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Precursor: Turning Points in History

The Golden Age of Aviation (1919-1939)


The Aircraft Carrier

by George E. Mattimoe, Ph.D.

The 20-year period between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II has been called the "Golden Age of Aviation." During which airplanes changed from slow, wood and wired-framed and fabric-covered biplanes to faster sleek, all-metal monoplanes.

Immediately after WW I ended, many countries in Europe began looking at the potential commercial value of airplanes. Less than three months after the armistice is signed, Germany initiated the world's first passenger airline service using heavier-than-air craft between Berlin, Lipzig, and Weimar. The British and French both began passenger service in 1919, using modified military bombers to carry passengers between London and Paris. In the United States passenger service began in the late 1920s.

The greatest challenge faced by aviation immediately after WW I was to demonstrate to the non-flying public the capabilities of the airplane. The first natural barrier to be challenged was the Atlantic Ocean, and it was conquered in 1919. The first airplane to cross the Atlantic was a US Navy flying boat, the NC-4. On May 16 1919, three Curtis flying boats - the NC-1, NC-3 and the NC-4 left Newfoundland bound for England.

The NC-1 and NC-3 were soon forced down, and the NC-4, alone, under command of Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read, completed the flight after stops in the Azores and Portugal reaching Plymouth England May 31, 1919, after a 3,925 mile flight.

Two weeks later two Englishmen, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown, made the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic. The 1,890-mile flight from Newfoundland to Ireland required 16 hours 27 minutes - an average speed of 118 mph.

As these record-breaking flights continued, people the world around, became "turned on" by aviation. The main exception was the United States. In its rush to demobilize and return to normal living the American people turned their backs on anything military, particularly the airplane. Surplus airplanes were dumped on the market, causing the-aviation industries to lose the small market they did have. These industries which had built up slowly during the war, now closed at an alarming rate. Military aviation was cut back, and the pilots, who had taken so long to train, were found to be unemployed.

Military airfields were closed, which created a shortage of landing fields for those airplanes, which were flying. In fact, aviation in the United States might have died completely except for two groups of men-the "barnstormers" and the Army aviators led by the outspoken General William "Billy" Mitchell.

"Barnstormers, were for the most part, former military pilots who flew war-surplus aircraft such as the DH-4 and the Curtiss "Jenny." Living and working in their airplanes these "aerial gypsies" moved around the nation from town to town putting on air shows at fairs and carnivals. For a small fee, they took customers for short sightseeing flights. Thousands of Americans flew in an airplane for the first, and some for the only, time. People learned that the airplane was not just limited to destruction, by bombing, from the air, but that it was a machine with great potential economic impact.

General William Mitchell returned home after WW I convinced that in any future war military air power would decide the winner. He strongly advocated the use of the airplane for strategic warfare against the enemy and its homeland.

He became an annoying vocal advocate of a separate air service distinct but equal to the Army and Navy.

Since it was widely accepted that America's first line of defense was the Navy with its battleships, Mitchell decided to prove that he could sink one with an airplane. By 1921 Mitchell had created such uproars that the Navy agreed to allow him to perform his demonstration. Confidant that he could not succeed, the Navy provided several captured German ships to be used as targets including the battleship Ostfriesland. The most impressive part of the demonstration was the sinking of the "unsinkable" Ostfriesland.

Unfortunately, the lesson taught by this demonstration was not learned by the Army. The same is true of our Congress, who controlled the purse strings; so Mitchell did not get any additional money for aircraft. However, it must be noted that several Admirals did learn the lesson (as did the Japanese Admirals they invited to the demonstration) and within eight months the Navy had its first carrier.

In May of 1923, two Army pilots made the first nonstop transcontinental flight across the United States. This 2,500 mile flight, from New York to California, was made in 27 hours at an average speed of 93 mph.

Three months later, the Army performed its first air-to-air refueling. On June 23, 1924 Lieutenant Russell H. Maughan flew a Curtiss PW-8 pursuit aircraft coast to coast in a dawn to dusk flight. The 2, 850-mile flight was completed in 21 hours 47 minutes from New York to California at an average speed of 156 mph. The flight was to demonstrate that Army aircraft located in any part of the United States, could be alerted and flown to any location in the country in less than a day. As shown later, this was an actual impediment.

In 1924 using aircraft built by Douglas, the greatest demonstration to date, was the undertaking of an around-the-world flight of four airplanes, from Seattle to Seattle. The flight took 175 days. Only two of the aircraft completed the flight.

