During the first half of the twentieth century, aviation technology rapidly advanced, spurred on by two world wars. During peace time, the commercial airline manufacturers started to focus on bringing the wartime aviation technology to the general public. Expecting the rapid development of aviation to continue, researchers made ambitious predictions about the future of aviation in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Less than forty years prior, in December of 1903, the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina[1]. Powered flight then made its debut on the international stage as the Wright Brothers toured Europe demonstrating their technologies. The demonstrations were concentrated in France, England, and Germany[2]. These locations are an appropriate precursor for the upcoming years in aviation development. Many European countries began to develop and even improve the design of airplanes in the first decade of the twentieth century. The purpose of the planes however was still not for civil use.

Initial agreements between countries stated that countries could not use planes as a weapons platform[3]. Their limited role led to a brief stagnation in development due to a lack of motivation. However, before World War I, nearly all involved countries began to integrate weapons systems into their planes. The weapon systems were limited by the minimal cargo capacity of the early planes. To increase the carrying capacity, development of larger, more powerful planes continued throughout the war; later contributing to the speed and carrying capacity of later civil aircraft.

Between World War I and World War II, civil aviation began to become more commonplace. Civil pilots such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart captured the imagination of the general public[4][5]. Along with increased civil use of planes came increased regulation from Congress. In 1926, the United States Congress passed the Air Commerce Act which laid the foundation of civil airspace regulations and was an early precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration[6].

Assembly line production of fighter aircraft near Niagara Falls, New York

During both World War I and World War II, planes were used as weapons of war. War was the most prominent motivation for developing the technology. Usable war planes were becoming flight-ready just as World War I was nearing its end.

During World War II, the United States saw a boom in its aviation industry. This resulted from increased funding for military aircraft and wartime manufacturing. While other countries developed aircraft technologies, such as Germany with the jet engine and Great Britain with radar, the U.S. optimized aircraft manufacturing[7]. The United States produced over 297,000 military aircraft from 1939-1945 [8], far more than any other country. This demonstrates that not only was aircraft technology developed such as an enclosed cockpits and aluminum bodies, but the logistics of large aircraft fleets were developed. From mass production to large airfields, the logistics of a large military aircraft fleet would soon influence the future of aviation after the war.

World War II helped shape the U.S. civil aviation industry into what it is today. Improvements in the aviation manufacturing process as a result of wartime necessity paved the way for a large increase in passenger aircraft. This led to a rise in the number of flights, a change in airport infrastructure, and a larger portion of the U.S. population using air travel. The growth of civil aviation also presented new challenges, such as airline over-speculation and aircraft noise exposure to a larger portion of the population.

Following World War II, the United States turned its attention to the civil aircraft industry. With a strong manufacturing foundation in place, the U.S. produced up to 50,000 air transport aircraft per year following the war [9]. A greater variety of civil aircraft also began to emerge. Aerospace companies such as Douglas, Lockheed, Convair, and Boeing were all working on passenger aircraft designs. Some of these drew inspiration directly from the military bombers and cargo planes of the day. For example, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the basis for the design of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.

Boeing 377 Stratocruiser with a United Airlines Livery

With the increase in passenger aircraft, a change in aviation infrastructure was apparent. Airline companies called for the implementation of paved runways and larger terminal buildings to accommodate more passengers [10]. Airports across the country grew in size, and began to incorporate aesthetically pleasing buildings to add value to the flying experience [11]. The upgraded passenger experience continued in the air. Aircraft became equipped with well upholstered seats, improved passenger lighting, and radio entertainment. Further plans included cocktail lounges and powder rooms [12]. Increases in aircraft performance lead to faster travel times and increased ranges. Greater ease of maintenance lowered operating costs, which lowered the price tags on many tickets[13]. This meant a broader demographic range of air passengers and a more mobile middle class.

As passenger aviation became more commonplace, it encountered new and somewhat unexpected problems. In response the post war enthusiasm about air travel, many airlines began purchasing large quantities of new passenger aircraft. However, this increased supply far outweighed air travel demand[14]. Airlines suffered financially from this economic imbalance, and it took a few years before demand rose high enough to give the industry consistent profits.
As the number of flights through U.S. municipalities increased, populations near airports began to express annoyance of aircraft noise overhead. Many initial complaints were expressed through newspapers. Residents described the noise as disturbing and inescapable[15] [16]. Action was taken by the Civil Aeronautics Authority in response to the growing frustration. In 1947, the CAA rose the minimum flight level in Manhattan from 1000ft to 2000ft in attempts to dampen noise[17].

