History of Aviation Part Two: The Early Years

The history of aviation is full of interesting stories, facts, and statistics that still surprise Americans today.  From Leonardo DaVinci’s creation of the airscrew (which became the model for the propeller), to the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, to the development of rotary and radial engines, the aviation industry has grown tremendously over the past century.

Rotary vs. Radial Engines

History-of-Aviation-Part-Two-420x198Before World War I, aviation consisted of stunt flying and barnstorming, having very little purpose other than entertainment.  Aircrafts became critical in defeating the enemy during the war, but since WWI planes were heavier and flew at slower speeds, the military preferred the use of rotary engines.  However, these engines had significant drawbacks, as pilots were often overcome by castor oil fumes.  In addition, scaling up the engines caused steering problems.  Thus the development of the radial engine became the next step in the history of aviation.

Captain Frederick Brant Rentschler

During World War I, Captain Frederick Brant Rentschler was responsible for procurement of aircraft engines in the US Army.  While in the military, Rentschler noticed a need for an air-cooled engine that was lighter and more powerful; he began working on the design of what would soon become the radial engine.  After leaving the Army, he served as President for Wright Aeronautical.  In 1925, after the board of Wright Aeronautical refused to investigate if radial engines were superior to rotary engines, Rentschler resigned and approached tool manufacturers Pratt & Whitney on creating an aviation company.  On July 23, 1925, the history of aviation took another turn when Pratt & Whitney tool company agreed to fund the development of the radial engine.

Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company

Rentschler remained in close contact with his military colleagues upon leaving service.  Working with a long-time friends, George J. Mead and Andrew Willgoos, Rentschler developed a proposal for an air-cooled radial engine. He obtained a commitment from Admiral William H. Moffet to purchase the engine for the US Navy once it was developed.  The first engine created by Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company, built in a garage in six months, reached completion on Christmas Eve 1925.  Rentschler’s wife, Fran, became a permanent part of the history of aviation when she named the engine “the Wasp,” and the Navy immediately ordered 200 engines.

United Aircraft Transportation Company

In 1929, Rentschler moved from Pratt & Whitney to join United Aircraft Company of which Pratt & Whitney was a part. .  He joined forces with two other history of aviation pioneers, Chance M. Vought and William E. Boeing, creating the first coast-to-coast passenger network in March of that year.  Since the military remained the biggest customer for airplane engines, also requiring constant alterations and improvements, commercial airlines benefitted from the many upgrades that military planes required.

Great Depression

During the Great Depression, many industries suffered and failed while aviation manufacturers continued to grow.  Like many moments in the history of aviation, the government intervened to protect customers against monopolies in1934, and Boeing and United Aircraft became separate companies to avoid the new antitrust laws.   The laws made it illegal for aviation engine manufacturers to have a controlling interest in an airline.

The Great Depression ended with the United States’ entrance into World War II, also when the history of aviation entered its golden era.  To learn more about the history of aviation, join Covington Aircraft’s online community on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

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