Today I visited the downtown Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Entering the main gallery, I was surrounded by so many of the actual artifacts I’d been reading about since I was a little kid… I had goosebumps. I thought I was going to fall over.
But I want to tell the story chronologically, so I’m going to begin back at the beginning.
(Click any picture to embiggen.)
This is the machine that started it all. 600 pounds of wood, canvas, and a small engine connected to two propellers by bicycle chains (the Wrights were, after all, bicycle makers.) The first successful flight only lasted 12 seconds, and travelled less than the distance of a modern airliner’s wingspan.
Okay, so, dude, I’ve got this pile of canvas and wood, and I’d like you to lie down in the middle of it. I’m going to catapult you off the ground, and you’re going to fly through the air in this thing for a few seconds. Oh, and when you land, try to stay level, otherwise the whole thing might collapse on you. Sound good? Why are you running away?
Hmmm. Come to think of it, the Wright Brothers also invented “Jackass.”
Then World War I happened, yada yada yada, see Part 1. Here’s the Ford Trimotor. It was pretty advanced for 1925. In just 22 years, we now see airplanes built entirely of metal, with much larger, stronger engines, capable of carrying 11 people. And now that they’re using metal, which is stronger than wood and fabric, they don’t need two wings.
Then Jimmy Stewart Charles Lindbergh did something almost everyone thought was impossible: He flew from the U.S. to France – over the Atlantic Ocean – non-stop in this very plane. It took him 33 hours. And there was no such thing as auto-pilot. Wow.
A few more years pass, and now we’re up to the DC-3, and you can see that the “modern” shape of airplanes is emerging. Maybe the Ford Trimotor was the first real airliner, or maybe it was the DC-3. The Trimotor opened up the possibility of air travel to the public, but the DC-3 was much faster and had a much longer range. It could cross the country in just three hops, and took only 15 hours to do it. It was the first time that crossing the country by air was an order of magnitude faster than going by train.
And now, thanks to airline cost-cutting, you can once again experience the thrill of stopping three times while traveling across the country, and the whole ordeal taking 15 hours.
Next up, Hitler is going to show up and harsh everyone’s buzz. But that’s a story for later.