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4. Airplane

In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made his game-changing solo transatlantic flight, the airplane was only twenty-three and a half years old—a modern wonder that most people experienced only through barnstorming air shows, media coverage of air races, crashes, and innovations, and, for a growing number, air mail delivery. By the end of the decade, however, more and more brave souls could travel by passenger airline service, buy and learn to fly a "Ford flivver of the skies," serve on an American aircraft carrier, and compete as a civilian to set a world flight record, as did "Lucky Lindy" that fateful spring. Here in essays, newsreels, and visual art we glimpse the postwar leap in aviation innovation, commercialization, and derring-do.

    Has Aviation a Future? PDF file
  • "Has Aviation a Future?" Has aviation a commercial future was the proposition in these essays invited by the Forum, a periodical of social and political commentary. Both commentators viewed flight from their experience in naval aviation—one at the end of his career, one at the beginning. Alfred Dewar, chief of the Historical Section of the British Royal Navy, claimed the airplane could never deliver regular efficient transport and would remain at best "an auxiliary to sea transport." Richard Byrd, the famed aviator and polar explorer, insisted that "flying has a future as yet undreamed of," dismissing Dewar's pessimism as a casualty of faulty logic, i.e., predicting aviation's future from the earlier paths of the railroad and automobile. How did Byrd credit American enthusiasm and self-esteem for assuring aviation's future? To what group did he appeal to assure its "greatest progress"? (4 pp.)

  • The Aeroplane in Art, PDF file
  • The "Aeroplane" in Art Internal Link to Discussing Art page The individual manmade object—from eggbeater to bridge truss—was a regular feature of modern American painting in the 1920s. In these two paintings, the object is the "aeroplane"—as interpreted by an abstract synchromist painter and a realistic precisionist painter. Despite their obvious differences, the paintings reflect the modern artist's search for new ways to direct, manipulate, and enhance the viewer's perception. What do you see in each painting? What do you hear in your head? What movement do you feel? How would you rename each painting to reflect your answers to these questions? Why did both artists title their works Aeroplane instead of Airplane? What different interpretations of the "aeroplane" did they offer? (3 pp.)

  • Newsreels depicting aviation innovations. British Pathé News produced dozens of brief newsreel clips in the 1920s recording aviation feats, stunts, disasters, and innovations in Europe and the United States. The newsreels below present seven American commercial, military, and whimsical aviation innovations. Which are standard equipment today? Which were abandoned? Why? What did the innovations—and the newsreel reporting of them—reveal about the public's response to aviation and its place in their lives? Imagine viewing the newsreels in a "film palace" of the era with live piano accompaniment. Pay attention to the British intertitles [text] as well as the video content. How was American innovation depicted by the British in the period after World War One? See Supplemental Sites for similar BPN newsreels; select several on a single innovation (seaplanes, safety designs, etc.). Also compare aviation and automobile innovation of the period and note any patterns you discover (see Automobile).

  • The phenomenon of Lindbergh PDF file
  • On "the phenomenon of Lindbergh": appendix by Fitzhugh Green in Lindbergh's 1927 memoir "We." Here we digress from aviation history and consider the phenomenon of aviation celebrity, specifically of the most celebrated American aviator before space flight, perhaps ever—Charles Lindbergh. In an age of back-to-back aviation feats, Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight galvanized America and Europe. And in an age of Valentino, Dempsey, the "It" girl, and the Hall-Mills trial, Lindbergh's low-key response to instant fame, his calm diminutive stance amid cheering throngs, became celebrated in itself. An early witness to "the phenomenon of Lindbergh" was Fitzhugh Green, who traveled with Lindbergh's celebratory tour in Europe and America. Green wrote a piece entitled "A Little of What the World Thought of Lindbergh" as an appendix to Lindbergh's memoir "We," published just two months after the flight. "Whatever the reason for it all," wrote Green, "the fact remains that there was a definite 'phenomenon of Lindbergh' quite the like of which the world had never seen." What was the "phenomenon of Lindbergh"? How was he lauded by fellow celebrities such as President Coolidge, Charles Evans Hughes, and Will Rogers? Consider 21st-century examples of instant celebrity while reading these selections from Green's piece. (5 pp.) [See lesson based on the essay.]

  • Lindbergh-inspired animated cartoons. The "phenomenon of Lindbergh" showed up everywhere—including animated cartoons. For the fun of it, compare Felix and Mickey as they try to do a "Lindy." How is an instant celebrity or game-changing event "immortalized" in a cartoon, advertisement, app, viral video, etc., today?

