In the 1930s, the federal government advanced the gospel dream that someday everybody would fly their own personal planes. Behind this effort was Eugene Vidal who, as director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, promised the public a $700, all-metal, miniature airliner. Here Vidal stands next to Waldo Waterman's Arrowplane, one of the prototype aircraft his agency subsidized in trying to implement the dream of wings for all.
If flying was to supplant driving, airplanes would have to be able to land and take off in the middle of towns and cities. Many promoters of this dream envisioned facilities to make this possible. Here the chief engineer of Los Angles, O.R. Angelillo demonstrates a model skyscraper air terminal. Twelve stories high and 980 feet by 152 feet at the base, the combined office building and airfield was expected to cost ten million dollars but never was built.
Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut was an influential evangelist for aviation. Here during the summer of 1931 he poses on the wing of an autogiro after returning to the Capitol from a round of golf. Bingham claimed the autogiro was almost as safe as a church pew.
Airminded men and women showed their commitment to the winged gospel by leading aerial lives whenever possible, such as getting married aloft. In her 1919 tune, Wed in an Aeroplane, Alma Ives acknowledged the fad for aerial nuptials.
By building and flying model airplanes, many believed, children would grow up to become pilots and usher in a real air age. In the late 1930s, miniature gasoline engines came on the market and lent model building a new level of realism, just as gathering war clouds added a new seriousness to visions of the aviation future. This news photograph of two contestants in a flying meet illustrates the new nationalistic and even militaristic spirit that entered model aviation on the eve of the Second World War.
The Winged Gospel
In the 1920s, Americans coined the phrase "the winged gospel" to describe the religious enthusiasm they felt for airplanes. That a heavier-than-air machine could fly seemed divine, and for many who for the first time watched a plane begin to move, pick up speed, and then lift its wheels clear of the ground, it was indeed "the moment of miracle," as one person described it. The winged gospel treated the airplane as a kind of god or messiah, a "new sign in the heavens," and elevated flight into a "holy cause." Men and women became self-described "disciples," "evangelists" and "missionaries" of this secular religion while aviation prophets described the wondrous future in which planes would transform human existence.
Starting with railroads in the 19th century and continuing with computers today, Americans have long associated their technologies with progress and hope. Because airplanes operated in the "heavens" where God traditionally dwelled, they generated particularly utopian hopes. Speculation about the aerial future filled American magazines and newspapers, and articles such as "The Present and Future of Aerial Navigation" (1908), "The Future of the Airplane" (1918), "The Coming Age in Aviation" (1927) and "Will You Fly Your Own Plane After the War?" (1945) set forth the promise of the winged gospel. Among its various tenets, three had wide appeal.
First, many people believed that airplanes would produce an "age of peace." Nobody would dare start a war and risk being attacked from the sky, it was claimed, and because planes could easily leap political or geographical boundaries, the world's peoples would share a common sky and join in a "peaceful social revolution." Even the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 and the use of aircraft to kill civilians did not deter some Americans from their conviction that airplanes were doves of peace. In 1915 the editor of Flying magazine optimistically claimed it was "the last great war in history" because, "in less than another decade," airplanes would eliminate the national rivalries that led to wars.
A second major tenet of the gospel was the expectation that airplanes would somehow promote equality and democracy. Among oppressed groups in the early 20th century, some blacks and women viewed flying machines as a panacea. In an article titled, "Flying is Changing Women," pilot Margery Brown argued that women who flew were becoming more aggressive, confident, and independent and thus less likely to tolerate unequal treatment from men on the ground, thereby fostering equality. For similar reasons, pilot Louise Thaden predicted that "sex distinction in the region of the air" will be impossible once flying became common. Even a few black pilots expected that aviation would provide "opportunity" and a "great future" for the race, this in spite of the existence of legal discrimination on the ground. Besides advocates of equality, there were also those in the early 20th century who thought airplanes would foster democracy, thwarting the monopolistic control of giant trusts and corporations. "Even Rockefeller with all his power," noted one aeronautical publisher in 1908, "has not been able to control the air," leading him to conclude that airplanes provided everyone with fair and equal access to transportation.
This conclusion hinged on the third tenet of the winged gospel: the belief that the aerial future would see mass ownership of personal airplanes or helicopters. As early as 1898, when the automobile had just been invented and the airplane lay in the future, Scientific American ran an article about the possibility of mechanical flight entitled, "The Horseless Carriage of the Next Generation." The expectation that personal wings, a flying horseless carriage, lay just around the corner spread rapidly once airplanes were invented and soon many believed that there would be "an airplane in every garage." The idea seemed logical to a generation that had witnessed horse-drawn conveyances give way to electric streetcars, then to bicycles and finally to Model T Fords, all in the space of a lifetime; "Flivvers of the air" seemed not only possible but inevitable, and they would create a better life, prophets explained, because with them people could escape the "push and struggle" of congested cities to live amidst the clean air and healthful nature of the countryside.
