U.S. commercial aviation history to 1966

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America’s commercial aviation industry, along with the rest of the world’s, began following the cessation of World War I in 1918. The surplus of airplanes left over from WWI would be made proper use of by private companies out for a profit, if the planes were not to be sold on the cheap to any and all takers or reduced to scrap. The World War I planes were simple affairs, lightweight biplanes of wood and metal, with open cockpits, open-air water-cooled engines, fixed landing gear, and a cruising speed of 100 mph. The warplanes would be converted to peacetime use, their holds reconfigured to accommodate anywhere from two to eight passengers.

By the mid-1920s both France and Germany had established successful commercial air services, and the United Kingdom was getting its Imperial Airways up to speed. Though the United States would not be first off the mark in establishing air service for civilian passengers, soon enough the United States would position itself at the cutting-edge of the design and technology of air carriers over the ensuing decades.


At this time commercial aviation was very much a young industry with much yet to be done on all fronts; it was a dynamic growth industry where men with vision might reap great rewards. In 1918 the United States made use of its surplus of biplanes by establishing an airmail service. The Federal government maintained the service, with the day-to-day responsibilities of the operation devolving to the Post Office Department. At this time a plane could go great distances only in relays, flying from leg to leg; and it would take no less than fifteen refuelling stops in landing fields in successive states for a mail plane to cross the country from New York to San Francisco. In 1922 the first lighted airway strip was opened between Dayton and Columbus in the mid-eastern state of Ohio. In mid-1924 coast-to-coast service for airmail would take just under thirty hours flying east, and thirty-four hours flying west (against the prevailing headwinds). In 1925 Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown decided to put the airmail service in the hands of private companies. The Kelly Act of 1925 allowed the commercial aviation industry to run itself without government intervention.

Wealthy Americans — including Henry Ford and William Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney — began to invest in commercial aviation, and a hodgepodge of small airlines began appearing, vying for mail routes.

Airmail carriers were paid by the ounce, so reducing extraneous weight that could be replaced by mail was rewarded, as was speed that allowed more trips. Aircraft designers coalesced into aircraft companies which would eventually grow into industrial behemoths of the present day—such as Boeing and Douglas and Lockheed.

The U.S. military would have an intrinsic role to play in the development of aircraft as well. The U.S. Navy had sponsored the development of an air-cooled airplane engine, known as the “Wasp”, and William Boeing of the Boeing Aircraft Company—a Seattle company the young man started in 1916—used the Wasp engine in his Boeing 40 airplane which was introduced to great success in 1925. The Boeing 40 won Boeing the right to the Chicago to San Francisco airmail route. Donald Douglas started Douglas Aircraft in Los Angeles in 1920, built ‘Douglas World Cruisers’—torpedo planes—for the Navy in 1924, and would become a millionaire a decade hence. Then there was John K. “Jack” Northrop, designing planes with the Loughhead brothers—who pronounced their name Lockheed—in Santa Barbara, California. In 1927 these confederates produced the Vega, a monoplane with a Wasp air-cooled motor, seating for six passengers, and a flying speed of 170 mph More than three dozen airlines would buy the Lockheed Vega over the next six years.

Up to this point, flight was not regulated. Aircraft were not required to be safe, pilots were not required to be qualified, and flights were at random, sometimes colliding, paths. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 introduced regulation by a Bureau of Air Commerce in the Department of Commerce, which dictated that the industry would have to adhere to a series of regulations to insure the public safety. Now a pilot would have to pass tests to receive a pilot’s licence. Planes would need certificates of airworthiness. Air traffic control rules were introduced.


Following Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis in May 1927, America became inflamed with the romance of the skies. Lindbergh, a polite, self-effacing Midwesterner who had once been a mail pilot, became an international hero and a posterboy for all that was best about America—he had vision, courage, the technological acumen and ‘can do’ brio. He might not have been the first to attempt an airplane flight from New York to Paris, but he was the one who followed through, flying the 3,610 miles in 33 hours, 30 minutes. Returning from Paris in a naval cruiser, Lindbergh was welcomed by an American population flush with pride and admiration. Overnight Lindbergh became one of the most famous men alive, and in the process did a world of good for the airline industry.

