The New Frontier of Aviation: the Guggenheim/Hoover Connection

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Col. Charles Lindbergh, Assistant Sec. of Commerce  (for aviation) McCracken and  Harry F. Guggenheim
Col. Charles Lindbergh, Assistant Sec. of Commerce (for aviation) William McCracken and Harry F. Guggenheim

World War I provided much of the impetus for the development of aviation as a weapon of war.  In the aftermath of the war, aviation continued to be developed by governments largely for military purposes.  In the United States, it became the reserve for daredevils and interested amateurs.  Planes were noisy, unstable and prone to crash.  For example, the Air Mail Service suffered one fatality for every 273,000 miles flown in 1921.  Without any standards for pilot training, airplane safety, airfields etc. aviation was a new frontier being explored by only the most adventurous.  Two individuals who sought to tame the frontier and lay a foundation for the success of commercial aviation were millionaires Daniel and Harry F. Guggenheim and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.

Harry F. Guggenheim was born into a fortune built on mining and the refining of ore.  His father, Daniel, mentored his son in the mining business but Harry quickly developed an interest in aviation.  He took flight training while vacationing in Florida in early 1917.  When the United States declared war on Germany in April that year, Harry enlisted in the naval reserve, completed his flight training, and was stationed overseas flying Caproni heavy bombers for the remainder of the war.  Upon his return to the United States following the war, father and son agreed that there was a great future in developing the potential of aviation.  Unlike Europe where governments championed the development of the field, the Guggenheims realized that private funds were needed to provide the seed money to continue to advance aviation efforts.  As one writer noted, “In 1922 only five schools in the entire nation offered courses in aeronautical engineering; of these only two—the University of Michigan and MIT—granted degrees.”  Writing to Hoover on January 16, 1926, Daniel Guggenheim noted Hoover’s efforts to promote civil aviation.  “I am venturing to advise you,” Guggenheim wrote, “by this letter my purpose to establish a Fund which will co-operate with you and with all agencies of the Government and the public generally in advancing the art and science of aeronautics and aviation.” Daniel Guggenheim set up the Guggenheim Foundation endowing it at $2.5 million to promote aviation to be governed by a board of experts including his son Harry.

Hoover responded to Guggenheim stating, “Knowing as I do the great field of scientific research in the physical forces which underlie this most promising development in civilization, I necessarily welcome so fine a fit for its advancement.”   Hoover “believed that commercial aviation should pursue scientific rationalization under the stewardship of industrial statemen working through voluntary association.  The federal government should support these industry-generated solutions by offering publicity and pertinent economic and scientific data.”  Lacking an organized and cohesive corporate leadership, Hoover realized that the Department of Commerce would need to take the lead in the establishment of regulations to provide the necessary safety, training, and regulations to promote a positive image of the industry to the public.  Hoover was able to direct requests from private individuals and corporations to the Guggenheim Foundation for financial assistance.

Harry Guggenheim met with both President Coolidge and Secretary of Commerce Hoover to discuss the future of aviation and how the Guggenheim Fund might help in its promotion.  A gift of $500,000 had already been made by Daniel Guggenheim to establish a School of Aeronautics at New York University with the goal of “the development of opportunities for new fields of employment of American young men.”  Harry Guggenheim met with Hoover before he began a fact-finding trip to Europe to investigate the state of aviation abroad.  Hoover provided Guggenheim with letters of introduction to open doors and provide needed connections.  On his return, Guggenheim wrote a fourteen-page report summarizing the state of aviation in Europe compared with the United States.  While Europeans had made greater strides toward creating the corps of aviation professionals who were establishing the framework for commercial aviation, it was not profitable.  Guggenheim’s general conclusion regarding America claimed: “Until the government takes its proper responsibility commercial aviation in the United States cannot progress.”

On May 20, 1926 the Air Commerce Act was passed creating the foundation for the Federal Government’s role in the regulation of civil aviation. Placing the regulation authority with the Secretary of Commerce, the act provided for “fostering air commerce, issuing and enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots, certifying aircraft, establishing airways, and operating and maintaining aids to air navigation.”  A new Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce headed by former WWI pilot William R. MacCracken, Jr. was named as the founding director of the branch.  Aviation was moving from a wild frontier toward an established form of public transport.

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