Air Travel

The Sky's the Limit

For thousands of years humans gazed in wonder at the birds in the air and dreamed of flying. As early as the 1400s inventors were studying birds and experimenting—trying to learn how man could fly. Some fools—and a few geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci—thought that people would one day build wings. 

In 1783 two Frenchmen who had noticed that smoke always rises decided to see if smoke could lift a balloon into the air. Their experiment was a success. They soon learned, however, that it was not the smoke but the hot air that caused the balloon to rise. (Hot air rises because it is lighter than the cold air around it.) When the air in the bag cooled, the balloon came down.

Not long before this time the gas called hydrogen had been discovered. Scientists knew it was lighter than air and decided to use it in a balloon. Using hydrogen, which does not cool off, a balloonist could stay up longer; but he had to be careful because hydrogen is extremely flammable.

So the first people to fly were lifted in baskets hung from huge balloons filled with hot air. Once up in their baskets, balloonists found they couldn't fly where they wanted. They could only go where the wind took them. Ballooning was good sport, but no good for transportation.

The Dirigible

Travel by balloon improved in 1900, when a French scientist put one of the newly invented gasoline engines on a cigar-shaped balloon. He then attached a propeller to the rear of the balloon and a rudder to control the direction. This kind of air ship was called a "dirigible". The dirigible was popular, especially in Europe. For a while people thought this a fine and very modern way to travel.

A New Bird in the Sky

Even as balloons and dirigibles floated through the skies, there were some inventors who had given up the study of birds. They believed that the future of manned flight depended on heavier-than-air machines. These people studied aerodynamics and built and flew gliders. After the invention of the gasoline engine, they began designing gliders for powered flight. In 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright tested a powered glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It flew 12 seconds carrying Orville and then 59 seconds with Wilbur.

The Wright brothers had proved that a powered flying machine was possible. Not long after the Wright brothers' first flights, other inventors completed and flew machines. Aeroplane builders seemed to pop up everywhere. In shops and barns across the country, flying machines were being built and flown. How flimsy these early aircrafts were—made of wood, wire and cloth!


As more people began to fly, a spirit of competition developed among flyers. As soon as a record was set, someone was up in the air trying to break it, pushing the flimsy machine to fly higher, faster or further. By 1910 both Glenn Curtiss, a New York bicycle manufacturer, and the Wright brothers had organized air show exhibition teams.

Billy Robinson of Grinnell, Iowa, flew with the Wright Company and Eugene Ely of Davenport, Iowa, performed with the Curtiss group. These daredevil exhibitions were a big attraction at state and county fairs.

World War I Changes Flying

When World War I came, flying changed. When the war began in 1914, powered air flight was only 11 years old. The flying machines of 1914 were not designed for war. They were slow. They could not make sharp turns, nor could they carry heavy loads. They did not go very far on a tank of gas either! But countries at war wanted to use aeroplanes, so improvements were made rapidly. By the end of the war aeroplanes traveled faster (135 to 150 miles per hour), carried two people with guns and ammunition, and went longer distances.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, the Army and Navy did not own many aeroplanes. The government bought French and English planes for its flyers to use, while Americans got busy manufacturing their own. But by the time these planes were built, the war was already over. The government no longer needed them, so it put the planes up for sale.


After the war, more people than ever before were interested in flying. Some flyers made a living by "barnstorming." Barnstorming meant going from town to town giving exhibitions of stunt flying. Barnstormers also gave people rides for a dollar a minute.

A more important result of World War I was that people realized the usefulness of aeroplanes. Design improvements during the war made it possible for planes to carry cargo and passengers. Businesses sprang up, started by flyers ready and willing to carry people or goods from one place to another. Small shop and barnyard builders became aircraft manufacturers.

Aviation Growth in Iowa

At first planes flew only during daylight hours and on short flights between cities. But in 1924 after the first lighted transcontinental airway was completed, work began on more airways. Soon airplanes could travel in almost any direction over well-marked routes.

All over Iowa, cities built airports and runways, hoping to attract mail and airline passenger service. By 1929 eight Iowa cities were on a regularly scheduled passenger service route and 49 airports had been built. Some had crushed-rock runways, a great improvement over the mowed-grass landing fields that became soggy and unusable in wet weather.

World War II led to more progress in aviation. Once again airplanes were redesigned to be used in war. These planes held more, traveled faster, and could fly longer distances before stopping to refuel. Toward the end of the war a few jet-powered aircraft had joined the propeller-driven warplanes in the skies.

After the war the cost of air travel dropped. As air fares came close to those of railroads, more and more people chose to fly. By 1958 quiet, fast jet-powered airliners were used for passenger service making air travel even more popular.

The air cargo business grew after the war too. Manufactured goods could be flown in and out of the state. Fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers appeared in Iowa markets in all seasons.

Iowans quickly found many uses for airplanes. Farmers took to the air for both pleasure and business. Flying from landing strips on their farms, farmers could quickly make long trips to livestock and grain markets or pick up a part to repair farm machinery. In the fields aerial crop dusting and spraying became a method of insect control.

Aerial photography was another use for airplanes. Photos of the ground helped in the study and prevention of soil erosion. Photographs were also used to make accurate maps.

Today aircraft are so much a part of our lives that we take them for granted. Huge jets cross the country carrying goods, passengers and mail. Smaller airplanes zip over Iowa carrying people, checking for soil erosion, or photographing an area to be mapped. Helicopters rush emergency patients to the hospital or hover over cities broadcasting traffic reports.

In the 21st century humans no longer look at birds in the sky and dream of flying. Flying is an everyday occurrence. Iowa and Iowans have contributed to the changes that have occurred in flight history. Today it's not unusual to see a runway in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. Many small cities throughout the state have small airports. The major Iowa cities are destinations for major domestic and international airlines. 


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, “Air Travel,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 1 (September 1980): 2.
  • Iowa Department of Transportation. Iowa in Motion 2045: State Transportation Plan. Des Moines, Iowa, 2009. Accessed December 13, 2016.