A number of individuals actively pursued the dream, including the billionaire auto manufacturer, Henry Ford. In 1925, inspired by his aviation-enthusiast son Edsel, Ford began producing eight-passenger aircraft. The next year, in 1926, Ford introduced the "Ford Flying Flivver." Although the prototype compared poorly to the Model T car, it held but one person, it stimulated tremendous popular interest. In 1928, however, the diminutive plane crashed and killed its pilot, causing Ford to lose interest in aviation. The federal government kept the dream of wings for all alive during the depression of the 1930s, mainly through the efforts of Eugene Vidal. A former World War I pilot and airline executive, Vidal became the head of the Bureau of Air Commerce in the Roosevelt administration. In late 1933 he announced that the government would spend half a million dollars to produce a "poor man's airplane." He promised a two or three seat, all-metal machine costing $700, about the price of a Pontiac automobile and $300 to $500 less than any plane then on the market. Predictably, Vidal's plan drew angry criticism. Manufacturers of small planes described it as an "all mental" airplane, an unrealistic fantasy that would only destroy the sales of existing aircraft. The public, however, enthusiastically greeted Vidal's proposal as well as the few prototype personal flying machines subsidized by his Bureau over the next few years.
Aviation enthusiasts promoted flight in yet other ways. During the 1920s, when flagpole sitting, dance marathons, and goldfish swallowing were popular fads, airminded Americans transformed the sky into a kind of zany theater. In 1929, for instance, some men in St. Louis loaded what the newspapers called "an airminded cow" into a plane, took off, and at 2,000 feet milked the animal. They then dropped the milk in pint-sized containers, attached to little parachutes, over the city. A less unusual stunt was getting married aloft, and not only did many couples choose to take their vows while flying but at least one also began their honeymoon by parachuting from the plane. Even births occurred in the air: when a Miami, Florida, woman went into labor in 1929, she rushed to a nearby airfield and took off with her doctor husband, a pilot, and two nurses. Twenty minutes later, circling high above the city, she gave birth to "Aerogene," a baby girl and member of what a newspaper called "the rising generation." Giving birth, getting married, or milking a cow were common on the ground, but by performing such acts in the sky, aviation evangelists hoped to make the public airminded.
In various other ways, men and women became missionaries on behalf of the winged gospel. Many carried the message to youth, often promoting the building and flying of model airplanes. In the 1920s and 1930s, schools, recreation programs, hospitals, and even department stores, radio stations, and newspapers actively supported model aeronautics. Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst created the largest model-building organization, the Junior Birdmen of America. Hearst papers ran columns offering advice and tips to Junior Birdmen and sponsored flying meets where members competed for prizes. His faith in the winged gospel was embedded in the Junior Birdmen's motto: "Today pilots of models, Tomorrow model pilots." Adults also promoted the "air-age education" movement, especially during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Teachers introduced airplane-related subject matter into school curricula, both to motivate students and also because they believed students would need such knowledge in the future. They published new textbooks with titles such as Human Geography for the Air Age and Flying High, the latter an anthology of fictional and non-fictional writing about aviation. The ultimate expression of air-age education, however, were the few, short-lived classes on "flight experience" that occurred in the aftermath of the war. High school students went up in small planes, not for actual flight instruction, but rather to watch the pilot fly the plane, feel the effects of wind on its performance, and observe their communities from above. These lessons, it was believed, would prepare the "winged superchildren of tomorrow" for responsible citizenship in an age when all would fly.
By 1950, the air age had indisputably arrived, yet few garages held private planes. Nor had airplanes eliminated war or ended discrimination. Indeed, although aviation had advanced mightily during the Second World War and had become central not just to the military but to civilian life as well, none of the promises of the winged gospel had been fulfilled. In retrospect the belief airplanes would be panaceas for earthly problems seems utopian and even irrational. Aviation would continue to advance and offer many benefits, but few any more view it as a holy cause. The winged gospel had faded.
- Joseph J. Corn, Stanford University
For further reading:
"All God's Chillun Gettin' Wings." Literary Digest. 190 (May 2, 1911): 29.
Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Revised Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Brown, Margery. "Flying is Changing Women." Pictorial Review. XXXI (June 1930).
Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.