View Full Version : airplanes of the 20s and 30s, flying at night

03-09-2013, 12:39 AM
Hello folks,
I am wondering at what point airplanes were equipped to fly at night, and did so commonly. I've done some searches and haven't been able to confidently answer this question. There is a film called "Night Flight" from 1933, but it appears to deal with situations of perilous weather that make the night flights much more dangerous. According to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_strategic_bombing_during_World_War_I#Furthe r_night_raids), there were night raids in WWI, but they involved navigational problems and planes crashing when landing.

Thanks for any input!

03-09-2013, 01:16 AM
No radar back then to help pilots over mountains or avoid storms.

Pilots used a compass and charts that listed various elevations along their flight path so they would know how high they had to fly. Problem with a lot of the charts is the elevations were not perfect. They also had to contend with weather so they would have to keep getting weather updates on their radio as they moved into new areas. Night flying, some of the larger airlines trained navigators to take star sightings, just like sea going vessels used.

Landing, well, if a field did not have lights outlining the run ways, then they couldn't land, and lots of small airports only had one grassy runway and no control tower. You might have a plane landing as another was taking off, or two trying to land at the same time.

By WW2 radar was just coming into use, but it was limited. Navigators on bombers still used compass baring, charts and also took sextant readings to stay close on course. A lot of crashes by bombers, (not those shot down), was from running out of fuel because the bomber had to make several runs over the targets or because the course was plotted wrong to start with. They also timed the night runs so they returned as the sun was rising so they would be able to see the runways when they returned to base.

Lots of danger flying by night in the 1920-30's

03-09-2013, 02:39 AM
Yup, you had to have good eyes to fly at night back then. Even in world war 2, in the early years there wasn't airborne radar, so radar operators on the ground would talk the pilots to their targets. anti air forces would be equipped with big searchlights. The lead plane in a raid would fly low and carry flares to mark the target. Landmarks were also key, the white cliffs of Dover being visible even at night, being so large and white. One could also spot rivers fairly easily, and roads with traffic can be spotted, but there were blackout regulations to make this harder.

On the eastern front, the Soviet Air force used antiquated biplanes as night 'nuisance' bombers, who's primary purpose was to frighten the enemy and keep them from sleeping. The biplanes, with no electronics whatsoever, and often piloted by women, would fly towards enemy campfires, and as they approached, would shut off their engines, silently gliding in to drop their bombs, then would fire up their engine again to fly home.

Personally, I couldn't imagine anyone from that era flying at night for peaceful purposes! Simply too much risk. Undoubtably some did, but there are crazy people in any era.

03-09-2013, 05:22 AM
I read in one article many years ago about U.S. Mail pilots would often fly at night. Many never made it back, but you know, the mail had to go through.

Alessandra Kelley
03-09-2013, 05:31 AM
Somewhere I have a magazine from I believe the '20s or '30s, probably a National Geographic, with an ad for travel across the US by train and airplane. I mean, one trip across country using combined forms of travel. It was scheduled to take several days. The implication seemed to be that the plane leg would only fly during the day.

I don't know if this is helpful, though.

03-09-2013, 05:58 AM
Look up the history of Pan Am. By 1937, they were flying the Atlantic. You might want to read Ken Follett's Night Over Water (http://www.ken-follett.com/bibliography/nightwater.html).

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

03-09-2013, 07:53 AM
Thanks everyone. You've all been very helpful, and I'm satisfied. My setting is fantasy based on 20-30s America/Europe, and I just wrote scene in which planes that had been in the air landed for the night, and I think that's what I'll stick with based on everything you've said.

03-09-2013, 09:27 PM
They did a bit of flying at night in WWI but it was very difficult because pilots couldn't see their instruments, it was totally by feel.

The first overnight airmail flights in the US were in 1925--here are some pics along with more information from the Smithsonian:




03-14-2013, 04:36 PM
Also, hubby points out that you wouldn't want to be flying during the new moon, and that flying at night you'd see MUCH less ground lighting than you would today.

03-14-2013, 05:18 PM
Keep in mind that sailors have been piloting at night for several thousand years. Night pilots in the early days used the same methods. Compass, stars, astrolabe, all still work today.


03-14-2013, 05:58 PM
Sailors aren't usually getting lost at over a hundred knots, though - once you're lost at night you're only getting loster, and you can't stop and ask for directions. Windspeed and direction also make a massive difference, and wind conditions on the ground usually aren't wind conditions even a couple of hundred feet up.

The methods still work, but are... limited.

03-14-2013, 06:24 PM
It helps if you have an extra crewman to do the astronomical observations. I believe that some world war two bombers had a special plexiglass dome for the navigator to use for that purpose. --ETA the Halifax bomber has one.

Al Stevens
03-14-2013, 08:03 PM
Pilots used a combination of visual navigation, celestial navigation and what is called "dead reckoning" to navigate day or night. Dead reckoning involves applying the directions and speeds of winds aloft to the planned course to compute heading and groundspeed. These basic methods are still taught today. A pilot could use empirical data to compute winds aloft in the absense of reliable reports. Then they shared those data via radio. In the old days it had to be shared from the ground. No radios in those old Jennie bi-planes. Or running lights.

They had flashlights for viewing their instruments, but only primary panels. Runways were marked with smudge pots, fired up for when an arrival was expected.

Lindburgh tells in his autobiography of his night flights as a mail courier during his barnstorming days before his transatlantic flight.

Mail carrying back then was a competitive business performed by independent pilots in their own aircraft. Those pilots took a lot of chances to provide competitive delivery schedules. The lucky ones survived.