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No. 1536:
Old Airports

Today, let's fly across American in 1930. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Sleepless last night! So I watched the 1933 movie Central Airport on TV. It was about two pilots, brothers in love with the same woman. The action moves from one embryonic airport to the next, all the way from Los Angeles to Havana.

By the oddest coincidence I had, just that day, found two books in a forgotten corner of our library. One was United Air-lines Guidebook No. 1, Airways of America, published the same year as the movie, 1933. It describes the route from New York to San Francisco. It details all the physical geography of America along the way. No pressurized cabins yet, and you flew under most of the cloud cover. In those days you saw the earth below.

The second book, published four years earlier, shows the new Curtiss-Wright system of airports. It gives architectural renderings of twelve completed airports, and it suggests a vast array of airports and infrastructure yet to come. Runways are half to two-thirds of a mile long. Terminal buildings are one story high.

Both books show an America that knows it's in flux. Yet no one sees where change is headed. The whole system is shaped to the one airplane that's become the workhorse of commercial travel. It's the 1926 Ford Trimotor -- an American improvement over the Fokker Trimotor. It would be the basic carrier until Douglas made the DC-3 in 1934. The Trimotor carried eleven passengers unless there was a stewardess. Then it carried only ten. The Trimotor had one engine under each wing and one in the nose -- 600 horsepower all told. Its ceiling was 16,000 feet, it cruised at just over a hundred miles an hour, and its range was a scant 570 miles.

So New York to San Francisco was a two-day trip with endless stops along the way. The guidebook was to keep you occupied with mountains and prairies; nimbus and cumulus clouds; glacial, alluvial, and volcanic deposits; America opening up before you.

The movie didn't share this interest in making us comfortable with flight. It showed three airplane crashes. In fact, the development of the DC-3 began when football hero Knute Rockne died in a Fokker Trimotor crash. The sky was still a dangerous place. It was still romantic. You still knew there was ground down below you.

Now we enter a sealed environment in one city and leave it another. At just under the speed of sound, 30,000 feet up, we read a book. Seventy years ago we still felt kinship, not just to Lindbergh and Earhart, but to Lewis and Clark as well. To fly across America was to discover it. It meant watching a sparse population of pioneers below putting in orchards and wheat fields while they interspersed them with airports and two-lane highways.

In 1970, some librarian pasted a checkout slip across the map of America in the end papers of the United Airlines book. For the book was now just a ghost of an old beauty. It'd become something that made little sense if you'd never lived it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Curtiss-Wright Airports: A Nation-Wide Chain of Strategically Located Ports, New York: Curtiss-Wright Airports Corporation, 1929.

Lobeck, A. K., Airways of America: Guidebook No. 1, The United Air Lines. New York: The Geographical Press, Columbia University, 1933.

For another image of the Ford Trimotor, see:

The Grand Central Air Terminal at Glendale, Calif. with a Ford Trimotor parked in front of it

An old picture from an old book. The Grand Central Air Terminal at Glendale, Calif. with a Ford Trimotor parked in front of it (from the Curtiss-Wright book, above.)