Suddenly air travel became the latest “thing”. Between 1927 and 1930 a series of smaller airlines began amalgamating together, creating larger airlines which would eventually develop into the industry leaders of Eastern Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, TWA and Pan American Airways. These companies, which would at first remain primarily mail carriers, where the real money was, were established by power barons—including Clement Keys, Averell Harriman, and Robert Lehman—who would have to compete to win contracts for mail routes from the Federal government. Following the Foreign Air Mail Act of 1928, Pan Am—founded a year earlier by Major Henry “Hap” Arnold, later Chief of U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, and whose president and general manager was Juan Trippe—won the rights to fly the Mexico, Central America and Caribbean routes, and became the biggest airline in the world. For two decades Pan Am would enjoy a virtual monopoly on commercial overseas flights—until the appearance of multimillionaire aviator and businessman Howard Hughes on the scene.

The Watres Act of 1930 divided the U.S. into four sectors: three coast-to-coast routes, northern, central, and southern; and the eastern seaboard. One carrier was to be chosen to service each route. Eastern Airlines—which developed out of the merging of a series of connections—served the Atlantic coast. United Airlines—an amalgamation of Clement Keys’ National Air Transport, which flew from New York to Chicago, and William Boeing’s United Aircraft, which flew from Chicago to San Francisco—won the rights to the northern route. The rights to the southern route went to American Airways—the product of the merging of five smaller airlines. Standard Airlines, Maddux Airlines, Transcontinental Air Transport, and Western Air Express merged together to become Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), and won the central route. First chairman of TAT’s Technical Committee in 1928 had been none other than ‘Lucky Lindy’ himself, Charles Lindbergh. When Howard Hughes buys in to TWA in 1939-40 he will not only be acquiring the nuts-and-bolts of a successful airline but the reputation and romance of “The Lindbergh Line” as well.

The Watres Act of 1930 also cut the mail rates. Suddenly the airlines would have to look for other means of revenue to keep themselves in the air. Passenger aircraft, rather than just airmail carriers, would become a primary concern of airline companies.

Note on Technology in the 1920s

Developments on all fronts—material of plane, power of engine, and shape of airframe—would lead to advancements in the art of the aircraft. Edgar Dix, a researcher for Alcoa, experimented with the metallurgy of aluminium and discovered a way to make high-strength sheets. Meanwhile engine designers were working assiduously, introducing new models with higher and higher horsepower—the cutting edge by the later 1920s was 500 h.p. motors. (Lindbergh’s engine in the Spirit of St. Louis was a Wright Whirlwind with only 220-horsepower, designed originally for the Navy by Charles Lawrance at Wright Aeronautical in New York City.) One major question for designers of engines was how to produce more power while dealing with the increase in heat? Samuel Heron, a British inventor, devised a sodium-cooled valve engine in the early 1920s, then the U.S. Navy produced the air-cooled engine later in the decade.

The 1920s was also the time of the move from bulky biplane to sleek monoplane. “How can we best shape an aircraft body and wings,” designers wondered, “in order to reduce the amount of drag through the air?” The key word here would be streamlining. Streamlined shapes reduce the amount of resistance experienced by an airfoil and in the process increase speed and lift. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, est. 1915) built a wind tunnel at a government research center at Langley Field in Virginia and embarked on three years of study, leading to three developments: (1) engines which were hitherto out in the open would now be housed in enclosures (known as nacelles); and (2) the weight of wings would be reduced; leading to (3) the placing of multiple engines on the wings. Jack Northrup would be a commercial pioneer of these new aeronautical designs. In March 1930 his “Alpha” was tested, an aluminium monoplane with Wasp engines and a cruising speed of 140 mph Boeing introduced its comparable aircraft, the “Monomail”, in the same year. In 1931 Lockheed entered the fray with its “Orion”, the most-up-to-the-minute mail carrier yet, with a landing gear that retracted (manually) to reduce air drag, room for six passengers, and a cruising speed of 170 mph.

The 1930s: The Rise of Aircarriers

Aircraft industrialists would be outdoing each other in heated competition to win large manufacturing contracts from airline companies. State-of-the-art plane followed state-of-the-art plane without pause. Boeing produced the B-9 bomber for the U.S. Army Air Corps early in 1931. The large, twin-engine, all-metal B-9 would be the first inkling of the modern passenger airliner. Later in the year Boeing produced the Boeing 247 for commercial use. Cruising at 155 mph, with room for ten passengers, the Boeing 247 was a hit, with United Airlines beating the other airlines to the punch by placing an order for sixty 247s. TWA responded by ordering one DC-1 (with room for twelve passengers) and 28 DC-2s (for fourteen passengers) from Douglas Aircraft. Douglas’ DC (Douglas Commercial) line were ultra-modern passenger planes, the fastest yet, with Wright Aeronautics’ Cyclone engines of 710 h.p., and an attractive interior to boot.

