Category From props to jets



his book is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Terry Waddington, aeronautical engineer, Douglas Aircraft Company salesman par excellence, and one of the last of the true believers.



o one is better qualified to write the dramatic story of air travel’s transition from propellers to jet-power than Jon Proctor, Mike Machat, and Craig Kodera. They constitute a trio of respected chroni­clers of aviation history. Forgive me, however, if I emphasize that Jon Proctor has been my mentor and role model for many years, someone to whom I have turned to many times for help with my own historical research. What is more important is that this talented trio has fashioned a work that is factually honest, scrupulously objective, and blessed with a rare “we – were-there” insight.

From Props To Jets takes us back to what arguably was the most dramatic and significant decade in civil aviation history: the saga of the 1952 to 1962 techno­logical revolution that literally shrank the world by measuring distance in terms of hours rather than days and miles traveled. This brilliantly researched and writ­ten contribution to aviation history could not come at a more appropriate time, for it injects into the doom-and – gloom atmosphere of today’s air travel difficulties and complaints, a reminder of accomplishments that we now take for granted. It also accents the positives instead of the negatives, something that is rare and sorely needed in this era of adversarial journalism. For as the authors point out, this was also the decade during which the air­plane itself supplanted the family automobile, bus, train, and ship as the single most dominant provider of long-distance travel.

I owe these fine writers my gratitude for producing not merely a fascinating book but an important one. The airline world that people like Jon, Mike, Craig, and I respected and loved, even when we criticized it, exists no more. This book, therefore, comes poignantly close to being a kind of requiem, a magnificent and justified tribute to an industry that has always taken ten steps forward for every step backward, and ultimately deserved a far better fate.

— Robert J. Serling Former Aviation Editor, United Press International

Convair 240

While DC-3s had served the airlines well since the mid-1930s, the type was considered slow and flew through more bad weather than it could climb over. Airline managers wanted a new twin-engine, short – to medium-range replacement with added capacity, more speed, and a pressurized cabin.

At San Diego, the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, recognized as “Convair,” first flew its pro­totype Model 110 on July 8, 1946. From this 30-seat variant, the production Model 240 was developed, gain­ing its name from the two-cngine, 40-passenger config­uration. It featured a tricycle landing gear along with the pressurized cabin and added speed desired by the air­lines. The 240 prototype first flew on March 16, 1947.

Designed for short-haul, multi-stop route seg­ments, the 240 design offered optional self-contained airstairs and claimed a maximum speed of 300 mph, although 275 mph was a more realistic cruising speed for day-to-day operations. Its list price was $495,000, a far cry from the $10,000 cost of a surplus C-47 after the war.

Convair 240

Built by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, the prototype Convair Model 110 flew for the first time on July 8, 1946, lifting off from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. This planned 30-seat airliner design gave way to the popular Convair 240 that first flew less than a year later. (Consolidated Vultee/Jon Proctor Collection)


Convair 240American Airlines became the Convair-Liner launch customer with a massive order for 100 Model 240s to replace its workhorse DC-3s and provide further route expansion. The Convairs provided short-haul service to destinations such as Roanoke, Virginia, where Flagship Algonquin was headed from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. (Allan Van Wickler)

The type’s production had been assured in 1945 by an American Airlines order for 100 airplanes (later low­ered to 75), purchased to replace the carriers DC-3 fleet and provide further route expansion. It also had the advantage of Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines, com­mon with American s planned four-engine Douglas DC-6 fleet. Convairs began flying for the airline on June 1,1948.

Another 13 airlines bought 240s. The DC-3s they replaced were gradually sold off, many to the newly designated U. S. local service carriers. Convair pro­duced 176 Model 240s, including two built in execu­tive configurations. The success of the program was enriched by production of 390 military variants pro­duced in five different configurations for the U. S. Air Force and U. S. Navy.



