Monday, December 15, 2014

Air Transportation

I really like aircraft. 
My son, the pilot

But I hate flying.

So, here I'm dealing with a modern means of transpiration that I use a lot, dread taking, have a lot of familiarity with, have written about a lot here, and I find interesting.

I take airplanes all the time.  I've logged in more air miles than any member of my immediate family, and far more than my father, who was in the United States Air Force during the early 1950s.  As a kid, my fascination with aircraft lead me into the Civil Air Patrol, at which time I could imagine flying airplanes, prior to having to ride in them much.  But, while I like airplanes, and travel on them a lot, I really don't like flying.  Oh well.

Anyhow, as anyone who has ever stopped in this blog at all knows, I'm apparently interested in transportation topics, as they show up a lot. Recently I've been summarizing changes in transportation over the past century or so, and have discussed walking, water transportation, equine transportation and rail.  Here we'll look at one of the most revolutionary changes in how we get around.  It's one I've discussed here frequently, but its certainly worth taking another look at.

Trains were the fast transportation, and the basic means of interstate transportation, for most Americans after some point in the late 19th Century up in to the 1950s.  Now we wouldn't think of trains as fast, but they're a lot faster than equine transportation and water transportation, and prior to the Interstate Highway system, they were a lot more convenient and even more practical than automotive transportation, which tended to be local as a rule.  Now, as we know, for long distance transportation, aircraft are the default means of transportation for most people, with automobiles being a close second.  In much of the country, you couldn't board a passenger train if you wanted to.  And, with FeEx and the like also shipping by air, what the U.S. Postal Service started with air mail has become a major factor in mail and packages, paying a bit of a premium for shipping by air, of course.

FedEx Cessna at Natrona County International Airport.

How did this huge change come about?

Flight rose amazingly quickly. Faster, really, than any other means of transportation. And it evolved much quicker than any other as well.

Powered flight, i.e., the aircraft, only came about in 1903, as is well known.  Even prior to that, however, there were some who pondered the possibilities of air transportation on a grand scale.  Even prior to the American Civil War, one visionary took subscriptions for the construction of a dirigible to be powered by steam engines which would cross the Western prairies and mountains by air, safely (hopefully) delivering its passengers on the Pacific coast.  Of course, it was never built, but such a craft in fact did make a flight in Europe in 1852.

Dirigible patent, 1874.

In spite of their seemingly somewhat goofy nature, airships showed a lot of promise, which is why its somewhat surprising that in spite of a 50 year head start on the airplane, they really didn't get launched as a commercially successful means of transportation until After World War One.  There's undoubtedly a variety of reasons for that, with the weight and horsepower of available power plants being one, but they just didn't manage to really get started as a commercial endeavor by the time the Wrights flew in 1903.  They did get started as a military implement by 1900, however.

Given that airships had a big head start, you'd think the really primitive and scary nature of early aircraft would have still given them a big advantage, but aircraft evolved at such a rapid pace, it's stunning.

Early Air Transportation

The first attempt at an airliner was made by Igor Sikorsky, an early Russian aircraft designer who born in Ukraine and who later immigrated to the United States following the Russian Revolution.  He's most famously recalled today for being the founder of an American company that pioneered and dominated large helicopters for decades, but early on he designed large aircraft.  His airplanes were amazingly large for their era.  Sikorsky was a visionary, and he designed the Ilya Muromets to be an airliner in 1913, although World War One's arrival meant that it made but a single, fourteen hour, flight prior to his heavy designs being used for bombing during the Great War.  The early airliner was a luxury craft to a degree, even featuring a bathroom.

Multi engined 1913 design, the Ilya Muromets, the worlds first airliner, which made but a single flight in that role.  This airplane was designed only a decade after the Wrights first flight.

While the Ilya Muromet was a massive purpose designed aircraft, it would fall to the underpowered and utilitarian Curtis Jenny, the JN4, to be the first commercially used airliner, even though it isn't a big craft, and it wasn't designed for that. Elliot Air Service gets the credit for being the first commercial enterprise that moved people and items by air, using that craft.