Meanwhile from the mid-1930s on, engineers in Germany, Great Britain and the United States were working concurrently on designs for jet engines. Germany would be first off the mark with the test flight of the Heinkel He 178, the world’s first jet plane, in 1937. In England Frank Whittle designed a turbojet engine for the Royal Air Force’s Gloster Meteor plane, the one and only Allied jet plane ready for combat in World War II. General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts, built a jet engine of its own in 1941, and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, chief research designer for Lockheed, designed a plane to fit around it, the XP-80. The U.S. Army’s first jet aircraft, the XP-80, known as the “Shooting Star”, took to the air for the first time for test flights in January 1944, but did not start rolling off the assembly line until after the cessation of hostilities.

In that same year the German Luftwaffe put the Me 262 into combat action; the Me-262 (fighter) was the state-of-the-art jet plane reaching speeds upwards of 500 mph; but Germany was already on the way to defeat and the Me 262 did nothing to alter that fact. Back at Lockheed, Kelly Johnson had been contributing to the design of a second plane at the same time as the XP-80—he was working with Howard Hughes on something called the Hughes Mystery Passenger Plane. But let us backtrack a bit.)

Early in the 1930s United Airlines began the practice of offering “air connections”—planned departures from major cities at specified times throughout the day. Other airlines, which had been offering only one flight a day for each route, would take the hint. Then TWA proceeded to trump United. At this time coast-to-coast passenger travel on one of United’s Boeing 247s still meant at least seven stops along the way, for a flight time of twenty hours. When TWA introduced their DC-2s into their fleet in May 1934, TWA began advertising a coast-to-coast passenger journey, with refueling stops, in eighteen hours—and even offering nonstop service between Newark and Chicago. Moreover, three months earlier the DC-1 had made a transcontinental mail flight, with William John (“Jack”) Frye—former Hollywood stunt pilot, now vice president of operations for TWA—in the cockpit, in a record-breaking thirteen hours, including refueling stops. American Airlines responded in 1934 by ordering new planes from Douglas Aircraft, the DC-3, with 1000-horsepower engines from Curtis-Wright and Pratt & Whitney. The DC-3, with twenty-one passenger seats, and a cruising speed of 170 mph, was in the air by the summer of 1936, crossing the country in sixteen hours eastbound, and eighteen hours westbound. TWA immediately followed suit with its own order for DC-3s in 1937.

Pan Am, controlling the U.S.’s overseas routes, had not been sitting idle during the other airlines’ intercontinental competition. In 1934 Pan Am was flying four-engine flying boats, three S-F2s from Sikorsky and three M-130s from Martin. With these flying boats Pan Am would win great acclaim in 1935. The S-42 stayed in the air for nearly eighteen hours, flying from Miami to the Virgin Islands and back non-stop. Then the S-42 was flown from San Francisco to Honolulu and back. Most spectacularly, the M-130 flew to the Philippines and back in thirteen days, putting its black-suited Pan Am pilot, Ed Musick, on the cover of Time magazine on December 2, 1935. Pan Am had opened up the potential for lucrative international passenger flights. A round-trip ticket on a Pan Am plane from San Francisco to Manila would have set you back over $1400 in 1936.

Airports were appearing with regularity throughout the America of the 1930s due to President Roosevelt’s New Deal Program, public works projects created to generate work for the unemployed. Air traffic control—carving up the airspace in the manner of an asphalt interstate highway—was introduced for the first time at Newark Airport in 1935. The airport at Newark, New Jersey, was the busiest in America, with a departure or arrival every ten minutes. An employee on the ground would be in radio contact with pilots in order to keep track of and coordinate all the flights. Other U.S. airports quickly followed suit. The Roosevelt Administration introduced the Civil Air Regulations—drafted by one Fred Fagg&mash;in 1937. Then came the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which standardized procedures between the air traffic control centers, which dealt solely with planes crossing a certain airspace, and the airport control towers, which dealt with take-offs and landings. The Civil Aeronautics Authority was introduced in 1940, a government agency to supervise the airline industry by keeping an eye on regulations. Due to these acts of the Roosevelt administration, airplanes were fast becoming one of the safest ways to travel.

