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Lessons on Early Aviation with Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman paved the way as the first black and Native American woman to earn a pilot's license in 1921. What was flying like back then?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #274

Another challenge in regards to the weight of an aircraft is the heaviness of its fuel. According to my friend and aviation expert, Greg Worley, whose job is to design aircraft, every pound of fuel added requires more (weighted) structure which then requires more fuel. “It’s called a weight spiral and can kill an aircraft design.”

Charles Lindbergh made his historical 33.5-hour flight across the Atlantic—the first transcontinental nonstop airplane flight—solo because he opted to carry more fuel instead a navigator. Amelia Earhart is thought to have run out of gas while searching for a landing spot, causing her to crash into the open ocean, although confirmed wreckage from her plane Electra has yet to be found.

Early pilots had to navigate their flights without, of course, the help of a GPS. This made tracking precise locations along with changing weather conditions and wind patterns difficult, and mid-air collisions even occurred. In the US, the federal government did not become responsible for establishing airways and flight navigation (not to mention flight safety rules) until the Air Commerce Act was passed by Congress in 1926.

The federal government did not become responsible for establishing airways and flight navigation until the Air Commerce Act in 1926.

We often grumble today about the standard commercial flight experience with its lack of leg room, shoulder room, or tasty food. But flights today are luxurious compared to what passengers experienced in the 1920s and '30s. Early passenger flights had to navigate around mountains, could not fly at night and frequently had to land to refuel. One of the earliest commercial flight routes across the continental United States took 20-30 hours and it was often still faster to travel across the country by train. Passengers sometimes wore goggles and even helmets, along with ear plugs to drown out the deafening sound of the rattling, uninsulated metal that surrounded them. Before cabins were pressurized in the late 1930s, passengers also had to chew gum to keep their ears from popping.

The plane crash that ultimately took Coleman’s life was thought to be caused when a wrench left by the plane’s mechanic (and fellow pilot who also died in the crash) became stuck in the control gears. Coleman, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the plane just before it crashed.

Audiences of all races admired Coleman for her skill as a pilot, but she served as a particularly important role model for the African and Native American communities. As noted by Lieutenant William J. Powell, another black pilot in the early era of aviation and founder of the Bessie Coleman Flying Club in Los Angeles, “Because of Bessie Coleman we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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