Civil air travel effected every part of the transportation market in 1945 and the years following. The explosion of the popularity of commercial air travel particularly impacted the railroad industry, which had benefited in many ways from the pressures of World War II. During the war, the U.S. military relied on railroads to move millions of soldiers across the country as the needs of the war effort dictated. Civilian rail travel also increased as wartime steel, rubber, and gasoline shortages led people to drive less[18]. Once the war ended, many leaders in the railroad industry expressed optimism for the future of the railroad while acknowledging the competition that lay ahead with the airline industry[19] . In fact, the post-war period ultimately led to the near collapse of the railroad industry. Railroad passenger traffic declined from a peak of over 900 million passengers in 1944 to just over 400 million in 1957[20]. Meanwhile, over the same time period, the airline industry increased the number of domestic passengers carried from just over 4 million to nearly 50 million[21]. The development and improvement of the U.S. highway system also played a major role in this post-war transportation revolution. Better roads meant that people could drive their cars to more places and get there faster, contributing to the decline of railroads. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established the interstate highway system, exemplifies the systematic improvement of the nation’s highways after the war. Interestingly, similar to commercial passenger aircraft, the interstate highway system also owed much of its development to the needs of national defense. One of the primary reasons for its construction was to allow for rapid movement of troops and military equipment and supplies across the country in the event of an attack on the U.S.[22]

As the middle class became more mobile thanks to the interstate highway system and generally greater access to transportation, air travel was no longer just for the wealthy. The trends in air passengers in 1945 indicated that a more economically diverse customer base would be tapped into in the years following World War II. This is because the wartime development of aviation lowered the costs of operating an airplane and the establishment of the various classes allowed for diverse ticket prices all on the same flight[23].

As World War II drew to a close, governments and companies around the globe were developing new and promising aviation technologies. Foremost among these was the jet engine, which was first used in aircraft during the war in the German Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Me-262 fighter. After the war, the Allied powers scrambled to study the progress that the Nazis had made in developing jet engine technology and to implement the technology into their post-war air forces. While the jet engine was quickly adopted in military aircraft, it took somewhat longer before it made its way into commercial aircraft. The debut of the first commercial jet aircraft, the British de Havilland Comet, in 1949 surprised American aircraft manufacturers, who were still several years away from even prototypes of jet airliners. Because of this, concern grew within the American aircraft industry that the British would be so far ahead in the development of jet airliners that they would be able to effectively take over the market, which most realized represented the future of the industry[24]. These fears were ultimately unfounded as the early models of the Comet suffered from a critical design flaw which caused several high profile disasters. These disasters eventually caused the grounding of the fleet and a major structural redesign, setting the Comet program back several years. During this time Boeing developed the Boeing 367-80 airliner prototype, on which Boeing would base one of the most widely-used airliners ever, the Boeing 707. The introduction of the Boeing 707 began a period of American dominance of the airliner manufacturing industry, which would last until the 1990s.

Boeing 367-80 at Boeing Field in Washington

Other technologies being developed in 1945 included breaking the sound barrier and possible space travel. In 1947, researchers believed that the sound barrier could be broken within the year[25]. Indeed, Chuck Yeager broke the barrier in October of that year flying the Bell X-1 at Mach 1. After Yeager’s flight, leaders at Douglas Aircraft Company believed that supersonic passenger jets would become common by the end of the decade[26]. They believed that ease of use including safety, overheating, and fuel consumption progressed fairly linearly with speed instead of increasing dramatically at supersonic speeds as scientists know now[27].

During wartime, countries developed rocket technologies in parallel with jet engines. The furthest developed project in this category was the German V-2 rocket[28]. American researchers soon modified the designs of the V-2. Lockheed Aircraft scientists predicted that jet powered planes and rockets based on the German V2, would soon propel planes to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere all within 15 years. Once at the top of the atmosphere, they believed these jet planes could then fly with unlimited speed due to a loss of all drag[29]. They did not consider however the difficulties of reentry and the lack of air for an air-breathing jet engine.

Claims such as those stated above portray the lack of technical experience, yet high motivation which was prevalent in much of the 1940s aircraft industry.

