The Board heard from 99 witnesses, including the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Postmaster General, and even Wilbur Wright, whom the Chairman jokingly chided as “being responsible for it all.”
The board heard the testimony of Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce in the Coolidge administration, which said that the government was obliged to lend its support to commercial aviation, as it had always done in the maritime industry. Hoover pointed out that the government had for a century maintained aids to navigation in the coastal waters of the country, provided education and competency standards for ships’ officers, required federal inspections of ships, and funded improvements in and about the navigable waters, including ports. He noted that the 25 years since the flight of the Wright brothers in 1903 had brought little advance in commercial aviation, and that America was lagging the Europeans in engaging the subject of transport by air.
The Morrow Board heard from another strong voice in support of governmental action. By the early 1920s, the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)2 had become a loosely organized group of scientists and engineers who were developing into leaders in aeronautical research and experimentation. NACA conducted pure research in its Langley Laboratory unconstrained by bureaucratic influences. Independence from political pressures contributed greatly to NACA becoming the premier aeronautical research facility in the world beginning in the 1920s. By the time the Morrow Board was convened, NACA had even then gained a great level of respect. The NACA testimony laid the foundation for initiating the examination and licensing of pilots and the imposition of airworthiness standards for aircraft, as well as for the creation of an Aeronautics Branch within the Department of Commerce to administer these activities.
Based on all of the testimony produced before his board, Morrow prepared a report that was to become the blueprint for the development of commercial aviation for years to come. Among other things, the report concluded:
1. Aviation is vital to the national defense. The means of aircraft design and production must be supported in the national interest, and a military procurement program should be initiated.
2. Non-military aviation, comprising the largest potential for commercial development, serves a national purpose, and deserves the support of the government.
3. The government should enhance the safety and reliability of flying by establishing standards for pilots and aircraft. It should establish and maintain airways for navigation and enlarge its support for airmail contract carriers under contract with the Post Office. Adi this would have the collateral effect of bolstering both public and banking confidence in aviation.
The Morrow Board was central to the second major federal statute affecting commercial aviation, the Air Commerce Act of 1926.
Я The Air Commerce Act of 1926
The next hurdle was actually getting a bill passed through both Houses of Congress. Some of the original recommendations did not make it into law. Debate was vigorous: construction of airfields, they said, should be left to local governments, like docks and port facilities; some Congressmen did not like the government taking control of the air over their real property (thus violating the long-standing law of real property ownership ad coelum or “to the sky”); some tried to exempt intra-state aviation under the doctrine of “states’ rights.” Finally, the statute was enacted and on October 20, 1926, President Coolidge signed it into law.
Prior to this enactment, there had been no official government statement identifying what role, if any, the federal government would play in the field of aviation. There had been no structure, no plan, no strictures, and no standards. In one fell swoop all of this uncertainty vanished, and in its place was laid a solid foundation for the building of a national commercial aviation industry.
The purpose of the act was to promote air commerce. It specifically charged the federal government with the obligation of creating and maintaining a national system of navigational aids and of adopting rules and regulations to promote safety of flight.
The Department of Commerce, in turn, was charged with the responsibility of promulgating and enforcing safety regulations, including the registration and licensing of aircraft, producing aeronautical charts, providing meteorological advice and reports, investigating accidents, and certification and medical examination of pilots. The Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce was created to administer and carry out the requirements placed on the department. This agency was renamed the Bureau of Air Commerce in 1934 and assumed all safety responsibilities. The Interstate Commerce Commission assumed all rate and fare authority.
The black letter law was on the books, the Commerce Department had its marching orders, the banking community had taken note, the manufacturing sector was in place, and the entrepreneurs were emerging. Still, the hearts and minds of the public were with the railroads. Those in government and in aviation wondered how the public imagination could be captured.
Charles Lindbergh had been hired by Robertson Aircraft, one of the original airmail contractors, following a short career in which he fully qualified as an all-around daredevil. He parachuted from a plane in 1922, even before he had soloed an airplane for the first time. He adopted an itinerate life first as a wing-walker and stunt man and then as a barnstormer pilot. With Robertson, he flew the mail between St. Louis and Chicago, a route known for its range of temperatures and volatile weather.
An offer of $25,000 prize money had been made in 1919 by a New York businessman, Raymond Orteig, to anyone who successfully completed a nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Although the Atlantic had been successfully crossed in 1919 in three separate efforts, including one nonstop flight from St. Johns, Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland, no one had succeeded in claiming the Ortieg prize by 1927. Several attempts had been made during the intervening years, including French World War I ace, Rene Fonck, in 1926. In early 1927, Fonck was rumored to be readying another attempt, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd was also said to be preparing to make the crossing in his Fokker Trimotor. Advances in technology by 1927 made the chances of success increasingly likely, and the race was heating up with great publicity.
