GE Aviation is celebrating its 100th year in business. All year, we’ll be taking a look back at some of the engines and technology featured in our advertisements and the stories behind them. To read more stories about GE’s 100 years in Aviation, visit our celebration page.

The first recorded airplane night flights began as early as 1910. To say these flights were dangerous is an understatement. One of the first aviators to fly by dark was Charles K. Hamilton, nicknamed “Crazy Man of the Air.” Here’s an account of Hamilton’s first night flight from an Associated Press report in June 1910:

“[Hamilton] boldly took his biplane into the air after darkness had fallen, flying for 18 minutes through inky space while 10,000 people at the [Nashville] fair grounds stood aghast at his daring … Hamilton thrilled the awestruck spectators by dipping in front of the grandstand until he almost touched the row of lights stretched across the track, then skimming along just above them … With a search light fixed under the seat of his biplane, Hamilton soared into the night again at 10:57 p.m., circling far out from the starting point at an altitude of about 600 feet, with the light giving the appearance of a meteor moving in zigzags and curves. The clouds had disappeared by this time and by the aid of the moon, spectators could keep in view a shadowy outline of the biplane. At 11:12, while some distance away, the motor blew a cylinder head, which struck the propeller, and the flight was suddenly terminated, the craft being brought lightly to earth in a marshy portion of the infield.”

Said Hamilton after the flight, “My flight tonight will probably open up a new area in Aviation, as it will enable cross-country flights to be made during the night. It was a little difficult to see but with the aid of my searchlight I could get a general idea of the country below.”

 

Within the next two decades, the demand for night flying grew as advancements in Aviation such as carburetor heaters, radio and instrument technology and full-service airports allowed aircraft to fly longer and further distances. The need for advanced lighting at airports became an issue for many pilots, including early airmail pilots that were flying all night.

General Electric, the world’s leading light producer, was a natural fit to solve the Aviation industry’s lighting problem. GE established its leadership in the art of airport lighting soon after World War I.

By 1930, GE’s products included:

  • Beacon lights which guided pilots to airports. The beacon’s powerful beam was used to sweep the horizon six times every minute and could be visible from 60 miles on a clear night. These beacons came with an automatic lamp changer to replace a light in case it burned out.
  • Floodlights to illuminate airport runways. These wide, fan-shaped beams were more powerful than 600 lamps ordinarily used in a home.
  • Ceiling lights—a narrow, intense beam to measure the height of fog or clouds.
  • Airport lights which helped night flying pilots identify where to land and any obstructions to the field with light color.