State of the Airlines before. the Civil Aeronautics Act
he Big Four, having been established largely 1 through the efforts of Walter Brown, and having survived the Black investigation and the resulting remedial legislation (Black-McKellar), were well positioned for the beginnings of the modern era of commercial air transportation. The airlines were hurting financially, however, due to the losses experienced during the stand down period when the Army had flown the mail after the cancellation of all CAM routes in February 1934, and because the new rates mandated by Black-McKellar were set to a maximum of 33.5 cents per mile, less than a third of the going rate in 1929.
But progress had been made. In 1929, the contract mail carriers (who were to become the country’s major airlines) were still flying wood and wire airplanes, although a few had acquired the very latest technology in the Fokker or Ford trimotors. By the late 1930s, when the Civil Aeronautics Act was passed, great innovations in aircraft manufacture had occurred, largely due to a combination of commitments and risks undertaken by the airlines, by the aircraft manufacturers and engine manufacturers, and to government innovations achieved at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.
II The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA)
We first learned about NACA in Chapter 9 in connection with the ending of the patent litigation between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers. This one accomplishment freed up the development of aerodynamics for the country, which had been paralyzed by the patent litigation. NACA’s importance cannot be understated (in 1958 it would become NASA) as a progressive force in American aeronautics. Because of its importance, it will appear from time to time in this book.
As we saw, it was created in 1915 as an aeronautical research laboratory, at a time when the national government had fallen well behind European countries in developments in aviation. World War I (1914-1918) had the effect of pointing out that aviation was rapidly becoming an issue of national defense. The year 1915 was a transformational one for the United States and the world, even aside from the effects of World War I. The Panama Canal, which had opened just the year before, was treated as a national asset and essential in the defense of the United States. Robert Goddard had started experimenting with rockets and Albert Einstein had announced his
general theory of relativity. Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental telephone call and a new automobile speed record had been established of 102.6 miles per hour (still slower than Curtiss’ motorcycle speed record of 136 miles per hour set in 1907).
In the United States, aerodynamic research was a far-flung undertaking. Experiments were conducted at the Navy Yard, the Bureau of Standards tested engines, experiments in aeronautics were sometimes undertaken at Catholic University in Washington, a curriculum in aeronautics was being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University ran propeller tests. Although the NACA charter provided for the possibility of an independent laboratory, by 1917 none existed. NACA was set up as a loose organization, consisting of a main committee of 12 members, who met semiannually in Washington, and an Executive Committee of 7 members who did the actual work of supervising NACA activities and proposed activities. They decided their best bet was to tag along to the Army’s new proposed airfield construction across the river from Norfolk, Virginia, to be called Uangley Field after Samuel Pierpont Langley, formerly of the Smithsonian. NACA named its new laboratory the “Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory,” or just “Langley.”
When completed in 1920, the small Langley NACA component consisted of a staff of just 11 people, mostly civil or mechanical engineers, who did their work without the normal formalities of government institutions. By 1925 the staff had grown to 100. At that time the engineers had 19 airplanes dedicated to test operations with two wind tunnels, as well as a new engine research lab for high altitude flight and increased climb capabilities.
NACA’s variable density wind tunnel, recognized in the 1920s to be the world’s best, allowed the engineers to develop and test various airfoil shapes, resulting in 78 different airfoil cross-sections with designated camber lines, thicknesses, and nose features. Independent aircraft designers by 1933 could select an airfoil from the catalogue for any desired performance they wished in any airplane they were in the process of designing.
A new propeller wind tunnel was completed at Langley in 1927. For the first time, this 20-foot diameter tunnel allowed the testing of full-sized aircraft models, and it was put to work on attempts to solve the problem of drag associated with radial engines.
As we saw in Chapter 11, conventional wisdom in the 1920s held that inline liquid – cooled engines were superior to radial engines because of several factors, including “head resistance,” cooling, and horsepower. In 1926, the Navy asked NACA to conduct cowling research for radial engines at the same time that Pratt & Whitney was developing the Wasp. The Navy had found that carrier landings by aircraft using liquid cooled engines resulted in cracks in the cooling system and attachments, which mandated a different engine solution than the Army had found acceptable.
By 1927, after hundreds of tests, a technical breakthrough was achieved, and subsequent practical tests showed that the military test aircraft increased its speed from 118 to 137 miles per hour solely by use of the NACA-conceived cowling. When applied commercially, NACA estimated savings to the airmail/airline industry of over $5 million, which was more than all the money that had been appropriated for NACA from its inception to 1928.’
The results of cowling research alone justified NACA’s creation. The cowling-drag breakthrough boosted the preeminence of American engine and aircraft design, and allowed the creation of the modem reciprocating-engine airliners of the 1930s, like the Boeing 247 and the DC-3 with their all-metal construction, retractable landing gear, and powerful radial engines.
Now let us take a look at the commercial side of aviation as we progress through the 1930s.