Feature: Personal Air Transportation in the Good Old Days

Personal Air Transportation in the Good Old Days

1929-1933

As seen by Leighton Collins, written by Richard Collins for Leighton Collins

 

(Note to the reader: This is the first chapter of a book that I started but will probably never finish. It was to be about the history of general aviation as seen through the eyes of two Collins boys, Richard and Leighton. Richard wasn’t born in the time covered by this first chapter but I have my father’s logs and papers to use in covering this slice of the good old days. –Richard Collins)

 

I saw my first airplane at what was to become Love Field near Dallas, Texas. It was before the U. S. entry into World War I, in which I was too young to take part. The airplane was probably a Curtiss Jenny though at the time I didn’t know one airplane from another. My real passion was fast motorcycles and that lasted me until May, 1927, at which time I became infatuated with the travel potential that might be found in relatively light airplanes. Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop trip from New York to Paris not only fascinated people around the world, it forever changed the public perception of aviation. It was clearly time to go places in airplanes and I was ready.

There were airlines at the time. They had gotten their start flying the mail and when relatively practical passenger-carrying airplanes, like the Ford Trimotor (also written as Tri-Motor), became available they started carrying passengers in real cabins. There were single-engine airliners, too. General aviation, as it was to be called after World War II, existed mainly in the form of barnstormers, air show acts, air racing and a tiny number of people using airplanes for transportation. I was to become one of that tiny number.

I was living in Little Rock, working in the insurance business. We had a lot of activity around the state of Arkansas as well as in neighboring states. I spent many hours on the relatively primitive roads in the area, in the relatively primitive automobiles of the time, servicing accounts.

The local airport was active for the time. Most of the pilots had flown in WWI and most of the airplanes were the typical biplanes of the day, many powered by new-design radial engines though there were still a lot of liquid-cooled OX-5 powered airplanes flying around. That engine had made its mark in WWI, primarily as the powerplant for the Jenny.

Ad for the Waco Ten

An ad from 1927 promoting the "WACO TEN"

One of my first business uses of an airplane involved an OX-5 powered Waco 10. It had two cockpits, one with a double seat for passengers and the other with a single seat for the pilot, in tandem. I wasn’t yet a pilot so I hired someone to fly me, in the Waco, to Jackson, Mississippi. I needed a face-to-face with an accident investigator there and it appeared that the trip down and back, and the conference, could be fit into one day. That was a great advantage over doing it in a car.

There were more trips like that. There were no airport guides and few aeronautical charts and basically I told the pilot where I wanted to go, we’d fly to that town or city, and then we’d find a place to land. If the pilot needed a map, Esso (now Exxon) road maps were adequate. The larger cities had airports, as did some of the smaller ones, but random fields were also often used. When a destination was identified, the pilot would query all his buddies around the airport about fields they had used at various towns.

The lack of service in the average hayfield was not a problem. If fuel were needed, automobile gas worked just fine in the engines of the day. Random fields were not a problem because the biplanes had large diameter wheels on the main landing gear and the landing (and takeoff) speeds were low.

The engines were not overly reliable and there were a lot of precautionary or forced landings. There was no good understanding of carburetor ice when the Department of Commerce’s Aeronautics Branch started dictating modifications to address what was a real problem. Some changes were good, some bad, but eventually all airplanes had effective carburetor heat.

All told, I flew 57 hours and ten minutes on trips in the Waco 10. The flying had become instructional, too. The main training requirement at the time revolved around the spot landing. If you couldn’t hit the spot, power off, stick all the way back at touchdown, you had not yet learned to fly. The instructors of the day were along mainly to protect the airplane while you taught yourself how to fly.

I actually had a transport pilot certificate, number 7709, when I started flying my brother-in-law’s Fleet biplane in the summer of 1929 and started logging time in my logbook number one. I had not logged the Waco 10 time that led to my pilot certificate.

The Fleet was a handsome airplane. The one that I flew was made in Canada while others were built across the river in Buffalo, New York. Because the airplane that I flew was made in Canada, a lot of people mistakenly identified it as a deHavilland but it really was a Fleet.

The airplane was built as a trainer, with hopes of a big military order. The company had to settle for small military orders though Fleet morphed into Consolidated. That company did big military business, later became Convair, and eventually wound up as General Dynamics.

The Fleet had excellent flying qualities but cross-country flying was pretty well defined by its 85 mph cruising speed. That is slow and it is even slower with a headwind. It could still beat a fast car.