In the 1920s the amount of Americans buying tickets for a seat on an aircraft was negligible. By the end of the 1930s passenger numbers on continental aircarriers had grown to consistently profitable levels. The 1930s was the era when airplanes were romantic and pilots were heroes. Children were dazzled by airplanes just as in later years children would be dazzled by 1950s automobiles and then 1970s X-wing fighters and then 1980s computers. Businessmen were attracted to air travel primarily for its time-saving benefits. Hollywood signalled America’s growing interest in air travel with the release of Flying Down to Rio (1933), the film featuring the first Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pairing, released by RKO.

The 1934 Airmail Scandal

Financial irregularities engineered by certain airline companies, United most prominently, were discovered by journalists and caused a controversy in President Roosevelt’s Washington. News that insider trading on the stock exchange had fattened airline executives’ wallets brought a series of shocks down upon all of the companies. Roosevelt was urged by his attorney general to cancel all of the Federal airmail contracts with all of the airlines for the continental U.S. It was a knee-jerk reaction, akin to dropping every Hollywood film out of circulation simply because a couple of particular films might be offensive. Roosevelt put the responsibility for transporting the airmail in the hands of the U.S. Army Air Corps. The Army pilots were not as experienced as the commercial pilots in navigating the continent and the first week occasioned a series of fatalities, injuries, and many wrecked planes. The heat that Roosevelt subsequently felt from the press resulted in the Air Mail Act of 1934. The continental airmail service would be returned to private industry, following the restructuring of the commercial airlines. American, United, TWA, and eventually Eastern would have to be broken from their respective holding companies—which might own an aircraft manufacturing plant as well as the commercial airline service—and become independent public companies. There would also be a price cap put on mail-pay rates. Pan Am remained untouched because it operated outside of the United States. In the wake of the Air Mail Act new airlines appeared, including Braniff Airways and Delta Airlines, both winning contracts for airmail routes. So we see that in 1934 TWA was set free from its holding company—General Motors, who also owned Eastern Airlines as well as General Aviation, an aircraft manufacturer—setting the stage for Howard Hughes to start gobbling up its stock in 1939.

Howard Hughes and TWA 1940-1945

Jack Frye, now the president of operations at TWA, asked Howard Hughes if Hughes is interested in buying some of TWA’s routes. Frye needs an influx of cash to follow through with an order for Boeing’s new four-engine passenger airliner, the Stratoliner. The Stratoliner would have a cruising speed of 220 mph; and a pressurized cabin, to stop passengers from passing out, a not infrequent phenomenon in these early days of commercial air travel; also, the Stratoliner would be able to fly above the weather at up to 20,000 feet, and would make the coast-to-coast trip in fourteen hours. Hughes, never one to do anything ‘on the small’, decides to buy the whole TWA company—or at least controlling interest; and immediately announces that he will initiate the designing of a plane that will far outstrip Boeing’s Stratoliner and every other passenger aircraft, including Douglas’ new DC-4 (airliner), to which United and American were favorably inclined. Moreover, Hughes would not waste any time in getting into a tussle with Pan Am over the rights to overseas routes. Instead of taking it slow with TWA and getting his bearings, Hughes would jump right into the deep end. If Hughes bought TWA, TWA would have to become the greatest airline of them all, a global airline having the fastest and most advanced airplanes in existence. Hughes, ever the dreamer, visualized a superior air carrier that would take advantage of all of the streamlining experiments Hughes Aircraft had accomplished on his airplanes of the later 1930s which had won for him world records and international fame on a par with Charles Lindbergh’s of a decade earlier. Under a shroud of secrecy this Hughes Mystery Plane came to fruition at Lockheed in Southern California under the auspices of Hughes’ determined and inspired eye and Kelly Johnson’s design genius. Hughes was going to push the technology of air carriers forward with the sheer force of his will. The long-range, piston-driven Lockheed Constellation would be an instant hit when introduced in 1944 and would be a presence in the skies for the next twenty-five years. With the advent of Howard Hughes as principal stockholder assuming control of TWA, the company intensified its role as the industry leader in aircarrier technology.