Not a pasted-up or retouched image, this photo shows a well-staged scene with a Sabena Belgian Airlines DC-6 making a low high-speed pass over the main terminal building at New York’s Idlewild Airport in the early 1950s. Carey bus at right provided convenient commuter service to the East Side Airline Terminal in Manhattan only 18 miles away. (Enell photo/Mike Machat Collection)



espite Britain’s false start with the Comet 1, and Boeing’s new 367-80 jet transport being only a “proof-of-concept” prototype at this point, the promise of jet-powered commercial flight was becoming closer to reality with each passing week. As modern and accommodating as major U. S. airports may have been at that time, the need for expansion, improvement, and modernization for the new breed of jets was becoming increasingly apparent, as their unique operating requirements came into focus. First and foremost on this list were longer runways, requiring either expansion of existing facilities, or construction of a brand-new and much-larger airport farther away from the city center. This latter option, although more costly, allowed designers the distinct advantage of starting from scratch with whatever new design best suited local needs.

By taking a virtual tour of U. S. airports of this time period, we can see that the Northeast segment of the country provided the necessary passenger and cargo gateways to Europe and points east. For
domestic travel, these same cities were the origins for trips westward all across the country to California and even Hawaii. Moving in a clockwise direction, we begin our tour with Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts (BOS). Located on the tidal flats east of downtown Boston, this airport and its neighbor to the south, Idlewild Airport in New York (IDL), had nowhere to expand but outward on land­fill built into adjacent bays. New terminal complexes and vast ramp areas would be added to both these great airports within a decade.

Moving down the East Coast we come to National Airport in Washington, D. C. (DCA). Having opened in 1941, the airport had nowhere to expand geographically for the new jets. However, this scenario presented a brand-new opportunity for air­port planners in the Washington and Virginia metro – plex to consider—the design and construction of a brand-new mega-airport intended specifically for the Jet Age. Occupying more than 10,000 acres of virgin woodland located 45 minutes west of downtown

Washington, the new and futuristic Dulles International (DIA, later I AD) opened in 1962 with an average of only one or two aircraft movements per hour, a scenario that has changed dramatically since those early days.

Flying southward, we come to Atlanta, Georgia, where the local airport began life as Chandler Field. This airport remained quite adequate to accommo­date the first generation of new jets, but then grew into the grand multi-terminal Hartsfield International (ATL) in the 1970s. Down in sunny southern Florida, Miami International (MIA) provided America’s gate­way to South America and the Caribbean, having done so since the 1920s. By 1959, the facility had expanded to absorb a neighboring Army airfield to the northwest, and soon became one of the largest jet – ports in the southern United States.

As we move toward the upper Midwest, we come across yet another example of a small, local, and con­venient city airport that opened in 1927, but then had no physical room for expansion for the new jets. This airport would eventually give way to a new mega – jetport that would have to be built from scratch. Originally named Chicago Municipal Airport, Midway Airport (MDW) served as Chicago’s home airport for decades, but was overshadowed by O’Hare International Airport (ORD). Originally built during World War II and opened for commercial traffic in 1955, O’Hare’s new, larger, and vastly more modern terminal complex opened in 1962.

Following the Mississippi River southward, we come to a host of other mid-size city airports that began as waypoints for fuel and rest stops on transcontinental mail and passenger flights. These were Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri (STL), Kansas City in Kansas (KSC), and Love Field in Dallas, TX (DAL). These airports were eventually either augmented or replaced by larger complexes built on open land to the west.

Flying westward, perhaps one would stop at the Rocky Mountain home of Stapleton Field in Denver, Colorado (DEN), or Sky Harbor in Phoenix, Arizona (PHX), airports that both had room to grow for the big jets. Arriving on the West Coast we find Los Angeles International (LAX) and San Francisco International (SFO) in California, and Seattle/ Tacoma’s SeaTac in Seattle, Washington (SEA). All three of these airports expanded outward from their more modest 1950s configurations as the new jets entered service, with LAX moving to adjacent land immediately to the west, SFO expanding out into San Francisco Bay, and SeaTac growing on available open land to the north.

In all, America’s major airports represented a host of problems and solutions for the geographic, logisti­cal, and operational challenges posed by the worlds’ first generation of modern jetliners. In the chapters that follow, we will see in more detail how new Jet Age terminals and airport layouts accommodated the needs of a new breed of air traveler and aircraft alike.


A typical busy morning scene at LAX reflects the pre-jet era of open concourses and loading steps. Taken in 1958, this photo reflects the epitome of the Golden Age of Air Travel. This exact location now serves as a main­tenance and cargo area for a number of airlines serving LAX today, with the main airport having been extended to the west when the new jets arrived. (Los Angeles World Airports)







Evening Star, a TWA Lockheed 1049G Constellation in 1956. (Mike Machat)



he American public is now awash in an exciting new world of science fiction, military jets, experi­mental rocket planes, and the coming space age. Aircraft manufacturers and airport planners alike are bracing for a new paradigm in air travel —the 100- passenger jetliner. Passenger travel by air is now being accepted as the norm and not the exception, and expec­
tations run high for a day-and-age of jet-powered airliners.