Like other airplanes of that day, the Fleet came in variations, mainly with different engines. Some airplanes even had different types of wings. The Warner “Scarab” and the Kinner engines were the most common for airplanes like this and developed 110 to 120 horsepower. The structure of the wings was wood, covered with fabric, with metal used in the leading edges. The fuselage structure was welded steel tubing with wooden stringers for shape, and fabric covering. A new Fleet was $5,500 in 1929.

Building airplanes was a true cottage industry with a lot of different companies each turning out a low volume of airplanes. My first logbook was from the Nicholas-Bentley Airplane Company, Inc. Apparently the company wasn’t too successful much beyond logbooks as it produced only a limited number of airplanes.

I flew the Fleet locally a lot and made a few trips in the airplane. The longest trip was from Little Rock to Springfield, Missouri, and return, with an overnight at Springfield. I logged two hours and 30 minutes each way to cover the 190 or so miles so there was no blistering speed involved. This was in July and the wind aloft was virtually calm.

My biggest Fleet adventure was taking part in the second annual Arkansas State Air Tour, 15 hours and 30 minutes flying time, in the air every day with a party every night, all while hopping around the state. Those were fun events.

The biplanes I was flying were relatively small. Even with twice as many wings, a Fleet had marginally more wing area than a Cessna 172. The wingspan was 28 feet.

The rudder was an important flight control in these airplanes and in many the rudder appeared large in relation to the vertical fin. On a Fleet, for example, the vertical fin had an area of 2.9 square feet compared with 8.2 square feet for the rudder. There were no flaps so slips were often used to increase the rate of descent on approach. The effective rudder combined with equally effective ailerons to help with crosswind handling as well as with effective slips.

Airplane building came to Little Rock in the form of the Arkansas Aircraft Company. The company was founded in 1926 and initially manufactured a version of the German Heinkel HD-40 biplane. In 1928 the company refined the design and called it the Command-Aire. The company name was changed to the same thing.

The Command-Aire was similar to the Fleet in almost every way. Because it was a local airplane I was itching to fly one and, with no checkout in type, they let me fly a Command-Aire from Little Rock to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and back, on a business trip. That was on October 10, 1929. A couple of weeks later the stock market started unraveling and I flew only locally, seven times, until December 27th.

At this time I had flown for a total of 111 hours and five minutes. That made me a relatively experienced pilot. I had traveled in airplanes and had been bitten by the airplane bug. I couldn’t foresee the firestorm that was to consume business activity and the stock market crash wasn’t a factor for me because I wasn’t much of an investor.

I wanted an airplane that I could travel in on business, comfortably. The airplanes that I considered were the Monocoupe, Curtiss Robin, and a new airplane I had just heard about, the St. Louis Cardinal. All were high-wing, strut braced, cabin airplanes. The Monocoupe and Cardinal were two-seaters, the Robin would carry two passengers side-by-side behind the pilot. All the airplanes would cruise at or above 100 miles per hour which was a substantial improvement over the biplanes I had been flying.

The Cardinal appeared the best bet for me. The Robin was more airplane than I needed and the Cardinal had individual wheel brakes where the Monocoupe did not. That cinched the deal so I got in touch with the St. Louis Car Company, builder of railroad cars as well as airplanes, and on December 21, 1929 I gave them a check for $3,000 for a new 90-horse LeBlond-powered Cardinal.

St. Louis Cardinal

The St. Louis Cardinal was an airplane long before it was a baseball team. Photo courtesy of http://fairchild24.com/tailwheels.htm

Because buying the Cardinal was a turning point in my aviation activities, let’s take stock of what was going on in aviation as the 1920s drew to a close.

Aviation had been relatively unregulated until the 1920s. The safety record was bad, especially in air mail flying. The Department of Commerce was the government agency in charge and in 1926 it formed the Aeronautics Branch to oversee civil aviation. I mentioned earlier that my pilot certificate number was 7709. That certainly didn’t mean that I was the 7,709th person to become a pilot, it just meant that I was the 7,709th person to get a certificate from the relatively new Aeronautics Branch. My brother-in-law had number 96 because he was an even earlier applicant. His flying had actually started in France, during WWI.

As has always been the case, the needs of the airlines dictated most developments in civil aviation. They needed to fly the mail at night so a lighted airways system had been developed using extremely bright rotating beacon lights to define those airways. This was along major routes and to make things a little less dicey they built lighted emergency landing fields along the way. Flying was still mostly limited to VFR conditions though as early as 1920 the need to be able to fly in clouds and navigate without reference to the ground had been clearly identified. Elmer Sperry’s company developed gyroscopic instruments for airplanes, starting with the turn and bank and then adding the directional gyro and artificial horizon.

