“Taking Flight: The Foundations of American Commercial Aviation, 1918-1938 by M. Houston Johnson V, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 300 pages, $44.96
Today we go to the airport, hop a jet and fly anywhere in the nation secure we will arrive swiftly and safely. In 1919, commercial air travel fit Hobbes’s definition of a state of nature. It involved continual fear and danger of violent death, and was nasty, brutish and short.
“Taking Flight: The Foundations of American Commercial Aviation, 1918-1938” by M. Houston Johnson V, explores the beginnings of aviation’s transition to a safe, effective mode of transportation.
Its focus is the years between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. This period established the commercial aviation infrastructure still used today. The heart of the book examines establishing federal control of commercial aviation starting in 1921, in the Harding administration.
The most compelling reason for federal control of commercial aviation was it would soon be interstate commerce, a federal responsibility. The question was what form of federal control was appropriate? Did the government establish airways with local communities taking responsibility for airfields? This was the model followed for ships. The government developed the navigation lanes. Cities built ports and docks.
Another issue was how to foster commercial aviation. In Europe, governments subsidized or even owned airlines. This model ran counter to American sensibilities. In the United States there was a desire for privately-owned and operated airlines.
Johnson shows how the federal government answered those questions. The Department of Commerce set aviation policy from 1921 through 1925 until the Air Mail Act of 1924, and the Air Commerce Act of 1926 emerged. He also looks at the Air Mail hearings in 1934, and the use of the WPA in airfield construction.
The book’s unlikely hero turns out to be Herbert Hoover. As commerce secretary between 1921 and 1928, he created the foundation of today’s aviation transportation network. Airmail subsidies allowed the government to encourage privately-owned airlines without imposing government ownership. Hoover also oversaw creation of aircraft and pilot certification systems still used today.
“Taking Flight” is a fascinating look back at American aviation’s infancy. It shows how much went right, and what could have gone wrong.