Airline Expansion and Innovation (1927 - 1941)

Aviation Becomes Big Business

Charles Lindbergh's historic 1927 transatlantic flight and a stock market boom spurred investor interest in aviation. An intense period of industry-wide mergers and consolidation followed.

Four large aviation holding companies soon arose. William Boeing and Frederick Rentschler of Pratt & Whitney formed the first and the largest, United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. Clement Keys formed North American Aviation and the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. Aerial photography pioneer Sherman Fairchild, Averill Harriman, and Robert Lehman created The Aviation Corporation (AVCO).
While these consolidations promised greater efficiency, airlines remained unprofitable without government help.

"The United States covers a large area and it is inevitable that the most obvious routes will be controlled by great corporations."
-Aviation magazine


Boeing System Label
National Air and Space Museum Archives


Aircraft builder William Boeing, Philip Johnson, Claire Egtvedt, and Eddie Hubbard created Boeing Air Transport (B.A.T.) in 1927 to fly the mail from Chicago to San Francisco. B.A.T. was so successful that it acquired Pacific Air Transport. By 1931 these two airlines, along with Varney Air Lines and National Air Transport, were operating as United Air Lines.

Charles Lindbergh
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Who Was Lindbergh?

Charles Lindbergh gained instant celebrity when he became the first person to fly alone nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927 in his Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis (on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall). He was the hero of the day-every child in the country knew his name.
The "Lindbergh boom" in aviation followed: aircraft industry stocks rose in value, and interest in flying skyrocketed. Lindbergh's subsequent U.S. publicity tour demonstrated the airplane's potential as a safe, reliable form of transportation.
Lindbergh used his fame to promote the expansion of commercial aviation. Transcontinental Air Transport hired him to help select T.A.T.'s aircraft, routes, systems, and equipment. He also advised Pan American Airways and was instrumental in its expansion.

Pratt & Whitney Engine
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Pratt & Whitney Wasp

When Wright Aeronautical refused to further develop its successful J-5 engine, its president Frederick Rentschler, chief designer George Mead, and chief engineer Andrew Willgoos left the company to build their own high-performance, air-cooled radial. Working in the defunct Pratt & Whitney tool company building in Hartford, Connecticut, they created the Wasp.
Reliable and efficient, the 425-horsepower, nine-cylinder, air-cooled Wasp became the preferred engine for many military and commercial aircraft, including the Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor and the Boeing 40A. The engine displayed here was the first Wasp built.
Transferred from the U.S. Navy, Bureau of Aeronautics
Type: Air-cooled radial
Cylinders: 9
Displacement: 22.2 L (1,344 cu in)
Power: 425 hp at 1,900 rpm
Weight: 295 kg (650 lb)
Manufacturer: Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Co., Hartford, Conn.


Boeing 40B
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Boeing 40B

Powered by Pratt & Whitney's Wasp engine, the Boeing 40A could carry two passengers. Thanks to the biplane's large payload capacity and low operating costs, Boeing Air Transport won the coveted air mail route from Chicago to San Francisco in 1927 and operated the route at a profit.

Boeing developed a larger version of the aircraft, the Boeing 40B, which could carry 4,400 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of mail and four passengers. The pilot flew the airplane from an open cockpit behind the passenger compartment.
Gift of David M. Shipton

Aviation: The Air Mail Game
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

"Aviation: The Air Mail Game"

In 1929, Parker Brothers introduced "Aviation: The Air Mail Game" to exploit growing public interest in commercial aviation. The game challenged 2 to 4 players to deliver the mail to 12 cities between Boston and San Francisco. Red cards determined destinations, and blue cards determined flight conditions. Good weather sped up the mail; bad weather or engine problems delayed it.

To capitalize on the public's infatuation with Charles Lindbergh, the airplane depicted on each card was his Spirit of St. Louis, even though the Spirit never flew the mail.
Gift of Anne M. van der Linden and Gregory George-Adis