Fokker F.27

While trunk carriers grew quickly with higher – capacity airliners, local-service carriers suffered from a lack of rapid traffic growth, which produced a need for more efficient aircraft replacements with a smaller increase in passenger payload. Convair-Liners and Martins provided the required number of additional seats but were more expensive to operate than the DC-3s, with only a marginal increase in speed.

Dutch manufacturer Fokker began developing a DC-3 replacement in 1950, after abandoning the con­cept with the advent of World War II. The resurrected design called for 32 seats, later increased to 40. The first F.27 Friendship took to the air on November 24, 1955, from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

Not surprisingly, managers of 11 of the 13 local – service carriers inspected the new design in Holland and were favorably impressed. Four carriers —Bonanza, Frontier, Piedmont, and West Coast—placed orders for the F.27 in 1956, to be manufactured under license in the United States by Fairchild Aircraft Corporation. Although Frontier later canceled its order, Allegheny, Ozark, and Pacific went on to fly the turboprop airliner.

Purchase of new equipment, a first for local-service car­riers, was assured by financing from the U. S. govern­ment s Aircraft Loan Guarantee Act, signed into law in September 1957.

The rugged, high-wing twin utilized Rolls-Royce Dart 511 (R. Da.6) turboprop engines that had been proven in use on the pioneering Vickers Viscount. Its U. S.-built variant (designated F-27) first lifted off from Hagerstown, Maryland, on April 12,1958. It was certified three months later and began carrying revenue passengers with West Coast Airlines on September 28, nearly two months ahead of the first Fokker variant, which was placed into service by Aer Lingus. With a cruising speed of just over 320 mph, the airplane was nearly twice as fast as the DC-3 it replaced and represented the first turbine – powered U. S-built airliner to enter commercial service. The F-27 also introduced local-service passengers to the comfort of built-in air conditioning.

More-powerful Dart R. Da.7 engines resulted in the F-27A model, followed by the F-27B with a larger cargo door. Later variants, the F-27J and F-27M, offered even greater engine power. Like the DC-3s it replaced, the Friendship was nearly self-sufficient on the ground with steps built into the passenger door on the Fairchild aircraft, and waist-high cargo-door access.

The success of this remarkable turboprop airliner would eventually lead to a stretched version. The F.27 Mk 500 and FH-227 followed in the mid-1960s pushing the types production run to an impressive total of 786, including 205 Fairchild-built airplanes.

Fokker F.27

Banking away over the winding Mississippi River in an artist rendering, this Ozark Fairchild F-27 carries its 40 pas­sengers to destinations throughout the Midwest. Built under license from Fokker in the Netherlands, the Fairchild turboprop first entered revenue service in September 1958, and set the standard for twin-engined turboprop trans­ports for many years to come. (Mike Machat)



Jon Proctor, a seasoned veteran of the airline industry, served in various positions with Trans World Airlines (TWA) for 27 years and comes from an avia­tion family; his father was a pioneering pilot for American Airlines and his brother flew for TWA. He has written two books and numerous magazine articles on commercial aviation over the years and is also the former editor of AIRLINERS magazine. Jon con­tributed many of his stunning original airline pho­tographs for use in this book.

Mike Machat is a former aviation artist and staff illustrator for the Douglas Aircraft Company, and served as editor of Wings & Airpower magazine. Known for his love of commercial aviation, Mike has also designed airline color schemes for DC-9 and

DC-10 aircraft, painted airliner-model boxtops, and illustrated numerous books on airliners and airline his­tory. Having flown in every type of airliner from the Ford Trimotor to the Concorde, Mike brings a wealth of commercial aviation experience to this project.

Craig Kodera has lived a life immersed in aviation as the son of an engineer for Douglas Aircraft. Craig realized his dream of becoming an airline pilot having flown for both Air California and American Airlines, and also served as a transport and tanker pilot in the U. S. Air Force. Additionally, he is a world-class avia­tion artist whose artwork has been published by The Greenwich Workshop and who counts among his com­mercial aviation clients McDonnell Douglas and Airbus Industrie.

The MartinUners

The Baltimore, Maryland-based Glenn L. Martin Company first flew its Model 202 four months after the Convair 240 and launched the type with orders for 35 airplanes. The 40-seat variant was not pressurized and suffered from design problems early on. However, the first 202 entered service with Northwest Airlines in October 1947, eight months ahead of the Convair 240’s debut with American Airlines. Utilizing Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines, the 202 claimed a maximum speed of slightly more than 300 mph, and cruised at 277 mph.

Despite an early order book that at one time totaled 270 airplanes, the 202s found a home in large numbers with just one U. S. carrier (Northwest); only six more airframes were purchased, split between two South

American carriers, Linea Aerea National (LAN-Chile) and Linea Aeropostal Venezolana (LAV). Northwest, the only major 202 purchaser, almost immediately removed four seats from the airplanes to eliminate problems with insufficient galley and carry-on luggage space. A fatal accident caused by wing failure, along with four unrelated accidents and the subsequent refusal of Northwest’s pilots to fly the type, was cause for the airline to ground its Martin fleet in March 1951. Eight airplanes were sold and the remaining 12 leased to other operators.

A pressurized 202 version, the Model 303, was launched to better compete with the Convair 240. But redesign and production delays prompted customers, including United Air Lines, to cancel orders; the pro­gram was shelved in October 1947, even after two prototypes were built.

Martin instead chose to press ahead with the further – improved Model 404 that would comfortably seat 40, thanks to a 39-inch fuselage stretch. Uprated R-2800-

CB-16 engines and an improved landing gear design made the 404 a more competitive product against Convair’s new twin, and the 404 cruised at 280 mph with a top speed of 312 mph.

Eastern Air Lines and TWA became the 404 launch customers with large orders after Convair declined a request to improve the 240 design. In 1950, TWA agreed to buy 30 new 404s (10 more were ordered 16 months later). It then leased and later purchased 12 uncompleted 202s after Martin offered modifications to bring them up to an improved “202A” standard, and began receiving the type in July.

Eastern, which had earlier canceled its 202 order, signed up for the 404 with a contract for 35, later boost­ing the total to 60 airplanes. Both carriers placed the type into service in December 1951. As with the Convairs, the new Martins replaced DC-3s and even TWA’s five Boeing 307 Stratoliners in feederline service.

The MartinUners
Despite the best efforts of Martin’s salesmen, the 404 only attracted the two launch orders. Howard

Hughes coupled the contract for TWA with one air­frame for his personal use, and two RM-1 military vari­ants. The last two airplanes off the assembly line went to the U. S. Coast Guard.

Produced in greater numbers than the 202, Martin’s 404s found second careers with several airlines and cor­porate operators, mainly in the United States.

Air Routes of the Time

Traveling across the United States between major cities was relatively simple in the early 1950s. Trunk

carriers American, Northwest, United, and TWA offered direct, one-plane service to and from major des­tinations between the East and West Coast as long as one stayed within the central and northern states. Up and down the West Coast, travelers could choose between United and Western, while East Coast passengers, for the most part, relied on Eastern Airlines between New England and Florida. Delta operated a smaller route map, chiefly in the south, and Northeast Airlines, for the most part, served New England destinations.

Smaller cities and towns were the domain of 13 local service, or “feeder” carriers, that served a dual purpose. This second-level airline classification was established in 1944 on an experimental basis. Government-subsidized flights linked towns with populations as small as 5,000 inhabitants to major connecting cities. Permanent certification was finally granted to the 13 surviving operators (down from 20) in 1955. By the end of 1955, local service airline traf­fic had grown from 25,000 passengers in 1946 to nearly 3 million.

Local service carriers gradually added nearly 200 new destinations, a number that increased to 380 by 1957. Many were low-traffic stations taken over from trunk carriers that wanted to shed shorter routes. With these handovers, the local-service airlines continued to expand fleets, usually with DC-3s acquired from the same trunk carriers that surrendered the newly acquired towns and routes.

A large percentage of travelers utilized two airlines, and sometimes three, to reach their destinations. Trunk airlines formed “joint” fares with the locals and offered luggage checked through to the final destination, although passengers were obliged to check in again when changing carriers. Unlike today, the local carriers retained unique identities. United Express, Delta Connection, and similar monikers were unheard of in the 1950s.

Even some routes between major cities required the use of more than one airline, a constraint ignored by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which had sole authority to award new routes. Until the Southern

Air Routes of the Time


Air Routes of the Time

This local-service carrier began upgrading its DC-3 fleet with second-hand Convair 240s in mid-1955, offering its customers pressurized-cabin comfort and increased speed over the prewar fleet. (Jon Proctor Collection)


Air Routes of the Time

Transcontinental Route case granted broad single-carrier rights in 1961, air travel between Los Angeles and Florida required two or three carriers to complete the trip.

Some relief was offered on this and similar routes, in the form of “interchange” flights, where two or three airlines jointly operated single-plane, multi-stop service over a route. At intermediate points, one airline’s flight crew would turn the aircraft over to another. On the Los Angeles to Miami run, for example, American operated as far as Dallas, where Delta crews took over for the segment to New Orleans, only to be relieved by National pilots and stewardesses, who took their pas­sengers on to Florida. Separate ticket coupons were required for each carrier, but were taken by the origi­nating carrier’s boarding agent, thus giving the illusion of a single-carrier flight, although passengers were often startled to see a National Airlines DC-7 at Los Angeles, or an American Airlines Flagship at Miami.


Подпись: In the Hawaiian Islands, Aloha Airlines began replacing its DC-3s with Fairchild F-27s in 1959. (Allan Van Wickler)

By Craig Kodera

From the moment you entered the new airplane, you were impressed with its self-contained air conditioning and smart, modern interior. Perhaps the biggest revolution in the cabin was the use of very large elliptical windows; installed to take advantage of the captivating aerial views this high-wing airplane afforded its passengers. Every seat was a good seat for enjoying these inflight vistas. One of the thrills about flying in the F-27 was the ability to watch the tall main landing gear retract and extend right outside your window.

In all the years of airliner history, truly, there was

nothing similar to the Rolls-Royce Dart engine. It had a screech, a warble, that filled ones entire body with a humming sensation unlike anything ever experienced in piston-engined aviation. From the ever-increasing whine during start-up, to the instantaneous applica­tion of takeoff power, the consistent, smooth pull of the Dart was more like driving one of today’s electric cars versus one run by pistons. The airplane didn’t pound its way into the air, but rather seemingly rode on a rail. Once airborne, flying in the Fairchild had a different “seat-of-the-pants” feel to it. Hanging from a wing rather than riding on top of the wing made for a unique and improved passenger experience. It always felt somehow smoother in that airplane.


he Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8, and Convair 880 enter commercial service by the end of the 1950s, and the traveling public begins to experience the wonderment and excitement of jet flight for the very first time. Speeds and altitudes that were once highly coveted world records set by high-performance experimental military aircraft are now the domain of traveling businessmen and families going on vacation. The Jet Age has arrived.

The Commercial Jet Age Begins

As Boeing began delivering its 707 jetliners to the airlines, the type began route-proving flights to the first

cities scheduled to receive jet service. These operations were designed to familiarize not only flight crews but ground staff as well. Pan American Airways, which had the distinction of being the first carrier to have its livery appear on a 707, accepted the initial airplane on September 29, 1958, and began training flights carrying cargo and mail between New York and San Juan under the type’s provisional airworthiness certificate.

Noise restrictions at Idlewild Airport limited ini­tial flights to daylight hours and limited the type’s maximum takeoff weight to 190,000 pounds, well below its 247,000-pound capacity. Similar restrictions were imposed at London’s Heathrow Airport and

noise regulations forced Pan Am to initially use Le Bourget Airport at Paris rather than the preferred Orly.

Even as Pan Am managers were preparing for jet ser­vice, they began discussing a lease arrangement with National Airlines that would allow National to operate Pan Am s 707s on a turnaround arrangement between New York and Florida during the winter months, with Pan Am gaining the right to lease future National DC-8s for transatlantic flights. With word of a possible stock exchange as part of the deal came rumors that it would be the first step in an eventual merger of the two airlin­ers. Such speculation, as it turned out, was premature.

