Airline Expansion and Innovation (1927 - 1941)

"The airplanes smell of hot oil and simmering aluminum, disinfectant, feces, leather, and puke...the stewardesses, short-tempered and reeking of vomit, come forward as often as they can for what is a breath of comparatively fresh air."

-Ernest K. Gann, an early commercial pilot

What Was It Like to Fly?

What was it like to fly?
National Air and Space Museum Archives


Passengers Boarding Tri-Motor
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Despite the airlines' cheerful advertising, early air travel was far from comfortable. It was expensive too.

Flying was loud, cold, and unsettling. Airliners were not pressurized, so they flew at low altitudes and were often bounced about by wind and weather. Air sickness was common. Airlines provided many amenities to ease passenger stress, but air travel remained a rigorous adventure well into the 1940s.

Flying was also something only business travelers or the wealthy could afford. But despite the expense and discomforts, each year commercial aviation attracted thousands of new passengers willing to sample the advantages and adventure of flight.

Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum


Noise was a problem in early airliners. To communicate with passengers, cabin crew often had to resort to speaking through small megaphones to be heard above the din of the engines and the wind. The noise in a typical Ford Tri-Motor during takeoff was nearly 120 decibels, loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss.
Gift of Col. William B. Mozey Jr.

How Noisy Was It?

Normal conversation: 60 dB
Busy street traffic: 70 dB
Vacuum cleaner: 80 dB
Personal radio with headphones: 100 dB
at maximum volume
Front rows of rock concert: 110 dB
Ford Tri-Motor during takeoff: 120 dB
Threshold of pain: 130 dB
Military jet takeoff: 140 dB
Instant perforation of eardrum: 160 dB

Tri-Motor Interior
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Would You Ride on a Tri-Motor?

Look at the picture of passengers on a Tri-Motor. This photo was probably used to promote air travel.

  • What clues suggest that the photograph was staged?
  • How comfortable do you think it was to fly on a
Why do Your Ears Hurt?
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Why Do Your Ears Hurt?

Your ears pop during takeoff and landing because of tiny tubes, full of air, that connect your ears to your throat. Air pressure changes during ascent and descent cause pressure differences within your head, and those tubes become blocked. When you yawn or swallow, you open the tubes and equalize the pressure. Chewing gum helps you generate saliva to swallow, but you don't really need the gum at all!