Winter 2003, Vol. 35, No. 4
Celebrating the Wright Brothers' First Flight
The International Civil Aeronautics Conference of 1928
By Charles F. Downs II
ICAC delegates posed for a group picture at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory on December 15, 1928. Orville Wright is seated to the right of the woman with the white fur collar; Igor Sikorsky is third from the right in the front row. (255-GF-520-Red Group) [larger image]
On December 8, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge wrote a short note to the Conference of the Aeronautical Industry meeting in Washington, D.C., expressing his interest in having an international conference in Washington the next year. He wanted to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight and to further establish the United States among the world leaders in aviation.
Twelve months later, Coolidge was welcoming aviation leaders and representatives from thirty-four countries to the U.S. capital. Between December 12 and 14, 1928, some of the most important figures in the new field of aviation gathered to exchange information and honor aeronautical achievements, especially those of the guest of honor, Orville Wright (Wilbur had died in 1912). Following the conference, the delegates even traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to attend ceremonies on the site exactly twenty-five years after the Wrights' historic flight.
The International Civil Aeronautics Conference of 1928 was the first significant national recognition of the Wright brothers' achievement of powered manned flight. This year, as we celebrate the centennial of flight, it is appropriate to take another look at it.
The conference has long faded from historical memory. Even at the time, a State Department official dismissed it as "not anything of importance. . . . nothing but a celebration." No international agreements or regulations came out of the conference, yet the President of the United States and others felt the significance of the anniversary merited a high-level, international observance.
Since Orville and Wilbur Wright's historic flight a quarter century earlier, powered flight had come a long way. Airplanes were now accepted as part of the fabric of modern life. They had proved their military value in the recent world war and were increasingly finding roles in the civilian world, such as air mail service.
In many ways, the conference reflected the post-Lindbergh flight, pre-Depression euphoria of American aviation, when even the sky no longer the seemed to be a limit.
Once President Coolidge had expressed his interest in holding an international aeronautical conference in Washington, D.C., it fell to staff at the Commerce and State Departments to make the idea a reality. Little was done to implement the President's suggestion until late March 1928, when the assistant secretary of commerce for aeronautics, William P. MacCracken, wrote to the Department of State about planning the event. State Department officials resisted moving forward until an annoyed secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, sent a letter to the White House on May 4.
Hoover noted that though there had been much interest among the public, industry, and foreign governments in the proposed conference, the State Department requested "an official communication from you before sending in estimates for the budget." Hoover included an estimated budget of $24,700. In closing, he added, "It will be appreciated if you can express your approval for this project to the State Department."
Coolidge responded by scrawling on Hoover's letter "Ask State to send this up." A cover letter from Everett Sanders, secretary to the President, dated May 5, 1928, transmitted Hoover's letter to Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, inviting his "attention to the personal notation of the President thereon."
Some in the State Department questioned the timing of such an aeronautical conference, since it was proposed for the same time as another major conference, the Pan-American Arbitration Conference. Assistant Secretary of State William R. Castle reassured a colleague on May 3, 1928:
This aviation conference is not anything of importance in that, as I understand it, there will be no attempt to draw up any kind of an agreement. It, after all, is nothing but a celebration of the anniversary of the first Wright flight. That is apparently why they want it on that particular date. MacCracken is utterly vague on the subject and I don't know whether he will get his appropriation or not. All they apparently intend to do is to have a three or four days session, read some papers and entertain the delegates and get them to go out to Chicago to see the aviation show which is held there.
State Department concerns quickly eliminated one justification originally given for holding the conference—to serve as a forum for the discussion for future international regulation of air travel. They noted that three days was far too short to accomplish anything of substance. In any event, State Department officials believed that they, not Commerce, should take the lead in conferences likely to produce international agreements.
After receiving Coolidge's note, Kellogg wasted little time in sending the request to fund the conference off for approval. On May 29, Congress authorized the President to invite foreign representatives to a conference on civil aeronautics and appropriated the necessary funds. Interestingly, the primary justification given in the congressional resolution was to promote contact by American manufacturers with foreign markets, while commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Wrights' first flight was secondary.
The State Department sent invitations to those countries with which the United States had diplomatic relations and called for papers on aeronautical development in these countries. The invitations also publicized the aeronautical exhibition scheduled for Chicago the week before the conference. Leighton W. Rogers, chief of the aeronautics and communications section in the Department of Commerce, was appointed executive director of the conference to oversee its organization and keep things running smoothly.
By August 3, invitations to those chosen to be on the conference's advisory committee had been sent out, with the first meeting planned for later in the month. Committee members included representatives from the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aviation, the National Aeronautic Association, the Departments of State and Commerce, and the Army and Navy.
This group quickly made a number of decisions that would shape the character of the conference. Its purpose was "to provide an opportunity for a interchange of views upon problems pertaining to aircraft in international commerce and trade." No votes were to be taken on any question under consideration. A representative of the U.S. delegation would chair each session. He would not participate in the discussion but introduce the presenter of the paper, recognize those who wished to speak, and enforce time constraints on remarks.
Representatives of the aeronautical industries of foreign countries were to be considered distinguished guests, and the American delegation would decide who from American industry would be designated as distinguished guests. The general public was to be admitted to all sessions, but space would be reserved for delegates and distinguished guests.