For navigation without ground reference, the Aeronautics Branch was developing a four course low frequency radio range that would be widely used in the 1930s and onward. The climax of all this interest in cloud flying came on September 24, 1929, when Jimmy Doolittle landed a Consolidated NY-2 biplane “blind” using a basic radio aid to navigate and gyro instruments to use in controlling the airplane. That was the real beginning of instrument flying.

Most of us, though, were a long way from practical instrument flying. My Cardinal had engine instruments, a compass, an airspeed indicator and a rudimentary altimeter. There was no radio because there was no electricity. It didn’t have much of a heater, either, so the winter flying was done while wearing a heavy coat. It was a definite improvement over the open cockpits, though.

After a brief Cardinal checkout that consisted of a spin out of a steep turn and a recovery from the spin, and a spot landing, I was on my cold way from St. Louis to Little Rock on December 31, 1929.

I was going to use the Cardinal in my business travel, charging the company the rate of eight cents a mile, which was what it paid for automobiles. That would be a little over eight dollars an hour. How much over eight dollars depended on the difference between the road and the flight mileage. Because most of us followed roads a lot of the time the difference might not be too great. Still, the Cardinal would fly on little over a dollar’s worth of gas per hour so, by any measure, eight dollars an hour was a pretty good deal for me.

You can’t imagine the pleasure I found in flying that Cardinal home, all the while envisioning a bright future of airplane travel. The airplane felt solid, the wooden instrument panel was neat and efficient in appearance, and the visibility over the nose was a big improvement over the biplanes.

The LeBlond was a five cylinder engine, with the cylinders out in the breeze for good cooling. One cylinder stuck up out of the top of the cowling, obstructing the visibility a little, but those were not very big cylinders.

One item of required equipment with this engine was a grease gun. That is how the rocker arms were lubricated. If they were lubricated too often it could be a little messy but not nearly as messy as things could be if you forgot to lubricate them for a number of flying hours.

The Cardinal was not a long range airplane. It had 22 total gallons of fuel in two wing tanks so hops were limited to three to three and a half hours. The empty weight was 1,006 pounds and the useful load 557 pounds so it could be operated with full fuel, two people, and some baggage. For the record, the St. Louis Car Company listed the cruising speed as 107 m.p.h. which was pretty good for that time. The Ford Trimotor, the premier airliner of the day, was no faster.

The weather in Arkansas in January can be fickle and it was January 15, 1930, before I made my first business trip in the Cardinal. It was to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and return, a trip that I had made in a Command-Aire. On that first trip, the speed advantage of the Cardinal didn’t shine through as the flying times for the two airplanes were the same. On later trips to Clarksdale, the Cardinal showed about a 15 minute advantage for the round trip.

There were trips to Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, and more visits to Clarksdale. Then, In March, I flew to my home town of Greenville, Texas, landed in a hayfield, and took some of my kin flying in three local flights.

Despite the fact that March isn’t the best month to fly in that part of the country, I had the Cardinal out flying for fully half the days in the month. Most of the flights were within Arkansas but in early April I ventured to Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Then one day, in a total of 15 flights, I took the “office crowd” flying in Little Rock. The flying activity continued fast and furious through May and June and then in July, 1930, my wife and I struck out for the West Coast to visit her aunt and uncle. It only took 22 hours and five minutes flying time from Little Rock to Los Angeles, spread over three days.

This was a true voyage of discovery for me. I had never seen the American desert because I had never been west of Texas. I don’t think I realized how big the country is and I certainly didn’t realize how sparsely it was populated at that time.

We flew only three hours and 20 minutes on the first day of the trip and spent that night with my family in Greenville, Texas, which is about 50 miles east of Dallas. There was no airport at Greenville but I had been there before and knew of a suitable hayfield.

One thing that you had to be sure of is that no cows had access to the airplane. Cows had been known to savor the fabric covering of airplanes though the dope used to stretch and then paint the fabric couldn’t have been too tasty.

On the second day of the trip out west, we flew for seven hours and 20 minutes, stopping in El Paso for the evening. The desert starts before El Paso and the craggy but beautiful mountains that are east of El Paso, were quite a sight for us to see.

