What’s Wrong with Aviation?

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

An Article by Albert S. Levino in Harpers Weekly, 1912 (with some modifications)

By 1912 aviation had some great inventors and many daring aviators, but had yet to produce a great commercial mind. Mechanically, the airplane had made swift strides in its brief tenure of life more than any other means of transportation did in twice the time. Commercially, the American airplane industry is not one bit better off today than it was three years ago.

This is the conclusion of a feature article in Harper’s Weekly.

The article postulates several causes for this state of affairs:

Too much exhibition business, which has over exploited the airplane and failed to establish its practical value.
Too much publicity, with too many promises impossible of fulfillment.
The obsessing desire for quick profits rather than steady, normal returns.
Failure to develop cheap but efficient and reliable power plants.
Too many airplane manufacturers.
No development of markets.

Crowds flock to the most dangerous turns of an auto race. Attention is always riveted on the “dip of death” in a circus rather than on a cleverly trained animal.

Robert Fulton’s Clermont once crowed the Hudson’s banks and Stevenson’s Rocket brought thousands to stare, deprecate, or wonder.

Only ten years have passed since a feature of Buffalo Bill’s show was a “horseless carriage.”

We are all looking for thrills. But, once this appetite is satisfied it is almost impossible to arouse scientific or commercial interest in the thriller unless its performances have demonstrated the practicability of the device, and unless they have created a demand for it and made it an urgent necessity.

Airplane exhibitions once provided remunerative thrills. But people quickly learned that as the number of airmen increased, the number of accidents increased; that manufacturers were exploiting merely the novelty and not the usefulness of the product; and they could witness flights from outside the fence quite as well as if they paid a dollar to enter the aerodrome.

They began to look elsewhere than to the airplane for their amusement. Airplanes became too common to lead people even to turn their heads to look at them, let alone pay to see them.

The price of passenger flights fell in twelve short months from $500 to $25, $10, and even $5. Satiety had overtaken curiosity. The wonder of one year had become the commonplace of the next.

Unfortunately for the honest manufacturer, he soon had to cope with a factor even more discouraging than public apathy. The dishonest element that attaches itself to every new industry did not fail to grasp the opportunity presented by the art of flying.

Soon aviation was crowded with this irresponsible, get-rich-quick-gentry. Exhibition flyers frequently left the ground only when they cared to and then for such short flights as they cared to make.

Alleged self-styled aviators, incompetent in every respect, and with machines so badly constructed as to be dangerous to the spectators, cut to one-half the prices asked by good flyers.

Outrageous promises, that ranged from the agreement to land from any building in a city to the free carrying of passengers in machines which later proved unable to leave the ground with only the pilot aboard, were frequent.

President W. Linford Smith of the Pittsburg Aero Club was driven to comment:

“I favored disarmament with the coming of airplanes until I heard and saw at Brunot Island just how much trouble a capful of wind makes for these flying-machines. I now suggest that the only defense needed by war-vessels from air-fleets will be electric fans.”

Undoubtedly the reader, as he opened his morning paper, has read from time to time the announcement that “John Jones, the famous aviator, will today fly over the city” or “will start on a record breaking cross-country journey” or “will fly to shore from the Hamburg-American liner Potsdam, leaving the vessel’s deck after she has passed forty miles out to sea.”

Thereafter nothing more has been heard of John Jones’s promised flight. This has happened so frequently, there has been such a discrepancy between promise and performance by an all-too-numerous type of aviator, that nowadays the public is placing aviation statements on the same level as the “wolf, wolf” cry of the fabled shepherd.

It has been the marvel of many who know the care with which newspapers are edited that space is so forthcoming for almost any kind of statement so long as it was the magic word “aviation” in it.

The most nonsensical utterances of half-crazy inventors whose actions showed they had not the first idea of even the rudiments of human flight; lengthy descriptions of revolutionary machines which turned out to be abortive copies of standard types built by some chauffeur or street cleaner or shoemaker in a barn, hayloft, or cellar. Manifestly puerile statements are made regarding the future of the airplane, and how it will drive both railroad train and steamship out of business.

For these and similar absurdities, there seems to be a 365-days long silly season against which not even the sanest city editor appears immune.

Conceive any normal man swallowing the yarn that the Pennsylvania railroad had a new locomotive that would haul a twelve-car train without stopping from Chicago to New York in ten hours!

Yet is that half as stupid as the widely statement made a few months ago by a well known British airman, that an airplane with a 2,000-hp motor carrying 4,000 people will cross the Atlantic in 15-hours.

Maybe someday a man will go to bed in New York and awaken in London; also, there may come a time when a man will retire on earth and dress on Mars, but newspapers do not print serious articles in anticipation of the events.