The Lockheed L-049 Constellation

TWA’s flagship plane advertised the cutting-edge technology of the time. First of all, the Constellation would have a handsome, distinctive, instantly recognizable look. The fuselage was the state-of-the-art for streamlining. Instead of a ‘flat-top’ airframe, making an airplane look somewhat like a tube with wings, the Connie’s top edge swept back from the cockpit in a sinuous upwards swell to the midsection then swooped down tapering toward the tail, in a shape reminiscent of a dolphin. Its ‘swooping’ shape allowed air to flow smoothly around it, thereby reducing the flight time that little much more. Instead of employing a single tail fin (or ‘vertical stabilizer’), the Connie had a ‘triple-tail’, three vertical fins spaced at intervals along the tailplane (or ‘horizontal stabilizers’), an uncommon design which would be one of the plane’s most distinctive and memorable features. (Boeing and Douglas experimented with but then gave up on the triple-tail; only the Constellation stuck with it.) Hughes’ passenger plane had red stripes painted on for pizzazz. One could not mistake the sight of the Connie for any other airplane in the air. The Connie had four powerful piston-engines—18-cylinder Curtiss-Wright R-3350s, 2,150-h.p. each—with superchargers. Its propellers were over fifteen feet in diameter. Its cruising speed was 280 mph, with a top speed of 360 mph (Weighing close to forty tons, the Constellation was still faster than America’s much smaller World War II fighter planes!) The fuselage was completely pressurized. Hughes’ plane would fly higher than any other aircarrier, up to 35,000 feet, but generally cruising at 20,000 feet, where turbulence was infrequent, making airsickness a thing of the past for the majority of passengers. The Connie could accommodate up to sixty-four passengers comfortably and fly up to 3,000 miles non-stop. It was an aircarrier that could fly higher and faster and longer than any other passenger aircraft in the world.

Hughes lobbied for a version of his Constellation to be used as a transport by the U.S. military for the war effort. On April 17, 1944 Howard Hughes delivered his plane to the War Department in Washington, D.C. with his customary razzmatazz. The Constellation, with Hughes flying the plane alongside Jack Frye, became the first airliner to fly nonstop coast-to-coast, and in just under seven hours no less, shaving a half hour off Hughes’ previous transcontinental flight record of 1937. The War Department, however, had already chosen to go with the DC-3 and DC-4 for use as military transport planes, renamed the C-47 and C-54 for military use; still and all, the War Department accepted fifteen of Lockheed’s Constellations, designated the C-69 by the Army. In August 1945 a C-69 was flown by a TWA crew from New York to Paris in fourteen hours, a new world’s record. Following the end of the war, ten Constellations were delivered to TWA late in 1945—Hughes had placed a $18 million contract for forty of the planes from Lockheed—and TWA’s commercial coast-to-coast service began in March of 1946. The Constellation took only ten hours flying east and eleven hours flying west. More than a dozen airlines around the world followed TWA’s lead and bought Constellations for their own services, including Air France, Quantas, and El Al. The DC-4 was a slowpoke in comparison to the Constellation. Douglas scrambled to catch-up, designing the DC-6, trying to add the Lockheed innovations to their own planes. Following the go-ahead given by the Civil Aeronautics Board, TWA’s flights to Europe and India—hitherto Pan Am’s monopolized turf—began in the summer of 1946. (It would cost just over $700 for a standard round-trip fare to Europe.) TWA would now have both domestic routes and overseas routes, the first American airline in history to enjoy this privilege. In the meantime Hughes had changed the name of TWA from Transcontinental and Western Air to Trans World Airlines. By the spring of 1947, United and America had acquired DC-6s to try to keep up with TWA. Juan Trippe’s Pan Am as well would have to keep up with TWA, dumping its slow flying boats in favor of faster planes, also purchasing Constellations. All the while Pan Am would be lobbying intensely in the U.S. Congress to maintain its monopoly on its Atlantic and Pacific flights—an effort implicated in Hughes’ being dragged before the War Investigating Committee in 1947—but to no avail. A defiant Howard Hughes would not be pushed around by anyone, not if he did not want to be. By 1950 Hughes would own close to eighty percent of TWA’s stock. Eventually Hughes’ stake in TWA would net him a check for $546,549,771—after brokers’ fees—in 1966, the year he cashed out of the company.

