The concept of moving cargo by air began with Air Mail in the USA. This one primary purpose lead to the formation of the major airlines. The US Post Office began flying mail as far back as 1909, with a handful of small fledging private air services with small, flimsy cloth covered airplanes. However these small private firms proved unreliable and some were somewhat corrupt, and the USPS soon dropped these services, opting instead to use the US Army Air Corps. In those days, even the best airplanes were limited to lower altitudes, with little or no navigational aids available. Many airplanes and pilots were lost due to weather and all the other hazards.
After Charles Lindburgh flew solo across the Atlantic, the concept of safe air travel began to convince the public. The US Army informed the US Postal Service that they would no longer operate mail flights, due to the loss of many highly trained pilots and airplanes. The Post Office in turn returned to the public sector in search of relable service. By then the technology had improved considerably, although weather remained a major obstacle to early aviation.
A few companies had begun to produce airplanes capable of flying passengers, among them Boeing, who had been building a fleet of sea planes for the US Navy during the war. They produced a series of wooden passenger airplanes for Boeing Air Transport Co. In Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford, also seeing the potential for public air transport began producing an all metal three engined airplane called the Ford Tri-Motor. At the time the Ford airplane was the state of the art in air travel. The Fokker Airplane Co, had been building a fleet of successful airliner types for a European Airline industry that by this time had been already established. The US was slow in accepting aviation, with the military being the major customer , did not order or purchase aircraft, and this stiffled development and new aviation technology.
In 1928, the US Government passed a law that said that an airplane producer, could not be an airline at the same time.So, Boeing Air Transport, purchased several other smaller airlines and became United Air Transport. And as the demand for reliable Air Mail increased, the US Government awarded routes and subsidized the major Airlines. Thus began the birth and establishment of such majors as American Airways, Pitcairn (Eastern), TWA (Transcontinental and Western) Continental, Western and many others. Among the outstanding airlines was one Pan American World Airways, which flew a fleet of flying boats into Central/South America, Cuba, the West Indies and Caribbean, and had been very well established as an ambassador and symbol of the USA.
By the mid 1930’s, speed was the goal, and the first real effort was the Boeing Model 247, which flew exclusively for United Airlines, due to the early bond between Boeing and the airline. They preferred to suit Uniteds needs before the rest of the airlines could order the new 247 twin. The 247 was a real “hot-rod”, compared to every other airplane built. In fact it was faster than most military aircraft at the time. This put United with a clear albeit unfair advantage over the competition.
At this time TWA approached Douglas who had produced a famous all mail airplane in the past that had established the feat of being the first around the world. Douglas developed an all metal twin engined airplane to compete with the 247.The result, after several modifications to design was the DC-3, which remains among the finest aircraft ever made, and many are still flying today. In fact in 1940, over 90% of all commercial air transport was by DC-3. Douglas had, to satisfy demand contracted Nakajima Heavy Industry in Japan and LIsinov Aircraft in the USSR to produce DC-3s by contract. The Japanese contract provided that country with a much needed technology that would, in addition to tons of US scrap metal be used against us in years to come.
Meanwhile, by the mid 1930’s Pan American was operating huge Martin and Boeing Flying Boats across both oceans and around the world. These four engine airplanes would come to be known as “China Clippers” (although there was no particular airplane called that, the Martins had names like, Honolulu, Manila, San Fransisco etc and the Boeing 314 were Liberty, Dixie, Freedom etc). At that time the technology simply did not exist for the development of the “land plane” capable of operating long range airport to airport routes, so Pan American was alone in the field of long range airlines flying the US flag.
On December 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked Manila. A lone Pan American Boeing 314 clipper was boarding passengers for the return flight to San Fransisco in Manila Harbor. Seeing that flying eastward over the now Japanese held airspace, would be fatal, the Clipper took off, during the attack. Having several bullet holes, flew west-ward. It arrived to an astonished terminal in New York some weeks later, intact and safe.
The war drafted practically every civil airliner in service within the US, converting them for military use. In addition the Military took over civil airplane production and modified these for war use. Among these was the immortal DC-3, which were converted to the C-47 (R4D US Navy) with several versions for the Allied forces. Known as Skytrains and Dakotas, they became known as Gooney Birds to the troops. There remained limited airline service in the US during the war.
Part two, will continue the war effort and the development of new types that would establish the post war airline and
air cargo aircraft fleet.