal airways, of certifying pilots and aircraft, and of controlling air traffic and navigation facilities. The Act also founded the Civil Aeronautics Board, which began in 1940 with far-reaching regulatory and judicial powers. By issuing certificates of public convenience and necessity, the CAB controlled competition by regulating tariffs, granting air mail contracts, and determining their rates of pay.

Several months before the United States entered World War II, the major U.S. airlines were flying war materiel and personnel under the Lend-Lease agreement with England. In May 1940, President Roosevelt called for production of 50,000 airplanes per year, and in 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the Army Air Forces) set up a ferry service to fly aircraft and equipment to many parts of the world. The Air Transport Command and the Navy Air Transport Service were formed later to supervise a worldwide system of air service, led by airline pilots and executives. The U.S. airlines, large and small, all contributed their expertise to the military. By the end of the war, civil and military air transports connected every war area with air service to move troops and supplies and made the difference between success and failure in military operations.

A test of the Air Force’s air transport capability came in June 1948, when the Russians closed off all land traffic into and out of Berlin, Germany’s capital city in the Russian Zone of Occupation. Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, organizer of the flights that had supplied American forces in China during World War II by flying from India over the Himalayan Mountains, was tasked to supply Berlin by air. The Berlin Airlift resulted, and C-47, C-46, C-54, and other types of military transports supplied the two million inhabitants for 14 months with essential food, medicine, and other vital necessities. It was a proving ground for air transport by showing the importance and feasibility of sustained, round-the-clock mass movement of cargo by air.

During the Korean War, airline and military aircraft provided airlift for United Nations troops. Meanwhile, airline and military airplanes had been updated, and four-engine airplanes were “stretched” to accommodate more passengers. Jet transport capability was introduced by a prototype of the British deHavilland Comet in July 1949; scheduled Comet service began in May 1952.

As the 50th anniversary of the Wrights’ first flights neared, a TWA Super Constellation completed America’s first scheduled nonstop transcontinental flight in October 1953. The year ended with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s announcement that the world’s airlines (excluding those of the USSR and China) had carried more than 50 million passengers.

Turboprop airplanes were introduced, and British European Airways inaugurated the world’s first turboprop airliner service with a Vickers Viscount in April 1953. The voracious fuel consumption of jet engines was reduced and led to construction of America’s first jetliner, Boeing’s Model 367-80, which first flew on July 15, 1954. It was the prototype for the Boeing 707, which made its maiden flight on Dec. 20, 1957. The next U.S. jetliner was the Douglas DC-8, which made its initial flight on May 30, 1958. BOAC’s Comet 4 was the first jet to fly a transatlantic route in early October 1958, followed 3 weeks later by Pan Am with the B-707.

Jet service begins

By this time, the world’s airlines were betting their futures on jet and turboprop airplanes, and piston-powered airplanes faded from the active airline scene. TWA was the first U.S. airline to move into the jet era with an all-jet fleet. Boeing began developing other jet transports and the B-747, then its largest, launched a new era in mass passenger transport when it was first flown on Feb. 19, 1969.

In September 1965, Britain and France had announced that they would share construction of 20 supersonic transports, and France’s first one rolled out of the factory at Toulouse, France, in December 1967, Britain’s in September 1968. The Soviets also had a supersonic transport —the Tupolev Tu-144—and it first flew in December 1968.

Meanwhile, Boeing was going ahead with the SST, the American version of a supersonic transport, which was originally scheduled to fly by 1970. However, the program was delayed because of engineering difficulties and predictions of high cost; it was canceled in May 1973.

Braniff International Airways scored an American “first” by agreeing to fly the Concorde between Dallas/Ft. Worth, London, and Paris beginning in January 1979, despite being restricted to subsonic speeds over the U.S. continental landmass. Braniff flew them to Europe only until May 31, 1980, because passenger interest declined, fuel costs had increased, and flying them at less fuel-efficient subsonic speeds was unacceptable.

Supersonic civil air transports will probably not be in service again for a long time. The Soviets withdrew their Tu-144 from airline service in June 1978 after a fatal crash. The British and French Concordes ceased operations this year.

The emphasis on air transport aircraft now is for more passenger- and cargo-carrying capability, greater range, and increased fuel efficiency. Boeing’s new 777-300ER is now undergoing flight testing and the first one will be delivered in April 2004. Boeing’s future transports include the baseline 7E7 “Dreamliner” and a stretched 7E7. The Dreamliner will carry 200 passengers in three classes of seating on routes as long as 6,600 nautical miles. It will also have room for five pallets of cargo and five LD-3 cargo containers. The stretched 7E7 will have three-class seating and a range of 8,000 nautical miles and will be able to carry six pallets with eight LD-3 containers. Meanwhile, the Phantom Works, Boeing’s R&D unit, has many advanced technology projects in the works, including a “blended wing/body” transport and an advanced tactical transport.

Airbus, Boeing’s arch rival, plans to produce a family of the world’s largest passenger jets—the A380. The baseline A380-100 will feature three-class, twin-deck, four-aisle seating for 555 passengers and a range of 7,650 nautical miles. The stretched A380-200 will be capable of carrying 656 passengers the same distance. Combination freight/passenger versions are also planned. The first A380-100 is scheduled to fly in 2004 and begin service in 2006.

As Franklin might have said about these new mammoth transports, “they will assuredly bring a new turn to human affairs.”