Post World War II

As the 1940s progressed, airline ticket sales skyrocketed. The price of a plane ticket was almost on the level of the price of a train ticket. Ocean-going liners were becoming relics of the past. Late in 1948 came the cleverest offer yet: Capital Airlines introduced “Coach Class”, cutting a third off its standard fares, confirming that travellers would trade a little comfort for large savings. TWA and the other airlines quickly followed Capital’s lead.

TWA was working on a “Super Constellation”. Boeing produced the six-engine B-47 bomber for the U.S. Army. Hughes himself accomplished his successful test flight of his Hercules airplane, known as the ‘Spruce Goose’, still the largest plane ever built, at Long Beach, California, on November 2, 1947. Boeing designed an eight turbojet engine B-52 bomber in 1948. Also in 1948 the standardized air refueling, in this instance between two B-29s, was accomplished at a Boeing plant in Kansas. In February 1949 a B-50 named “Lucky Lady II”, piloted by air force Captain James Gallagher, flew around the world nonstop, via aerial refuelling, in eighty hours. All of these large planes pointed to the wide-bodied commercial passenger jets of the 1990s.

In 1953 the Lockheed Super Constellation rolled off the assembly line, a state-of-the-art plane with new Wright engines. The Super Connie, larger and faster than its predecessor, with a cruising speed of 335 m.p.h., held 102 passengers and could remain in the air for over 3,500 miles nonstop. It was powered by four Turbo-Compound R-3350-872TCC18DA-1 engines, each delivering 3,250 horsepower. One hundred and forty-two military versions of the Super Connie were manufactured for the U.S. Navy throughout the 1950s. Douglas introduced its DC-7 in 1953 to compete with the Super Connie. One generation of Lockheed’s Constellation would follow another until the plane’s final incarnation in 1957, the L1649A Starliner, which, with four 3,400 horsepower Curtiss-Wright turbo-compound engines, flew from California to Paris in a nineteen hour non-stop journey via the North Pole, on October 10, 1957. Later in the month the Starliner remained in the air for twenty-three hours and twenty minutes. Douglas would immediately respond to the introduction of the Starliner with its own DC-7C. The Starliner, however, as the fastest piston-engine long-range airliner ever built, left Douglas’ plane in the dust. But the times were changing and the rise of the jet age through the 1950s would spell the end of the Constellation series. Faced with the introduction of the Boeing 707 jet airliner, whose four Pratt & Whitney JT3 turbojets offered a cruising speed of 600 mph, the production of the Lockheed Constellation-Starliners ceased in February 1958. Eight hundred and fifty-six of the planes had been built over sixteen years. The Lockheed Constellation, which was Hughes’ brainchild and Kelly Johnson’s creation, remains one of the most distinctive, beautiful, and significant aircraft ever built.

In the 1950s the largest domestic airlines were American, United, Eastern, and TWA—the “Big Four”. The largest airline of all was the international Pan American Airways. These five airlines would have to repackage themselves for the jet age. After 1955 the power of jet engines became the prime consideration to the commercial airlines. The U.S. Army had been testing one jet plane prototype after another throughout the 1940s and the technology was ready to leap into the passenger planes of the aviation industry. The technology of jet airplanes would proceed at a breakneck pace through the 1950s—well-nigh monthly came innovations in the designs of engine, fuselage, wingspan, nacelles, pylons, flaps, fuel capacity. Pan Am—still the biggest and most profitable airline at this time—announced in October 1955 that it had ordered twenty-five DC-8s—the new jets from Douglas—and also twenty 707 jets from Boeing. At $269 million, it was the largest purchase in the airline industry at the time. In one fell swoop Pan Am became the first passenger jet airline.—A business deal and industry position worthy of Howard Hughes, who, to the detriment of TWA, had been preoccupied throughout the 1950s with other pursuits including the management of RKO (his Hollywood film studio), and so came up short. Hughes would become infamous at TWA during the 1950s for his lack of concern in making corporate decisions in a suitable time. Hughes’ foot-dragging regarding TWA’s acquisition of jets resembles nothing so much as Bill Gates and Microsoft’s foot-dragging regarding the Internet in the early 1990s. When Howard Hughes finally woke up to the passenger airjet age he would throw himself headfirst into the fray. Juan Trippe’s acclaimed business moves at Pan Am prompted Hughes at TWA to respond in a knee-jerk manner. If Pan Am was ‘doing it large’, Hughes and TWA would do it even larger. (Hughes must have also been rattled by the fact that Pan Am was still dominating the overseas market, with TWA a far second.) In June 1956 Hughes, in a transaction unknown to anyone at TWA at the time, placed an order with Convair and Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft for 66 jets and 300 engines to the tune of $400 million and change. Hughes would push TWA into the jet age in his characteristically grandiose manner. It was a fateful move, and what eventuated was unexpected. The hefty contract would eventually lead to Hughes’ losing personal control of his beloved airline, when TWA subsequently found itself on shaky ground trying to assemble the cash to pay for Hughes’ rash order. As it happened, TWA would be brought kicking and screaming into the jet age.

