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Flight 100 - History 1919-1939

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Germany emerged from the horrors of the 1914-18 war a thoroughly defeated nation, yet was quick to recognise the potential and benefits aviation would bring in peacetime.

Immediately after the air ministry approved civil flying on 8 January 1919, easing wartime restrictions, Professor Hugo Junkers set to work on the design of the world's first dedicated transport aircraft, which flew just five months later, on 19 June. Although little known and remembered by few, the six-seat F 13 played a major role in the development of air transport worldwide and paved the way for today's all-metal cantilever monoplanes.


But this extraordinary achievement in the first post-war year was overshadowed by the more newsworthy crossings of the Atlantic, the first, in stages, by a Curtiss flying boat, followed by the historic non-stop flight in a Vickers Vimy bomber by two Britons, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. The Royal Air Force R.34 airship covered the distance in both directions a month later. An even longer journey was completed before the end of 1919 when Australian air force officers Ross and Keith Smith flew from Britain to Australia, also in a Vimy, in fewer than 28 days.

Britain and Germany led the way in opening sustained scheduled air services within Europe, and out of a multitude of struggling companies in the 1920s were created the great pioneering airlines of the inter-war years. Imperial Airways was aptly titled to develop routes to the far-flung corners of the British Empire, while Deutsche Lufthansa pushed the boundaries deep into China and South America. Others of note were KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, the only airline to still be operating under its original name, and later Air France and the Soviet Union's Aeroflot, the latter becoming the largest ever seen, as it was responsible for all forms of flying activities.

While the USA was conspicuous by its almost total absence from the commercial aviation market, the adoption in 1926 by the US Congress of the Air Commerce Act provided the legal framework and impetus that would lead to consolidation and the creation of such airline giants as American, Delta, United and TWA, finally challenging European supremacy. The USA also produced an airline, appropriately named Pan American World Airways, which, under the leadership of the Machiavellian Juan Trippe, would become the first truly global carrier.

It was a time of renaissance and innovation. The USA commissioned the first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, as early as March 1922. At around the same time, American scientist Dr Robert Goddard became convinced that it would one day be possible to launch a rocket to the Moon. Although it would be nearly 40 years before such a vision would become reality, the modest liquid-fuelled propulsion device he fired at Auburn, Massachusetts on 16 March 1926 could be said to have been the start of man's desire to escape from the confines of the Earth's gravitational forces. On 21 May 1927, Charles Lindbergh took the Ryan NYP Spirit of St Louis into history by flying solo non-stop from New York to Paris, a feat that generated a great deal of enthusiasm for flying.

Records were set and just as often broken, as aircraft manufacturers, which had struggled when a glut of war-surplus aircraft flooded the market, began to compete strongly in producing new types with progressive development in speed, size and comfort. Output was prolific from such illustrious companies as de Havilland and Handley Page in the UK, Dornier and Junkers in Germany, Fokker in the Netherlands, Farman in France, Italy's Savoia-Marchetti, Lockheed and Douglas in the USA, and Tupolev in the Soviet Union.


Among the aircraft that made an immediate and, in some instances, lasting impact, were the Fokker VIIb-3m, Junkers Ju 52/3m, Ford Tri-Motor, Boeing 247, and a number of impressive flying boats from Boeing, Dornier, Shorts and Sikorsky, designed for long-distance, transoceanic flying. The inter-war years also saw a blossoming of the great airships, such as the giant Zeppelins, the British "R" series and the USS Shenandoah, which brought style and romance to the air.

Few would disagree, however, that the Douglas DC-3 was probably the most important aircraft ever built and one whose exploits are still talked about. First built as the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST), the 32-seat twin-engined aircraft made its maiden flight on 17 December 1935 and entered service with US airlines, before making its lasting mark during the Second World War. More than 13,000 were built and several hundred are still flying.

Douglas DC-3
The Douglas DC-3 - arguably the most important aircraft ever built

While the eyes of the world were focused on air transport, nations were also quietly rearming their navies and air forces. A regular flow of military aircraft took to the air, but when suspicions of Nazi Germany's warmongering intentions and secret projects took hold, activities were rapidly redirected towards the production of new fighters and bombers. So many were to become legends in time of war, none more so than the Supermarine Spitfire, thought by many to have been the most beautiful aircraft ever built and, on the opposing side, the speedy Messerschmitt Bf109. Bombers too were to gain enviable reputations, such as Boeing's B-17 Flying Fortress, the Heinkel He111 and Vickers Wellington. All were first flown in the mid-1930s.

The daredevil barnstormers of the 1920s grew into responsible promoters of general aviation, building on early experiments with activities such as crop-spraying, survey work, corporate and private flying. The long line of Beechcraft and Piper aircraft started then and the Staggerwing, Model 18 and Cub were three models that built their reputation. Early helicopter experiments took place in France and Spain, and Juan de la Cierva made the first circular flight of his autogiro as early as 9 January 1923. Progress, however, was slow and rotorcraft only really came to the fore after the end of the Second World War.

In the closing years of two decades of peace airlines scrambled to set up commercial flights across the Atlantic, the first aerial refuelling took place, and the first ever totally automatic landing of an aircraft was achieved in Dayton, Ohio. Boeing presented the world's first pressurised airliner, the Stratoliner, which flew in 1938. On the negative side, the horrific explosion of the Hindenburg over Lakehurst, New Jersey on 6 May 1937 marked the end of the great airship era.


When Alex Henshaw landed his Percival Mew Gull back at Gravesend on 9 February 1939 after a record flight to Cape Town and back in 4 days 10h, it would be one of the last of the famous flights by individual aviators.

The most difficult air routes, across oceans, were being opened by flying boats. On 30 May 1939, the Boeing 314A Yankee Clipper of Pan American left New York and flew via the Azores, Lisbon and Marseilles, to Southampton, taking three days. On 11 August, the Short S.30 Caribou of Imperial Airways arrived at Southampton, after flying from New York via Montreal, Botwood (Newfoundland) and Foynes (Ireland).

As the storm clouds gathered in Europe, Germany was making aviation history. On 27 August 1939 it flew the first turbojet-powered aircraft, the highly secret Heinkel He178. Although the HeS 3B engine was developed by Dr Hans von Ohain, this revolutionary concept was first conceived by Frank Whittle in the UK, and both are justly considered the fathers of the jet engine. Five days later, Germany's attack on Poland, which marked the start of the Second World War, propelled aerospace to an entirely new level.

Günter Endres is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Flight International and Airline Business, and edits our annual World Airlines Directory

Continue reading The Flight Century

Chocks away - 1909 - 1918
Britsh aviation made a slow start, but within the decade the country was making aircraft and the RAF had formed

Fight for the edge - 1939 - 1948
The Second World War brought aerospace innovation on both sides, but the sound barrier remained intact until 1947

Flying into a jet age - 1949 - 1958
Despite its problems, the Comet was a revolution in air transport. But this would be a decade of firsts, many of them British

Faster and higher - 1959 - 1979
The jet was king and the Jumbo Jet proved bigger was definitely better. Meanwhile, the Harrier showed the UK could still lead

Electric jets and stealth - 1979 - 1999
Innovations of the 1980s brought far-reaching changes in virtually every area of aviation - and Flight became truly International

Flight 100 - history of 21st century
As we entered the 21st century fuel efficiency and green design were beginning to take over from the quest for size and speed

Flight into the future - The next 100 years
We covered exciting, almost unbelievable, breathtaking developments in our first century of  publishing. What might feature on our pages in the next 100 years?

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