Conquest of the Skies: A History of Commercial Aviation in America
© 1979 Carl Solberg
If ever you wanted a history of commercial aviation in the United States, Conquest of the Skies is it. Beginning with the origins of flight and culminating in the 747, Conquest artfully combines business, social, and technical history. That distinguishes it from other books in this vein, like the tech-focused Turbulent Skies. Written for lay readers, Solberg brackets his history with reflections on how the romance of flight became – through persistent tinkering, reckless adventurism, war, and ambition– a perfectly ordinary form of transportation that shrunk the world, opening global vistas to the multitude.
In the beginning, there was the Post Office. Solberg’s first chapter, of course, is about the Wright brothers’ achievement and the rise of airplane manufacturing in the Great War. The story of commercial aviation picks up in earnest, however, after the war, when the US Postal Service began using the US Army airplanes created for the war to deliver mail. Delivering mail sounds tame and routine, but the early airmail service was anything but. These pilots were still flying by sight, looking for landmarks. In fog they were helpless; in turbulent weather, their canvas-and-wood frames were torn apart. (In 1934, a particularly bad winter caused nearly a crash a day.) Yet the Post Office saw the potential in this sort of delivery, and from this service grew the first commercial air companies. As infrastructure and technology for flying improved – as artificially –lighted “lanes” were created across countrysides, and the problem of aerial radio communication nailed down – a growing number of companies bid for airmail contracts and began creating their own fleets.
Modern readers may recognize the names of companies formed in those days: United and American Airlines are two survivors, and most adults can remember TWA and Pan-Am. Although the airmail contracts allowed for a commercial air company to get started, other opportunities for revenue – like passengers – were required for real expansion. In these days, a flight might carry only a handful of people. Even the larger planes of the pre-jet perio were carrying only 35 at most. In the 1920s, the appeal of air travel was largely in its novelty and speed. No one did it for comfort: in those days, passengers had to suck oxygen from tubes throughout the flight, and were constantly jostled amid turbulence. (The first stewardesses were required to have nurses’ licenses.) As the technology improved, however, the airlines strove to imitate the quality of service aboard Pullman coaches, with meals served on actual plates, and liquor on the house.
World War 2 propelled planes to greater heights, concentrating fifty years of advancement into five. The second world war was an air war, beginning with Stukas and ending with the Enola Gay. From the war came radar, legions of pilots, improved navigation, and steadily-improving aircraft design. More important, however, were the airstrips. In the 1920s, Pan-Am could only cover as much of Latin America as it did through flying boats – “clippers” in a more literal sense than its later landplanes with that name. Boats didn’t need airstrips, just a stable body of water and a dock. But the war had freckled the globe with airstrips, saw airlines other than Pan-Am work the overseas routes, and created interest in what lay beyond the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. When jets entered the picture and airlines began experimenting with an “air coach” model — carrying a lot of lower fares instead of a few expensive ones — air travel descended from the clouds of fancy into the real world, a miracle rendered mundane…like automobiles, electricity, radio, and trains before it.
Conquest of the Skies is outstanding popular history, uniting three areas of interest; the birth, growth, and evolution of various airline companies, including their involvement with the government; technical advancement; and the actual experience of flying, from the cramped quarters and head injuries of the 1920s to the cozy comforts of the fifties and sixties. I only wish it went beyond 1963, so Solberg could have documented the flight of the Concorde. While Solberg doesn’t footnote his text, the book concludes with an extensive bibliography.