In the beginning was the word, and the world was Flyer — Wright Flyer, that is.
When one creates a new product and starts to sell it, the product needs a name. Before the Wrights began to build airplanes, they were the manufacturers of bicycles. Among the names of their bicycle products was the “Wright Flyer.”
The Wright brothers would use the name Flyer until 1912, when they advertised their new machines as the “Wright Flyer, 1912 Model.”
In 1913 an ad introduced the Model “E,” a smaller high-performance machine for exhibition work.
As we trace a quick history of aircraft naming practices, we see that popular names were not commonly applied to aircraft. An exception was the 1909 Santos Dumont “Demoiselle.” The Demoiselle was intriguing. Not only was it advertised in aviation publications, it also was in the popular press with an ad in the March 1910 issue of “Popular Mechanics.”
In the early days, aircraft were given descriptive, functional names, such as Benoist Biplane, Burgess Aeroplane, Sommerville Stable Monoplane, Curtiss Biplane or Queen Monoplane.
This practice of descriptive names would continue up to the start of World War I with Biplane, Hydroaeroplane, Hydro, Flying Boat, Tractor, and Aero Yacht.
With the great increase in the production of aircraft during the First World War, the marketing of aircraft continued with descriptive names, such as the Aeromarine for an Army trainer or the Military Tractor from Curtiss.
Interest in aviation grew greatly during war. A search of “The New York Times” database reveals the number of articles on aviation grew from 288 in 1914 to almost 1,000 in 1919.
There also were a large number of pilots trained in the war, with more than 15,000 cadets sent for flight training. It was thought that many of these pilots would want their own airplanes.
It also was thought that aviation would prove useful in many ways, including private flying, business flying, carrying mail by air, and the transport of passengers. It was in this environment that production of the first private and commercial aircraft began in 1919.
The buying and selling of aircraft would turn out to be a complicated business. Unlike the automobile industry, the airplane industry was not as widespread or well known. Without military contracts, the aircraft companies had to learn about branding, marketing and advertising.
Curtiss was the first one out of the gate with the Oriole, Eagle and Seagull.
Gallaudet had the Liberty Tourist Plane, Horace Keane the Ace, and Lawson the Air Liner. In 1920 Douglas had the Cloudster, Laird the Swallow, Dayton-Wright the Chummy, and Stinson the Greyhound.
Though U.S. manufacturers did start to use popular names for their aircraft in the 1920s, they still mainly used numeric or alpha-numeric designations for their products. “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft from 1919 to 1939” lists more than 1,400 different models of U.S. aircraft in its annual compilations. Of those, fewer than 500 carried popular names.
As befits an object traveling though the air, there were more than 30 popular names with the word “Air” in their names, including Air Express, Air King, Air Sedan, Air Scout, Air Trainer, Airmobile and Airster. Some of the names using the word “Air” referred to existing forms of transportation, such as Airboat, Airbus, Aircar, Air Coach, Air Cruiser, and Air Yacht.
The word “Bird” also was used as a source of names, such as Birdwing, Blue Bird, Red Bird, Humming Bird, Sea Bird and Thunderbird. Particular types of birds also lent their names to aircraft, such as Condor, Falcon, Oriole, Robin, Seagull, Sparrowhawk, Puffer and Tanager.
Starting in the late 1930s, many companies started a tradition of naming their aircraft in a related series to distinguish themselves from their competitors.
For example, Grumman often chose names ending in “cat” for its fighter aircraft, including the Wildcat, Hellcat and Tigercat. For its seaplanes it used the names of water fowl: Duck, Goose, Widgeon and Mallard.
The Bell Co. used “Aira” as a common thread in its names: Airabonita, Airacuda, and Airacobra.
British companies had a penchant for alliteration, using the same first letter in the aircraft name as in the name of company, which brought us the Bristol Blenheim, Brigand, Bulldog, Beaufort, and Brownie; the Handley-Page Herald, Hereford, Hampstead, Hampden, Halifax, and Hannibal: and the Hawker Hart, Hartebees, Hurricane, and Henley.
Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge an airplane by its popular name. In 1937 more than 160 different models of aircraft were offered for sale, but only a handful had popular names given to them.
It might have been more important to use numbers that showed the development of new models, such as Stinson. Its SR series would run to SR-10 by 1939.
Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.