A Century in Review - The 1930s: They Were Golden

 - January 18, 2008, 9:19 AM

National pride and a thirst for aerial trailblazing dubbed the “Lindbergh effect” spurred the advances that mark what is known in retrospect as the Golden Age of Aviation, the 1930s. It was one of the most exciting and productive periods in aviation history. In Europe, competition for the Schneider Trophy drove speeds to rarefied heights, and in the U.S. ever more spectacular air circuses and air-racing events fed the public’s hunger for derring-do during the Depression. And once again impending war advanced aviation technology, just as it had in the 1910s, this time in the form of Germany’s veiled efforts to ensure military air superiority when push came to shove.

Charles Lindbergh’s epic intercontinental solo flight in 1927 and his subsequent tour of every state in the union reignited a passion for aviation in the U.S. that had dimmed since the initial euphoria of the Wrights’ achievement. Europe had paced aeronautical progress thus far, but progress became more balanced from 1927 onwards, with both the new and old worlds striving to reach ever farther, ever higher, ever faster.

Airport construction in the U.S. took hold, and Lindbergh inspired some fantastic long-distance flights in the late 1920s and 1930s that further advanced the reliability and utility of airplanes as traveling machines. “Blind” flying by instruments became reality with Jimmy Doolittle’s Sept. 24, 1929 takeoff, 15-minute flight and landing made solely by reference to Sperry instruments within the hooded cockpit of the Consolidated NY-2 biplane he flew with safety pilot Ben Kelsey (whose hands, the world was told, never touched the controls). During the 15-mile sortie Doolittle made two 180-degree turns before concluding the first “blind” flight with a rough but safe landing back at Mitchell Field on New York’s Long Island.

Just as Blériot’s and Alcock & Brown’s 1909 and 1919 flights, respectively, had closed out one decade by setting the stage for the next, Doolittle’s blind flight in 1929 set the stage for advancing the safety and utility of airplanes in the next decade. True to form, the last year of the 1930s would set the stage for the next decade by witnessing the initiation of World War II. The “nine factor” continued in peacetime: the age of turbine airliners began almost in 1949 with the 1948 first flight of the Vickers Viscount, and 1969 saw the first flights of both the 747 and Concorde–all events that changed the course of aviation for the coming decade.

Although perhaps best remembered for motivating the advances of the 1930s, the Schneider Trophy actually dated back to 1912. It was then that balloonist Jacques Schneider, wealthy son of a French armaments manufacturer, established the trophy for a 150-mile race open only to seaplanes. He had hoped to encourage the development of maritime aviation, but instead his challenge developed into a pure speed competition that produced some of the shapeliest airframes into which brute force was ever shoehorned.

Doolittle won the trophy for the U.S. in 1925 near Baltimore, flying the Curtiss R3C-2, powered by a 565-hp Curtiss V12. It was the last biplane to win the Schneider Trophy, and after the U.S. government declined to fund any further Schneider bids, the remaining six years of the contest turned into essentially a grudge match between the British and the Italians. The team that could muster three wins in five years would gain permanent possession of the trophy, which would then be retired.

Under orders from Benito Mussolini to win no matter the cost, the Italians pinned their hopes on a succession of ever more potent Macchi seaplanes designed by the brilliant and secretive Mario Castoldi, culminating in the MC.72–the epitome of the racing airplane. Its Fiat V24 generated so much torque that the airplane was uncontrollable on takeoff with the original two-blade propeller, and the MC.72 was unable to compete in 1931, the year that Britain notched up its third win and kept the Schneider Trophy for good. In October 1934, now fitted with two contrarotating two-blade propellers that could absorb and tame the monster engine’s 2,800 hp and prodigious torque, an MC.72 flown by Francesco Agello set a new world absolute speed record of 440.69 mph–a mark that stood unchallenged by any airplane, land-or sea-based, until the Nazis’ clandestine aeronautical progress gave Germany two ominous notches in the record book in 1939 (the last by prop-driven aircraft): Hans Dieterle’s 463.92 mph in a Heinkel He-100 on March 30 and, less than a month later, Fritz Wendel’s 469.22 mph in a Messerschmitt Bf-109R.

