Flying, Before There Was Flying

The pages of an early aviation magazine speak volumes about the beginning — and current state — of aviation.

Flying

Flying

** A twin-engine German bomber graced the
cover of Flying's January 1916 issue.**

I have before me a bound volume containing a year's worth of Flying, a gift from an old friend and collaborator, pilot and photographer Baron Wolman, who picked it up at a swap meet for $4. The year, 1916, will surprise anyone who knows that our esteemed publication first appeared, under the name of Popular Aviation, in 1927, the year of Lindbergh's Atlantic flight. But what I have here is a different Flying, launched in 1914 by the Flying Association of New York City "to gather and present, for the information of the American people, an accurate monthly summary of the progress of aeronautics throughout the world." Its cover price was 25 cents.

The format was by turns newsy — contests, noteworthy flights, speeches, trophies and medals, dedications of airfields, allocations of funds and events in Europe, where the Great War was raging — and editorial, with articles and essays, some of prodigious length, on various matters, full of aviation boosterism, many of them heavy-breathing polemics on the shortsightedness of the penny-pinching War Department and the need for the United States to invest more in airplanes and pilot training. Some of the headlines are quaint beyond belief: “Junior Anti-Suffrage League Raises $800 for Training Aviators.” Looking forward and backward at the same time, this Janus-face association wanted men to fly, but did not want women to vote. Bloviation knew no bounds: One advertisement for a flying school proclaims, “The Aviator — the Superman of Now. The world has its eyes on the flying man. Flying is the greatest sport of red-blooded, virile manhood.” They must have been thinking of Nietzsche’s Übermensch — the Man of Steel came into being only in 1932.

Eyes accustomed to today’s magazines long for pictures, and of these there are few — but one, of a darkened Paris and the searchlight of an airplane floating like a comet above the Left Bank, although it may be a fake, is unforgettable. What graphic interest there is is supplied by advertisements, many of them full-page. On the first page of the January 1916 issue is an ad for the Sloane biplane, which, in the hands of an unspecified foreign government, climbed to 3,000 feet in seven minutes, 27 seconds “on rather bumpy conditions.” (At this point, sex and advertising had not yet consecrated their union; today, it would be enough to show the airplane in the general vicinity of a pretty couple.) Facing this, on the inside cover, is an ad for the B.F. Sturtevant Co. of Boston, every vital part of whose “140 Horse-power Aeroplane Motor has been tested to destruction.”

Sloane? Sturtevant? Where are these companies now?

Ads for long-forgotten enterprises crowd the pages: Van Blerck Motor Co. (maker of the “all-steel motor”), Splitdorf Electrical (the Dixie 80 magneto, used by David McCulloch, who “covered 480 miles, at an average speed of 64 miles per hour”), the Christmas Aeroplane Co. (“Builders of the Largest Aeroplanes in the World”), Excelsior Propeller, Baker Castor Oil, Ashmusen Manufacturing Co. (whose air-cooled flat-opposed aero engine had 12 cylinders delivering 8.75 hp each). Mingled among them, like so many flesh-and-blood figures among a swarm of wraiths, are the survivors: Wright, Curtiss, Martin, Sperry.

Mingled, similarly, among vast desiccated tracts of dutiful prose are a few oases. In the October issue, a Canadian pilot named Redford Mulock recounts his night pursuit of a zeppelin over the British coast. Armed only with “some bombs, grenades and a revolver,” Mulock found the zeppelin loitering at 2,000 feet, its engines shut down, dropping bombs. The silenced zeppelin’s crew heard him coming and opened fire with machine guns, ineffectually, at a range of 1,500 feet. “I saw the most wonderful sight. ... He ... majestically stuck his nose up and went up like a balloon.” Not surprising; he was a balloon. Mulock gave chase — although the zeppelin was faster than his airplane — but the zep flew into a cloud and, having the advantage of being able to stop in midair and listen for the approach of an antagonist, hid there like Zeus from Hera. Having lost the zeppelin, Mulock found that he could not descend without being picked up by British searchlights and anti-aircraft; communications between ground and air had not yet been established. He flew about until first light and then landed. “Dodging searchlights over the North Sea,” muses the happy-go-lucky aviator, “is the finest sport in the world.”

Red Mulock survived the war, an ace. He died in 1961.

It’s a commonplace that aviation developed with explosive rapidity after the Wrights’ flying demonstrations in France in 1908, but we forget how rapid it really was. It’s startling to see a photograph, for example, of a number of big, closed-cockpit, three-engine flying boats under construction on the Curtiss America production line in Buffalo, New York, in a factory that would soon employ 18,000 people. This was just eight years after the Wrights had astonished the flower of European aeronautics merely by being able to bank and turn at will.

The quick growth of early aviation should not surprise us. Aeronautical engineering is a merger of three disciplines: aerodynamics, structures and propulsion. Structures were well understood, and suitable materials — wood, aluminum and steel — and techniques were available and familiar. The greatest difficulty for the structural engineer was knowing what the aerodynamic loads were and how they would be applied. Some of this was common sense for any structural engineer; to analyze a wing beam that could support a fuselage of a known weight was an exercise for a first-year student.

It’s true that there were subtler loading problems that were not so well understood, for instance the distribution of forces on wing ribs during a pull-up maneuver. There is a powerful suction near the leading edge, the strength of which the designers of both Fokker and Nieuport fighters underestimated — fighters, of course, encountered the greatest in-flight stresses — with the result that in aerial combat upper-surface skins would sometimes balloon out, tear and peel back. The famous American ace Eddie Rickenbacker survived such a mishap in a Nieuport. For the most part, however, designing a reasonably safe airplane structure was not beyond the capacity of any professional engineer, or even of many amateurs.

Propulsion, similarly, was a known thing. To design an acceptably efficient propeller was not that difficult; the Wright brothers had managed it from the very start. Engine reliability was the main problem, and improvements were a matter of detail refinements, metallurgy, better fuels and service experience over time. In its March 1916 issue, Flying rather presciently proposed raising $100,000 in prize money as an incentive to the development of a motor "as dependable for long time and distance operation as the steam engine. ... Then trans-oceanic as well as trans-continental flight will instantly become practicable. ... "

It was aerodynamics that presented the greatest difficulties, particularly in detail design. The configuration that would become conventional — engine in front, stabilizers in back — emerged quite quickly, encouraged not only by its inherent advantages but also by the success of the Bleriot XI that crossed the English Channel in 1909. But pilots of today would find most of the airplanes of that era unpleasant to fly — sluggish, heavy, unstable, underpowered, unresponsive and self-willed in various combinations. It took time, and the patient experimental work of NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and similar research establishments abroad, to find ways to make controls light and sensitive, to streamline wings and fuselages and their intersections, to tame adverse yaw and Dutch roll, to cowl and cool powerful engines and to develop the thousand other tricks that made today’s production of comfortable, fast and pleasant-handling airplanes routine. These were refinements, however; a basic understanding of the principles of lift, stability and control already existed well before the Wrights actually flew.

Some things in these pages are unexpected. I should have known that Sperry automatic pilots were already being offered for sale in 1916, but I didn’t. Still less did I know that a now-obscure manufacturer called Gallaudet had produced airplanes with a propulsion arrangement that would be considered revolutionary today: two engines buried in the fuselage spinning a propeller whose blades emerged from a hoop flush with the round fuselage between wing and tail.

What is perhaps more striking than the rapid progress in the early years is how slowly change came later. If you took your first flying lesson 50 years ago, the airplane you flew, and the ones parked on the line, were much like those you would see and fly today. But between 1916 and 1962 everything had changed. Have we said goodbye forever to that early vigor?