The essence of the Ring of Fire was the knowledge, ideas and information that it provided to the Early Modern period. Perhaps the least predictable aspect of the Ring of Fire was the order of inventing. In our own history the railroad (1804) came a century before the airplane (1903). Now, I know someone is going to correct me here. They will point out, quite accurately, that the Englishman George Cayley made a glider flight in 1856. That the Montgolfier brothers flew in a hot air balloon in 1783. That several other people are credited with the first powered-flight in various parts of the world any time from the late 1880s to 1905. All true, all true. So what? If you go back and look for information on the railroad, you will find the first rut roads (an ancestor of the railroad) were in existence around 430 B.C. Yes, again, I know they weren't "real" railroads and they didn't have steam-driven locomotives. But the when of their invention depends on where you draw the line. For the railroad, we draw it in 1804 with the first steam locomotive. For aircraft, we draw it in 1903 with the first powered heavier-than-air flight.
The important questions are: when did the world wake up and realize that there would be choo-choo trains? And when did the world wake up and realize there would be airplanes? And the answer is: about a century apart. By the time the first consistent, documented, repeatable powered-flight occurred, the Iron Horse had already conquered most of the United States, Western Europe, also large chunks of India, parts of Africa, China . . . Well, you get the idea. According to family history, a great-grandfather of mine who was, by all accounts, not a very nice person, once ordered a young woman from his home for having the effrontery to claim that man would someday fly in a powered heavier-than-air aircraft. This was in 1904. Apparently, the stiff-necked old coot was an honest man, because when an airplane flew over the house only a couple of years later, he went and looked up the young woman to apologize. There's actually a reason for me telling that story. Even after something can be done, whether it's railroads, airplanes or submarines, you still have to convince people that the attempt is worth the effort. From 1804 for the steam-powered railroad, and from 1903 for the airplane, that process really began and proceeded apace.
In the 1632 universe those processes were separated by two years. It is a safe bet that when the first airplane flew over Magdeburg, there were still people in town that did not believe railroads worked. People like my great-grandpa. For all practical purposes the first functional railroad engine and the first functional airplane might as well have taken place at the same moment. So why does that matter? Because this article is not about how to build an airplane. There are lots of articles that go into much more detail than I ever could; there are even kits. If you have the time and money you can build your own. I know several people who have. This is not even an article about how to build an airplane in the 1632 universe, though of necessity it will touch on that using two examples: The Jupiter, built by TransEuropean Airlines by S&M Aircraft and the Gustav built for the USE Air Force. (For the Jupiter, see "The Monster" in Grantville Gazette, Volume 12.)
This is an article about why to build an airplane or whether to build an airplane. Why invest the resources in such an expensive undertaking? Both for the government and for private enterprise, the resources necessary to make something fly in a controlled way will buy a lot of guns and, for that matter, quite a bit of butter.
Militarily, aircraft have proven both their worth and their limitations in the twentieth century, as scout platforms and weapons platforms that can observe and hit the enemy from the highest of high ground. They are an important, perhaps even vital, part of a combined arms approach to warfare and offer those who have them rapid reconnaissance and communications. Those advantages are quite clear to the generals of the USE. What isn't clear at all is how much are they going to cost to produce and how long it will take. Those questions get answered in 1633 when the Las Vegas Belle takes its first flight. And the only reasonable reason that it takes that long is because the New US government was unwilling to make a significant investment in aircraft production until they knew for sure, not just that it could be done, but that they could do it in a reasonable amount of time. While the Las Vegas Belle is answering that military question, it is also answering the parallel civilian question.
In our timeline, the first attempt at a for-real passenger plane happened in Russia. Not in the United States or England or France, but in backward, barbaric Russia. I don't mean to insult Russia or Russians when I say that, but that is pretty much the way most of Europe and America thought of Russia at the time. And they weren't totally wrong. In 1913, when the 16-passenger, four-engine Ilya Muromets was first flown, Russia was a nation of contrasts. There was both great wealth and knowledge and grinding poverty and ignorance. So why there? Why not the good old USA or England, France or some other "civilized" country? Well, part of the reason was that Igor Sikorsky was an honest-to-goodness genius, but I submit that that wasn't the whole reason. Curtis was a genius too; so were lots of other people working in the newly-born field of aircraft design. And Sikorsky didn't build the Ilya in his basement nor from his own funds. He was a wealthy man from a wealthy family which supported his efforts, but that would not have been enough by itself. It was enough to get him started and enough to let him win some prizes and come to the attention of the elite of Russia. But his wealth alone was not enough to build the Ilya. He was able to raise significant money for the project. I submit that the reason he was able to raise that money was because Russia was backward.
Imagine the conversation when some bright-eyed enthusiast in the good old USA started to wax poetic about his plans to build a multiengine passenger plane:
"It will never work!"
"It will, sir. I'm convinced we can build this plane."
"Don't interrupt. Even if you did manage to get it to fly, what advantage would it have over the already existent network of railroads and roads. Will it be faster than the trains?"
"Well, yes, probably. Most of them anyway. It should go about fifty to eighty miles per hour, depending on a number of factors. (Remembered this is the early teens to the early twenties. Airplanes just weren't that fast then.) There are some express trains that go faster than that. But most are slower and the plane will travel as the crow flies. That will help some."
"Will it be safer than trains?"
"Well, no. Not at first. Trains are a proven technology."
"Will it be cheaper than the trains?"
"No. It will be much more expensive."
"So I should invest a medium-sized fortune in a device that won't work and, even if it did, would be more expensive, less safe. And not much faster or even quite as fast as the fastest trains?"
This not the sort of conversation likely to produce large investments in the development of commercial aircraft.
Sikorsky, on the other hand, was in Russia. Russia did have railroads, however the rail network was much less extensive with larger gaps. He was not asked how a working passenger plane would compete with railroads because his potential investors already knew the answer. "What railroads?"
That lack of existing solutions also had a secondary effect: The potential investor was not as likely to focus on reasons why his designs wouldn't work. They were looking for a solution, not for a reason not to invest. When the Ilya Muromets first flew, the reports were met in the west with skepticism. The experts in Europe and America had, for the most part, convinced themselves that a plane that large would never get off the ground. Even after WWI when the Russian Revolution caused Sikorsky to leave Russia and come to the USA, he was not able to build planes as big as the Ilya Muromets. This was after more than forty Ilya Muromets had been built by Russia and used as heavy bombers during WWI.
With a proven track record and improved technology, and even with a prototype to show, Sikorsky's first effort in the USA, the Sikorsky S-29-A, failed to find service as a passenger plane. It—only one was ever made—was eventually sold and had a varied career, ending it's life in the movie Hell's Angels. Because of the lack of interest, Sikorsky then had to switch to smaller aircraft and wait for the market to catch up. His first American passenger plane that was actually put into service in that capacity, the S-38, first flew in 1928, nine years after Sikorsky arrived in the USA. Sikorsky first learned of the Wright Brothers flight in 1906 and didn't switch to fixed-wing aircraft till 1910 and the Ilya Muromets carried its first passengers in December of 1913.
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- The Grantville Gazette Staff