The utilitarian Curtis Jenny, the United States first real military aircraft.  Built in large numbers during World War One, the airplane was really too underpowered for a combat role but is sparked the real dawn of American civil aviation.

The Curtis JN4 was an underpowered weak, but durable, aircraft whose real combat role would peak during the Punitive Expedition, where it was sued by the First Aero Squadron, an Army units whose trucks proved to be of nearly equal utility to this planes. But the Jenny would go on to become the first really popular civilian airplane in the world, being sold in large numbers in the United States and being pressed into every conceivable role by private pilots.  Jennys were used as trainers in the US during the  Great War but were pressed into the first really significant parcel delivery by air service in the US, by the Post Office, before World War One was over, with the Signal Corps Jennys being used to deliver mail starting in May, 1918.  Regular air mail would be a fully governmental service for the first eight years of its existence, with the air mail pilots being looked upon as glamorous, as individuals in dangerous occupations often are, but after that, the US went to commercial air carriers for the air mail, thereby encouraging private enterprise in this area.

Delivery of mail by air would seem to be a separate topic from passenger service, but in many ways it is not, as the early history of commercial air transportation dovetails the two, just as the late story of rail transportation also does. Passenger trains carried mail and people, and indeed mail hooks for railroads were set up along the rail lines so that trains didn't have to stop to pick up mail.  A video of that taking place, as a demonstration with a modern train, has just been posted on this site.  Moving mail by plane therefore was a natural extension of what was occurring by train, with a new means of transportation that began to compete with the train nearly immediately, or at least soon after World War One.

In order to make that competition realistic, of course, planes larger than the Jenny, and less scary than the Sikorsky, had to be developed, but they very soon were. Even late war aircraft had sufficiently evolved so that their conversion into airliners wasn't wholly unrealistic. The Farman Goliath, for example, was designed as a bomber but with a closed cockpit and fuselage, it made it possible to be converted into an airliner, a role which it was occupying by the early 1920s and still occupying at the end of that decade, a pretty amazing service life for an aircraft in the early history of commercial aviation.  In the 1920s, or even starting in the late teens just after World War One, some surprisingly modern monoplane passenger aircraft were introduced, however, and the future for some time was pretty set, with large biplane airliners, descendants of World War One bombers, yielding to more efficient monoplanes.

Starting in the mid 1920s, some really serious purpose built airliners started to be introduced.  Ford Motor Company introduced one of the earliest and best with the Ford Trimoter, relying on design lessons learned by its German born designer.  The Ford Trimotor almost immediately saw its twin spring up in Europe in the Fokker Trimotor, which is darned near the same aircraft as it was designed b the same people.  The Fokker and the Ford were amazingly reliable aircraft and they carried on in some locations for decades, with the last ones being retired only relatively recently.  In Europe, the type went on to be the basic cargo aircraft of the Luftwaffe during World War Two, although the military expression of the aircraft was hardly limited to the Germans, as variants were used by Switzerland, Spain, and the United States, amongst others.

United States Army Air Corps Fokker.

As good as the Trimotors were, a crash of one in 1931 would bring about a revolution in aircraft and the next great series of air liner.  TWA's Flight 599 crashed in a Kansas prairie on March 15, 1931, killing all eight occupants including legendary football figure Knute Rockne. Subsequent investigation revealed that structural failure of the wooden structured wings was the cause of the crash and the strict restrictions on such construction followed.  Taking that up as a challenge, Douglas Aircraft Company introduced the all metal DC-1 in 1933. The DC-1 soon yielded to the DC-2, after a single DC-1 was built, which came out in 1934.  Proving the type, DC-2 yielded to the most successful commercial aircraft of all time, the DC-3, of which a vast number were built.

The DC-3 itself was only constructed from 1936 to 1942, under that name, but the start of World War Two meant that the military version, the C-47, was built until 1945.  Production of a larger version of the airplane was commenced in 1949, but so many DC-3s and C-47s were in the air, with over 16,000 of the type having been built, that the new version wasn't really needed.