Frank Coffyn, The Wright pilot who has carried more passengers that any other aviator in the world recently commented on the statement of a prominent cross-country flyer that he was going to start across the Atlantic next August in a hydro-biplane with himself and a mechanic as passengers and operators.

“He said he’s going to take 2000 gallons of gasoline with him,” said Mr. Coffyn. “There’s a weight of 1,400 pounds to start with in fuel alone, not making mention of lubricant, food, etc. and Breguet, who managed last October to lift a total weight of about 1,400 pounds beside his machine stayed aloft for only 5-minutes!

Is it possible to cross the Atlantic in an airplane very soon? Why, it’s possible now — but only Heaven knows when it will be accomplished!”

It is on such publicity that many aviation stock companies are formed. Generous promoters have dropped mines and covered carpet-tacks for the more lucrative airplane. Today the market is fairly flooded with $1, $5, and $10 shares of aviation shares of aviation stock, whose promoters offer anything from 7 to 50 percent dividends. Rich as is the future of the flying machine, the airplane industry can no more support get-rich-quick parasites than can any other business.

There is general recognition that the heart of the airplane is its motor. Yet, though the United States gave the flying machine to the world and today manufactures more automobiles than all countries put together, no American airplane motor has yet been developed that compares in efficiency with a French engine.

That foreign motor today holds every world’s record, excepting only Loridan’s duration flight. But its cost, particularly with 45 percent import duty added, practically prohibits its general use in this country.

What a field there is here for our automobile manufacturers! There is an Aladdin fortune awaiting the man who delivers a dependable efficient, economical 50-horsepower airplane engine, weighing not over 3-pounds per horsepower, for $1,000, or even $1,500. For the very best flying machine built today can be produced for $500 except for its power plant. And it is in the manufacture and sale of a reliable airplane retailing at about $3,000 that the biggest dividends will be found.

There are now in the United States six airplane-manufacturing firms. All six companies sold fewer than 20 airplanes in this country in 1911. The Wright, Farman, Bleriot, Nieuport, Breguet, and Deperdussin firms are the only manufacturers who earned $25,000 clear last year.

Suppose that the Wrights in this country or the Farmans in France – both tremendously wealthy firms – were to cut the price of their machines to $3,000. What would happen to the builders? The airplane has out stripped the industry. Its mechanism is far ahead of its commercial development.

I asked several men prominently identified with American aviation to give Harper’s Weekly their ideas as to what was the matter commercially. Here is what they said:

Wilbur Wright: “What my brother and I want to do is to conserve the business. What the average man, neither daredevil nor simpleton, can safely do with the airplane is the problem with which we are concerned. There is a splendid future for the flying machine, but conservative and sound business methods must be invoked to develop and sustain the industry. To my mind miscellaneous exhibitions and too much of the wrong kind of publicity are the chief troubles of aviation. No other industry would stand for these features. Aviation cannot.”

Ernest L Jones, editor of Aeronautics, oldest American periodical in its field: “There are too many fakers in the business. The stock-selling crowd has scared away the conservative rich man who might back a well-run firm. There has been too little commercial development of the airplane and too much hip-hip-hurrah business.”

“Including airplanes and accessories, not more than four American firms are doing business on a sound scale and basis. The others have been too busy getting the easy money and letting future development take care of itself.”

Frank Coffyn, leading passenger-carrying aviator: “Almost every ill to which aviation in this country has fallen heir to is due to the exhibition circuit end of the game and to faking that has been done there and in publicity. It is curious, too, how much more national governments are bent on testing the merits of airplanes for war purposes than for trade or travel. Surely if flying machines meet the exacting demands of military authorities as machines of destruction, they are certain to be a great deal more useful and far more numerous in the occupations of peace.”

Hugo Gibson, propeller manufacturer: “The support aviation gets today is on the basis of unreasonable profits from spectacular and death-invoking antics. Aviation is a science and requires an army of scientific workers, not nerveless incompetents or high-strung scatterbrains. Businessmen are needed in aviation, even more than engineers.”

“There is no finer or more exhilarating sport than flying. And in the hands of careful, conservative pilots, knowing the exact capacity of their machines, the present-day airplane is considerably safer than the public has been led to believe it is. But trying to loop-the-loop, ego-born steep dives and the Dutch roll, excessive banking, spiral end-on turns, racing around one, or even 5-mile tracks, etc., are not the functions of the flying machine. Performing any or all of these “stunts” avails nothing in giving us the commercial airplane which may be relied upon as the automobile is today for pleasure and for trade.”

The airplane has a future that neither expert nor lay mind can define. The serious, practical side of flying is an almost an unknown quantity because aviation has so far been mostly circus “stunts.” Shorn of these features and the end of exhibitions and meets are fortunately now in sight. The airplane will come into its own.

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