The next day was the marathon of the trip. We flew 11 hours and 15 minutes getting from El Paso to Rogers Field in Los Angeles. One of the stops along the way was at Davis Monthan airfield near Tucson. As many airports did, they kept a register of pilots and passengers passing through. I signed in as having come from Lordsburg, New Mexico, landing at 12:05 p.m. The airplane number, NC991K was recorded, as was the serial number, 115. I think the serial numbers started with 100 so my Cardinal was probably the 15th built. That turned out to be about half way through the production run.

Navigation was a true challenge in the desert. The topographical maps were okay but the towns were widely scattered, and the best way to keep from getting lost was to follow roads or railroads. It was pretty warm over the desert in the cabin of the Cardinal, even with the windows opened.

This trip to L.A. was not exactly a business trip. The economic calamity that was gripping the country, and that was getting worse by the day, was said to be less severe in California. My wife’s uncle was an executive in a big insurance company there. Like so many others my age (late twenties) I hopefully went to see if there were any job opportunities. Sadly there were not and after eleven days we were headed back toward the east.

The trip back took 22 hours and 30 minutes, a little more than the trip out, and to change the scenery a little I flew a more northerly route and stopped at Phoenix instead of Tucson. The trip was a grand adventure and while it didn’t accomplish much other than broadening our horizons, I thought the fifty bucks spent on gas a good investment. The flying was enjoyable, too.

Business and my flying were slowing down though not yet falling off a cliff as were so many other things. The manufacture of airplanes like Command-Aires and Fleets and Cardinals had all but ground to a halt and 1931 was to see a lot of bankruptcies in the aviation business.

Waves of panic would sweep across the financial landscape and each one would claim as victim more airplane builders. Banks were not strong. Most companies building airplanes were not properly capitalized to begin with and when sales and available capital disappeared at about the same time it was not possible for most to stay in business.

The camaraderie of aviation still lived on and in October, 1930, I again flew in the Arkansas Air Tour. The event didn’t visit as many places in 1930 but it did still involve 10 hours and 30 minutes of flying and went to both the eastern and western parts of the state. In the evenings there was much talk about how the flying business might survive what was going on with the economy. There were not a lot of hopeful signs out there.

I could tell that my work in Arkansas was winding down, thanks to the economic collapse. By this time I was so smitten by flying that I hated to think of not flying my Cardinal around the country. So, I got an insurance job in Kansas City that involved a lot of travel and I continued using my Cardinal while getting car mileage from the company.

When logging one trip I made the notation “new prop” in my logbook. The hub of the old one cracked and a mechanic told me I had best not fly any farther with that cracked Hartzell prop. It was changed and as this is written by my son in 2011 the Cardinal prop with the cracked hub adorns the wall of his den.

There was one difference in the travel deal with the new company. Management did not know that I was traveling on company business in an airplane. I did myself in on this by mentioning a forced landing that I had in Kansas to the company PR person. He, in turn, put it in the company newsletter, properly embellished. The discussion with management about this ended with, “This has to stop immediately.” I had been flying several times a week, covering the Midwestern United States, when my flying was effectively shut down by the company.

I could still scrape up enough money to fly and used the Cardinal to go about the country looking for a job, preferably an aviation job. I flew only about 50 hours in 1932.

The few companies that were building airplanes were hanging on by the skin of their teeth but most were liquidated. That didn’t mean that the passion for aviation was gone from the principals of those companies. Later in the thirties a lot of names rose from the ashes and again became major players in general aviation.

Travel Air

The Travel Air

Travel Air in Wichita had been a prominent airplane manufacturer, but it closed. The company had built a lot of airplanes, nearly 2,000 by some estimates, and those airplanes were a diverse lot. The staple was the open cockpit biplane but Travel Air also built cabin airplanes that were sold to the fledgling airline industry. Air racing airplanes were another staple of the company and they actually won some races that also involved military pursuit ships. Called the Travel Air Mystery Ship, because it was developed more or less in secrecy, their low-wing strut-braced monoplane made a big mark in the air racing business and established Travel Air as a leader in the aviation industry. But the company was gone even though the racers continued to race, often with oil company sponsorship.

While most pilots were interested in air racing, they didn’t see it as something that they would want to do. But the thought of airplanes flying at over 200 miles per hour was exciting to all of us who were puttering around in airplanes that cruised at half that speed or less.

I was in Wichita, Kansas, where aviation was a major industry, and there was a lot of talk about troubles. Travel Air was already in trouble but a lot of the racing glamour remained. They had sold a Mystery Ship to Texaco and that airplane was in Wichita for some modifications. With its fully-cowled engine and big wheel fenders, it was a sight to behold.