World War II had a significant impact on the growth of civil aviation in the United States. A wartime push boosted aircraft manufacturing and laid the foundation for an increased number of airliners. The growth in post war aviation impacted other modes of transportation, such as the railway and automotive industries. Changes in traffic infrastructure also became apparent. Today, many characteristics of U.S. transportation can be traced back to rise of civil aviation in the late 1940’s.

Many modern technologies follow the same trend as civil aviation. Government sponsored technologies for government or wartime use will often create a new civil market a few years or even decades after the initial government concept. Looking into the future, it appears that the space industry is mirroring the aviation industry. Half a century after the start of the Space Race, private companies are developing technologies to support civil space markets such as space tourism[30].

  1. Smithsonian Institute. (n.d.). The Wright Brothers. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/wright-brothers/online/
  2. Cooper, D. R. (n.d.). Alberto Santos Dumont. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://earlyaviators.com/edumonb.htm
  3. “La première étape de l’aviation militaire en France” (The first step of military aviation en France), 1906
  4. A&E. (2014). Charles Lindbergh. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.biography.com/people/charles-lindbergh-9382609
  5. The Official Website of Amelia Earhart. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.ameliaearhart.com/about/bio.html
  6. Air Commerce Act of 1926. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://avstop.com/history/needregulations/act1926.htm
  7. History of Aviation – First Flights. (2016). Avjobs. Retrieved from http://www.avjobs.com/history/
  8. Aircraft Production. (2016). WWII Vehicles. Retrieved from http://www.wwiivehicles.com/world-war-ii/aircraft/aircraft-production.asp
  9. History of Aviation – First Flights. (2016). Avjobs. Retrieved from http://www.avjobs.com/history/
  10. Pierce, B. World Expansion of Airports Urged. (1945, Jan 13). New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/107152093
  11. The Creation of the Modern Airport. (2007). Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved from https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/america-by-air/online/innovation/innovation10.cfm
  12. Leonard, R. The Shape of Planes to Come. (1946, Feb). Leatherneck pp. 40-42. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/206531635
  13. Leonard, R. The Shape of Planes to Come. (1946, Feb). Leatherneck pp. 40-42. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/206531635
  14. Graham, F. Aviation: Two Questions: Airlines, in View of the Slump in Business, Review Their Plans for the Future. (1947, Feb 16). New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/107822997
  15. G.W. Disturbing Aircraft Noises. (1946, Jun 10). Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/165696294
  16. Hoffman, L. E. Inescapable Airplane Noise. (1947, May 13). New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/107942196
  17. New Air Roles Lift City Fight Levels: CAA Action of Slight Effect in New York — CAB Moves to Cut La Guardia Noise. (1947, Aug 29). New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/107779813
  18. https://envisioningtheamericandream.com/2012/11/15/gas-rationing-wwii/
  19. Confidence Voiced by Railroad Head. (1945, Jun 02). New York Times Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/107297937
  20. U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957 (Chapter Q), July 1960, retrieved from https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/1960/compendia/hist_stats_colonial-1957/hist_stats_colonial-1957-chQ.pdf (p. 430)
  21. U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957 (Chapter Q), July 1960, retrieved from https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/1960/compendia/hist_stats_colonial-1957/hist_stats_colonial-1957-chQ.pdf (p. 467)
  22. Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (sec. 108a), Retrieved from ProQuest Coongressional (http://congressional.proquest.com/legisinsight?id=PL84-627&type=LEG_HIST)
  23. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-dc-3-revolutionized-air-travel-5444300/
  24. R. P. Cooke (1949, Aug 17). Jet transport planes. Wall Street Journal Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/131813095
  25. R, Magruder Dobie. 1947. HOW WE’LL TRAVEL FASTER THAN SOUND. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Nov 02, 1947. http://search.proquest.com/docview/165810020 (accessed December 12, 2016).
  26. Karp, Aaron. 2014. a golden age. Air Transport World 51, (3) (03): 28, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1549141059 (accessed December 12, 2016).
  27. United States. National Park Service. (n.d.). Modern Aviation — Aviation: From Sand Dunes to Sonic Booms: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/aviation/modernaviation.htm
  28. A Brief History of Rocketry. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www-pao.ksc.nasa.gov/history/rocket-history.htm
  29. Jet planes with unlimited speed coming soon, says lockheed man. 1945. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Jul 12, 1945. http://search.proquest.com/docview/165601067 (accessed December 12, 2016).
  30. H. (n.d.). Virgin Galactic: Richard Branson’s Space Tourism Company. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.space.com/18993-virgin-galactic.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *