Airplanes & Aviation in the 1920s

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about airplanes and aviation in the 1920s. Explore how aviation developed, and find out what kind of treatment flyers received. When you're finished, take the quiz to see what you've learned.

World War I

After the Wright brothers began flying in 1903, mechanics from Europe and the U.S. began experimenting with different designs. World War I was a boon for the pastime of aviation because every country at war realized how important airplanes could be. At first, planes got more stable and durable, but by the end of the war, they were being designed to fight against each other. They had become more maneuverable, could be fixed with mounted guns, and were faster than ever before.


Once World War I was over, several national governments sold their planes at low prices, so many pilots bought them and spent the 1920s barnstorming. That is, they would go from small town to small town, landing at a farm and showing off their piloting skills. Many times, they would allow passengers to fly with them, too. Because airplanes were new and dangerous, pilots were celebrities wherever they went.

It wasn't long before the barnstormers had organized themselves into airshows, where pilots would compete in races, acrobatic stunts, and even mock battles. The new competitions helped the pilots and mechanics to recognize the flaws in their own designs and learn from each other, helping them build even better aircraft even as they continued to make aviation a popular feature in the everyday lives of people across the U.S. and Europe.

Barnstorming also helped to popularize a few names. The biggest of the time was Amelia Earhart, who was as good or better than most of her male counterparts. Other famous women flyers included 'Pancho' Barnes, Georgia 'Tiny' Broderick, Mabel Cody (a niece of Buffalo Bill), and Bessie Coleman.

An example of barnstorming

Prize Winning and Record Breaking

Aviation enthusiasts also offered prizes for winning races. For people who were interested, the money and the competitions offered an ideal setting for learning what worked and what didn't and for earning the money to improve their own designs.

Other flyers focused on endurance tests. The first trans-Atlantic flight had been made in 1919, but Charles Lindbergh was the first to do it solo, in 1927. Sir Charles Kingford Smith and his crew were the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean from California to Australia in 1928. The next year, they were the first to circumnavigate globe.

Charles Lindbergh in front of the Spirit of Saint Louis, the plane he flew from New York to Paris
Charles Lindbergh

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