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The tentative beginnings of civil aviation

Posted in Aviation, Communications, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about civil aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 864 published on  5 August  1978.

German airship, picture, image, illustration

The Victoria Luise was Germany’s first commercial airship by Graham Coton

On 30th May, 1912, a man in the German city of Neuss was looking up at the silver-grey airship Viktoria Luise that was cruising above his head, but he failed to notice a lead-weighted postcard that fluttered down from it. Nor did he pay much attention to the clucking as this early form of delivery by airmail landed in his chicken-run.

Before the First World War, Germany’s huge airships gave her a real lead in passenger aviation, although the Zeppelin’s version of “airmail” was unreliable to say the least. Nor were the passenger flights on airships like Schwaben, Viktoria Luise, Hansa and Sachsen a proper scheduled service. These flew over most of the country but were more like excursions than a regular service. Nevertheless, between 1910 and 1914 the DELAG company that ran them made 1,600 flights, covered 145,000 kilometres and carried 34,000 passengers without a single mishap.

At that time it seemed that airships, with their smooth flight, cosy cabins and restaurants, were to be the passenger aircraft of the future. By comparison, aeroplanes seemed uncomfortable, noisy and dangerous, and could not compete. Nevertheless, once the Wright brothers had first flown it was not long before they and others had tried to take up passengers. It was not long either before the first man had been killed in a powered aircraft. The victim was a passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who died in Orville Wright’s Model A when it crashed in September, 1908.

But the pioneers of civil aviation were soon chasing records, not only for speed, altitude and distance, but also for the number of people a plane could carry. In August, 1910, this number went up to six when a Frenchman, Louis Breguet, took a policeman, a small boy, his father and two other volunteers for a trip in an all-metal Mark IV aeroplane known to its rivals as the Coffee Pot.

By 1914, machines were being specifically designed to carry passengers. In Great Britain, Claude Grahame-White, the star flier of Hendon Aerodrome, built his Aerobus as a five-seater and managed to set a world record by cramming no less than nine people in for one flight. These early aeroplanes were as yet too unreliable to compete with the Zeppelins’ passenger service, but they could capture some of the joy-riding market.

Flying soon became a craze among the adventurous, and rich, of pre-war London. They flocked to Hendon where Grahame-White advertised flights in his Aerobus – just over £2 for two circuits of the aerodrome, or £26 for a trip to Brooklands and back. Grahame-White also predicted that, by 1934, “leaving London, say on Friday, one will ascend in an air-liner and eat and sleep on board, arriving at New York on Saturday morning.” He was not all that far out.

Before long, much larger planes would be needed, but as early as 1914, an almost unknown Russian engineer named Igor Sikorsky had produced a four-engined aircraft called Ilya Mourometz. In February, 1914, this machine climbed to 1,730 metres above Moscow with sixteen passengers and a dog. Sikorsky’s aeroplane was very advanced for those days, having a front balcony and an observation perch on top, plus a private furnished cabin heated via exhaust from the engines and lit by wind-driven electrical generators.

Rather less ambitious was a passenger service set up in Florida that only lasted four months. This short-lived experiment was a commercial failure, but it was the world’s first scheduled air-service.

All this happened in 1914, and soon the world’s attention was to turn to war. Yet the USA remained neutral until 1917, and even after that it did not suffer the horrors of the First World War on its own soil. This helped the Americans to develop a primitive and rather unreliable civil aviation system while the European fliers and plane-makers were plunged into a much bloodier struggle.

Passenger-carrying virtually came to a standstill when war broke out, but the development of larger, more powerful and more reliable aircraft continued – though their original purpose was to carry bombs rather than people.

Ironically, the development of airmail was quite different. The war encouraged the use of aircraft as a means of communication at a time when shipping lanes were threatened by submarines, and roads and railways were often blocked by trenches and barbed wire. During the Russian siege of Przemsyl in southern Poland, a large Austrian garrison was bottled up for 136 days in the harsh winter of 1914-15. But the Austro-Hungarian air force, flying ungainly old Lohner B1 biplanes, kept Przemsyl in touch with its friends by flying the world’s first regular, official airmail service.

Further south, Austria was locked in combat with Italy in one of the most obscure campaigns of the Great War. Deep in the isolated and untracked wilderness of Albania, these two armies were kept supplied with news from home via seaplane services, the Italians flying across the Adriatic from Brindisi to Vlone, the Austro-Hungarians flying down the Dalmatian coast from Pula to Durres.

The First World War had taught men how to fight in the air, but in the struggle for the supremacy of the skies they also learned much that would enable them to use aircraft for more peaceful purposes.

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