The Early Air Lines
by: JR Hafer, aviation writer
At first flying in airplanes was a novelty, it was something the restless airmen returning from the war started doing to entertain themselves and others. Folks called them “Barnstormers” but few ever thought they would ever travel by air, in those days.
But before that, when the Wright brothers developed the ability to control flight and made the world’s first sustained heavier-than-air flight, they laid the foundation for what would become a major transportation industry. That started the “aviation snowball” rolling downhill gaining speed, growing exponentially from then on.
It was just 11 years later the world’s first airliner would change the world socially, economically, and politically in a way that had never been done before.
The Ilya Muromets first flew on December 10, 1913. On February 25, 1914, it took off for its first demonstration flight with 16 passengers aboard. From June 21 through June 23, it made a round-trip from Saint Petersburg to Kiev Ukraine in 14 hours and 38 minutes with one intermediate landing. However, the plane was never used as a commercial airliner due to the onset of World War I.
Prior to that the world’s first scheduled commercial airline inaugural flight flew from St. Petersburg across the 21 miles of clear blue water of Tampa bay to Tampa Florida on the morning of January 1, 1914. The pilot was Tony Jannus, and one passenger flying in a Benoist XIV flying boat. The 75 horsepower Roberts engine powered the aircraft above the water for the 22 minute flight without incident as 3000 spectators watched the departure and another 2000 watched the arrival at Tampa. The airline continued operation hauling one passenger at a time for only a few months. The Tony Jannus Society will soon celebrate the 100th anniversary of that flight on January 1st 2014. They will have a re-enactment with Kermit Weeks flying his authentic replica of the Benoist XIV.
In 1919, after World War I, the Farman F.60 Goliath, a converted long-range heavy bomber, to commercial a passenger airliner which could seat 14 passengers Flew several publicity flights from Toussus-le-Noble to RAF Kenley, near Croydon, despite having no permission from the British authorities to land.
The world’s first all-metal aircraft was the Junkers F.13, also from 1919 with 322 built. The Dutch Fokker company produced the Fokker aircraft and used by the Dutch airline KLM, when they re-opened an Amsterdam-London service in 1921. The planes were soon flying to destinations across Europe, including Bremen, Brussels, Hamburg and Paris. They proved to be very reliable aircraft.
The Handley Page company in Britain produced the company’s first civil transport aircraft. It housed two crew in an open cockpit and 15 passengers in an enclosed cabin.
France developed the Bleriot-SPAD and was a success through the 1920s, serving the Paris-London route, and later on continental routes. The enclosed cabin could carry four passengers with an extra seat in the cockpit.
By 1921, the English company De Havilland, built the ten-passenger DH.29 monoplane because it was becoming apparent that aircraft capacity needed to be larger for the economics to remain favorable..
Britain and France were at the forefront the world of the civil airliner industry during the 1920s due to the aid of considerable government subsidies.
The forerunner of the passenger airliner was the mail pilots and mail lines which were made up by former Barnstormers and Flying Circus performers, such as Charles Lindbergh, “Wild” Bill Wunderlich, A.F. Franz, Fritz Schwaemmle, Andy Bank and Dick Merrill just to mention a few. They flew the mail for various early mail carriers such as Pitcairn Aviation which was the embryo of Eastern Airlines.
It was the mail Carrier Pioneers who forged the way, laid the routes, provided lanes means and way, devised airports, beacons, beams, communication, systems, and sites in which passenger service could even be a possibility. At first the mail pilots flew by the seat of their pants, with no instruments. Actually one fellow knew where he was in bad weather, by how far his cigar had burned, when it burned to a certain point he started letting down through the clouds and there was the landing strip.
1929-1930 Pitcairn Aviation had sold and the name had been changed to Eastern Air Transport and they had started to carry passengers From New York, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami with other destination between. The major aircraft used at the time were the Curtiss Condor T-32, the smaller Curtuss Kingbird, and then the Ford Trimotors and Fokkers and later Donald W. Douglas’ DC-2 for a short time until the introduction of that famous (and still flying DC-3).
The American airliner; the Ford Trimotor was a very important early airliner as well. With the two engines slung mounted on the wings and on the nose and a corrugated body, it carried eight passengers and was produced from 1925 to 1933. It was used by the predecessor to Trans World Airlines, and by other airlines long after production ceased.
By the 1930s, the airliner industry had matured and large consolidated national airlines were established with regular international services that spanned the globe, including Imperial Airways in Britain, Lufthansa in Germany, KLM in the Netherlands and United Airlines in America. Multi-engined aircraft were now capable of transporting dozens of passengers in comfort.
The British De Havilland Moth, and the De Havilland Dragon were both successful aircraft during the 1930s. The simple design used a plywood box fuselage a design also used on the same company’s more famous combat fighter, the De Havilland Mosquito, carrying 6 passengers. It was later replaced by the more powerful and elegant De Havilland Dragon Rapide.
The first sleek all metal airliner came into service in the 1930s. In 1932, in the United States, the Douglas DC-2 with 14 passenger capacity flew, followed by in 1935 by the more powerful, faster, 32 passenger Douglas DC-3 which was produced in quantity for World War II and then afterward sold as surplus. The Douglas DC-3 was particularly important due to it being the first airliner to be profitable without a government subsidy.
Long-haul flights expanded during the 30s as both Pan American Airways and Imperial Airways competed in the provision of trans-ocean travels using seaplanes like the British Short Sunderland, the Sikorsky S-42 & 43 Models, and Boeing’s 314 completing the global Connection…
It is hard to believe that when I was born in 1946 the fledging passenger airline industry was less than twenty years old. The first commercial airliner I ever flew on was an Eastern Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation L-1049 from Charlotte to Chicago. There were no jet commercial airliners in service at that time.
So many airlines have fallen by the wayside: Pan American Airways, Braniff, Eastern Airlines, TWA, Northwest, National Airlines, Transamerican and so many more have bit the dust. So much aviation history and so many historical aviation pioneers to write about. I hope to bring you more in this series.
JR Hafer, aviation writer
20th Century Aviation Magazine