A History of Night Flying, Part One: 1910-1941

Early aircraft at an air meet in Los Angeles, Jan. 1910.

This is the first in a series of blog posts I’d like to share about the history of night flying. This series is by no means a comprehensive or authoritative history of aviation at night, but rather some insights from history about milestones and technological developements in the world of aviation that have made nighttime flights as we know them possible. Without further adieu, here goes:

Nighttime flights are one of the many things we take for granted in our modern world. If we need to book an emergency flight from New York to London or vice versa, we can do that and be in either location in a matter of hours. A century ago, flying at night was not possible. It was only made possible by daredevil aviators who flew by the seat of their pants with virtually no equipment to guide them and very primitive planes that were manufactured less than a decade after the Wright Brothers made the world first flight!

The World’s First Night Flight
The world’s very first night flight is a subject of debate. According to numerous Internet sources, the world’s first night flight took place in March 1910, when French aviator Emil Aubrun flew through the night sky in a Blériot XI monoplane from Villalugano, Argentina.  However, it’s also possible that British aviator Claude Grahame-White may have made the first night flight a little over a month later when he flew from London to Manchester, UK during the Daily Mail air race in the wee hours of April 23rd. Not wanting to be beaten by his opponent, French aviator Louis Paulhan. Grahame-White flew the journey guided at first by the car lights of his party below and finished using the lights of railway stations along the way to guide him to Manchester. Ultimately he lost the race to Paulhan, but remained proud of the historical achievement he achieved while trying to win the race! Despite the debate over who made the first night flight, one thing is for certain: Whoever made that first night flight was one of those daredevil aviators of the early 20th century who were daring and sometimes a little on the wild and dangerous side with their “flying machines!”

Both of these events happened a little over five months before the first air-to-ground radio transmissions took place between an airplane and a radio operator on the ground. This was yet another milestone in nighttime flying that occured in 1910.

Night Flying During World War I
During World War I, British and later American biplanes made nighttime flights to monitor German U-boat activity in the Atlantic. U-boats prowled the oceans at night and these night attacks on Allied warships and shipping made aerial night observation and sorties a must. Allied warplanes often flew night missions over German trenches and field positions, dropping bombs on the enemy soldiers below. Most importantly of all, British planes flew over the skies of Britain at night and shot down German Zeppelins and bombers that attempted to attack Britain by air. Germany’s Zeppelin fleet suffered a devastating blow at the hands of the British RAAF, losing 79 of the 123 Zeppelins built by the German armed forces for the war. The air war over Britain during World War I set the stage for the much more devastating and crucial air war that Germany would launch over 20 years later during World War II.

The “Air Jockeys”
While the world below them heated up and finally exploded at Sarajevo in 1914, the pioneering aviators aka “air jockeys” continued to set nighttime flying records around the globe. On February 11, 1911, French aviator Robert Grandseigne became the first aviator to fly over Paris at night when he flew his Caudron biplane equipped with electric lights over the city. On July 23rd, 1913, H.W. Blakeley became the first pilot to fly through Canadian airspace at night when he flew his biplane, equipped with electric lights on the wings, over the Dominion Livestock Show and Fair in Brandon, MB where bonfires guided the way to and from the air. In 1916, American aviator Art Smith went on his first tour of Asia and supposedly became the first aviator to fly over Japan at night. While Smith made his flight over Aoyama and Akasuka-Mitsuke, hundreds of spectators, including members of the Japanese royal family, Japanese Imperial armed forces, and foreign dignitaries, watched below. Fireworks exploded in the night sky as Smith landed his plane and he was surrounded by cheering crowds as he made his way back to his hotel that night.

The first successful nighttime air mail run in the USA was made on February 22nd, 1921 by an American pilot named Jack Knight. Knight flew his de Havilland from North Platte to Omaha, NE on an icy, snowy February night with the way to Omaha lit by bonfires below him by local farmers. Knight was one of several pilots who attempted this nighttime mail run on behalf of the US Postal Service and was the only one who succeeded.

USPS airmail planes at the airmail field in Omaha, NE in 1927.

Rough Flying
During the early 20th century, flying at night was not exactly cozy, comfortable, or safe. Throughout the 1910s, air to ground radio communications were in their infancy and as a result, there was no way for airfields to relay the latest weather conditions to the pilots up in the air during that time. Instruments were not available for measuring the latest wind or weather conditions or calculating distances. Pilots had to fly on sheer luck and knowledge of the terrain below. Also, ice had a tendency to build up on airplane carburetors and caused them to crash. Over the course of the 1920s, many of these problems were fixed. Engineers created heaters that kept the airplane’s carburetors running warm during the course of the flight. Radio technology matured to the point where radios could be installed in planes and communication between pilots and airfields became instantaneous. Most importantly of all, numerous airfields started popping up across the globe that allowed planes to refuel and make long-distance flights. These airfields were essential for guiding pilots through bad weather during the night and guiding them safely to an airfield when visibility was bad.