The impact of the DC-3 can hardly be overstated.  The aircraft remained in service all the way into the 21st Century and chances are that a few are still flying commercial short hops somewhere.  The DC-3, a sturdy, reliable aircraft, was the airplane that really brought regular commercial air service to the United States and the world, or at least interstate and somewhat international air transportation.  If you were going to your local airport in the late 1930s, the 1940s, or the early 1950s, your chances of boarding a DC-3 were good. And if you were shipping parts of something by air from the mid 1930s to the 1950s, chances are it was going by DC-3. For that matter, this would also be true in much of the Third World well into the 1970s or later.

 C-47s being built during World War Two.  The last U.S. Air Force use of the C-47 would come during the Vietnam War, during which some were changed from air transport aircraft into air assault aircraft by being equipped with automatic cannons.  Nicknamed "spooky", they were later transferred to the Central Intelligence Agency and used over Angola in support of SWAPO during the 1980s.

Which isn't to say that the DC-3 did or could do everything.  For transoceanic travel in the 1930s a person was likely to board a Pan American Clipper, or a similar aircraft owned by British Overseas Airways, but only if they were rich.  Planes like this were "flying boats", a type that acknowledged the lack of runways and the need for larger passenger compartments in an era prior to World War Two expanding airfields absolutely everywhere.

 Flying boat, 1930s.

In the United States, it was Pan American that exploited this market and dominated.  Started in 1927 to deliver mail (that again) and passengers between the United States and Cuba, Pan American very early saw the practicality of expanding into near shore routes and it accordingly set the market for flying boats.  Buying the products of Sikorsky, Boeing and Martin in the 1920s and 1930s, its air fleet was actually surprisingly small, with any one run of aircraft being also fairly small. At the same time, however, if a person was going to engage in international air travel from the United States, Pan American was by default the airline that a person took.  With a captive market, and high operating expenses due to the unique limited run aircraft and very long routes, it was a luxury airline, with travel being expensive by its very nature.  In that era, for example the luxury of taking Pan American to Hawaii is something that we can hardly imagine now, and which was only dreamed of by most people then.

During this entire period, it should be noted, the first device that was thought of in terms of commercial air travel wasn't idle.  Air ships, like aircraft, had received a big boost during World War One, and just as big aircraft were used for the first time as bombers, so were airships. The Germans in particular developed and dominated this technology, with Zeppelins, giant airships filled with explosive hydrogen, being used, as dangerous as they were, as bombers.  Zeppelins were even used to bomb London, although the Germans did that with Gotha bombers as well.

 Early (1908) Zeppelin passenger airship.

Following the war, Zeppelins kept on keeping on and were being sued for trans Atlantic air travel out of Germany.  Serious thought was given to switching the craft to Helium, which doesn't explode, but this proved impossible after the Nazis took over Germany, as the U.S., which controls the globes Helium market, wouldn't allow export to Germany.  Hence the airships continued on full of explosive gas.

Aircraft, coming on strong, would have taken out airships as a means of trans Atlantic air travel anyhow, but the explosion of the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, ended airships day as a commercial carrier forever.  Occasionally revived in concept, airships have never gone away, but their lasts really major world role came on during World War Two, when U.S. Navy blimps patrolled for submarines off of the Atlantic.  Even at that, however, light private aircraft used by the Civil Air Patrol had a pretty major role.

And then came World War Two.

But before going there, let's summarize the first 45 years of air travel.  Basically, what the story is, is as follows"

1.  Airships got really rolling around 1900, but they didn't expand into passenger or commercial service right away.

2.  The airplane was invented in 1903.

3.  Visionaries could see commercial air travel as being viable by 1913.

4.  By the 1910s militaries around the globe were developing military aircraft.

5.  The first passenger, and mail, service started in 1915.

6. It isn't really possible to separate mail service from passenger service early on, and mail service got really rolling in 1918.

7.  Passenger service got rolling in the 1920s as World War One vintage bombers were redesigned for passenger service, and then real passenger planes were introduce in the 1920s.

8. Air disaster lead to air innovation, and the Douglas DC 3 came in during the mid 1930s.

9.  Over water air flight opportunities were picked up by Pan American who soon expanded into luxury transoceanic flight.

10.  Elsewhere, such as in Europe, the story is largely the same, but with the market for aircraft already being international.

Transcontinental air mail route, 1924.

