A Century in Review - The 1920s: A Shrinking World

 - October 12, 2007, 10:09 AM

When World War I ended in 1918 it had cost some nine million lives, and about 15,000 of those lost were airmen. While that might not seem to be a significant percentage, the numbers testified to aviation’s loss of innocence. It had played its part in a brutal conflict, and was no longer simply the recreational adventure it had been before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. But the maturation process forced on the airplane by war had opened vast possibilities for air travel upon the return of peace, and those who had been employed to design, build and fly airplanes for military purposes turned their attention, and applied all they had learned, to the commercial potential of these wondrous new machines, still only 15 years old.

Airplanes had become sturdy, and they had become clearly recognizable as the ancestors of today’s propeller-powered flying machines, with an engine in front, wings not far behind, and tailfeathers at the end of the fuselage. Gone was the flimsy look that marked the frail, tentative machines of aviation’s infancy. As backlash to the famous wing failures of the Blériot monoplanes, biplanes ruled during WWI. There were exceptions, but for the most part aviation in WWI relied on two sets of stoutly braced wings or more (the most notable example of more being the Fokker Triplane favored by von Richthofen).

Aviation had entered adolescence. It was flexing newfound muscle, eager to make its mark on the world, and it would do so by shrinking it.

But like many an adolescent, its grand ambitions were thwarted by reality. After WWI the world was awash with surplus military airplanes–a Curtiss Jenny could be had for little more than $300–and the economy was mired in recession. Airplane manufacturing was not a good business to be in, but despite its heavy payload of realities, aviation struggled aloft.

Mindful of the frailties of the Blériot, designers made monoplanes more stout, and they paid more attention to streamlining and tapering. In his book The Leading Edge, Walter Boyne singles out the 1922 Verville Sperry R-3 as being at least 10 years ahead of its time in that it introduced many features of 1930s fighters, including tapered cantilever wings, retractable landzing gear and conformal radiators for engine cooling. But patent protection by Curtiss–at this time the most powerful American aircraft manufacturer–at first derailed Verville’s plans to win the Pulitzer Trophy with his sleek R-3.

The spirit of the 1920s can be defined by the first crossings of the Atlantic Ocean in 1919. Since it separated the old world from the new, the Atlantic was a particularly symbolic barrier to vault, and Glenn Curtiss had been working on the feat before World War I. When eventually he was able to mount the attempt, in May 1919, it was something of a disaster.

Three Curtiss flying boats, each with a crew of five, departed from Rockaway, N.Y., on May 8, 1919, and 23 days later, on May 31, one of the three (NC-4 piloted by Cdr. John Towers) arrived at Plymouth, England, via a circuitous 3,408-nm route with landings in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Azores, Portugal and Spain. The other two Curtiss flying boats that had embarked never made it. Both NC-1 and NC-3 were forced down short of the Azores; NC-1 sank (its crew was rescued) and NC-3 water-taxied the remaining 200 miles to the Azores, where crews were changed and NC-4 continued on to Plymouth. Along the way, a necklace of
41 American destroyers marked the route.

Although they flew considerably fewer miles, Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown made a deeper impression in the history books with their nonstop crossing of the Atlantic on June 14 to 15, 1919.

From the warm cocoon of a jet airplane flying serenely above the waves far below, it is easy to ignore the vastness of the North Atlantic. It lay there sprawled, restless and foaming like some mythical beast, intent on separating the new world from the old. The early challengers thrust their slow, clumsy airplanes and their lives into its teeth, braving ice-laden clouds, fierce winds and numbing fatigue in the thick of its weather.

Just as his 1909 Channel crossing had enriched Louis Blériot’s commercial success, the Atlantic Ocean attracted commercial fortune seekers too. Six contenders were vying to be first across nonstop, five of them British and one Swedish.

Named after a town in Northern France near the site of a Canadian WWI victory, the Vimy was a sturdy bomber, and for its challenge of the Atlantic Alcock and Brown had the bomb racks and forward gunner’s turret removed in favor of extra fuel tankage that would take the airplane 1,000 pounds beyond its wartime max takeoff weight but keep its two 360-hp Rolls-Royce Eagle V12 piston engines running long enough to vault the ocean at a paltry 100 mph airspeed.

Their airplane arrived in Newfoundland on May 26, 1919, in 13 wooden crates, and in 14 days the mechanics, working outside in miserable weather, had assembled the contents into an airplane ready to fly. The sight of the Handley Page bomber circling overhead on test flights served to motivate the Alcock and Brown crew.

