Ever since I was a kid I have been interested in trains, planes and automobiles. My father used to drive me to the airport in Los Angeles (LAX) and park at the end of the runway so I could watch takeoffs and landings of the airliners. This was always interesting to me and I believe my dad enjoyed it also or he would have probably not taken me there so frequently.
My first commercial flight was in a Western Airlines DC-3 from Palm Springs, Calif. to Los Angeles in the 1940s. What a thrill flying was at that time. Passengers were well cared for in the earlier days and people dressed for these flights. Today, flying is a completely different story. Many people today board a plane looking as though they had just taken out the trash.
In the early 1940s America was at war and military personnel and businessmen principally used commercial flying.
After the war, the DC-4 came online for some commercial carriers. Some were new off the production line and others were converted from wartime service. The DC-4 carried more passengers than the DC-3 and offered greater range.
At the same time, the Lockheed Constellation was retired from war service and became a popular plane for some airlines. And soon, Douglas produced the very popular DC-6, which provided even greater range, more passenger space and more luxury. These two aircraft, the DC-6 and the Constellation, were the primary aircraft for longer distance flight travel in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Constellation was improved with several modifications from the 749s, 1049s and 1649s. Each provided longer range and more passenger space.
The DC-6 was improved with series DC-6 Bs and a series of DC-7s. The last of the Constellation series and DC-7s offered air travelers non-stop service over the Atlantic to Europe from the East Coast of the U.S.
Another player on the longer-range scene that came into service in 1949 was Boeing’s 377 Stratocruiser. Pan American World Airways, and later United Airlines, first used this aircraft. These aircraft could fly non-stop from San Francisco to Honolulu as well as transatlantic. The plane was large for those days with a double belly. The top deck consisted of the passenger cabin and lower deck provided a lovely lounge for 12 passengers. Here was a bar with a steward ready to serve your favorite beverage as you enjoyed the scene below.
I remember several experiences in the StratoClippers on PanAm. Right after the aircraft was placed in service by PanAm on the west coast, my parents and I flew from LA to San Francisco and boarded the StratoClipper for the flight to Honolulu. It was an overnight journey that I believe took more than 10 hours. We all had berths. After takeoff, we enjoyed a first class dinner, then the upper berths were let down just like an upper berth in a Pullman rail car, and we changed into our night garments, put on a bathrobe and walked back to our berths. The cabin steward placed a ladder that hooked onto the upper berth and we climbed into bed. The steward placed a large bed belt over each person, loosely hooked it and said goodnight. There was a small porthole we could look out through as we flew through the night.
I can remember several flights to Honolulu in the StratoClippers in the earlier days. They were long, but it beat four and a half days on the Matson Lines steamships between the west coast and Hawaii in each direction.
When I had finished the second year at the University of Southern California my parents allowed me to use the summer vacation period to take a European tour hosted by one of my professors, Dr. Adolph Pervy. There were about 30 of us on the two-month-plus tour that covered the principal parts of Europe. At the end, I was tired of travel and didn’t want make a return voyage on beat up ship onto which we were booked, so my dad purchased a ticket on PanAm’s StratoClipper deluxe service, called the President Special, that operated once per week between Rome and New York.
What a thrill this was for a 19-year-old student. The aircraft sat only 44 passengers in what could have accommodated more than 76. It offered more legroom than I had ever seen in an aircraft with plush seats. The service was special indeed. The in-flight crew couldn’t do enough for you all the way to New York.
After departing Rome, we flew north over Switzerland and the magnificent Alps. I remember going downstairs to the lower lounge to enjoy the sights from there. Crossing England we landed in Ireland for fuel. The stop took about an hour, at which time all the passengers went into the airport facility where there was a rather large duty free shopping store. I can’t remember if I purchased anything, but many of passengers purchased tobacco and liquor products.
After taking off from Ireland we had begun our transatlantic journey to New York. The propellers ground away with the noise the engines produced and berths were prepared for the passengers. I didn’t have a berth, but my seat pushed back with a footrest and I slept well for several hours. Later, we were awakened for a hot breakfast, beverages and smiles from the crew.
On some flights, the propeller transatlantic flights in the earlier days were required to re-fuel in Ganders, Newfoundland and we wondered if we would have to do this. It turned out that the headwinds were little and we could continue on to New York without the extra stop. I can’t remember how long the flight from Rome to New York took, but as soon as I reached New York I boarded an American Airlines DC-6 for the flight to Los Angeles, which took another nine hours and forty-five minutes. I was quite tired when I reached home.
Over the years, several aircraft types entered the commercial airline scene. Replacing the DC-3 was the Convair 240 and 340 along with its competition the Martin 404s. Both aircraft were similar carrying 40 to 42 passengers on short and medium haul flights around the country. Also entering service was the British-built propjet Viscount and the French pure jet Caravelle.
With the jet entrants on the commercial scene in the United States, the speed and range of aircraft was beginning to change.
Pure jet aircraft really came on the scene in the later 1950s. We saw the Boeing 707s, which gave us flying time from Los Angeles to New York in six hours instead of nine hours, forty-five minutes on the prop planes. The jet was less noisy and flew higher for a better ride. Soon after the 707 was introduced, the Douglas DC-8 entered service providing jet speeds to compete with the Boeing. Later, there were variations of these models. Some were larger such as the DC-8-62, 63 and 64 models and Boeing offered the smaller 720 as well as the 707 Intercontinentals.
Also entering service was the Lockheed Electra, which was a medium range propjet that several air carriers operated.
Douglas saw the need for a smaller pure jet and produced the DC-9 series that is still flying today with some airlines. Boeing introduced the 727 short and medium haul tri jets and later the 737 series that is still very popular today.
The British never did produce a commercial aircraft that was popular with many U.S. airlines except to some extent the Viscount.
Convair entered the medium and long haul market producing the 880 and 990 series, but was never really successful in selling many units to make a profit. They were very comfortable and fast aircraft, however.
The big change in air travel came with the introduction of the jumbo Boeing 747. In 1966, PanAm ordered 25 aircraft and it was introduced to the public in 1969. I remember how amazed I was walking around the “show” aircraft when it was introduced in Los Angeles. Soon thereafter I had the opportunity to fly the aircraft roundtrip to Honolulu. As one sat in the rear of the passenger cabin looking forward you wondered how the plane could fly. It seemed so large and it still does today. Several versions and improvements have come about with the 747. Most carriers today are flying the 737-400 version and now Boeing is showing the new 747-8 model for which they are taking orders. It is larger and can fly farther than older models.
I have not mentioned the British pure jet Concorde that was introduced by British Airways in the later 1970s and by Air France. It flew the Atlantic at Supersonic speeds of 1,350 miles per hour. Only 16 aircraft were built, but it gave the wealthy the opportunity of Atlantic flight from London or Paris to New York in just three hours, forty-five minutes. The Concord also operated to South America as well as some other locations. None of it profitable! The speedster operated for some 25 years however.
I should also mention the three engine jumbo jets produced by Douglas: the DC-10 and the Lockheed L1011 — these were popular planes and offered medium and long haul routes to quite a few airlines.
Now, quite a few other aircraft manufacturers have come on the scene such as Airbus and others. What will be next, who knows? Please forgive me if I have forgotten your favorite aircraft type. Flying today isn’t what it once was. Most flights are crowded, not so friendly and you just want to get them over with. I wonder if flying will ever be a pleasure again for the general public.