Air Classics of the Roaring Twenties

by Steven A. Ruffin


If ever there was an exciting decade, it was the “Roaring Twenties.” Known for its “flappers” and jazz music, the 1920s had every reason to roar. The terrible “War to End All Wars” was finally over, and the boys were back home again. Broken economies were on the upswing, and at long last, the world was ready to dance its way into happier times.

The airplane industry—not to be left behind—rode the crest of this surging wave of optimism. Thanks to the war, aviation had finally come into its own.  It was by far the most exciting and promising technology to emerge from the otherwise depressing stalemate of mud and death that characterized World War I. The “flying birdcages” of 1914 had evolved into sleek, swift warplanes by 1918. Finally, safe and practical flying had become a reality.

Pilots were needed to fly these state-of-the-art machines, and certainly, there was no shortage. Thousands of accomplished aviators were home from the war, looking for any opportunity to practice their trade. Though regular flying jobs were still few and far between, there were plenty of affordable war-surplus airplanes available to accommodate these eager young pilots.

The 1920s were highlighted by some of the most unique and memorable flying—and flyers—of all time. In America, the audacious “barnstormers” filled the skies. These flying gypsies traveled the countryside, putting on impromptu air shows and selling rides. In so doing, they brought aviation to the very doorstep of average Americans coast to coast. At the same time, the daring airmail pilots were doing their bit to advance aeronautical science. Flying postmen, such as Jack Knight, Ham Lee, and “Slim” Lewis, became the superheroes of their day, as they braved the elements to blaze air trails across the nation’s skies.

The international air races were also a vital part of the 1920s flying scene. The Schneider and Pulitzer Trophy races prodded aeronautical technology forward in Europe and America like no other single stimulus. Equally important, they kept public attention sharply focused on aviation.

And of course, there were the dramatic record-shattering flights, so characteristic of this decade. Charles Lindbergh made the flight of the century in 1927, when he crossed the Atlantic alone—still today, the most memorable aviation achievement of all time. But there were also other flights—many others. These pushed the envelope for endurance, altitude, and distance. They traversed the various continents and oceans, both poles, and even the circumference of the earth itself. It was truly a great decade for aviation firsts.

All these events worked in unison to make the 1920s the beginning of what has become known as aviation’s “Golden Age.” It is remarkable, however, that such phenomenal progress was able to occur. For one thing, military appropriations in the peaceful postwar years were woefully deficient. This lack of funding seriously limited aeronautical research and development. Also, the aviation world was cursed—or blessed, depending on one’s perspective—with a market glutted with dirt-cheap war-surplus airplanes. A Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” for example, could be had for as little as $50—great for penniless pilots but tough competition for aspiring aircraft companies.

Despite these adversities, aeronautical technology somehow continued to advance throughout the 1920s, and enterprising manufacturers the world over managed to develop a remarkable number of outstanding flying machines. Many are now rightfully considered classics.

• Junkers F 13—This all-metal, enclosed-cabin monoplane is considered the first “modern” commercial aircraft. Featuring a covering of corrugated metal alloy and a cantilever wing, which required no external struts or bracing wires, the F 13 was indeed a revolutionary design for the early 1920s. With a cruise of 100 mph and range of 600 miles, this rugged and durable airplane was produced and sold worldwide well into the thirties.

• Breguet 19—Introduced in 1922, this French-built, open-cockpit biplane set numerous distance records and served various countries for over twenty years. Its single 450-horsepower Lorraine 12Ed inline engine gave the bomber/reconnaissance craft a maximum speed of 133 mph. Some 2,500 were built over a 15-year production run.

• Douglas DT-2 — The U.S. Navy accepted this sturdy biplane as a torpedo bomber in 1922. Since it could operate with either pontoons or conventional landing gear, the U.S. Army Air Service also acquired a few DT-2s for a planned round-the-world tour. After modification for long-distance flight, four of the newly renamed “World Cruisers” took off on March 17th, 1924, on an epic 26,000-mile, 175-day journey. Two of the Douglas’s managed to complete the trip—a true testament to their rugged durability.

• Fokker F.VII Trimotor — Produced by Dutch designer Anthony Fokker, the first F.VII flew in 1924. This large high-wing monoplane originally had only one engine, but later versions sported two additional Wright-Whirlwind radials. With its internally supported cantilever wing, the F.VII had a clean design that gave it good performance for its day. Sold worldwide, it became the airplane of choice for many record attempts. Most noteworthy of these were Richard Byrd’s 1926 flight over the North Pole in the Josephine Ford and Frank Kingsford-Smith’s 1928 transpacific flight from California to Australia in Southern Cross.

• De Havilland DH.60 “Moth” — This 1925 British open-cockpit biplane was both affordable and easy to fly, making it well suited for many of the early government-subsidized British flying clubs. It revolutionized British aviation by making it possible for virtually anyone to become a pilot. When fitted with the Gipsy engine in 1928, it became the “Gipsy Moth.”

• Ford Trimotor — The “Tin Goose” was the first truly reliable airliner. It began passenger service in 1926, and a few still fly today. With its nearly unprecedented size and corrugated aluminum construction, it was an impressive airplane for its day—and for that matter, still is. It was rugged and capable of carrying its fifteen passengers up to 500 miles at over 100 mph. Richard Byrd chose this dependable aircraft for his 1929 flight over the South Pole.