And, while this was going on, private pilots flying really risky odd aircraft in the teens bought various World War One surplus aircraft immediately after the war and the age of private pilot civil aviation was really on.light dangerous war surplus airplanes soon gave way to relatively inexpensive single engine airplanes, and by the start of World War Two the United States and Canada had a pretty big private pilot fleet.

And then World War Two happened.

World War Two

C-47, rebuilt after World War Two as a D.C. 3, being rebuilt.

We've noted here before that Holscher's Fourth Law of History is that "War Changes Everything".  And so it does. And so it was for civil aviation.

Aviation was advanced incredibly rapidly from 1903 to 1939, but it can't help but be noted that during 1914 to 1918, World War One, it received a big boost.  In a lot of ways, however, that boost kept on keeping on following the war.  The top of the line fighter aircraft of 1918 were already obsolete by the early 1920s, hopeless relics of an earlier era.  By the early 1930s, the military aircraft of 1920 were obsolete, and by 1939 the military aircraft of 1930 were largely obsolete.  The best civil aircraft of the 1930s made those of the 1920s look pretty inadequate, although commercial designs, such as the Fokker and Ford Trimotors that came in during the 1920s were still serving.  Commercial aircraft made or designed by Marin, Fokker, Boeing and Douglas that saw service in the 1920s and 1930s would all see military service during World War Two.

United States Army Air Corps C-47, an airplane that hauled equipment, men and even mules everywhere, during World War Two, and which saw service in about every Allied air force, including the U.S., Canadian, Royal New Zealand, Australian, British and Soviet air forces.  Perhaps the greatest single airplane ever made.

But the war would change certain things about air travel in a way that would soon revolutionize it, in spite of the production of so many airplanes that it could have rationally been assumed that the post war manufacture of them would have collapsed.

Post War Aviation

During the war, U.S., British, German, Canadian, and Australian engineers put in airfields absolutely everywhere.  Locations in the United States that had been served by only a tiny airport, if at all, suddenly had massive airfields designed for bombers, as the US had put them in for training.  Casper Wyoming is a good example. Served by a small airport prior to the war, that airfield wasn't even really flat.  But during the war, the U.S. Army built a massive air training facility just outside of town, with runways so long that they remain long enough for the biggest aircraft today.

C-17 Globemaster at the Natrona County International Airport, an airport that was built as an air base during World War Two.

In addition to this, however, in spite of the superb serviceability the pre war airliners gave as military cargo planes, the technological leap that aircraft had taken during the war not only meant that the prewar designs were implicitly obsolete, but also that people and nations that had become acclimated to advances in air power would expect the civilian employment of them.

When the war started, an airplane like the DC3 was a big serviceable and modern airliner.  The really big aircraft just prior to the war were military bombers, but none of them were suitable for airliners and only a few nations had them.  Going into World War Two, in fact, only the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and Japan had really large strategic bombers, and the USSR's were not all that nifty.  It's notable that all of the powers that had really significant bombers were naval powers with oceanic concerns, which had a lot to do with the development of that type of aircraft.  Of those nations, arguably the United Kingdom's bombers were the best going into the war.

By the wars end, strategic bombing had caused the development of successive models or even generations of bombers, and the United States come out of the war with the best, if most problematic, bomber, the B-29.  The B-29 was generations ahead of the B-17 with which the US had entered the war, and the B-17 is indeed downright primitive in comparison to it.  The significant thing here is that during the war, four engined large aircraft had been completely proven and had developed considerably. And, additionally, new generations of air transport aircraft were also coming in.

At the same time, during the war, piston engines had become better and bigger.  More significantly, however, jet engines had also been proven. Introduced first by the British, in a plane that turned out to be significant but lackluster, it was the German ME262 that demonstrated that all future combat aircraft would be jets, at some point. And the introduction of jet engines meant, in spite of what might have been expected, that pretty soon every air fore, and every air line, would soon want fleets of jets.

That didn't happen right away. What happened at first is that the transport, and even the bomber, aircraft of World War Two came in right after the war as new, faster, and longer ranged, civilian aircraft.