Other noteworthy accomplishments by Army fliers during this time were the 22,065-mile tour of Central and South America in 1927, the first nonstop flight from California to Hawaii, and the long duration flight, in 1929, of the "Question Mark' which stayed airborne for 150 hours. Support aircraft supplied food and fuel.

Mitchell continued his harangue of the inadequacies of the American defenses, particularly Pearl Harbor. He factually predicted an attack on that naval facility by the Japanese.

He was court-marshaled and reduced to the rank of Colonel, relieved of his command and subsequently retired. Some things changed, however, and because of the attention generated by the court-marshal-the Army Air Service was created, and additional funds for military aviation were provided.

National Air Races caught the public eye. Among other benefits they caused faster and newer type aircraft to be developed. Ralph Pulitizer , American newspaperman offered a trophy to promote high speed aircraft because American aircraft did so poorly in competing against European built aircraft.

It was fitting that the first Pulitize Trophy Race was held at Mitchell Field, New York.. By 1924 this event had grown so big that the name was changed to, The National Air Races.

In 1930 Charles E. Thompson established a trophy to encourage faster land-based aircraft development. The Thompson Trophy Race became the feature event at the National Air Races. This race like the Pulitizer, was flown around a closed course whose limits were marked by pylons.

In 1931 the Bendix Trophy Race a transcontinental speed race was added to the National Air Races. Jacqueline Cochran's career in aviation had its beginnings in this race. She won the 1938 competition, set more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot in aviation history.

The Post Office Department started airmail service in the United States, May 15, 1918, using pilots borrowed from the military. Three months later The Post Office Department, took over the operation completely, hiring its own pilots and buying its own planes. The first airmail route was between Washington, DC, and New York City. In 1919, airmail service was extended from New York to Chicago, via Cleveland and in 1920 from Chicago to San Francisco.

The Kelly Act of 1925 authorized the Post Office Department to contract for airmail service. Among provisions of the Act was one, which permitted the contractor to be, paid 80% of the airmail revenue for carrying it. This incentive was the stimulus that brought big business into the market and resulted in the airline industry that we have today.

In 1926 Congress passed the Air Commerce Act, which established an Air Commerce Branch within the Commerce Department. This agency was authorized to license all planes and all pilots, establish and enforce air traffic rules , investigate accidents and provide aviation safety through assistance and guidance to civil aviation.

Many of the accomplishments involving flight, were made because of prizes. These accomplishments included most of the long-range flights, flights over the poles, and flights leading to altitude and speed records. By 1927 only one of the achievable prizes remained to be claimed--$25,000 to the pilot who was first to fly the Atlantic from New York to Paris, alone.

On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from New York in his single seat Ryan monoplane. Thirty-three and one half-hours later he was $25,000 richer.

A woman, who later would rival Lindbergh's popularity, Amelia Earhart, became the first to fly the Atlantic as a passenger. Subsequently, four years later, 1932, she flew it solo.

It was during the "Golden Years" that general aviation (all aviation excluding military and commercial air transportation) came into being. It was easy for people to learn to fly after WW I, airplanes were cheap and if you had one you could teach yourself to fly. Or find some ex-military pilot who would. There were no license requirements and no government regulations.

In 1920 new companies were forming. And small private aircraft became available. Lloyd Stearman, Clyde Cessna and Walter Beech founded TravelAir and later their own individual companies. Names familiar to every pilot who ever logged an hour. Piper and Taylorcraft became, equally if not, more popular private aircraft.

A major event took pace in the 1920s. The Science of Aeronautics took its place as a true and recognized science. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson formed the NACA, National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, which was responsible for basic aeronautical research. David Guggnheim founded the school of Aeronautics at New York University and established a $2,500,000 fund for the promotion of Aeronautics.

Each activity was directly involved with many of the changes and improvements

brought about during the late 1920s and 1930s. Included were efforts to reduce drag, and elimination of the biplane concept in high-speed aircraft. Wing shapes were developed for all proposed uses. Cowlings were included for engine fairing and cooling, retractable landing gear and wing flaps were proposed for safer flight.

The primary flight panel gave way to a more elegant one, that provided new instruments for flying without visual reference to the ground. "Blind flying" became a reality. Weather was no longer reason for automatically grounding a flight.