Discussion Questions

  1. What were the goals of aviation innovation in the 1920s? How did commercial and military aviation develop in the postwar era?
  2. How did the entertainment and derring-do aspects of aviation develop in the postwar era?
  3. What aviation innovations exist today as standard equipment? Which were abandoned? Why?
  4. Compare aviation and automobile innovations of the period. What patterns present themselves? (See Automobile.)
Forum debate___
  1. In the Forum debate, why did Dewar reject commercial aviation as viable? Why did Byrd dismiss his pessimism as "faulty logic"?
  2. How did Byrd credit American enthusiasm and self-esteem for assuring aviation's future? To what group did he appeal to assure its "greatest progress"?
  3. Compare the tone of 52-year-old war veteran Alfred Dewar and the 39-year-old aviator and polar explorer Richard Byrd. How did they represent the "old" and "modern" generation's perspective on technological innovation in the Machine Age?
  1. Describe your initial response to Macdonald-Wright's Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange. How did he use color and abstraction to convey the fleeting yet compelling presence of the airplane?
  2. Describe your initial response to Elsie Driggs's Aeroplane. How did she achieve a nuanced mysterious effect with seeming simplicity?
  3. Analyze and compare the two paintings (see discussion questions in the headnote above). What singular impression of the "aeroplane" does each convey? What is implied about airplane flight and innovation in the 1920s?
  4. What machine or object might be similarly depicted today? Why?
  5. How does Aeroplane Synchromy reflect synchromism? How does Aeroplane reflect precisionism? How do the –isms reflect American modernists' aspirations to drive and define the new?
  6. Why did Driggs and Macdonald-Wright use the term Aeroplane instead of Airplane? Research the etymology of the two aircraft terms.
  1. What overall impression of aviation innovation in the 1920s did you get from the newsreels? Did anything surprise you?
  2. What do the innovations—and the newsreel reporting of them—reveal about the public's response to aviation, its place in their lives, and its role in defining modern?
  3. Note the intertitle text of the silent newsreels. What does it reveal about the general perception of aviation at the time?
  4. How was American innovation depicted by the British in the period after World War One?
  5. Select two or three newsreel clips of aviation innovations, feats, or accidents and weave them into one newsreel with audio commentary. What aspect of aviation in the 1920s is most significant, in your opinion? See Supplemental Sites for British Pathé News aviation newsreels.
The "phenomenon of Lindbergh"_____
  1. How did Fitzhugh Green explain "the phenomenon of Lindbergh"? How does it compare with the 21st-century phenomenon of celebrity?
  2. How was Lindbergh lauded by fellow "celebrities" such as President Coolidge, Charles Evans Hughes, and Will Rogers?
  3. Did Richard Byrd's celebrity status influence his tone and message in the Forum article "The Future of Aviation: A Debate"?
  4. Citing evidence from Green's article, argue the following: Lindbergh was so popular because he reassured Americans of certain values at a time of rapid change.
  5. How was the "phenomenon of Lindbergh" interpreted in the two animated cartoons?
  6. Compare media coverage of space flight and exploration since the 1950s with the coverage of aviation in the 1920s. Explain the similarities and differences you discover.

Framing Questions

  • How did "machine age" innovations change American life in the Twenties?
  • How did fans and critics of the changes, including artists, express their views?
  • What longterm effects on American society did they predict from the innovations? To what extent were they accurate?
  • How does their commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about technological innovation and social change, e.g., the Internet, social networking, robotics, nanotechnology, informatics, and more?


Forum debate on aviation's future
The "Aeroplane" in visual art
Green on Lindbergh's celebrity
Aviation innovation newsreels
Lindbergh-inspired animated cartoons
 4 pp.
 3 pp.
 5 pp.
     View online.
     View online.
12 pp.

Supplemental Sites

America by Air (National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution) Fad to Fundamental: Air Mail in America (National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

The Pioneering Years: Commercial Aviation, 1920-1930 (U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission)

Naval Aviation: 1920-1929 (U.S. Dept. of the Navy)

Aviation historical chronology, 1926-1996 (Federal Aviation Administration)

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, overviews
Elsie Driggs, overviews
Ford tri-motor airplane, the "Tin Goose," photograph, 2004 (TrekEarth)

Lindbergh (American Experience/PBS)

"'We' Reveals Lindy as More Careful than Lucky," The New York Times, August 7, 1927 (The New York Times)

Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York).
Richard E. Byrd, overviews
Aviation newsreels, including those listed above (British Pathé News) Aviation newsreels (National Archives/YouTube)

1 So Why Is This Art? Nine Questions about the Nature of Art (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2004), at
2 Henry Adams, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollack (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), in Part Three: The Formula (unnumbered pages), citing original research by curator Will South.
3 "Stanton Macdonald-Wright: Discover the Man and His Art," interview with curator Will South, Carolina Arts, March 2001 (
4 Constance Kimmerle, et al., Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical (James A. Michener Art Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), pp. 34-35.

– Charles Lindbergh in front of The Spirit of St. Louis, Curtiss Field, New York, May 1927, San Diego Museum of Air and Space, #04_02674. Reproduced by permission.
– Photograph captioned "seaplane in the air, naval aircraft factory, navy yard, Philadelphia," n.d. [ca. World War I] (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Digital ID 115674.
– "Next—The Crash-Proof Plane," illustration, Popular Science, October 1927. Permission request in process.
– Elsie Driggs, Aeroplane, oil on canvas, 1928. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund. Accession No. 2006.297. Reproduced by permission of Merriman Gatch.
– Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, oil on canvas, 1920. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949; Accession No. 49.70.52. Reproduced by permission.
– Still from The Non-Stop Fright, Felix the Cat silent cartoon, 1927, produced by Pat Sullivan. Courtesy of Internet Moving Image Archive.
– Still from Plane Crazy, Mickey Mouse cartoon, 1928, produced by Disney Studios. Courtesy of Disney Animation/YouTube.

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