Ever since the first passenger was taken up in the air in 1908 safety has been a major concern of those involved in flying, building and riding airplanes. There have already been seven airline crashes in the U.S. this year, most notably the accident involving Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport on July 7th—the first fatal crash involving a major airline in North America since 2001. In July 1929 Scientific American was lucky enough to have one of the most renowned pilots of the day write an article for the magazine, titled “Is Flying Safe?” The pilot was Lady Mary Heath of Ireland, the first woman to hold a commercial flying license in Britain, first woman to parachute from a plane and first pilot to fly a small open cockpit plane from Cape Town, South Africa, to London.
An athlete her whole life, Heath was Britain’s first female javelin champion and was a delegate to the 1925 Olympic Council. She received her commercial pilot’s license in 1926 and was well known for her aviation accomplishments in Europe and America. At the time of the article, flying had become very popular. Heath stated that well-trained pilots and construction standards were, in her opinion, the most important factors of airline safety. In Britain hundreds of men and women were graduating as pilots of light airplanes and had to have at least 10 hours of instruction before they were allowed to go up. In the first six months of 1928, 45,000 flights were made by British pilots with no injuries reported.
Heath directed her concerns and suggestions for safe flying to the American aviation crowd because she believed the U.S. had the fastest developing commercial airline industry. The first regularly scheduled passenger airline in the U.S., Stout Air Services, had already been in business since 1925, and passenger safety was a big concern. A numbered safety factor was given to flying machines, with zero representing a plane with the minimal safety requirements. According to the author, in Britain all commercial planes had to have a safety factor of at least 7. Heath had the opportunity to tour an American airplane factory, which produced planes with a safety factor as high as 10. To achieve this, the unnamed factory had all materials checked and examined by hand before they were assembled into larger components. All parts were then checked again and stamped, and a final look-over was given before a pilot was allowed to fly the plane. Heath believed a well-designed airplane should have been able to fly almost on its own. In a conversation with “Madame Florman” of the “famous Swedish construction company” (which refers to AB Areotransport, founded by her brothers Adrian and Carl Florman and made famous for contracting with German airplane manufacturer “Junkers”) Ms. Florman explained that “In good weather they would set their big Junkers on its course and on an even keel. Then they would make up a foursome of bridge in the cabin, leaving only one person in the pilot’s cockpit to watch for any alteration of drift or possible changes in external or internal conditions.”
Heath’s article explains some of the inventions that were being used to help improve the safety and reliability of flights. She shared her experience getting to interact with Juan La Cierva’s invention, the Autogyro. This innovative machine used four freely rotating blades rather than wings, “like a horizontal windmill”. This allowed the machine to be able to land slowly on steep paths, a problem for most contemporary flying machines. She found that the “Handley-Page Automatic Slot”, which helped prevent planes from nosedives, to be most interesting. The “slot” was a metal strip that was fitted to the curve along the front-edge of the wings. If the plane slowed for any reason, the metal strip would swing out on its hinges and help re-create the airflow over the wing surface, helping the plane stay balanced and controlled. This would helpfully allow the pilot to land the plane on an even-keel rather than suffer the consequences of a nosedive.
Of course, it would take more than a well-built airplane to prevent accidents from occurring. Heath stressed the importance of an educated and efficient pilot, and noted that in Britain at the time pilots flying airmail or passenger planes had to prove to be as fit as Olympians. A preliminary exam took several hours and included tests for sight, hearing, sensitivity, habits and family history as far back as four generations. Pilots were retested every six months. In addition to their physical condition, pilots also had to be efficient in meteorology, mechanics, navigation and air etiquette. A pilot had to possess a long and safe flying record before insurance companies would allow an airline to hire him or her.
On April 17, 1929, Lady Mary Heath began a flying tour of the U.S, departing from Pine Brook Airport in New Jersey and making several short stops on the way to the west coast, visiting various schools and flying clubs. Although she flew in a plane with all the latest safety innovations, including the Handley-Page Automatic Slot, an accident occurred along the way on May 2, forcing her to make an emergency landing in Effingham, Ill. After repairs were made to the plane she was able to continue her journey. She would not, however, be so lucky a few months later at the National Air Races in Cleveland. On August 29, 1929, (only a month after her Scientific American article appeared) Lady Mary Heath crashed her plane into a roof while practicing a dead-stick landing—which originally got its name from when an engine had been cut and the plane would be without power, essentially turning the propeller into a “dead stick”. Now, it can refer to any kind of landing made without power where the pilot must glide the plane to land. While careening toward a landing mark on the ground, the plane suddenly dropped and she had no way of reestablishing altitude in time. According to the Fresno Bee from the same day, she suffered a fractured skull, broken nose and internal injuries; the newspaper also reported recovery was unlikely. Although she did survive, the accident essentially ended her aviation career. Ten years later she died after falling from a tramcar in London.
The first civil aviation laws were passed in the U.S. in the 1920s, including the 1926 Air Commerce Act, which required pilots and aircrafts to be licensed and examined, the investigation of accidents, and the establishment of safety rules and navigation aids. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that flying is the safest it has been since the introduction of jet planes. Clearly, accidents do still occur. Asiana Flight 214 is still being investigated, and officials have identified pilot error as a very possible cause. Although so many advances have been made in engineering aircraft and much of the flight process is automated, things can go very wrong when pilots rely too heavily on technology. Unfortunately, many small regional airlines hire pilots who haven’t logged enough flying experience, and some countries do not have strict safety standards. Lady Mary Heath stressed the importance of adequate training and well-made aircraft. Perhaps she would be happy to know there is now a Web site, launched just last month, dedicated to rating airlines worldwide for their safety and passenger experience.
So next time you find yourself boarding a flight, take a moment to thank those who risked their lives learning how to make flying a safer experience for us all.