Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Early American Civilian Aircrafts: Image Gallery Essay

The Early History of Civilian Aircraft: 1925-1930

Early American Civilian Aircrafts: Image Gallery Essay | Wisconsin Historical Society
Fokker Amphibian

Fokker Amphibian, Model F-11

Three-quarter view from front left of a Fokker Amphibian, Model F-11, sitting on a runway. Two men are seated on the aircraft, and one man is standing on the ground next to the door. The men are wearing Fokker coveralls. This seaplane is equipped with a 425 hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine and retractable landing gear sponsons. WHI 121607

An Era of Innovation

The post-WWI years witnessed a boom in innovations involving civilian aircraft.  There were excess planes after the armistic, many suitable for commercial use.  Pilots who were painstakingly trained during wartime were eager to make money off their talents by showing off their flying skills in towns across the country and selling rides in their planes to local residents.  These aviators helped to promote the airplane among an American public that was mostly unfamiliar with the new technology.

EnlargeFord Trimotor

Ford 4-AT-A Trimotor

View of a crowd standing around a Ford 4-AT-A Trimotor sitting at a passenger terminal. The tail identifier reads: "1879." WHI 121622

Air shows, air races, and groundbreaking feats in air travel further popularized aviation and spurred pioneering efforts in aircraft development.  Competitions with prize incentives for the fastest speed, highest altitude achieved, and longest distance traveled in an aircraft all generated interest in aviation among the public.  Aircraft manufacturers began to produce sleeker designs made with more durable materials such as aluminum and metal rather than the traditional canvas and wood, while dramatic improvements in aircraft engines allowed for mass production of high-powered motors.

The “Golden Age” of Aviation

This collection of 74 photographs showcases various monoplane and biplane models from 14 different American aircraft corporations.  Both exterior and interior views of the planes are included as well as views of the planes seated on runways, in flight, and on water. 

Many of the photos include planes involved in famous expeditions and events involving aerial exploration, such as the Richard Byrd expeditions to the North Pole and Antarctic, and aviation speed and distance records, such as the 1927 Trans-Atlantic flight.

EnlargeHamilton Metalplane

Hamilton Metalplane H-47

Three-quarter from left rear of the tail end of a Hamilton Metalplane H-47 parked near a large building. The tail identifier reads: "134 E." The airplane is equipped with a 525 hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine. Painted on the tail is: "Mfr'd by Hamilton Metalplane Co. Milwaukee." WHI 121746

Other photographs exhibit the beginning of private and commercial air travel with views of cabin interiors, passengers seated before takeoff, and shots of luggage-laden travelers waiting to board their flight.

The developments in manufacturing can clearly be seen in the collection with a wide array of models and designs on display.  There was a transition from the biplane to the monoplane, which allowed for less drag in flight; air-cooled radial engines replaced the older, water-cooled models; wing shapes evolved to make for more aerodynamic flight; and the development of retractable landing gears and wing flaps resulted in safer landings and takeoffs.

Early Manufacturing Corporations

The fourteen American aircraft-manufacturing corporations included in this collection are a sampling of the most successful and innovative companies involved in aircraft development at this time.

The American Eagle Aircraft Corporation began in 1925 in Kansas City, Kansas and went bankrupt in 1931 shortly after the stock market crash.  In its short lifetime, the company managed to produce 500 airplanes, over 400 of which were the model A-129 biplane.

The Bellanca Aircraft Corporation began in 1927 in Richmond Hill, New York, and moved to New Castle, Delaware a year later.  Their planes were known for efficiency and endurance, especially after the WB-2 was used by Charles Lindbergh in his flight from New York to Paris.

The Cessna Aircraft Company was founded in 1927 and based out of Wichita, Kansas.  The company went under in 1932, but reopened two years later after the success of its CR-3.  The racer model won the 1933 American Air Race in Chicago and managed to set a new world speed record for its engine type that same year.

The Curtiss Aero and Motor Corporation began in 1916 and grew quickly with the onset of WWI and an influx of contracts for military aircrafts.  It eventually settled production in Buffalo, York.  After the end of the war, Curtiss continued production and specialized in seaplanes, winning two races in 1923 and 1925 among planes in that category.

The Fairchild Aircraft Company was founded in 1924 and was known for developing the first plane with an entirely enclosed cockpit and hydraulic landing gear.  The company was also revolutionary in designing planes for aerial photography.  Due to the heavy nature of photographic equipment of the time, flying steadily with the gear at such a high altitude required a specialized design for high-quality photographs.

EnlargeSikorsky S-31

Sikorsky S-31

Right side view of a Sikorsky S-31, equipped with a 200hp Wright J-4 engine, sitting on a runway. These models were bought by Fairchild Co. to be used for aerial photography. However, in this photograph, the second open cockpit is occupied by a man with a machine gun. The pilot is sitting in the front open cockpit. WHI 121768

The Ford Airplane Manufacturing Division was originally the Stout Model Airplane Company, but was purchased and renamed by Henry Ford in 1925.  His company established the first “modern” commercial airports with regularly scheduled flights between various airports.  The company helped to establish trust among the public for the use of commercial air travel.

The Fokker Aircraft Company had been established in Germany 1912, and moved around Europe for the next decade.  An American branch, the Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America, was founded in 1927, originally named the Atlantic Aircraft Corporation.  The company is unfortunately most famous for a crash resulting in the death of  football coach Knute Rockne.  The crash was caused by wood rot that resulted in structural complications leaving the plane unable to fly properly.

The Hamilton Metalplane Company was developed out of the idea to build all-metal monoplanes.  This company, along with Ford, was among the first to build and sell these models.  Their planes were primarily used to carry mail and transport passengers.

Keystone Aircraft Corporation was established in Bristol, Pennsylvania in 1920.  The company was famous for its developments with agricultural aircrafts and early bomber aircrafts produced for the United States Army Air Corps.  They merged with Loening Aeronautical Engineering Corporation in 1928 and became Keystone-Loening Aircraft Corporation.

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1926, and was best known for its 1927 Vega monoplane.  This model was flown by various record-breaking aviators such as Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and Wiley Post, who was the first to fly solo around the world. 

The Sikorsky Aviation Corporation was established in 1925.  The company’s original focus was on multi-engine landplanes, but as they grew, they shifted their interests to seaplanes.  The company was revolutionary in the development of “flying boats” and were the first to create an amphibious aircraft able to cross oceans.

The Swallow Airplane Company, founded in 1920, was best known for its Swallow TP model.  A rugged, efficient design and a simplified cockpit equipped with basic instruments made this aircraft the perfect plane with which to train new pilots, and it was used widely for that purpose in the late 20s and early 30s.

EnlargeSport WACO Rolling into Inverted Flight

Sport WACO Rolling into Inverted Flight

Aerial view of a WACO ATO (also known as 10-T Taperwing) rolling into inverted flight. The airplane is powered by a 220hp Wright J-5 motor. WHI 122148

The Waco Aircraft Company was established in Troy, Ohio in 1919.  It became one of the most popular aircraft-manufacturing corporations between WWI and WWII due to the rugged and reliable design of its planes.  More Waco planes appeared on the U.S. civil aircraft registry at this time than any other manufacturer.

The Wright Aeronautical Corporation was founded in New Jersey in 1919, producing both aircrafts and aircraft engines for other manufacturers until 1929 when it merged with Curtiss Aero and Motor Corporation.  The company received the majority of their business from the U.S. military and was key in promoting the switch over to air-cooled radial engines.

The development of this gallery was made possible from a gift from the Kenyon and Mary Follett family.

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View other aviation history galleries such as Sky High and Howard Hughes, Filmmaker.