Without mathematics, the dream of flight for the masses would have come crashing down to Earth.
In September 1929 a series of experimental aircraft took part in trials at a military air base twenty miles east of Manhattan. At stake was the future of the civil aviation industry, which would only get off the ground if passengers believed aircraft were safe to use.
The birth of civil aviation
Civil aviation in the UK dates from the end of the First World War (1914–18) when the first civil airlines were set up based on military aircraft.
However potential passengers could not shake off the image of aircraft as military weapons – vital in times of war, yet unsafe and unreliable in peacetime.
A decade later, in 1928, an American magazine commented, ‘Now that the days of wonder at airplanes are past, now that we send an air-mail letter for a dime, purchase a pleasure ride for a dollar or two, and expect airplanes to hop off for foreign ports daily, the principal question about flying is: “Are airplanes safe?”’
Mathematicians and the aviation industry
Aviation had been a popular employer for Britain’s top mathematicians since the First World War. They were trained in aerodynamics and structural stress at places such as Imperial College London and Cambridge University.
One, Letitia Chitty, had read mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, before working for the Admiralty Air Department.
After the war ended, she moved briefly to the Bristol Aeroplane Company before starting a career at Imperial College as a mathematician and civil engineer.
During the 1920s, aircraft manufacturers around the world realised they needed a better understanding of aerodynamics and stress in order to build aircraft that flew safely. Aviation had always been a highly pressured industry and in peacetime more lives than ever were at stake.
Are aircraft safe?
At the heart of aviation research was collaboration between engineers and mathematicians, as both professions worked to understand the complex airflow around aircraft and the forces acting on their structures.
This research needed financial investment. In 1926, the American industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim responded by founding his ‘Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics’ to promote education, develop commercial aircraft and contribute to aviation science.
His endowment totalled more than $2.5 million in 1920s money.
Frederick Handley Page
One aircraft manufacturer quick to take advantage of Daniel Guggenheim’s investment in aeronautical research was Frederick Handley Page.
By 1909, Handley Page had flown trial aircraft over marshland near Barking in the UK. During the First World War, he remained a hands-on mathematician as his firm expanded rapidly, often working overnight to check the stress calculations for new components.
According to his biographer, Handley Page was ‘an avid reader with a photographic memory and a strong sense of mathematical logic’ who intuitively understood the mathematical basis for flight.
After the war ended, his firm rapidly diversified into civil aviation.
The Safe Aircraft Competition
In 1927, as part of his philanthropic investment project, Daniel Guggenheim mounted a first prize of $100,000. It would be awarded to an aircraft that could fly safely, even at slow speeds and during steep takeoffs and landings when there was the greatest risk of stalling and crashing.
Two years later, only two aeroplanes made it to the competition final. One was by the American firm Curtiss, and the other was an entry by Handley Page known as the ‘Gugnunc’ after a popular Daily Mirror cartoon catchphrase of the time.
‘The greatest advance in airplane design since the Wright Brothers’
At the heart of both finalists in the safe aircraft competition was the slotted wing. This development, designed by Frederick Handley Page, involved an adjustable mini-wing on the front edge of the main wings together with a flap on the rear edge.
These slots and flaps controlled the potentially catastrophic breakdown of airflow that occurred in slow-speed stall conditions, the most dangerous situation in flying. Commentators at the time described the system as ‘the greatest advance in airplane design since the Wright brothers flew’.
In the end, Handley-Page’s competitor, Curtiss, won Guggenheim’s first prize of $100,000, with Handley Page coming a close second.
Crucially, the Guggenheim fund had stimulated a wave of engineering and mathematical innovation and research in the aviation industry as it struggled to convince a sceptical public that flying was safe.
With slotted wings and other technical developments – many of which underpin today’s aircraft design – flying became a viable option for the public and the seeds of a global industry had been sown.
Header image: People boarding a Boeing 707C aeroplane to Canada, 19 May 1969 © Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society Picture Library