Pan Am made the first transatlantic jet flight with its 707—with room for up to 120 passengers—flying from New York to Paris on October 26, 1958. American Airlines promptly bought Boeing’s 707 turbojets early in 1959, with United and Delta purchasing Douglas’ comparable DC-8 jets later in the year. The DC-8s, able to carry up to 176 passengers, could streak through the sky at speeds of 600 mph for up to 6,000 miles nonstop. New runways had to be built across America, as jet planes needed a landing strip of 11,500 feet in length, 4,000 feet longer than the pre-jet age runways. The general public would complain of noise until the new turbofan engines of 1960 made the jet planes quieter.

TWA’s first international commercial jet flight—for the New York-London-Frankfurt route—wouldn’t come until November 1959; and as a result of its foot-dragging, TWA’s competitive edge would be dulled for the next couple of years while its debts increased apace. TWA’s board of directors would finally lose all patience with Hughes’ erratic business management. From 1960 to 1966 Hughes was enmeshed in a power struggle with his board of directors. In 1966 Hughes turned his back on his beloved company and dumped all of his stock for the astronomical sum of over $540 million cash, at the time one of the largest transactions of its kind in stock market history.

Into the 1960s

As is usual with the airline industry, it would take a disaster to advance the technology of safety precautions. A TWA Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 collided in mid-air at cruising altitude over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956. One hundred and twenty-eight people were killed. This disaster prompted a stepping up of the implementation of Very-High-Frequency Omnidirectional Range (VOR), an electronic radio navigation technology to help pilots determine location and direction. No longer would pilots merely look out the window to see where they were heading. The Federal Aviation Agency, dedicated to modernizing the Air Traffic Control system, was established in 1958. In 1958-59, the Civil Aeronautics Agency introduced “Positive Control”, the division of the continental airspace into strata, making it a federal offence for a plane to stray into certain airways without ground control confirmation. Pilots of small planes as well as large planes could no longer ‘wing it’. Mid-air collisions would become the rarest form of major airplane disaster. The convenient speed of the jetplanes coupled with the increasing safety of air travel intensified the airline companies’ profits as the 1950s moved into the 1960s.

By 1960 airplanes were the second-most preferred method of long-distance travel after the automobile. Cross-country trains and ocean-going liners were still offered to the public but their days of high profits were a thing of the past. Airtravel was fast, safe (in the great majority of cases), and the ticket prices kept lowering by the year. New York to London on Pan Am cost $450 round trip. Many different deals were offered to entice the public, such as ‘coach class’ and ‘tourist class’ and ‘business class’. TWA was the first jet airline to offer in-flight movies, in 1961—no surprise, considering Howard Hughes’ lifelong love of the cinema. The American airline industry cruised along in the 1960s on the strength of their jets. The Boeing 747, the world’s first jumbo jet, would appear after 1966, after Howard Hughes bowed out of the Big Four.


The main sources for the information in this page were: Bilstein, Roger E., The Enterprise of Flight: The American Aviation and Aerospace Industry (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001); Gibbs-Smith, Charles H., The Aeroplane: An Historical Survey (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1960); Heppenheimer, T.A., Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995); Rae, John B., Climb to Greatness: The American Aircraft Industry, 1920-1960 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1968); a number of books on Howard Hughes; a number of books on TWA; and over two dozen authoritative internet sites, including TWA, Boeing, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, a Lockheed Constellation Appreciation Society, a collection of Howard Hughes sites, a history of U.S. aviation timeline from a government site.