History of Airplanes
Photo: Classic Car

Commercial passenger air travel did not become a reality in the history of airplane technology until around the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Brief History of the Airplane

The Wright Brothers' interest in flight began at home, when their father brought home a rubber band powered helicopter. The boys studied the toy and began building replicas.

Photo: An early biplane cockpit.

Photo: An early biplane cockpit.

In the late 1800s, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Smithsonian requesting all information they had available on flight experiments.  This was because the brothers had noted that the newspapers were carrying stories of gliders, but none of the flying devices had any controls.  They wanted to create a flying machine that did have controls.  In 1899, The Wright Brothers developed a system that would warp the wings of a biplane, therefore allowing the machine to be rolled left or right to accommodate wind and enhance flight.  They tested the system on gliders, using Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as their flight testing ground.

Failed Attempts And Innovations In Flight

Two gliders, failed attempts, and many experiments later, the brothers designed a wind tunnel to conduct experiments in to find the best wing shape to use for flight.  In 1902, their third launch was a glider with roll, pitch, and yaw controls.  The brothers then decided that gasoline would be a useful propellant for an aircraft, allowing more power and control.  This led to their design of the first airplane propellers and a powered aircraft.

The Flyer Takes To The Air – December 13, 1903

It took two more unsuccessful attempts at flight before the Wright Brothers got the kinks out and made the history of the airplane as we know it. Using spring steel shafts on the propellers to prevent breakage, the Wright Brothers created “The Flyer.”  On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers took The Flyer on a twelve second flight that covered one hundred and twenty feet.  Subsequent flights during the day achieved distances up to eight hundred and fifty-two feet.  With these flights, the history of the airplane was born, and since then many innovations and airplanes built based on these early Wright Brothers designs.

History of Commercial Air Travel

Commercial passenger air travel did not become a reality in the history of airplane technology until around the late 1920s and early 1930s. At that time, it was more an affluent activity, rather than anything that involved the everyday man. Only the rich, or the eccentric tended to fly, until the advent of the online stewardess.  It was when the stewardesses became part of the package of commercial passenger travel that this area of the industry truly took off.

Flight Attendants Change The History Of The Airplane

In the early history of airplanes, male crew members were employed by some airlines for flights.  They were known by a variety of names such as aerial couriers, cabin boys, flight companions, and airline attendants.  Their purpose was to keep passengers happy and encourage them to come back for additional flights.  Many people were still very much afraid of flying at this time.  The men would ease the nerves of passengers, assist with luggage, and help people get around the airplanes.  Stout Airlines, which became United Airlines, holds the historical credit for hiring the first male flight attendants in 1926 on the Detroit to Grand Rapids route flown by its Ford Trimotors planes.

Boeing Air Transport introduced the first female flight attendants on May 15, 1930. They called these flight assistants air stewardesses.  The purpose of hiring female flight attendants was for Boeing passengers to be more comfortable during their flight, and to nurture them through often upsetting first flight jitters.  The air stewardesses offered water, a sandwich, or chewing gum to help relieve the popping in ears associated with air pressure changes on flights.

In addition to keeping passengers comfortable and at ease, the air stewardesses also were responsible for other activities. The stewardesses took passenger tickets, carried and stowed luggage for passengers, and were responsible for keeping the airplane looking neat and tidy by cleaning up any messes. Some stewardesses in early days were even responsible for maintenance duties such as checking for gas leaks.

History Of The Airplane Stewardesses Qualifications

Those first female stewardesses had to meet certain qualifications before being hired.  Because of the small, confined spaces of early aircraft, women hired as air flight attendants had to be no taller than five foot four inches tall. They also had to weigh less than one hundred and eighteen pounds. Stewardesses also had an age requirement. Typically, stewardesses had to be between twenty and twenty-six years old, as well as single.  The single rule was still in the rule books of most airlines until the mid 1960s.

These requirements were for both practical and aesthetic. Women of this size and stature could easily maneuver on the airplanesThe stewardesses were also of a youthful attractive age which was thought to help ease passengers’ nerves. Many of the first air flight attendants were also nurses so proper care could be given for any passengers who became ill during the flights.  The starting salary for these women was $125.00 per month.

Innovations In Flight Passage, Tickets, And Insurance

Typically, reservations were made by telephone, as the Internet and travel websites did not yet exist.  However, by the mid 1930s, offices opened in cities to process airplane ticket requests.  This was the herald of the beginnings of what we know today as travel agents. Passengers would prepay “scrip,” which was a paper booklet worth a specific amount of money.  The scrip could then be turned in for a ticket until the entire booklet was used up.  People who regularly traveled were the precursors of today’s frequent flyers.  In 1936, the process was simplified even more with the advent of the Air Travel Card, first extended by American Airlines to the public.  With this credit card, a $425.00 deposit was made, and passengers could buy a ticket against their credit with a fifteen percent discount.  By the 1940s, all major domestic airlines offered similar credit cards, and more than a dozen different airlines had paper air tickets.

The Safety Of Flight In The History Of The Airplane

Safety concerns arose after a few plane crashes. It was at this time that the first commercial passenger travel insurance was issued, with a death benefit. This was yet another way that airlines made passengers feel comfortable. Of course, innovations in the airplanes themselves continued to advance as well which made them safer.

By creating a comforting environment with stewardesses, making the issuance and purchase of airline tickets easier, and through creating airline insurance that paid a death benefit to survivors, the airline industry created a comfortable flying experience that was not previously possible.