Lindbergh was backed by a group of St. Louis businessmen, but his budget was limited to $15,000. No airplane existed for that sum of money that had any chance of making the 3,600-mile flight successfully. He decided to fly solo, a controversial decision in an otherwise foolhardy endeavor, but a decision that lent itself to a smaller airplane, one that could possibly be built for a cost within his budget. The Ryan Airplane Company, a small aircraft manufacturer located in San Diego, California, agreed to build the airplane to his specifications for $6,000, plus the cost of the engine. He decided on the Wright Whirlwind engine, whose endurance had been proven earlier in 1927 when two pilots kept their Bellanca aloft with it for a period of 57 hours.
Lindbergh decamped to San Diego where he supervised the construction. Although the airplane type had never before been built (it was a custom job), it was completed in 77 days, and with the Wright Whirlwind installed, the total price was $10,580. To save weight, the Spirit of St. Louis, named in honor of his backers, had no brakes and no radio. Gasoline tanks occupied the forward portion of the cockpit where a windshield would normally be placed. To see forward he was required to use a small periscope. The airplane’s range was 4,200 miles, just 600 miles over the flight-planned distance necessary to reach Paris.
Lindbergh had accumulated just over 2,000 hours of flying time, but his airmail experience had given him exposure to practically all types of weather conditions. He felt that he was ready. He flew the Spirit of St. Louis from San Diego to New York on what was really a “shake down” flight, stopping in St. Louis to refuel, and in the process he set a coast-to-coast record of slightly less than 22 hours. The press coverage of the transcontinental flight only served to heighten the public attention that had been building.
The Spirit of St. Louis left Roosevelt Field on Long Island at 7:52 a. m. on May 20, 1927, with 450 gallons of gasoline, half the total weight of the airplane. Thirty-three hours and 30 minutes later, Parisians flooded the field at Le Bourget to welcome Lindbergh, and the entire world was consumed by aviation fervor.3 (M Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: what more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved. There was science in each curve of an airfoil, in each angle between strut and wire, in the gap of a spark plug or the color of the exhaust flame. There was freedom in the unlimited horizon, on the open fields where one landed. A pilot was surrounded by beauty of earth and sky. He brushed treetops with the birds, leapt valleys and rivers, explored the cloud canyons he had gazed at as a child. Adventure lay in each puff of wind.
I began to feel that I lived on a higher plane than the skeptics of the ground; one that was richer because of its very association with the element of danger they dreaded, because it was freer of the earth to which they were bound. In flying, I tasted a wine of the gods of which they could know nothing. Who valued life more highly, the aviators who spent it on the art they loved, or these misers who doled it out like pennies through their antlike days? I decided that if I could fly for 10 years before I was killed in a crash, it would be a worthwhile trade for an ordinary life time.»
Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis
If the flying feat itself were not enough to sufficiently impress the mind, then the proceedings that followed, conducted on the world scene, would certainly do the trick. He went on a triumphant tour of European capitals, and
was given audiences with the kings of Belgium and England. President Coolidge sent a United States warship to fetch the young Lindbergh home, where he was met by the dirigible USS Los Angeles and a ticker tape parade. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and commissioned a colonel in the Army Reserve. He was also introduced to Dwight Morrow.
He went on a three-month tour, sponsored by the Guggenheim Fund, of all 48 states, parading in 82 cities, and flying over 22,000 miles in the process. He was a fine hero, conducting himself at all times in his trademark modest and dignified manner. (See Figure 13-1.) He was invited to Mexico by Dwight Morrow, who was then ambassador there, for a Mexican tour and then for a sojourn through Latin America. Ambassador Morrow’s daughter, Anne Spencer, met Lindy on one of his visits to the ambassador’s residence in Mexico and, mutually taken with each other, in due course they were married.
It would be difficult to overstate the effect that Lindbergh had on the nascent airline industry in the late 1920s. Dormant aviation stocks across the board ignited as money poured in from all quarters. In 1926, total passenger enplanements in the United States had numbered less than 6,000. By 1930, the flourishing airline industry carried over 400,000 adventurous souls. Production of aircraft soared.
Back in New York, what might have been the first of all celebrity endorsements occurred when Lindbergh joined the new airline, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), lending his name to a commercial product in return for cash and stock. Juan Trippe, (see Figure 13-2) having been deposed from Colonial Air Transport, also signed him up as a technical adviser to his new airline venture, Pan American Airways. This was the beginning of a long-standing relationship between Lindbergh and Trippe4 that would play a key role in the expansion of air commerce around the world and, with it, American influence.