The Schneider Trophy contenders were not just pushing the envelope; they were distending it, and courageous pilots lost their lives in such frontier ambushes as structural failure and carbon-monoxide poisoning. The MC.72 was a thermal and plumbing nightmare that wrapped radiators around the leading edges of the wings and all four float struts, as well as the topsides of the floats themselves.

No less elegant than the Macchis, the Supermarine seaplanes that won the trophy permanently for Great Britain were the work of Reginald Joseph Mitchell, son of a Yorkshire printer. Despite the British government’s blind faith in “peace in our time,” Mitchell was convinced that the Germans were up to no good and put everything he had learned in winning the Schneider Trophy into creating the Spitfire, which in 1940 was to halt the advance of the Nazis and save Britain from occupation. Sadly, the cancer that took hold while Mitchell was working on the Spitfire felled him before he could see his suspicions vindicated by the airplane’s pivotal role in the Battle of Britain.

The Rolls-Royce Merlin that powered the Spitfire (and P-51 Mustang, as well as the Hurricane, Mosquito and Lancaster) had its origins in the supercharged R engine conceived by Henry Royce for Supermarine’s Schneider Trophy-winning S.6B. The R engine drew on Curtiss’s innovative wetsleeve monobloc construction, and it firmly rejected the Isotta-Fraschini approach of boosting power by adding cylinders (to make a V18) and raising the compression ratio.

While America had thrown in the towel on absolute speed, air racing was nevertheless a wildly popular spectacle in the 1930s. The two prestige events in the National Air Races were the closed-course Thompson Trophy and the coast-to-coast Bendix Trophy, both of which attracted huge crowds eager to soak up the sights and sounds and, though they would not admit it, perhaps witness a spectacular crackup. The crackups were frequent and usually terminal for the jockey, and the five Granville Brothers’ Gee Bee racers quickly established an unassailable reputation for killing pilots.

This succession of barrel-shaped monsters, which mated vestigial wings and tailfeathers with ever larger engines, were horrendously unstable but devilishly quick too. Lowell Bayles won the 1931 Thompson Trophy in a Gee Bee that he managed to corral around the course at speeds of more than 240 mph. In Detroit in December of that year, while making a second attempt in a Gee Bee Model Z to beat the world landplane speed record and diving onto the course from 1,000 feet, Bayles was clocked at better than 300 mph when the airplane suddenly pitched up. A wing buckled, sending the Gee Bee rolling into the ground and Bayles to an instant and fiery demise alongside some railroad tracks.

It was later determined that a gas cap had worked loose and crashed through the windshield, striking Bayles in the face.

Doolittle, who flew his Laird Super Solution to victory in the 1931 Bendix Trophy, burnished his reputation by not only surviving his stints at the stick of the Gee Bee but also establishing new marks. He won the 1932 Thompson Trophy in a Gee Bee R-1, clocking 296 mph. Other legendary names filled the pages of the 1930s races: Benny Howard, Jimmy Wedell and Roscoe Turner.

Wedell worked his way into aviation with “creativity.” Motherless since he was three, at the age of 11 he stole bottles of whisky from his father’s Texas City waterfront bar to pay cadets for rides at a nearby Army training field. A chance meeting with timber tycoon Harry Williams while Wedell was barnstorming in Louisiana in 1927 launched his brief career. Williams was smitten with flying and with speed, and after the ride he bought Wedell’s airplane and formed a partner-ship with the barnstormer that established airline service between New Orleans and Houston and also financed Wedell’s ambitions to build racing airplanes. Wedell-Williams monoplanes soon dominated the National Air Races. However, by 1936, two years after a hurricane had wiped out their fleet, Wedell, his brother Walter and Harry Williams were all dead, the victims of separate airplane crashes.

Benny Howard and co-designer Gordon Israel carved their place in history with Mister Mulligan, a high-wing monoplane that had room for four people in its fully enclosed cabin and yet could still beat the slenderest of contenders.

