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November 10, 2018

Airship versus Aircraft: The Early Days of Commercial Aviation

The Wright brothers put on the world’s first air show in 1909, successfully demonstrating that a fixed-wing aircraft could fly. Just five years later the first scheduled passenger airline — the Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line — was established. But it lasted only four months.

Most other early attempts at establishing passenger service ended the same way: bankruptcy. In fact, it would take another 30 years before commercial aviation really took flight.

Airships versus Airplanes

That was largely because a competing technology was older and more mature. Up until the late 1930s, airships—also called blimps, balloons or zeppelins—were the preferred mode of air travel, and for good reason.

Early airplanes could drop hundreds of feet without warning. The noise during take off was nearly loud enough to render passengers permanently deaf. The longest flight, London to Brisbane, Australia, required 24 scheduled stops and 11 days.

Airships, meanwhile, traveled some 250 to 350 feet off the ground at around 80 miles per hour. The trips were so smooth passengers often didn’t notice when the airship had taken off. It was said you could balance a pencil on a table during an airship flight.

The world’s largest airship, the Graf Zeppelin, could get you from Germany to Brazil in just five days in 1930. You stepped on in Friedrichshafen, Germany on Saturday night and stepped off in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday morning.

Early Successes

It was not until the late 1920s that a concerted effort to establish passenger airliners with fixed-wing aircraft was undertaken.

In 1927, a fund was created by the wealthy Guggenheim family to demonstrate to the public that commercial passenger airplanes could be “safe, dependable, economically feasible, and even comfortable.” That same year, the first non-stop transatlantic flight was completed by Charles Lindbergh in just over 33 hours.

Success came in the form of the all-metal Ford Trimotor and Stout Air Services, which is generally recognized as the first regularly scheduled passenger airline in America. Stout was later bought by American Airways.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first American politician to travel to a political convention by air when he flew from Albany, NY to Chicago aboard a Ford Trimotor to deliver his acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee. The trip was meant to portray FDR as a daring and forceful leader — a commentary on just how safe fixed-wing aircraft were considered at the time.

The true turning point in the battle for passengers between airships and aircraft came in 1937 with the Hindenburg disaster. The tragedy soured the public on viability of airships just as aircraft were becoming competitive. Without the Hindenburg crash, it’s likely fixed-wing airplanes and airships would have coexisted for much longer.

Commercial Aviation has Changed the World

The impact of commercial aviation on the world is difficult to overstate. It has made the world more connected place, bringing people, businesses, countries and cultures closer together.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airlines in 2014 flew over 50,000 routes connected 3.3 billion people, supported 58 million jobs and delivered goods with a value of $6.8 trillion.

What will commercial aviation look like in 30 or 50 years? Check out Boeing’s hypersonic jet concept to get a better picture. What are the most popular commercial airplanes in history? Check out our list of the best selling commercial jets ever.

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