Newer and more sophisticated radio and radio navigation aids, plus gyroscopic compasses and attitude indicators became available and "flying on the gages" became a necessary part of safe flying. Many of the pioneers in instrument development prospered and became giants in the industry.

With the engineering development of "stressed skin" by the German Adolf Rohrbach airplanes began to take on a look which is not to far removed from what we still have today.

This infrastructure generally struggled as government safety requirements became more and more stringent, however, those flying benefited by increased safety.

The development of the helicopter and its refinement is generally attributed to Igor Sikorsky, it was , however, never envisioned as a sea going aircraft. None the less it has become a staple in the naval arsenal inventory, for one reasons alone, and that is the aircraft carrier.

The aircraft carrier, the subject of our project, has a conflicting background. Its development was not roundly supported by all of the ranking Navy Brass.

Time was, when no one without battleship command, made Admiral. The battleship Admirals controlled the Navy. Many were not rated, that is they were not qualified pilots. They saw the aircraft carrier as a potential threat to their central control of the Navy.

They failed to recognize, or probably more correctly just refused to acknowledge, the potential of the aircraft as a platform from which all measure of activities would emanate. Its initial roll as an instrument for reconnaissance will never be forsaken. However, additional activities have been ascribed to the airplane, which were initially limited by its most flagrant flaw, a required airfield within range of its intended target. Irrespective of what the target may be. Be it an enemy gun enclave, a naval vessel, a fixed enemy airport, or a commercial air terminal, among unlimited other possibilitiess.

To rectify this physical logistical limitation the Army Engineers did their thing and the Navy created the SeaBees, to build forward area airports, usually after the areas had been secured at some cost in human misery.

In reality, "it was a take the mountain to Mohammed" situation. To reach further, and further, into the forward areas it was necessary to take the airfields to that area, each time the conflagration moved beyond the range of the aircraft involved. Many efforts extended the range however they were usually interim fixes such as dropable fuel tanks or aerial refueling.

Flying boats or aircraft capable of taking off and landing on water appeared to be the answer. The Navy's Sea Dart was one such consideration. So were the flying boats of Pan American, which continued in operation even after Pearl Harbor. Each was successful, to a point.

However that success was at a price. Every time we hung an appendage on an airplane, be it a boat hull or an external drop tank the price was a reduction in capabilities and an increase in cost of manufacture and operation.

Sometimes this cost became a judgmental call of area commanders, where the benefit appeared to outweigh the cost. The classic case being the addition of external tanks on the P-51 (Mustangs) flown as fighter escorts for B-17s headed for Berlin.

Of all naval vessels the battleship had proven itself under fire and was the nearest entity to a self-sufficient combat vessel, which could be created at that time. When the world became smaller and other potential enemies became closer the Army and Navy commands again recognized the need for aerial surveillance. They simply had to know what was going on over the horizon. (Radar was not yet a real option.) But, steaming at flank speed to put out brush fires or confront a major insurrection still took time. Precious time that may not always be available.

So the aircraft carrier became a discussible entity. The records of the Langley and the two cruiser hulls that became the Saratoga and the Lexington were reviewed and naval architects developed a new set of criteria that became the basis of the Essex class. Aircraft carrier.

There were 14, more or less, of this class (which included the Bennington) built during WW II. Of these all but one saw action. I was an original member of her first crew and sailed with her all through her tour of duty, during WW II. She served the purpose for which she was intended. Her air groups accounted for 172 confirmed enemy aircraft destroyed and 37 surface vessels sunk or left sinking. She took the airport to where it was needed, to take the action to the enemy.

She, like her sister ships was a manifestation of the lessons learned during the "Golden Years of Aviation." It is a philosophical question as to whether war is inevitable or inherently evil. Personally, I believe the Essex class carriers of WW II made the difference between victory and defeat in the Pacific War. This is not to discount the role played by the jeep carriers nor those of the enemy they were all a part of the turning point, which resulted from our carriers stopping their carriers, and reversing their initial victories. We simply moved our needed airfields nearer to their intended target, a major turning point in the Pacific War.

The newer class nuclear powered aircraft carriers are an even greater manifestation of this capability.

Much of the above information is taken from Civil Air Patrol (US Air Force Auxiliary) training manuals, and the remainder is off the top of my head. I served as Deputy Wing Commander, Education, for the Hawaii Wing Civil Air Patrol. Which organization I heartily commend to all youngsters from 12 to 21 years of age.


George E. Mattimoe, Ph.D.

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