BY MICHAEL LOMBARDI
The 1920s are remembered as the decade when intrepid fliers set records and commercial aviation took off in the United States. For most of the decade, however, the general public still perceived the airplane as a curiosity. The courage of one lone aviator, whose epic flight across the Atlantic brought aviation to the forefront of the world's attention, changed that perception in an instant.
After World War I, the U.S. government made significant efforts to expand the capability of American military aviation. In 1921, the outspoken William "Billy" Mitchell, considered a prophet of air power, proved that the airplane would be the nemesis of the battleship by sinking a captured German battleship with a bomb dropped from an Army bomber. Not long after, on March 20, 1922, the United States commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Langley.
The Army approached Donald Wills Douglas and his 2-year-old Douglas Airplane Company in 1922 to build planes for the first around-the-world flight. It sent four Douglas-built "World Cruisers" to Seattle for Boeing to modify for the flight. The planes left Seattle on April 6, 1924, and after 175 days two of the planes arrived back in Seattle, successfully completing the flight of more than 26,000 miles.
Celebrating its part in the historic flight, Douglas Aircraft adopted the globe as its company logo. That logo survives to this day as part of the modern Boeing signature.
In addition to the efforts to expand military aviation, U.S. government support also extended to commercial aviation through the creation of the Airmail Service in 1919.
Although factors such as competition with the railroads and lack of public support kept airmail from being a profitable endeavor, the investment had nurtured the development of a primitive aviation infrastructure; in 1926 the government opened up the airmail routes to private companies.
Some of these companies were able to make a profit flying the mail, but still there was little public interest in flying or using airmail. That changed on May 21, 1927, when the attention of the entire world was focused on Le Bourget Field, the airport of Paris, where a youthful American pilot by the name of Charles A. Lindbergh landed after a solo 33-hour-and-30-minute crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh flew in a Ryan monoplane called the "Spirit of St. Louis," completing the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. The achievement made Lindbergh a celebrity and forever changed his life and the public perception of the airplane. In an instant, aviation finally achieved public acceptance and confidence.
Within a year of Lindbergh's flight, the number of licensed pilots in the United States grew from 1,500 to a staggering 11,000. Airmail carriers saw their business double and even triple, and the number of passengers increased fivefold. Air routes doubled, and small independent airlines merged into bigger conglomerates that included airframe and engine manufacturers. One of the biggest of these aviation holding companies was United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, which William Boeing formed along with his friend Fred Rentschler, head of Pratt and Whitney.
The Aircraft Year Book declared that in 1928the 25th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first powered flightthe aviation industry finally qualified as a major industry.
Even as aviation gained acceptance, Robert Goddard was quietly pioneering a related field of endeavor in Massachusetts. On March 16, 1925, Dr. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, launched his first successful rocket. That flight lasted just 2.5 seconds, reaching a height of 41 feet and a distance of 184 feet, but for rocketry and space flight it was an accomplishment comparable to the Wright Brothers' first flight.
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