Boeing Stratocruiser.  The Stratocruiser was one of two airliner versions of the B-29 which went into production in the late 1930s and which were retired in the early 1960s.  A luxury long distance airliner, they only carried a little over 30 people.  They were the replacement in the Pan American fleet for the flying boats.

These were soon followed by aircraft specifically designed as four engine commercial aircraft, such as the Lockheed Constellation.  The day of the flying boat ended nearly immediately, with the type relegated to odd search and rescue aircraft in various coast guards and navies.

 The four engined Lockheed Constellation started off as a military cargo plane in an era with the C-47 was the standard.  With modifications after the war, it would be the standard for airliners for a time.  A retired fleet of Constellations was parked at the end of a runway at our local airport for decades after they were no longer used in this role, and after that set had been briefly used as firefighting bombers.  One of them was the plane used by General MacArthur during the Korean War.

As new airplanes came in, competition between airlines increased.  Air travel seemingly came in everywhere.  And then, starting in the 1950s, jet airliners began to arrive.

Before we look at that, however, we have to look at two other areas, private and light air transportation, and a brand new aircraft, the helicopter.

As already noted, light aircraft had become big in the United States starting with the Curits Jenny. The US had a well developed private aviation community prior to World War Two, and indeed the country harnessed that population for anti submarine efforts during the war, in the form of the Civil Air Patrol.

Light airplane in Civil Air Patrol use during World War Two.

After the war light aviation took back off.  Cessna introduced the Cessna 120 and Cessna 140 right after World War Two, which introduced a basic type that it still makes today, although the 120 and 140 were tail draggers.  In 1956 it introduced the 172, which is the greatest light plane in aviation history.Still made today, with updates, the plane set the standard for light private aircraft.  With planes being affordable, at first, civil aviation really took off, so to speak.

The Jet Age

Introduced first by the British in the early 1950s, the U.S. introduced its first jet airliners by the late 1950s.  New fleets of piston engined airliners were obsolete nearly overnight.  By the 1960s they were rapidly on the way out, and by the 1970s only regional flights, if any, used piston engined aircraft.  By the late 1960s, jet airliners were the rule.

Still relatively expensiveness, jet air travel none the less totally supplanted long range train travel in the United States by the early 1970s, a process that had started off with big piston engined airliners like the Constellation.  Railroads discontinued passenger service most places, save for those places where local commuter rail continued to be viable.  Intrastate air travel and regional air travel also became more common, with turboprop aircraft being common there.  In most states local air travel became an option for at least business travelers.

Deregulation of the 1980s really ramped up air competition and the market became unstable but highly competitive.  Air prices steadily dropped and left us with the situation we have today, in which air travel has never been cheaper, or more uncomfortable.

Also in this age, but for a different set of reasons, the helicopter really came into its own.  An oddity in some ways when first developed, it proved itself during the Korean War and became an indispensable military tool by the Vietnam War.  Soon after the Vietnam War, one of the primary uses of the Army helicopter was carried over to civilian life, and the medical "dustoff" which sent in the Medivac UH-1 "Huey"  became a familiar site, with other helicopters, in the United States.  Now medical helicopters are in almost every town, and helicopters in all sorts of local uses, from traffic reporting to pipeline flying, are quite common.

Bell 206 helicopter flying a pipeline.

Private aviation, however, has taken a pounding since its glory days of the 50s and 60s.  By the 1970s law suits had taken their toll on the industry and Cessna even ceased offering light planes for awhile.  Federal intervention through statutory relief allowed it to reenter the market, but there's no doubt that lawyers and lawsuits pose as great of threat to light aviation as flak guns did to Allied bombers during World War Two, I'm sorry to say.

So this is basically where we are today.  In less than a century, given that early aircraft were both dangerous and really not practical for much, we've developed a wholly new means of transportation. That means of transportation had an incredibly rapid evolution, much the way, I suppose, personal computers have in our own age.  They displaced the train for long distance travel to a large extent, rendering the massive US rail passenger fleet obsolete.  They've become, moreover, a common tool of our daily life, and had been a not uncommon avocation for many who just liked flight.  Costs of air travel, except for the cost of being a private pilot, have decreased enormously, while at the same time its become faster and more uncomfortable.


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