• Ryan NYP Monoplane Spirit of St. Louis — If any airplane of the 1920s deserves “classic” status, it is this one. Surprisingly though, for anything other than its intended purpose of flying nonstop from New York to Paris, it was a pretty lousy airplane. Its straight-spar wing, although strong enough to bear its great fuel load, had no dihedral, making it somewhat unstable in flight. Moreover, when fully fueled, the Ryan was dangerously overweight and—as Charles Lindbergh dramatically demonstrated when taking off on his historic 1927 flight—could barely lurch into the air. Add to these shortcomings the absence of any forward visibility, except through a tiny periscope, and there was an airplane that no one other than the likes of the “Lone Eagle” would want to fly. Even so, the Spirit, with its voluminous fuel capacity and revolutionary Wright Whirlwind radial engine, was the best airplane available for the job at hand. It is still one of history’s most celebrated aircraft.

• Pitcairn PA-5 “Mailwing” — This handsome, open-cockpit biplane was specifically designed to carry the mail—which it did, fast and economically. Its Wright Whirlwind engine propelled the Mailwing at a very respectable 135-mph clip. It was first put into operation in 1927, with several updated versions to follow. In later years, many of the sturdy Mailwings saw service as crop dusters.

• Travel Air 2000 — This outstanding 1927 open-cockpit biplane owes its “classic” status to its all-star cast of designers. Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, and Lloyd Stearman, emerging leaders in the aviation industry, all had a hand in producing the Model 2000. This airplane was a complete package—it was reliable, simple to maintain, easy to fly, and a good performer.

• Lockheed “Vega” — This was one of the best performing and most beautiful airplanes of all time. The all-wood, high-wing monoplane first flew in 1927, and was quickly recognized for its superior performance and rugged reliability. Jack Northrop designed it as an air transport, but it gained immortality as a record setter for some of the top pilots of the era. Amelia Earhart used one in 1932 to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic alone. And in the greatest duo of flying feats ever, Wiley Post twice flew his famous Winnie Mae around the world in record time—first in 1931 with navigator Harold Gatty, and again in 1933…not only faster, but also alone.

• Zeppelin LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin — Possibly the greatest flying machine of the 1920s, and in many ways, the greatest airship of all time, this German-built luxury airliner had “classic” written all over it. During its distinguished and highly publicized ten years of active service, beginning in 1927, it traveled over a million miles worldwide, made some 600 flights, set a round-the-world speed record, and carried a total of 18,000 passengers—all without a single injury. The imposing presence of this technological masterpiece was awe-inspiring to anyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it.

• Polikarpov Po-2 — First flown in 1928, this maneuverable little wood-and-fabric two-seater was designed as a basic trainer, but it quickly proved it could do much more. It served in various capacities throughout World War II—including extensive use as a night bomber for the famed Soviet female combat unit, the “Night Witches.” It continued on active duty through the Korean War, opposing NATO forces as a “Bedcheck Charlie” nuisance raider. Incredibly, production continued into the 1950s. Over 35,000 were built, making it one of the most-produced airplanes in aviation history.

• Curtiss “Robin” — Receiving its type certificate in 1928, this small high-wing monoplane featured an enclosed cockpit. Although more affordable with the readily available Curtiss OX-5 engine, it was a better performer with the air-cooled Wright Whirlwind radial. The three-seat Robin was well designed, with durability and good performance. In 1935, the Key brothers of Meridian, Mississippi, used their Robin to make an incredible 27-day nonstop endurance flight. Equally impressive, in 1938 Douglas “Wrongway” Corrigan “mistakenly” crossed the Atlantic to Ireland in his slightly decrepit Robin.

• Supermarine S.6 — This sleek and stunningly beautiful British-built Schneider Cup racer was the last and fastest in a line of seaplane racers built by Supermarine in the 1920s. The S.6 permanently retired the trophy by winning the 1929 and 1931 races, and was the first aircraft in history to officially exceed 400 mph. Most importantly, the S.6 served as a precursor to the famous Rolls Royce “Merlin”-powered “Spitfire” fighter…which would save the day a decade later in the Battle of Britain.

• Travel Air Model R “Mystery Ship” — This remarkable low-wing monoplane was designed in secret in 1928 and unveiled at the 1929 National Air Races. It shocked the racing world by beating out all contenders in the unlimited pylon race—including the heavily favored Army and Navy entries. This was the first time a civilian racer had outperformed the military’s best, and it was a sign of things to come. Only five of these superb aircraft were built, but they showed the way to the future.

The “Roaring Twenties” were indeed a heyday for aviation. They yielded a bumper crop of outstanding aircraft from all over the world that are still admired three-quarters of a century later. The ones highlighted here merely scratch the surface. Dozens of other aircraft types from the 1920s also qualify as “classics.” These include such standouts as the great British and U.S. Navy airships; the Curtiss and Macchi seaplane racers; Dornier’s flying boats; the Cierva and Pitcairn autogiros; the outstanding military fighters; the Monocoupe and Cessna Model A; the giant Sikorski and Tupolev bombers; and on and on….

The remarkable aircraft of the 1920s helped establish an aviation infrastructure resilient enough to weather an upcoming economic disaster of unparalleled proportions. An intact aeronautical industry would emerge from the Great Depression just in time to charge headlong into another world war—one in which the descendants of the air classics of the “Roaring Twenties” would prove to be the deciding factor.