Early Commercial Flight History: Celebrating National Aviation Day

There seems to be a “day” for everything — National Punctuation Day or National Weatherperson’s Day — but it’s National Aviation Day (August 19) that I hold dearest to my heart. In case it isn’t obvious from our domain name, we practically live and breathe airfare at Fly.com. Now, combine my occupation with my bachelor’s degree in history, and you’ve got yourself a post on the annals of commercial aviation.

What happens when economics, politics and technology collide? Commercial aviation is born. It had its routes – I mean roots – in the idea that man can soar to get closer to God. We all know the main players pre-dating commercial aviation: Da Vinci’s famous sketches, the Wright Brothers and even the Greek myth of Icarus. But is it ironic that Icarus did not heed the warning and flew too close to the sun?

The Early Years: Airmail and First Passenger Flights

Enter U.S. Government

Commercial aviation really got its start through the use of airplanes to carry mail by the U.S. Post Office. The first airmail flight was in 1918, and by 1925 over 14 million pieces of mail had been delivered via this system. Mainly businesses and bankers were using this system to avoid the long lag time in transferring funds between institutions. Once the service became popular, the government privatized it allowing companies to bid on airmail routes under the Contract Air Mail Act, or Kelly Act, of 1925.

Elko, Nevada Airmail Hangar and Plane

Elko, Nevada Airmail Hangar and Plane

This legislation opened the doors for the creation of the airline industry we know today by stimulating growth and profit among the major carriers. Each company operating a feeder route for the U.S. Post Office would go on to become a major player in commercial aviation (some even still exist today):

  • Chicago – Dallas – The winning bid came from National Air Transport’s Clement Keys, who later developed National Airlines and over 40 other aviation companies.
  • Chicago – St. Louis – This contract was awarded to Robertson Aircraft Corporation, which went on to become part of American Airlines. Their head pilot was Charles Lindbergh, actually.
  • Elko, Nevada – Pasco, Washington – An airline operated by Walter Varney won this contract, and later merged with United Airlines.
  • New York – Boston – This route belonged to Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American Airways.
  • Salt Lake City – Los Angeles – Western Air Express (a 1929 plane is pictured at the top of this article) won this route. The airline later became Transcontinental and Western Air (or TWA)
Robertson Aircraft Corporation Hangar and Plane (1928)

Robertson Aircraft Corporation Hangar and Plane (1928)

(Fun Fact: Even Henry Ford got into the mix taking over the Chicago and Cleveland to/from Detroit routes. This venture only lasted a few years though, and Ford returned to his other pursuits.)

As the industry grew, government kicked up their involvement by passing the Air Commerce Act of 1926. This gave the Secretary of Commerce authority to create routes, develop navigation systems, license equipment and pilots and investigate any accidents that occur. The Contract Air Mail Act was changed so the government paid based on weight of mail, which led to a huge increase in revenue for the airlines.

First Forays into Passenger Flight

Differing opinions exist as to when the first passenger flight was operated in the United States. Most accounts attribute this feat to either Silas Christofferson, who shuttled passengers between San Francisco and Oakland by hydroplane, or to passenger service between Tampa and St. Petersburg in 1913-1914. Both services achieved some level of success, but the next reported commercial venture was not until years later.

Silas Christofferson 1914

Silas Christofferson’s Passenger Hydroplane in California (1929)

Inglis Uppercu, a Florida businessman, launched passenger service, Aeromarine Airways, between Key West and Havana, Cuba in 1920. Eventually, he added service to the Bahamas, New York, Cleveland and Detroit (all stopping several times along the way). This was the first passenger service that grew beyond a single route. Aeromarine Airways served over 10,000 passengers and made more than 2,000 scheduled flights until 1924, when the business abruptly closed following a plane crash that killed four passengers.

Later in the 1920’s, Harry Guggenheim funded Western Air Express in an attempt to find out whether airlines can subsist on passenger fares alone. After only a year, the experiment ended as the company could not survive without government airmail subsidies. Despite these early failures, Lindbergh’s famous solo flight to Paris in 1927 fueled a huge movement to fund the industry. In fact, investments in aviation and related companies tripled between 1927-1929.

The Comforts (or Discomforts) of Flying

“Don’t forget to bring a helmet” is something you probably do not want to hear before heading to the airport for a long flight. Air travelers in the 20s and 30s had to endure some pretty poor conditions in the depressurized and uninsulated aircraft cabins. Planes would frequently experience turbulence, prompting some passengers to wear helmets and goggles. Many passengers combated the noisy and depressurized cabins by chewing gum and stuffing cotton in their ears. Sound familiar?

Think the cabin is too cold because our neighbor cranked up the AC? Try flying with no heat or air conditioning in a depressurized cabin. All passengers were subject to the whims of mother nature, not to mention the smell gasoline from the engines. On the plus side, passengers did have leather seats for example in Ford 5AT planes, commonly used in the late 1920’s.

Commercial Flight Industry Matures

As the 1920’s came to a close, air travel was still slower than train travel for long journeys. Airplanes stopped frequently to refuel, had to avoid mountains and choppy air, plus planes were not yet able to fly at night. Despite these challenges facing travelers and the airlines, passenger traffic grew from only 6,000 in 1926 to nearly 173,000 in 1929. Airlines had not yet been able to make a profit on passenger-only routes, but they would realize later on how to make this strategy successful.

The 1930’s brought several key technological advancements that improved passenger comfort as well as speed of travel. Manufacturers used stronger materials to craft the body of the plane, allowing for higher cruising altitudes, which reduced turbulence and noise. Cabins were updated to improve conditions, including upholstered seats and better ventilation. These advancements helped airlines grow and attract more customers, albeit most were still upper class or business travelers. Though still lagging significantly behind the number of train passengers, over 1 million people took flights in 1937. This number would continue to grow, and as they say, the rest is history!

Boeing Clipper Sea Plane Cabin 1939

Boeing Clipper Sea Plane Cabin (1939)

For more information, I highly recommend browsing the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission website. It offers a ton of information on aviation history and was huge help in writing this post.

Happy National Aviation Day!

Showing 2 Comments

  1. Bob Denny 1:30 PM on August 19th, 2013 |

    My grandfather flew the Douglas M2 (shown in the photo) on the US Air Mail route between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. He undoubtedly saw that very scene at the Elko, NV airport. Stops were Elko and Las Vegas. After flying the mail, he was hired as Operations Manager for the fledgling Western Air Express. While reading this article, I was surprised to learn that WAE had service between the LA area (probably the Long Beach or San Pedro harbors) and Catalina Island. How cool! Thank you!!

    • Matt Ring 4:25 PM on August 19th, 2013 |

      We’d love to hear more if you have any stories or photos to share! Thanks for the comment