On June 14 the weather improved, and at 4 a.m. on that day they decided it was now or never. They lurched into the air after using 900 feet of the 1,500 feet of field available, and then sank out of sight, convincing the crowd they had crashed. They hadn’t, and 16 hr 12 min later they landed in a bog in Ireland. In the interim they had lost the “ram-air turbine” that powered the radio shortly after takeoff; battled engine failures related to icing and clogged radiators (despite their twice boiling and filtering the radiator coolant before takeoff); lost and, just above the waves, regained control in the clouds; lost an exhaust stack, exposing them to the full bark of six of one Eagle’s dozen cylinders and directing hot exhaust gases onto a wing bracing wire that glowed red hot but held; and they had wandered vertically from wavetop height to 11,000 feet in search of warmer air (for de-icing) or clearer air for reference to stars or sun or horizon for navigation.

Brown wrote, “An aura of unreality seemed to surround us as we flew onward toward the dawn and Ireland. The distorted ball of a moon, the weird half-light, the monstrous cloud shapes, the fog and misty indefiniteness of space, the changeless drone, drone, drone of the motors.”

Airmail pilots carried on the transatlantic tradition of pushing the limits of man and machine, and  one airmail pilot in particular rose to fame. Between Alcock and Brown’s and Charles Lindbergh’s crossings, however, came some other notable conquests.

• First flight from Britain to Australia: two Australian brothers–Capt. Ross Smith and Lt. Keith Smith–flew 11,294 miles from Hounslow, near London, to Darwin in a Vickers Vimy in less than 28 days. They departed on Nov. 12, 1919, and arrived on December 10.

• First coast-to-coast flight in the U.S.: Lt. William Coney of the Air Service flew from Rockwell Field in San Diego to Jacksonville, Fla., total flying time 22 hr 27 min, between Feb. 21 and 24, 1921.

• First coast-to-coast airmail flight in the U.S.: E.M. Allison and Jack Knight left San Francisco at 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 22, 1921 and arrived at Mineola, N.Y., at 4:50 p.m. the following day.

• First coast-to-coast crossing of the U.S. in a single day: Lt. James Doolittle, flying a modified de Havilland DH.4B from Pablo Beach, Fla., to Rockwell Field in San Diego on Sept. 4, 1922. His actual flying time to cover the 2,163 miles was 21 hr 20 min, and total elapsed time, including a refueling stop at Kelly Field, Texas, was 22 hr 35 min.

• First regular U.S. transcontinental airmail service: inaugurated on July 1, 1924, and flown daily with 14 stops. Pilot of first westward flight (from New York) was Wesley Smith; pilot of first eastbound flight (from San Francisco) was Claire Vance.

Between April 6 and Sept. 28, 1924, two of four Douglas World Cruisers that set out from Lake Washington in Seattle made the first successful round-the-world flight. They covered 27,553 miles in 365 hours of flying time and 72 stops over a period of 175 days. The landing gear of the Douglas airplanes could be changed from wheels to floats, depending on the landing sites to be used along the way. Only the military at the time could have launched such an ambitious project, and fuel and supplies were stationed along the route for the eight Army pilots picked to fly the mission.

In a flight second only to that of the Wright Brothers in terms of famousness, 26-year-old airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh in May 1927 crossed the Atlantic solo
from New York to Paris in a Wright Whirlwind-powered Ryan monoplane called the Spirit of St. Louis, beating five other contending teams who had been preparing attempts since the summer of 1926. It was an epic achievement by an underdog, supported not by a large organization but by a few St. Louis businessmen.

Lindbergh had not slept for 22 hours when he took off at 7:52 a.m. on May 20 from Roosevelt Field, Long Island. Loaded with 450 gallons of fuel, the Spirit of St. Louis cleared telephone wires at the end of the runway by a mere 20 feet.

If there is one persistent theme throughout the accounts of Lindbergh’s flight it is his battles with tiredness. As early as three hours after takeoff, he took the Ryan down to within 10 feet of the water to clear his mind and keep the fatigue at bay. Twelve hours into the flight he at least had some weather to contend with, but he was soon back doing battle with the insistent tug of heavy eyelids. He left the airplane’s windows open to help his plight, but it was a relentless battle and he found himself first nodding off to sleep with his eyes open, and then hallucinating. Some 26 hours after takeoff he circled several small fishing vessels, hoping to yell for directions, but no crewmembers were visible on deck.

After 27 hours he turned toward land to his left and deemed it to be the southern tip of Ireland, putting him 2.5 hours ahead of schedule and just three miles off course. The sun set as he flew over the coastal town of Cherbourg, putting Paris (and the $25,000 Orteig prize, offered in May 1919 for the first nonstop New York-Paris or Paris-New York flight) just 200 miles away. Lindbergh touched down at Le Bourget Aerodrome 33.5 hours and 3,600 miles after leaving New York, having remained awake for 55 hours. Some 150,000 people cheered the arrival, and Lindbergh became the first global celebrity. Aviation was being noticed on a scale that set the stage for the Golden Age.