There was also talk about Cessna. Clyde Cessna had left Travel Air in 1927 and struck out mostly on his own. Walter Beech, Travel Air president, and Cessna had great respect for each other but also had different ideas about what kind of airplanes should be developed. Beech was satisfied with what Travel Air was building; Cessna wanted to build a full cantilever (no struts) three-place high wing monoplane. He was successful in certifying that design but it wasn’t easy. The Aeronautics Branch wanted to be absolutely certain that the cantilever wing would stand the loads and made Cessna test it more thoroughly that it would have tested a strutted wing.

Cessna was soon offering larger versions of the airplane with greater seating capacity. As with Travel Air, though, Cessna’s business dropped off so much that the company went completely out of business where Travel Air was folded into Curtiss-Wright.

In the short period since I had started learning t fly a lot happened in and to aviation. It appeared that great strides in small passenger airplanes were being made at just the time the economy went bust. All of us dreamed of comfortable and fast airplanes to use for business and personal travel. Alas, there was little business and no money for personal travel.

We put a lot of thought into what might come next when and if the country started to recover from its economic problems. If the airplanes that were developed right before the crash were any indication, the future of the small airplane looked good but the economic recovery was a huge question mark.

My business flying had all but stopped in February, 1932. No business, no flying. I had built a little hangar beside the 1,400 foot long strip at Fordyce, Arkansas, and used it for my Cardinal when we moved to Fordyce. There was a little money to be earned hopping passengers but the pickings were slim. I flew six times in July and continued at about that pace for the rest of the year and into 1933.

I had good experience working in the insurance and banking business. I had a bachelor’s degree from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, I had earned a law degree at the Arkansas Law School, and I had a year at Harvard Business School. But I didn’t have a job.

We had made that trip to California to see if things were any better there and in June, 1933, I scraped up the cash to fly the Cardinal from Fordyce to Philadelphia to see if there was any opportunity there. No luck. But I had flown the Cardinal to both coasts from Arkansas. To me, that was proof that the small airplane was a true transportation system.

On the trip from Philadelphia back to Fordyce I gave a lot of thought to my plight and made a decision. I never liked the insurance business, I had no intention of trying to practice law, and I loved to fly. I was also convinced that the small airplane would someday take its place as a major factor in the transportation picture. Basically, I decided to try a career in the aviation business. All I had to do is find my place. To that end, on July 6, 1933, I flew my Cardinal to Cincinnati, Ohio, to pitch my services to the Aeronautical Corporation of America, Aeronca, one the few airplane builders with its nose above the water. They engaged my services, to sell the Aeronca C-3. I was finally in the airplane business.

 

8 Comments

  1. bill trevor says:

    I like it! More?

  2. Warren Goyer says:

    Richard,
    I had a similar problem with my superiors when I worked for GE as your father had with his company. I tried for months to get permission to fly on company business in the early ’70’s. Finally, needing to travel from L.A. to Richmond, VA for training, I asked my supervisor what I should do. His answer, thankfully, was pretty much “don’t ask, don’t tell”. My wife and I had a great trip in our Cessna 172! Been flying for business ever since.

  3. Clemmie Hooper says:

    Nice story! Well before my time, and quite a different world – but I LOVE well-written historical accounts like this. I can vividly visualize ‘being there’ when reading such a piece.

    I’m not sure which is harder to imagine today, even factoring inflation: a NEW Airplane for just $3000 – or flying from Arkansas to California and BACK on $50 of Gas. (It now takes twice that to fill up my Pickup just once!) Kinda leaves one eternally wondering ‘what the heck happened?’

  4. Bob Thomason says:

    The beginning of a masterpiece. Keep writing, Richard.

  5. Jerry Sauer says:

    I am so very glad to have come across your online Air Facts journal! This is a great beginning to story I hope you can continue to tell! Wonderful stuff Mr. Collins!

  6. Hunter Heath says:

    Richard,
    That is a very engaging and readable first chapter. My father was inspired to a lifetime love of aviation by Lindbergh’s 1927 crossing of the Atlantic, also, making your dad’s story all the more interesting to me. I am very sorry that you do not expect to tell “the rest of the story.”

  7. Stephen says:

    Excellent work, very engaging. I hope you can find the time to continue working on this book. I know you would have at least one buyer!

  8. Tom LaPointe says:

    Thank you for telling these stories so that they are not lost to time …