As you can imagine, the first night flights could be extremely cold for the crew, especially in the wintertime. Pilots flying in the cockpits of WWI-era biplanes were completely exposed to the frigid night air and had to bundle up very nicely to stay warm! Over time during the 1920s, engineers found a way to heat the cabin and cockpit of an airplane by piping heat from the engine into the plane. After this innovation was added to planes, flying by night became extremely comfortable! This also made it increasingly possible for night flights to start carrying not only cargo and mail, but passengers as well.

According to an April 1922 issue of Aerial Age Weekly, the first nighttime flight from the UK to the Continental Air Route established across continental Europe occured that spring when a British Air Ministry plane took off from Croydon Aerodrome at 9:20 pm, landed at the aerodrome in St. Inglevert, France (with a quick stop at Lympne, Kent along the way), and returned to Croydon at 11:30 pm. However, that plane carried a couple of Air Ministry personnel who handled wireless communication and lighting as well as the crew of the plane itself. There were no civilians aboard.

The First Nighttime Air Passenger Services
In Camille Allaz’s 2005 book The History of Cargo and Air Mail from the 18th Century, credit for the world’s first regular nighttime civilian air passenger service goes to Deutsche Post. On May 1st, 1926, this nighttime air mail service route opened in Germany between Berlin and the then-German enclave of Königsberg, or what’s now the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. This service carried both mail and passengers.

During this same year, the newly-formed German airline company, Deutschen Luft Hansa, began a nightly air service from Tempelhof Airfield in Berlin to Moscow via the Königsberg route.

Another Nighttime Aviation Record
On the night of April 16-17, 1927, the Portugese aviator José Manuel Sarmento de Beires made history when he made the world’s first aerial nighttime trans-Atlantic crossing. Sarmento de Beires’ flight started in Bolama, Portugese Guinea at 6:08 pm on the 16th. Sarmento de Beires and his crew of two made the flight in a Portugese Army Aviation Dornier Do J Wal seaplane named the Argos. After a dramatic nighttime flight that saw the Argos experience engine trouble and make a landing on the Rocks of St. Peter and St. Paul, it finally made it to Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha Island at 12:20 pm on the 17th. Sarmento de Beires and his crew made this accomplishment at a time when the race to conquer the south Atlantic by air was at its most intense and the seeds were being planted for the era of traveling across continents by air.

Sarmento do Beires’s flight came just one month exactly before the most famous trans-Atlantic night flight of them all: The first non-stop flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris by American aviator Charles Lindbergh in his monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis.

The Take-Off of Night Flights
Nineteen thirty was a very important year for night flying in the USA, and night flying in general. This was the year when the first American nocturnal passengers took their first flight. Also in 1930, night flights became a lot safer when the world’s first electrical runway lights were installed and activated at the Cleveland Municipal Airport (now known as Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport) in Cleveland, OH, USA. Until that point in time, airplanes used other means of lighting the runway below when landing such as spotlights attached to the wings and flares thrown from the cockpit.

A year later, nighttime flying made its way into the world of literature when the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published his novel Vol de Nuit, or Night Flight in English. This novel was based on Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an airmail pilot who flew by the seat of his pants through the night skies and as a director of the Aeroposta Argentina airline. This book was adapted into the 1933 movie Night Flight starring Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, John Barrymore, and Lionel Barrymore.

Throughout the 1930s, nighttime flying became more and more routine as air routes became established between countries throughout the world as well as the European colonies in Africa and Asia. Major airlines such as Pan-American and Britain’s Imperial Airways made sure that passengers, especially first-class passengers who flew at night, had as many of the same creature comforts that passengers on trains on the ground below had. Many of the more luxurious planes such as Pan-Am’s Clippers, the Douglas Sleeper Transport, and the British “Empire” flying boats, had beds in the cabins and even smoking lounges! Electrical lighting made flying the most comfortable it had ever been. During this period of time, passenger and cargo planes were not pressurized like they are today and were much smaller than today’s passenger jets. Most could hold 20-35 passengers at the most and flew at fairly low altitudes.

