The birth of aviation truly is one of the most incredible aspects of human history - it changed everything. The attempts and successes for mankind to achieve flight were the very roots from which modern aviation has flourished.
People have been attempting to achieve flight for centuries, however true aviation dates to December 17, 1903, when brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to successfully fly for 12 seconds and 120-feet in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Prior to this, humans had only successfully achieved getting off the ground in the way of gliders and balloons.
The first air service to ever be scheduled was in Florida on January 1, 1914. One man, Glenn Curtiss constructed a plane that was capable of taking off and being able to land on water. It was capable of being a much larger plane than any other at the time, due to the fact that it did not require a heavy undercarriage to land on solid ground. Yet another man who truly helped pave the road to aviation was Thomas Benoist. Beoist was an auto parts maker who resolved to craft the first seaplane or flying boat called the “St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Line” for service across Tampa Bay, Florida. The first passenger on this plane was the ex-St. Petersburg Mayor, A.C. Pheil made an 18-mile trip in a mere 23 minutes, which was most certainly a vast improvement versus the previous two-hour trip by boat. For a fare of $5 one-way, this single-plane service was capable of accommodating a single passenger at one time. Unfortunately, after operating a mere two flights daily for a period of four months, the Airboat Line folded when the winter tourist season ended.
The First World War
Early flights made headlines around the world, however, commercial aviation would prove to be quite slow in capturing the interest of the general public, largely due to the fact that many of them were simply afraid to ride in airplanes. Improvements in the design of aircraft was quite slow.
The beginning of the first World War ushered in a new age of aerial combat. Aircraft production was drastically increased to meet military demands in battle to control the air. With military funding, there were huge advancements in aviation technology as both sides of the conflict sought any possible advantage. The most significant advancement in these planes was the development of more powerful engines which enabled them to reach speeds upwards of 130 miles an hour - two times the speed of aircraft at the start of the war! This increased amount of power opened the doors for the development of larger aircraft.
While the advancements made in flight during the war were wide ranging, it may have delayed commercial adoption of flight as a leading method of transportation. Production of aircraft was almost exclusively shifted to the war effort. In the mind of the public, aviation became associated with aerial dog fights, bombing, and surveillance. Furthermore, there was a huge surplus of airplanes when the war ended that demand for new planes was virtually nonexistent for quite a few years. Many aircraft manufacturers went bankrupt.
A few European countries, such as France and Great Britain, took it upon themselves to drive the adoption of commercial aviation by running flights across the English Channel. Nothing similar like that was happening in the U.S., largely because the railroad managed commercial and industrial transport so thoroughly in the US. Adoption of air travel in the U.S. came from a surprising government program: the Post Office.
As of 1917, the United States government felt as if enough good progress had been conducted in the development and advancement of airplanes to be able to do something completely different - mail transportation by air. Congress allotted $100,000 for a trial airmail service to be handled jointly by the Post Office and the Army between New York and Washington with an initial stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first flight took off from Belmont Park in Long Island on May 14, 1918 and the following day it flew to Washington and was greeted by President Woodrow Wilson.
With so many war-surplus airplanes available for use, the Post Office decided to strive to obtain a more ambitious goal of a transcontinental air service. The first segment opened on May 15th 1919 between Chicago and Cleveland and the air route was completed on September 8, 1920, when the Rocky Mountains were spanned (the most difficult part of the journey). Since planes could not yet fly at night, the mail would be handed over to trains at the end of every day, yet in spite of that, the use of airplanes by the Post Office saved about 22 hours on coast-to-coast mail delivery.
By 1921, the U.S. Army had set up beacons in rotation in a route between Dayton and Columbus, Ohio (roughly 80 miles). These beacons were visible to pilots at approximate 10-second intervals which successfully allowed for night flights. The following year the Post Office followed suit of this guidance system and by the end of 1923 they had crafted their own beacons between Cheyenne, Wyoming and Chicago, Illinois and a later line of beacons would be implemented to extend coast-to-coast at a price tag of $550,000. By this point, mail could then be delivered coast-to-coast in as little as 34 hours westbound and 29 hours eastbound - the time difference was due to the jet stream.
By the middle of the 1920s, the Post Office was delivering more than 14 million letters and flying roughly 2.5 million miles on an annual basis. The government no longer cared to continue airmail service on their own, and the Post Office previously opted to use private organizations for the purpose of transportation of mail. Once airmail was a firmly established concept and facilities were secured, the government proceeded to transfer airmail service to a private sector in the way of competitive bidding. The legislative authority to make this transfer was called “ the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925” or more commonly referred to as “the Kelly Act” (named after chief sponsor, Rep. Clyde Kelly, Pennsylvania). This was also the first key step in moving toward the development of a private airline industry in the U.S. The winners of the first five contracts were Colonial Air Transport, National Air Transport (owned by the Curtiss Aeroplane Co.), Western Air Express, Varney Air Lines, and Robertson Aircraft Corporation.
Congress passed the Contract Air Mail Act in 1925 when President Calvin Coolidge appointed a board to advocate a national aviation policy. A senior partner in J.P. Morgan’s bank (and also a man who would later become father-in-law to Charles Lindbergh), Dwight Morrow, was named chairman of the board. They recommended government regulations for civil aviation - regulation that is now managed by the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA.
As the commercial airlines developed and the railroads were relegated primarily to industrial shipping, travel in the US and the world was changed entirely. Distances that would have taken weeks could be accomplished in a single day - flight revolutionized domestic and international travel for business and leisure. In 2018, over 4 billion passengers traveled via airlines.
Aviation has also continued to grow in importance to the military - for surveillance and air support. The US military developed aircraft that were faster than the speed of sound, aircraft that couldn’t be detected by radar, and even unmanned aircraft that can direct, with pinpoint accuracy, air strikes against enemies. Billions of dollars a year are spent by militaries all over the world to develop the most advanced, most powerful aircraft. Wars can now be won or lost based on who controls the sky.
From simple aircraft that could only be flown by a single person, to launching an entirely new form of war, and paving the way for airmail and commercial airlines, the development of aviation made the world smaller and opened the possibility for so much of what we now take for granted.