Airplanes in the 1920s

The 1920s were a time of changes in many areas of the American lifestyle. Examples

include the changing roles of women, the African American struggle for equality, the changing

sound of music, new forms of literature, growth of cities, and the development of airplanes and

their uses. Major aircraft development started during World War I because America was striving

to be stronger than any other country. War brought about the development of fighter and bomber

airplanes; machine guns were mounted onto planes because of their rapid firepower. The U.S.

had put a lot of money into such aircraft during the war, so after the war was over and we had

won, people saw no need to develop aircraft any further since WWI was supposed to be the war

to end all wars. Around 1920, however, people realized that WWI really hadn’t put an end to all

wars, so the government saw a reason to put money into the development of aircraft again.

During the 1920s, airplane design became more advanced and planes were used to fly mail and


In the early 1920s, the Air Force was equipped with outdated WWI aircraft and any

replacements they got adhered to the same basic design. The only improvements were ones

similar to better radio equipment, better instrumentation, and oxygen for high altitude flying.

Much later on, planes were being made out of metal instead of the former fabric stretched over a

wood frame design to increase service years of a plane and to reduce reliance on imported wood

and fabric coverings. There had been numerous attempts beforehand to make metal planes, but

the first successful all metal plane was called Short Silver Streak. Earlier, most planes were a

biplane layout with fixed tailwheel landing gear and two fixed machine guns. In 1920 the Wright

R.B. highwing monoplane racer was developed with retractable landing gear. It wasn’t until the

1930s, however, that retractable landing gear appeared on anything but experimental or racing

aircraft. The greatest spurs of technological advancement were racing and record breaking.

Races such as the Pulitzer Trophy landplace races (U.S. only) and the Schneider Trophy

Seaplance races (international, but most heavily involved were Italy, the U.K. and the U.S.A.)

caused the development of high-output engines, advanced aerodynamics, and public enthusiasm

and awareness in aviation matters. (Batchelor, p42-56)

Record breaking got airplanes flying faster, farther, and higher. Aircraft built specifically

for record-breaking were no good for other things because they were a small, optimized plane, but

transferring specific features onto the bodies of airplanes as a whole allowed for the steady

improvement of aircraft. The military sponsored many aircraft to try to break records in

expectation of technical spin-offs that would improve service aircraft. These planes usually set

many of the records. Civil aviation excelled in the areas of around the world flying with stops

and nonstop flights across the ocean. The most vital exploit of the time was the first solo,

nonstop crossing of the North Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh. In May of 1927 he flew from New

York to Paris in 33 hours and 39 minutes. The plane he flew, The Ryan NYP, was built

specifically for this flight. This plane had the unusual feature of forward vision by periscope

because the fuel tank occupied the complete depth of the fuselage forward of the cockpit. Then

in 1928 Charles Kingsford-Smith crossed the Pacific for the first time: he went from California to

Australia. If a plane could make it across the ocean, it could certainly make it across the country;

then why not find a good use for it? (Batchelor, p56-62)

Many people thought a good use for airplanes would be to have them carry mail.

Congress had the money as early as 1917 for a trial airmail run. In 1918 a service between New

York and Washington Got under way. Flights were made by army planes and pilots until about

half a year later wen the Post Office began putting it’s own fleet to work. Despite the

hazards-three airmail pilots killed in 1919, nine the next year-the Post Office extended its routes.

In 1921, fearing that incoming president Warren Harding would do away with the airmail service,

the Post Office put on a demonstration showing how fast they could go from coast to coast: a

team of pilots carried the mail from San Francisco to New York in a record-breaking 33 hours

and 20 minutes. This convinced the new administration that the airmail service should not only

be kept, but improved. The government began installing beacons along the transcontinental

airway. There were revolving beacons flashing into the night sky and lighted emergency landing

fields every 25 to 30 miles along the way. The first stretch to be marked was from Chicago to

Cheyenne, Wyoming. By 1924 the lighted airway had been completed from New York to San

Francisco and from New York to Chicago the following year. Nothing else like the night system

existed anywhere else: night service in any other country was not a regular occurrence. As

revenues increased from carrying mail, there was political pressure to turn the service over to

private airline operators. Congress passed the Kelly Act in 1925, which left the transcontinental

route to the Post Office. The Post Office, however, was required to enlist the help of private

airlines, who would bid on how much they would fly the mail for: to the lowest bidder went the

route. Soon after private airlines became part of the show, carrying passengers became feasible.

The resulting network became the nucleus of the modern American airline industry. (Jackson,


Neither the U.S. government or citizens would support commercial airlines because they

were thought to be too dangerous due to all the accidents planes on mail routes had. Accidents

soured the public and the financial community against airlines. People just figured they should

stick with trains, which were not as fast but were a lot safer in their opinions. The airlines needed

some way to get support. The Kelly Act required the involvement of private airlines in

transporting the mail. This was just the springboard commercial aviation needed to connect with

people and get business flowing. Soon after they started flying the mail, they started flying

people and the mail. Some people just got old mail planes and custom designed them into

airliners. The airliners from the 1920s were all very small. There were probably four of five

passengers at the most along for the ride. Any person or people who was serious about making

money in the airline industry would get a new design of a plane. Henry Ford had been interested

in aviation’s potential for a long time when an inventor, William B. Stort, asked for financial

backing in building an all metal plane-an idea that was still radical at this time. Ford and some

other businessmen helped and Stout organized his own company to build a metal monoplane.

Ford bought the company in 1925 and had his engineers redesign the metal plane to create the

Ford Trimotor, which would become the backbone of airlines in the late 1920s. (Allen, p54-55)

Vein C. Gorst had been operating a number of bus lines in the Pacific states and had been

a long time aviation enthusiast. After learning of the Kelly Act late in 1925, he wanted to start his

own airline. He addressed a group of bus company managers, suggesting that they pool their

recources and start an airline. They raised enough to pay for a survey so Gorst hired a stunt pilot

to fly him from San Francisco to the Canadian border and back again. He reported to his

associates that it was feasible to transport mail along the coast by plane. To raise money for the

coastal air contract, Gorst traveled up and down the west coast and peddled $175,000 worth of

stock and hired pilots who were willing to take additional stock as part of their pay. When bids

on the coastal mail contract opened up, Gorst prevailed. He called his new corporation Pacific

Air Transport and started scheduled operation in 1926. Many people were successful like this .

(Allen, p59-61)

Throughout the 1920s, planes became more advanced and practical, the U.S. organized

flying the mail, and many private airliners carried people as well as mail. Many people profited

from these happenings and not just the businessmen because people got their mail faster and had

a faster way to travel. After the 1920s airplanes continued to get faster, stronger, bigger, more

reliable, and safer. Today traveling on a plane is a very common way to go somewhere that is far

away, even though the amount of room passengers have hasn’t.

Word Count: 1451

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