The Golden Age of Aviation
Aviation’s Golden Age began with Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight in June, 1927 and ended twenty years later in Long Beach Harbor with the short flight of Howard Hughes’ giant flying boat, the "Spruce Goose."|
It was a period of record-breaking flights, the first commercially-viable airliners and major advances in aeronautics. But more than any of these accomplishments, the age was dominated by single individuals who through vision, courage and skill transformed aviation from a barnstorming curiosity to one of the great industries of the twentieth century.
Lindbergh’s flight ignited the public’s imagination like few other events this century. To span the North Atlantic by air was incredible. To do it alone in a tiny single-engine airplane flown by a shy pilot from the midwest, a pilot who had never even seen the ocean before, was almost unimaginable.
Next to Lindbergh the most famous name in early aviation for most people is Amelia Earhart. Earhart was the first woman to fly the Atlantic - as a passenger - on a 1928 promotional flight conceived by publisher George Putnam. Putnam had rushed out We, Charles Lindbergh's autobiography, only a month after his record flight. Seeing that the public craved more, Putnam found and recruited Earhart for one of aviation's first staged media events.
Perhaps aviation's most impressive personal achievement in the 1930's was the one-eyed Wiley Post's second around-the-world flight. Post and navigator Harold Gatty had set the around-the-world record in 1931 at 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes. Two years later, Post, flying solo in his Lockheed Vega, Winnie Mae, beat his earlier record by 21 hours. Post fought Atlantic fog, Russian thunderstorms, equipment problems and his own fatigue to set the incredible record. Five years later, it took Howard Hughes flying a twin-engined Lockheed with a crew of four to beat the one-eyed pilot's record.
Colonel Roscoe Turner was the most colorful aviator of the period. Wearing a uniform of his own design consisting of a powder-blue tweed coat, Sam Browne belt, beige riding breeches and shiny boots all topped off with a white silk scarf and military cap. Flying as a movie stunt pilot in the late twenties, Turner proposed that the Gilmore Oil Company promote its products using a special Lockheed racing plane. Since the company's trademark was a lion's head, Turner acquired a five month old lion cub, named it Gilmore and flew with it as a mascot. Together they set several transcontinental speed records.
In 1929 "Jimmy" Doolittle made the first completely blind take-off and landing proving the practicality of instrument flight. Doolittle was unique in aviation with a doctorate degree in aeronautics from MIT, but his piloting feats eclipsed his scientific work. In 1942, he organized and led the raid on Tokyo made famous by the book and movie, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. The raid consisted of sixteen B-25 medium bombers launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Ten years earlier he won the Thompson Air Trophy flying the highly-advanced Gee Bee Racer, one of the few pilots in the thirties to have raced these planes and survived.
Howard Hughes inherited a fortune based on the rotary drill bit. He died a lonely hermit in 1976, a prisoner of mental illness, drugs and his Mormon aides. But in the thirties he and his aircraft broke every major speed and distance record. The custom-built Hughes H-1 Racer set the landplane speed record in 1935 at 352 miles per hour easily outperforming even the fastest military planes of the time. In July, 1938 he and a crew of four flying a Lockheed Lodestar broke the around-the-globe record set by Wiley Post in 1933. Two years later, Hughes was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the flight.
Two weeks earlier, Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier flying the Bell X-1. Aviation, now too complex and expensive for individuals alone, had passed into the hands of government and industry.
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