Flying by night – or at least flying by night in America – became even more comfortable beginning in 1935. According to an article from the August issue of Flying Magazine from that year, Central Airlines (an airline that flew daily and nightly flights between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh) proposed that movies, or “talking pictures” as they were also called then, be shown during night flights! At the time there was widespread opposition from airline executives because the plane’s roaring engines would drown out the movie’s audio track. As for showing movies during daytime flights, that was not done because sunlight shining through the cabin windows would interfere with the picture. After Central Airlines demonstrated that movies were perfectly watchable during night flights to a committee composed of airline, transportation, and military executives plus some Congressmen (ironically enough, the movie Devil Dogs of the Air was the movie selected to be shown), their proposal received widespread enthusiasm and afterwards, movies became a routine feature of nighttime flights.

The two drawbacks to flying during this period of the time were the length of time it took to reach a destination, as well as the cost for tickets. Passengers could expect to pay a princely sum to fly on an airliners, especially one of the more luxurious ones! Also, since these planes flew at a maximum speed of around 250 mph, a plane could take days or even a week (or sometimes longer than that) to reach an international destination!

An airway beacon dating from 1929 in St. Paul, MN.

American Airway Beacons
One very important innovation in aviation was the system of airway beacons that was developed in the US during the 1920s and 1930s. These beacons were electric spotlights mounted on towers that were installed on mountainsides and in wilderness areas. The beacons were inspired by the lighthouses along coastal areas, which also guide planes and ships to safety during the night hours. Like lighthouses, airway beacons lit the way at night and guided planes to their destination when radio contact might be minimal or non-existent due to distance, bad weather, etc. Prior to this national network, volunteers often lit bonfires in remote or rural areas to guide planes to the nearest airfields. As navigational technology improved and planes began to rely on radar and computers to guide the way, this network of beacons was phased out and dismantled across the US. However, it was preserved in the state of Montana and is still in existence today, guiding planes during the night as it has for over nine decades now.

As the age of air travel was ushered in during the 1930s, the need for “air jockeys” to traverse the skies and set new records vanished. Some aviators such as Jack Knight became airline or military pilots and became legendary in a whole new way. Some contined to fly well into the era of DC-3s and 707s. One thing is for sure: These air jockeys gradually paved the way for international flights and long-distance flying, as well as nighttime flying.

Please click here for part two of this series, where I explore night flying during the World War II years with all of you out there! If you’d rather fast forward a few years to night flying during the Jet Age, you can read more about this subject in part three of the series.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1910_London_to_Manchester_air_race (Wikipedia entry about the Daily Mail London to Manchester air race of 1910.)
http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/so00/aviation_history.asp (A history of aviation in Canada from the Sept-Oct. 2000 issue of Canadian Geographic.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Smith_(pilot) (Art Smith Wikipedia entry.)
http://flatrock.org.nz/topics/flying/seventy_five_years.htm (A webpage about Jack Knight’s historic nighttime air mail run.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarmento_de_Beires (The Sarmento de Beires transatlantic flight at Wikipedia.)
http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/AAF-Night/ (Conquering the Night: US Army Air Forces Night Fighters at War by Stephen L. McFarland/Air Forces History and Museum Program, 1998.)
-http://www.navfltsm.addr.com/howitbegan.htm (Website dedicated to the history of the US airway beacon system.)
http://www.ronaldv.nl/abandoned/airfields/ge/Berlin/index.html#Tempelhof (Page at the Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields website about the history of Tempelhof Airport.)
http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/what-international-air-travel-was-like-in-the-1930s-1471258414 (Interesting article about what air travel was like during the 1930s.)

-Abbatiello, John. Anti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats. London: Routledge, 2006, pgs. 26-27.
-Allaz, Camille. The History of Air Cargo and Airmail from the 18th Century. London: Christopher Foyle Publishing, 2005.
-Roberts, Rachel Sherwood. Art Smith: Pioneer Aviator. Jefferson: McFarland and Co, Inc. Publishers, 2003,  pgs. 111-112.
-Villard, Henry Serrano. Contact! The Story of the Early Aviators. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003, pg. 127.
-Huking, Harry W. Night Fliers at 10,000 Feet Hurdle the Rockies. Popular Science  8.3 (1931): pgs. 32-33; 113.
-Lynn, Bert D. Britain’s Aerial Ocean Liner. Popular Aviation 1.5 (1937): pgs. 19-20.
Movies on the Airlines. Popular Aviation 8.9 (1935): pg. 92.
Night Flight Croydon to Lympne. Aerial Age Weekly 15.10 (1922): pg. 183.

-Dominguez Field Air Meet 1910 pic: Wikimedia Commons.
-Omaha airmail planes: Smithsonian Institution/Flickr Commons.
-Indian Mounds State Park airwaybeacon: McGhiever.
*All pics used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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