The Golden Age: 1919-39

 

 

The Golden Age of Aviation

The two decades after the First World War saw tremendous progress in aviation.  As aircraft design grew more advanced, speed and distance records began to be broken as the performance and range of the aeroplane increased.  In the United States, barnstormers, many of them former fighter pilots in the Great War, traveled the country thrilling audiences at a series of air shows.  Aircraft such as the Boeing Stearman and Douglas M-2 opened up air mail routes across the country.  New feats of aviation were accomplished in part with the sponsorship of governments, the private sector or both.  The round-the-world flight of four Douglas cruisers in 1924, backed by the U.S. government and the Douglas Aircraft Company, using military pilots, is one early example.

Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop New York to Paris flight across the Atlantic in 1927 caused an international sensation, moreso than the flight of the Douglas World Cruisers 3 years before, in part because Lindbergh flew solo.  The idea of man against the elements, crossing an ocean with no hope of rescue if he ran into trouble, captured the imagination of millions. 

With the coming of the 1930’s, speed records continued to be broken.  The Supermarine S6.B, a racing seaplane and a progenitor of the renowned Supermarine Spitfire of World War II, won the 1931 Schneider Cup Trophy with a speed of 340 mph.  Seventeen days later, another S6.B broke the world air speed record with a speed of 407.5 mph.

Passenger airliners came into being during this time with the appearance of aircraft such as the Ford Tri-Motor, the Junkers F.13 and the Boeing 247.  The Douglas DC-2, immediate precursor to the famed DC-3, also appeared during this era.

Another aviation landmark was the 1934 MacRobertson Trophy Race from Mildenhall, England to Melbourne, Australia, sponsored by MacPherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectioner who put up $75,000 in prize money.  The MacRobertson Trophy went to Grosvenor House, a De Havilland DH88 Comet piloted by Flight Lieutenant Charles Scott and Captain Tom Campbell Black, completing the trip (with five compulsory stops) in exactly 71 hours.

1937 proved a signature year for aviation, with three words: Hindenburg, Guernica, Earhart.

The airship, or zeppelin, came into prominence during the 1930's, being the only aircraft capable of trans-Atlantic passenger service through most of the decade.  But after the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1937, in which the German airship's hydrogen cells suddenly exploded, creating a fireball that burned the entire craft to a cinder within minutes, the zeppelin fell out of favor as a passenger carrier.  Eventually the airship regained some of its former utility with the use of helium, a much safer lighter-than-air gas.

In Europe, the Spanish Civil War offered a preview of the devastation to come during World War II.  Nazi Germany’s intervention on the side of Franco and the fascists proved decisive.  German airpower in the form of the Condor Legion demonstrated to the world the expanding role of the aircraft in modern war, particularly when in April 1937 Heinkel He 111 bombers rained destruction upon the city of Guernica.  The war in Spain helped the Germans develop tactics for the aerial component of Blitzkrieg that proved unstoppable at the outset of WWII.    Western democracies stood by as the fascists crushed the opposition in Spain, and ironically, the Soviet Union was the only nation aiding the Republican anti-fascists, who were naturally inclined to look to the West for support.

Amelia Earhart, a history-making aviator who opened the field to women, earned fame as the first woman to fly solo across the
Atlantic Ocean, leading to her nickname of “Lady Lindy.”  She continued to set records and author best-selling books about her flying experiences until her mysterious disappearance over the Pacific in a Lockheed Model 10 in July 1937, during an effort to fly around the world.

The Golden Age hit its zenith in the 1930's with the heyday of seaplanes, as they evolved from single-seat racing aircraft such as the Supermarine S6.B to large passenger-carrying flying boats such as the Short Kent, the Dornier Do26, and the Boeing 314.  It was the Boeing 314 that inaugurated the first regularly scheduled delivery of air mail by heavier than air aircraft between the U.S. and Europe in May 1939 (the distinction of the first air mail ever belongs to the zeppelin), and  regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic passenger service in June 1939, just 3 months before the outbreak of war.

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