The golden age of aviation

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A Curtiss training plane. Courtesy of the Wallach Division Photography Collection via The New York Public Library.


After WWI, civil aviation greatly expanded. This was made possible by cheap surplus Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” aircrafts—biplanes produced to train WWI pilots that were subsequently used by civilians post war. They were popularly used by pilots known as “barnstormers” who would wow people with stunts at air shows across the country. Barnstorming pilots also offered joyrides, which introduced riders to flying and brought the experience of aviation to rural areas.

Record-breaking flights, speed races around pylons in stadiums, and long-distance races captured the public imagination. The 1929 Air Shows in Cleveland were attended by half a million people, excited by not just the stunts, but the possibility of seeing a crash. The ten-day spectacle included a grand parade kick-off and a three million dollar aviation exhibit, alongside blimp rides and parachuting demonstrations between races.

Many of those record-breakers in the 1930s were women pilots, now central figures of barnstorming shows and races. The formerly all-male cross-country races opened up to female competitors in 1936. In that first co-ed cross-country race, aviatrixes Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes clocked in with the best times.

The popularity of these races and air shows spurred manufacturers to build even faster planes. There were also developments in navigation, formerly done only with maps and compasses. By the 1930s, pilots were aided by instruments based on gyroscopes or airspeed that calculated altitude, velocity, and heading.

Emergency landings were still a possibility that pilots had to plan for—they couldn't even count on making it to a runway. In some cases, a clearing had to do. When flying solo or just with a co-pilot, they needed to understand how their planes worked in case there weren't mechanics to address problems where they landed.