It was the only airplane ever to win both the Thompson and Bendix Trophies in the same year (1935), flying, in both cases, against Roscoe Turner in a Wedell-Williams. Mister Mulligan was also the only racer that evolved into a successful commercial airplane.

Roscoe Turner was the most flamboyant of the cast of char-acters, famous not only for his flying achievements but for his natty wardrobe and for his copilot, the lion cub Gilmore. Doolittle chose to retire from racing after his 1932 victory in the Gee Bee, citing what had become an unac-ceptable cost in lives and airplanes, and Turner yearned to pick up the mantle Doolittle left. He suc-ceeded, and he survived the era to prosper. Doolittle went on to distin-guish himself in World War II.

Howard Hughes is also remem- bered for his speed exploits in the 1930s. His H-1 Special set a land-plane speed record of 352.38 mph in 1935. In 1937 he flew the H-1 from coast to coast in 7 hr 28 min.

If the quest for speed was the public spectacle of the 1930s, distance was its lonely roving brother, inspired by major strides in the late 1920s and early 1930s that proved the feasibility of long-distance airline travel:

• First nonstop between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii–June 28-29, 1927–2,407 miles from Oakland to Honolulu in 25 hr 50 min; Lts. Albert Hegenberger and Lester Maitland in an Army Fokker C-2 trimotor, Bird of Paradise.

• First nonstop from Britain to India–April 24-26, 1929–4,130 miles in 50 hr 37 min; Sqn. Ldr. A.G. Jones Williams and Flt. Lt. N.H. Jenkins in a Fairey Long-range Monoplane powered by a single 530-hp Napier Lion. The record stood for less than a year until it was bested by Dieudonné Contes (first across the South Atlantic from Senegal to Brazil in 1927), who flew 5,000 miles nonstop from Paris to Manchuria. Contes’ record in turn was broken by two Americans, Russell Boardman and John Polando, who flew a Bellanca from New York to Turkey, landing with reputedly one pint of fuel in their tanks after flying just 12 miles farther than Costes.

• First solo crossing of the North Atlantic by a woman–May 20-21, 1932–Amelia Earhart (one of many firsts for her) in a Lockheed Vega from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, to Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

In 1933 Wiley Post chalked up probably the most prized achievement after Lindbergh’s 1927 flight across the Atlantic when the one-eyed Oklahoman flew Winnie Mae, his Lockheed Vega monoplane, around the world solo, covering 15,596 miles from New York to Berlin, Moscow, Irkutsk and Alaska and back to New York in seven days 18 hr 49 min between July 15 and 22.

Also in 1933, Italy’s Mussolini, still smarting from defeat in the Schneider Trophy contest, was happy to approve a project dreamed up by his Air Minister, Italo Balbo, whereby 25 Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats would fly in formation from Italy to the Chicago World’s Fair and back again. Balbo’s aerial armada left Italy on July 1, and 24 airplanes made it to Chicago; 23 returned safely to Italy on August 12.

In 1934 the Mac.Robertson Race (named after Sir MacPherson Robertson, the Australian who put up the $60,000 purse) combined the two holy grails of speed and distance into the longest air race yet–11,323 miles from Mildenhall, England, across 21 countries to Melbourne, Australia. Britons C.W.A. Scott and T. Campbell Black, flying the bright-red de Havilland DH.88 Comet Grosvenor House, had the winning time of just under 71 hours. A KLM DC-2 came in second.

Howard Hughes once more took the spotlight as the curtain fell on the Golden Age by flying a Lockheed 14 around the world in three days 19 hr 7 min, returning to New York’s Floyd Bennett Field on July 14, 1938, by way of Paris, Moscow, Omsk and Yakutsk in Siberia, Alaska and Minneapolis. Most notable for its lack of drama, the flight incurred no unscheduled stops and never strayed more than a few miles from the planned route.

The airplane as a dependable mode of long-distance transport-ation had arrived, as Juan Trippe’s Pan Am and Britain’s Imperial Airways were regularly proving, respectively, with their Clipper flying boats and Handley Page HP.42 Hannibal biplanes.

As had happened 25 years earlier, war was about to jolt aviation into its largest advancements yet.