An aerial adventure

Laurence Lombard, left, and Frederick Blodgett prepare to depart Portland, Oregon, for Seattle. In the background is the Stinson “On-to-Oregon” that Tex Rankin of Portland was using to try to set an endurance record.

A decade after the Army’s pioneering flight to Alaska, two adventurous young men embarked on a month-long, 12,000-mile journey to Alaska in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth named “Flit,” a small two-seat biplane with open cockpits and a 90-hp, four-cylinder engine. The pilots were on their summer vacation and wanted to see if they could fly out to Alaska, get in some bear hunting and return. [Read more…]

Commercial aviation tries its wings

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

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.

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Flying on tandem wings

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Among early design considerations were the layout, location and configuration of wings. Several early concepts included that of the tandem wing, including Langley’s first successful powered aircraft in 1896 (pictured, below). A tandem wing aircraft implies use of two full-sized wings mounted on each end of the fuselage. It might be considered a biplane with a great amount of “stagger” between the wings. The practical effect is to increase the stability of an aircraft. Early experimenters found that using a single or biplane wing configuration was unstable. Some tried to overcome this problem using two horizontally separated wings.

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The parasol era

Frank Hawks sitting in the famous “Texaco #5.”

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In a period in American aviation history when the biplane configuration was dominate, there was a slight aberration when the parasol became popular.

From the start of the Depression until the mid-1930s, there was a strong spurt of interest that saw about 30 parasol designs certificated for production. With their wings placed above the fuselage, these planes were certainly distinctive compared to the popular biplanes of the time.

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The Douglas incubator

Shown in a 1921 advertisement, the Douglas “Cloudster” was the first plane to be built under the Douglas name. It was sold to Ryan Airlines and converted to a passenger plane used on the San Diego-Los Angeles route.
Shown in a 1921 advertisement, the Douglas “Cloudster” was the first plane to be built under the Douglas name. It was sold to Ryan Airlines and converted to a passenger plane used on the San Diego-Los Angeles route.

Shown in a 1921 advertisement, the Douglas “Cloudster” was the first plane to be built under the Douglas name.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the stream of government money dried up and the manufacturing of aircraft declined drastically. In this period, when the market for new aircraft was almost nonexistent, it hardly seemed time for a new enterprise to start manufacturing aircraft. But there were those with the desire to design and build airplanes.

One such person to form a new company during this period was Donald Douglas. The establishment of Douglas Co. (later Douglas Aircraft Co.) in southern California was historically important, as it had a long-term impact on the industry.

Also important was the company’s role in producing future leaders of the aircraft industry. They were designers who would achieve fame while with Douglas or form their own companies after working with Douglas.

The first Douglas aircraft was the “Cloudster,” designed as a long-range plane for a trans-continental non-stop flight. It was the first aircraft to carry a load greater than its empty weight. The Cloudster became the basis for Douglas’s first Navy contract, the DT-1 Torpedo Bomber. That order was what really got Douglas established in the aircraft manufacturing business, as 90 of the DT series would be built.

When the Army was looking for a design to fly around the world in 1923, the DT series was chosen as the basis for what became the DWC — Douglas World Cruiser.

Among the famous designers working for Douglas at that time were Jack Northrop, later of flying wing fame, and Donald Hall, later the designer of Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.”

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Six miles up: Pioneering pilots risked life and limb to reach new heights

Roland Rohlfs looking like a cocoon in his specially designed suit for high altitude work. This photo was taken July 30, 1919, when he broke the U.S. record. Photo from the American Legion Weekly, Aug. 29, 1919.

Suppose you are cruising along in an airliner at 34,000 feet, nestled comfortably in your seat in a heated, pressurized environment. Now image turning to look out of your window and, to your amazement, you catch a glimpse of a cloth-covered triplane with the pilot sitting in the open, wearing heavy coveralls, goggles, a leather helmet, and sucking on an oxygen tube. Such was the case in 1919 when Roland Rohlfs reached six miles high in a Curtiss Triplane.

Roland Rohlfs looking like a cocoon in his specially designed suit for high altitude work. This photo was taken July 30, 1919, when he broke the U.S. record. Photo from the American Legion Weekly, Aug. 29, 1919.

Roland Rohlfs looking like a cocoon in his specially designed suit for high altitude work. This photo was taken July 30, 1919, when he broke the U.S. record. Photo from the American Legion Weekly, Aug. 29, 1919.

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How do I control this thing?

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“Wright’s new control” was the heading of a 1914 report in the “New York Times.” It stated that Orville Wright had introduced a new system that would make it “easier and safer to fly.” In the new controls the usual lever was replaced by an automobile-type steering wheel in combination with a lever that made the control stronger and simpler.

Even though three-axis control has been with us since the Wright brothers, the methods of actuating the control surfaces took a long time to standardize to the current system.

In December 1913, the magazine, “The Aero,” from Great Britain had a two-part article on control systems as seen on aircraft at the Paris Airplane Show of that year. Of the seven systems discussed, five used control wheels and two used control sticks — none of which was close to what are used today.

The article began: “If there be one part of an aeroplane which of all others each designer makes a thoroughly distinctive and individual manner, it is the arrangement of the controls. This state of affairs is, of course, exactly the reverse of what it should be, for controls should be standardized.”

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Neither rain nor sleet could stop Air Mail fleet

Six Standard JR-1M mail planes accepted in August 1918 by the Post Office was the first commercial aircraft purchase by the U.S. government. Note the mailbag and Post Office Number 1 painted on the side of the first aircraft.
Six Standard JR-1M mail planes accepted in August 1918 by the Post Office was the first commercial aircraft purchase by the U.S. government. Note the mailbag and Post Office Number 1 painted on the side of the first aircraft.

Six Standard JR-1M mail planes accepted in August 1918 by the Post Office was the first commercial aircraft purchase by the U.S. government. Note the mailbag and Post Office Number 1 painted on the side of the first aircraft.

A 1961 British book on the development of air transportation includes a chart on early scheduled air services, which includes the operations of the U.S. Air Mail Service from 1918 till 1927. It may seem unusual to see the Air Mail Service listed here, but as it operated more than 200 aircraft, you realize it was probably the largest civil operator of aircraft in the world at the time.

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International Aerial Derby 1919

This Jenny, seen landing at Mineola Airport in Long Island, was flown by Richard Depew, who finished 22nd in the speed race and fifth in the handicap race. Seen on the ground is a new three-engined Eagle intended by Curtiss as a post-war airliner.
This Jenny, seen landing at Mineola Airport in Long Island, was flown by Richard Depew, who finished 22nd in the speed race and fifth in the handicap race. Seen on the ground is a new three-engined Eagle intended by Curtiss as a post-war airliner.

This Jenny, seen landing at Mineola Airport in Long Island, was flown by Richard Depew, who finished 22nd in the speed race and fifth in the handicap race. Seen on the ground is a new three-engined Eagle intended by Curtiss as a post-war airliner.

Great aerial adventures followed in the wake of World War I as aviation tried to find its post-war role.

It was a period of conquest of the oceans and continents — the NC-4 across the Atlantic via the Azores; Alcock and Brown’s first non-stop flight from Canada to Ireland; the R-34 airship’s first round-trip flight from Europe to America; and the start of large scale aerial competition.

June 25, 1919, saw the announcement of an International Aerial Derby, which would start simultaneously from Toronto and New York’s Mineola Field Aug. 25.

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