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    102: America by Air

America by Air (Gallery 102)

Covering roughly the same 1919 to 1939 time period as The Golden Age of Flight, this gallery focuses on the development of aircraft for America’s commercial air service. The surprising thing about this era’s progress is that it was largely spurred by a visionary U.S. Postmaster General, Walter Brown.

Up until around 1930, commercial airline revenue came mostly from transporting mail for the U.S. Post Office. Some airlines configured their mail-carrying planes to fit a few passengers, but for the most part, the mail made the money. Airlines got paid by the weight of the mail they delivered, and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that many airlines charged the government large fees just to shuttle loads of junk mail between cities.

That changed in 1930, when Congress passed legislation giving the Postmaster General more control over airmail rates and routes. In particular, the legislation specified that airlines would be paid for the volume of mail their planes could carry, not the weight. To be profitable, airlines had to build larger planes to handle bulkier boxes, and the airlines quickly realized that larger planes made more money flying passengers than packages. Walter Brown also consolidated the Post Office’s mail routes to only three airlines (United, American, and TWA), giving them the economies of scale needed to justify large investment in new aircraft.

With that, the early 1930’s saw the rapid development of larger, faster commercial airplanes for passenger service, plus supporting infrastructure such as airports and air-traffic control. These achievements are explained in various displays around the gallery. Don’t miss the walk-through section of the American Airlines DC-7, showing what the inside of a pre-WWII airliner looked like (we’re pretty sure airplane bathroom design hasn’t changed in 70 years), and the huge Airbus A320 simulator performing takeoffs and landings.

Important aircraft on display show the rapid transition from airmail to passenger service; several of the planes made the plane hanging next to them obsolete. Aircraft include:

Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing: Built in 1927, the PA-5 on display here shows the state of most commercial aviation in the U.S. at that time: the pilot flew in an open cockpit exposed to the weather; there was no room for passengers, but capacity for up to 500 pounds of mail. The PA-5 flew at a top speed of around 130 m.p.h.

Fairchild FC-2: Designed as a one-off, high-altitude airframe for Sherman Fairchild’s aerial photography business in the late 1920’s, the FC-2’s features, including an enclosed, heated cabin, large carrying capacity and flying range, and lots of windows, soon found commercial use in mail delivery and passenger service. The plane on display here could fit 4 passengers plus a pilot, and flew for Pan Am in South America. It had a top speed of 122 m.p.h. but a range of 700 miles.

Northrop 4A Alpha: This plane is the predecessor to the Northrop Gamma found in The Golden Age of Aviation gallery across the hall. The Alpha, like the Gamma, had all-metal construction. The Alpha is notable because its 1929 design introduced two features now found on virtually all commercial aircraft: wing fillets, the smooth, aerodynamic transition area where the wing meets the fuselage; and stressed-skin construction, which keeps the airplane’s wings and body rigid without heavy internal bracing.

The Alpha could carry up to 6 passengers, who managed to squeeze themselves into a small, enclosed cabin just behind the engine. (The Smithsonian delightfully describes this seating configuration as “cozy.” You decide.) The pilot, however, sat behind the wings in an open cockpit. That, coupled with the cramped passenger quarters, limited the Alpha’s potential.

Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor: In addition to automobiles, the Ford Motor Company tried its hand at making commercial airplanes between 1924 and 1936. Their most notable achievement was the Tri-Motor, made between 1927 and 1933. When it was introduced, the Tri-Motor was the largest passenger plane in the world, able to carry two pilots, a stewardess, and up to 10 passengers more than 500 miles. The Tri-Motor’s airframe was made entirely of metal, while most planes still used wood and canvas, and the plane could be flown with just 1 of its 3 engines running. Those 3 engines produced a whopping 120 decibels of noise, however, inside the plane. For comparison, that’s 10 decibels louder than sitting in the front row of a Van Halen concert.

Still, Ford’s manufacturing expertise with cars gave the Tri-Motor a reputation for being well built and durable. The public associated the Ford name with quality and safety, and this surely helped convince many to fly for the first time. More than a hundred airlines and services operated the Tri-Motor, well into the 1950’s. At handful of these planes are still flying, more than 80 years after being built. The one displayed here was flown by American Airlines in the 1930’s.

The Boeing 247-D: is the plane that ended production of the Ford Tri-Motor. It was based on the design of the B-9, a 2-engine, all-metal, prototype bomber that Boeing was developing for the U.S. military. Perhaps because of its military roots, the 247-D could fly 50% faster and 50% farther than the Ford Tri-Motor while carrying the same number of crew and passengers, and on 2 engines instead of 3. Besides speed and range, other 247-D advances included the use of a retractable landing gear, and cabin soundproofing and air-conditioning for passengers.

The airlines’ demand for the 247-D was so great that Boeing was unable to fulfill their orders when production started in 1933. That shortage led to the development of the last plane displayed in this gallery, the Douglas DC-3. The DC-3, in turn, quickly ended the production of the 247-D.

Douglas DC-3: Trans World Airlines was one of the companies that couldn’t get the 247-D. In mid-1933, TWA asked the Douglas Aircraft Company to design an alternative. The initial model, the DC-1, first flew in late 1933, and an improved revision, the DC-2, in early 1934. The third iteration, called the DC-3, first flew in late 1935 and would go on to become one of the most successful aircraft designs in history.

The DC-3 was larger, faster, and more refined than the 247-D, and proved to be a far more versatile airframe. It could be configured to hold 21 seated passengers, or, for overnight service, 14 in “sleeper” compartments. With a wider, taller cabin, the DC-3 set a new standard for passenger comfort. In fact, it was large enough that airlines started showing in-flight movies on longer routes.

More than 600 DC-3 planes were built for commercial airlines, but that number is dwarfed by the 10,000 variants built for the U.S. military through the end of World War II (plus an additional 5,400 built by Russia and Japan). Known as the C-47, the plane continued flying for the U.S. military into the 1980’s.

The DC-3/C-47 proved so rugged that thousands of used planes entered the post-war commercial market. With spares and parts readily available, hundreds are still flying today, including a few commercial airlines. The next time you’re in Yellowknife, Alaska, visit Buffalo Airways ( for a seat in one of their fleet of 8 DC-3s.

Touring Tips

It can take a lot of time to read each of the displays found in this large gallery; our summary above gives you the general background for most. The “What Makes an Airliner ‘Modern’” and Pan Am Clipper displays are worth a longer look.

In between the America by Air and Milestones of Flight galleries is a scale model of the Hindenburg airship.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum