Commercial aviation tries its wings

The development of commercial air operations in the United States after the armistice that ended the First World War was a period of optimism founded on widespread public curiosity, thousands of newly trained pilots, and easy availability of surplus aircraft. Financing was provided based on the assumption that public interest would force the development of air transport without the development of new aircraft and without a national air policy. The initial growth period peaked in 1920, then diminished because of waning curiosity, use of obsolete war surplus equipment, lack of airways and airfields, as well as a lack of good business models.

Due to the lack of any federal system of registration, it is difficult to measure commercial operations in this period, but the Manufacturers Aircraft Association (MAA) made an annual attempt. It reported the number of FBOs went from a high of about 160 in 1920 to a reported 60 in 1924. The commercial fleet went from an estimated 1,000 aircraft in 1920 to a reported 217 in 1924.

Demand for the war surplus Jenny was so great that Curtiss bought back thousands of them from the government, refurbished and resold them.

For the questionnaire sent out in 1920, MAA got 87 returned surveys, representing about half the operators in the U.S. The respondents operated between 365 to 425 aircraft of both land and water types. All had terminal facilities and many possessed well-equipped airports.

Short demonstration flights of 10 to 15 minutes for an average fee of $12.50 accounted for most of the mileage reported. Towards the end of 1920 the demand for aerial transport between cities grew considerably. The leader of this service was Aeromarine Airways. On most inter-city flights, baggage or freight was carried and respondents reported a total of 41,390 pounds. The 87 reporting companies reported carrying 115,163 passengers a total of 3,136,550 miles.

The 87 companies returning the survey reported the use of 342 aircraft. Several of the respondents just listed types of aircraft but did not provide any counts. As can be expected for the time period, the vast majority of aircraft in commercial use were war surplus. That’s because there were many available for a low price, while there were few new aircraft being designed for commercial use.

Among the new designs were the Curtiss Oriole and the Laird Swallow, advertised as “America’s first commercial airplane.”

The Curtiss Oriole was one of few new post-war aircraft designed for commercial service. It had an uphill battle with war surplus trainers. Figures for 1920 show only 33 in commercial service.

Another interesting aircraft was the all-metal Junkers marketed in the U.S. as the Junkers-Larsen. The most popular surplus aircraft reported in use were the Curtiss Jennies, the Standard J-1s. and various ex-Navy flying boats. These war surplus aircraft accounted for 88% of the commercial fleet, leaving 12% as the new aircraft market — certainly not enough to develop a new industry. Ex-training machines were the most popular of the aircraft in use, with the various Curtiss Jennies numbering 160 machines, accounting for 42% of the fleet. The Standard J-1s were the next most popular with 60 listed.

There were 45 flying boats listed, including 11 Curtiss Seagulls, the civilian version of the Navy MFs. The flying boats with their larger passenger capacity were the most popular for scheduled passenger service.

The most important use of commercial aviation in 1919 and 1920 was the pioneering of aerial mail, which had expanded into a coast-to-coast service. But as this was a government program, it was not considered in the MAA report. Among the reported commercial applications covered were aerial transport, forest patrol, the employment of planes in newspaper, motion picture and advertising work, aerial photography, map making and surveying, exploration, timber cruising, fish spotting, and the saving of life and property at sea.

The most fertile ground for the development of commercial aviation was the pioneering of seasonal, scheduled passenger service on the East Coast, ranging from New York to Key West, Florida. Soon after the Armistice, American Trans-Oceanic Co. took on a number of Curtiss H.S. and H.-16 Flying Boats, which were rebuilt into five and six passenger machines, with the larger machines able to carry 14 to 16 passengers. Since 1918 the company had provided seasonal service between Florida and points in the West Indies and between New York and Atlantic City, Newport and Bar Harbor.

The Aeromarine Plane and Motor Co. was the first to appreciate the possibilities of the large Curtiss F.5-L flying boats powered by twin Liberty V-12 engines. The large hull enclosed two cabins, one fore and one aft, with places for 11 passengers. The upholstered, comfortable cabins included electric lighting. During the summer the company provided service out of New York City and in the winter out of Miami and the Florida Keys. Both American Trans-Oceanic and Aeromarine each reported carrying 4,000 passengers during 1920.

: The Aeromarine Model 75, converted from Navy surplus Curtiss F5L flying boats, carried 11 passengers and three crew

The West Coast saw the development of both land-based and water-based aerial operations, though not as extensive as on the East Coast. Mercury Aviation, founded by Hollywood producer Cecil B. de Mille, started regularly scheduled passenger service between Los Angeles and San Diego.

A view of Mercury Aviation’s Field No. 2 in Los Angeles. This was one of three operated by Mercury.

The Chaplin Aircraft Corp., founded by Syd Chaplin, brother of film actor Charlie Chaplin, commenced scheduled, flying boat service from Los Angeles to Catalina Island.

In the Pacific Northwest, in what was a precursor to the Contract Air Mail scheme of 1926, Eddie Hubbard, using a Boeing Flying Boat, had a commercial contract from the Post Office to fly mail between Victoria, BC, and Seattle.

By the end of 1924 the winds of aeronautical enthusiasm had waned. The novelty of flying gradually wore off and high prices formerly charged for trips could no longer be upheld. The Aeronautics Chamber of Commerce number of operators in the U.S. had dropped to 60 in 1924. Most of the businesses that survived did so because they could provide a specific service, such as aerial taxi, crop dusting, or aerial photography.

All of these early efforts in passenger service failed because of high operating costs. Airlines could not make enough money carrying passengers or cargo. They needed financial help — subsidies — until technological and organizational improvements could enable them to become self-sufficient and profitable. Such subsides came about in 1925 with the passage of the Air Mail Act, which paid contractors for carrying the mail.

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at

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