One problem that the conference faced was Soviet involvement. Because the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, no invitation was sent to them. A representative of the Amtorg Trading Company wrote the conference asking if aeronautical organizations in the Soviet Union could send representatives. Amtorg was a company established in the United States by the Soviets that had placed orders for aircraft and equipment with American companies. On State Department advice, conference officials replied that, although the conference was not in a position extend a formal invitation to the Soviet government or any private Soviet aeronautical enterprises, Russian experts might be allowed to attend if they were affiliated with private American enterprises doing business with the Soviets.
On October 24, 1928, however, the Amtorg representative responded that the organizations in the Soviet Union appreciated the offer but could "not see their way clear to accept it . . . in the absence of an official invitation to the U.S.S.R. as was extended to other governments."
No sooner was the Soviet question settled than another arose. The League of Nations expressed its interest in securing an invitation to the conference. As noted in a memorandum of November 13, 1928, the State Department recommended a negative response. According to the memorandum, the League previously had "tried to secure representation at conferences in which this Government was directly concerned. . . . In each case, the United States courteously and effectively discouraged this intrusive tendency." The United States was not even a member of the League, the memorandum continued, and besides, all the member countries of the League had already been invited to send delegates.
A total of 77 official and 39 unofficial delegates from foreign countries attended, in addition to the 12 official American delegates, 43 technical representatives, 238 representatives, and 32 committee members, for a total official attendance of 441.
Before the business of the conference began, delegates had the opportunity to attend the International Aeronautical Exhibition in Chicago. The show featured American aircraft and technology, including nearly every American airplane in production, motors and accessories, special exhibits, and displays of foreign aircraft as well.
Air transportation to Chicago was provided to the delegates, but only from Cleveland. Ironically, as the program noted, "The uncertain weather conditions at this time of the year over the mountains intervening between New York and Cleveland, make flying the entire distance to Chicago uncertain. The part of the journey from New York to Cleveland must, therefore, be made by rail." Had the weather been unfavorable in Cleveland, the journey to Chicago would have continued by rail, but in the event, "a fleet of multimotored airplanes" winged the delegates to Chicago.
The next day, the delegates stopped in Dayton, Ohio, where they took tours of the U.S. Army Air Corps Material Division laboratories and Wright Field and attended a dinner given by the City of Dayton honoring its favorite sons, the Wrights. They then traveled by train to Washington on December 11, in time to register. The conference was held at the Chamber of Commerce Building, across Lafayette Park from the White House.
On Wednesday, December 12, as the honorary chairman of the conference, President Coolidge greeted the members with the opening address.
Twenty-five years ago, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, occurred an event of tremendous significance. It was the first extended flight ever made by man in a power-driven heavier-than-air machine. How more appropriately could we celebrate this important anniversary than by gathering together to consider the strides made throughout the world in the science and practice of civil aeronautics since that day and to discuss ways and means of further developing it for the benefit of mankind?
The first part of Coolidge's address was a summary of the history of flight, saluting the great aviation pioneers and flyers. The President, who was justifiably proud of his administration's accomplishments in aviation, did not fail to note them at some length in his address, citing impressive statistics on the expansion of air travel and improvements in regulation. His summation clearly expressed his belief that international air travel and commerce would do much to ensure future world peace.
All nations are looking forward to the day of extensive, regular, and reasonably safe intercontinental and interoceanic transportation by airplane and airship. What the future holds out even the imagination may be inadequate to grasp. We may be sure, however, that the perfection and extension of air transport throughout the world will be of the utmost significance to civilization. While the primary aim of this industry is and will be commercial and economic . . . , but no less surely, will the nations be drawn more closely together in bonds of amity and understanding.
Each day was devoted to a different topic: December 12, international air transport; December 13, airway development, including meteorology and communications; December 14, foreign trade in aircraft and engines. Selected papers of special interest were read in the morning plenary sessions and, along with the other papers, formed the topics for discussion in the afternoon sub-sessions. General topics included air transportation, airway development, aeronautical research, aerial photography, aero propaganda (or, more correctly, public relations), trade in aircraft and engines, and private flying and competitions.
On Wednesday at 5 p.m., President Coolidge received the delegates at the White House. Afterward, Secretary of Commerce William F. Whiting (Hoover's successor) hosted a reception at the Chamber of Commerce Building. The next night, the delegates watched a specially produced film, Twenty Five Years of Flight. Afterward, a number of aviation pioneers were presented to the assembly, including Orville Wright, who was greeted with enthusiastic applause. On Friday, after the final formal session, the American delegation hosted a banquet for the foreign delegates.
U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps flyers gave a demonstration at Bolling Field on December 15. (Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, RG 255)
On Saturday morning the delegates were treated to aerial displays at Bolling Field and Anacostia Naval Air Station by army air corps, navy, and Marine Corps fliers. In the afternoon, they toured the Bureau of Standards laboratories before boarding the steamship District of Columbia to sail to Norfolk, Virginia, where they arrived Sunday morning. The 220 delegates on board next toured NACA's nearby Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratories, where they witnessed demonstrations of Langley's unique wind tunnels. After group photographs, they returned to Norfolk, spending the evening on the steamer.
Charles F. Downs II was a senior appraiser with the Life Cycle Management Division at the National Archives and Records Administration until his retirement in December 2003. He has an M.A. in history from the University of Maryland and has been an archivist at NARA since 1978. He has worked with a wide range of civil and military records, including such specialized areas as diplomatic records, still pictures, and printed archives, and has a life-long fascination with aviation.