Did You Know...?
Series Air Dates
Exec. Producer Bio
Exec. Producer Interview
Photo & Video Credits
On the morning of December 17, 1903, two bicycle mechanics named Orville and Wilbur Wright stood on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They flipped a coin to see who would be the first person in human history to fly. Orville won. He climbed aboard their flying machine and sailed into the air for 12 seconds, traveling 120 feet. Instead of publicizing their accomplishment, the Wright brothers quietly retreated to their bicycle shop in Ohio, convinced that they should put their plane under wraps in order to protect their investment. Finally in 1908, the Wright brothers' patent was approved. Now, they were ready to prove to the world that they had mastered flight. The place they chose for their international debut was France, where French aviators had already demonstrated that they could fly. In front of a skeptical crowd of dignitaries and journalists, Wright's flyer was catapulted into the air. The spectators were spellbound.
The First to Fly...
One of the most enthusiastic of the French inventors was Louis Blériot, whose early flight attempts often came crashing to the ground. But Blériot was so determined to fly that he continued to spend much of his savings -- and his wife's inheritance -- building his planes. When a European newspaper offered a large sum of money to the first pilot to cross the English Channel, Blériot saw an opportunity. On July 25, 1909, Blériot set out across the Channel. Although his flight ended once again in a crash, Blériot succeeded in crossing the Channel and was instantly hailed an aviation hero.
The French Hero...
Mesmerized by the possibilities of flight, Harriet Quimby became the first woman in America to get her pilot's license. Quimby knew that there was money to be made on the air show circuit, and set out to prove that she could pilot a plane as well as any man. Soon, Harriet Quimby, with her trademark purple flying suit, was one of the most famous aviators on the air show circuit. In an effort to increase her popularity, Quimby went to France, bought herself a Blériot flyer, and became the first woman to cross the English Channel. But only three months later, while headlining an air show, Quimby was thrown from her plane and killed. A reporter for the Boston Globe wrote of this aerial pioneer, "she took her chances like a man, and died like one."
The American Bird Woman...
Weapons Of Destruction ...
In August of 1914, World War I erupted in Europe. In the beginning, the plane was used only as a tool for strategy. Air combat brought about many advancements. Larger engines were put on more maneuverable planes. Machine guns were mounted. Bombers were developed. The image of the plane as a powerful weapon of destruction was born. So too was the mystique of the fighter pilots, such as 19-year old British ace Albert Ball who was thrilled by the adventure of early air combat.
When WWI ended, many daring pilots found work on the air show circuit. They entertained crowds by displaying maneuvers they had once used in dogfights. These barnstormers, as they came to be known, put on quite a show with each stunt more fantastic than the next. Barnstormers offered more than just entertainment. They gave average Americans the chance to do something they had never done before -- ride in a plane. But at $5 a ride, barnstormer pilots were never going to get rich. Soon, however, someone would figure out a more profitable use for planes.
No Experience Necessary...
On May 25, 1918, the U.S. Postal service for the first time offered airmail. Many early mail pilots who flew those loads had an extraordinarily difficult time finding their way. In bad weather, when landmarks were invisible, the job went from difficult to extremely dangerous. But that didn't stop a young daredevil named Dean Smith from answering an ad for an airmail pilot that read, "no experience necessary." With the help of men like Dean Smith, airmail service became a resounding success. With the demand for airmail rapidly increasing, Congress passed a law allowing the government to hire private carriers to help deliver the mail. Before long, the addition of beacons and air traffic control radios made flying those deliveries at night easier. But that was just the beginning. The future of aviation would shine even brighter, helped along by the most famous airmail pilot of all.
On July 11, 1927, a young man named Charles Lindbergh arrived in San Diego, California. The custom-built plane that he helped design and had struggled to raise the money to pay for was finally finished. In honor of the hometown of his most generous supporters, Lindbergh named it "The Spirit of St. Louis." At 25, Lindbergh set his sights on a $25,000 cash prize for the first aviator to fly from New York to Paris. Four men had already died trying, but that didn't stop Lindbergh. He had tremendous confidence in himself and in his new plane. Massive crowds welcomed Lindbergh upon completion of his historic cross-Atlantic flight. What would have taken nearly a week by boat, a fearless Lindbergh had done in a mere 33 1/2 hours.
Back home, Lindbergh was greeted with a ticker tape parade the likes of which New York City had never seen before. Politicians and businessmen eager to promote air travel commissioned Lindbergh to fly the Spirit of St. Louis throughout the United States. He went from city to city selling the wonders of flying to average Americans. But for Lindbergh's dream to come true, flying would have to move beyond its image as a pursuit for heroes and daredevils.
The First Lady of Flying...
In 1929, on a good will tour of Mexico, Charles Lindbergh paid a courtesy visit to the home of the American ambassador. There he met the ambassador's shy, reserved daughter, Anne. After a whirlwind courtship, Charles and Anne were married. Instead of taking on the role of a traditional wife, Anne Morrow became Lindbergh's navigator and radio operator. Together they tackled Lindbergh's new job: mapping out potential overseas routes for the airlines. As they traveled, Anne Morrow Lindbergh began sharing with the American public what it felt like to fly. Before long, Anne had logged more miles as a passenger than any other man or woman on earth. And wherever she landed, she was met by enthusiastic crowds and reporters who waited breathlessly for accounts of her and her husband's latest adventures. Through her candid descriptions of an average person experiencing the thrill, fear and even boredom of flight, Lindbergh helped convince Americans that flying was less dangerous than they thought. More and more people began saying to themselves, "If Anne Morrow Lindbergh flies, then I want to fly, too."
The Freedom of A Bird...
Recognizing the rising interest in flying, investment banker Clement Keys had the revolutionary notion that there could be real money in flying people. In 1929, Keys created Transcontinental Air Transport, TAT, which would one day become TWA. Ever the creative businessman, Keys hired Charles Lindbergh as an advisor, then named the route the "Lindbergh line." But for all the glamour, it was a humble beginning. Frustrated travelers often experienced long delays due to mechanical problems or bad weather. But soon the demand for passenger service would lead to the creation of bigger and safer planes. The most advanced was the Ford Trimotor, also known as "the flying boxcar." Made from corrugated aluminum and fitted with three "Wright whirlwind" engines, the Trimotor could stay aloft in conditions that would send older planes into a tailspin. Trimotor flights were regularly filled, carrying as many as ten passengers to cities and towns across America. Something remarkable had happened -- the age of the daredevil had given way to the age of the passenger.