Although Pan Am became the first 707 operator, it was briefly upstaged by BOAC and its smaller de Havilland Comet 4s, which began operating between London and New York-Idlewild on October 4, 1958, a scant two weeks ahead of its U. S. competitor. As we learned earlier, neither the Comet 4 nor the 707-120 had reliable nonstop transatlantic range, but even with fuel stops, they shrank the travel time sufficiently to justify replacement of piston-engine nonstop service. Several months passed before larger 707-320s began crossing the Atlantic uninterrupted.

Over at American Airlines, managers were so eager to begin turbine-powered flights on long-haul segments that they contemplated interim transcontinental flights utilizing turboprop Lockheed 188 Electras until 707s could begin flying the routes. However, the plan was negated by a pilot strike that delayed service entry by both types, which then made their debuts within only three days of each other in January 1959.

Jet service was gradually added by other carriers as 707s continued to roll off the production line at Renton, Washington. Douglas DC-8s began serving the airlines in September 1959. By the end of December, the Jet Age was in full swing, with 75 pure-jet airliners in service, along with an even greater number of turboprop air­craft. Even factoring in the cost of new equipment, the jets could produce more airline revenue by completing four trips in the same time it took propliners to com­plete three, while easily enjoying double the passenger and cargo capacity.

Aircraft floodgates opened at manufacturers Boeing, Douglas, Fairchild, and Lockheed in order to more than triple the population of turbine fleets world­wide. Air travel was about to expand tremendously.



he 1950s was an incredible decade to be living in America. With World War II fading into distant memory, the country entered a prosperous and momen­tous era with a clear emphasis on the future. Military supersonic flight was now a matter of routine and visions of manned space travel entered the public con­sciousness for the very first time, but the most revolu­tionary aspect of all this futurism was the turbine engine. Just mentioning the word “jet” conjured up visions of great speed and power or snow-white con­trails seen against a stratospheric blue sky, and the mass public seemed suddenly swept up in the great expecta­tions of the new futuristic Jet Age.

Before World War II, the mere thought of an airline passenger purchasing a ticket and boarding a jet – powered airliner to fly to some exotic far-off locale at nearly 600 mph would have been pure science fiction. Then, in May 1952, Britain’s elegant de Havilland Comet 1 boarded its first passengers and took to the European skies. Although the commercial Jet Age didn’t begin in earnest until 1959, the die had been cast and airline passengers were soon flying at speeds and alti­tudes once strictly the domain of record-breaking mili­tary test pilots, little more than a decade earlier. A major
difference, however, is that these lucky passengers were dining on four-star cuisine surrounded by sublime lux­ury while flying at speeds approaching Mach 1!

This book celebrates the magical years from 1952 to 1962 with an in-depth look at the amazing machines that made commercial jet flight possible, as seen from the perspective of the propeller-driven aircraft that were in worldwide service prior to the introduction of the jets. The span of time from the zenith of piston-powered luxury airliners to the world’s first intercontinental jet­liners was only five short years, but this paradigm shift in powerplants, speed, and luxury revolutionized air travel forever.

So fasten your seatbelt, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride as authors Jon Proctor, Mike Machat, and Craig Kodera take you along for literary flights in the world’s most luxurious propliners and pioneering first – generation jetliners, using magnificent original color photography from their respective collections coupled with industry-wide photos and memorabilia. It will be a memorable journey steeped in airline nostalgia and history, and will probably make you long once again for this incredible era in aviation that is, sadly, now gone forever.


Distilled water, injected into the Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojets to augment thrust, produces heavy black smoke as a brand-new American Airlines 707 Jet Flagship lifts off the runway for another transcontinental flight in 1959.

(Charlie Atterbury)


Safety and Reliability—Not Quite There Yet

Perhaps the greatest impediment to the widespread acceptance of air travel as the key mode of transportation in this country, and around the world for that matter, was the ever-present perception of the danger of flying. During the 1920s and 1930s, survival in air transporta­tion was almost akin to living in the Wild West of the nineteenth century, comparable to traversing the coun­try in covered wagons through Indian territory. Airliner crashes became constant newsreel fodder, and mothers begged their sons to take the train and not fly. The Fokker Trimotor or Curtiss Condor seemed like lumbering box kites just waiting to be swatted out of the sky by a fierce storm.

However, each successive decade following World War I did indeed manage to see incremental and then quantum advances in aircraft design, and as a conse­quence, airframe and systems reliability marched steadily forward. Compare the change from the wooden Fokker X to the all-metal Ford Trimotor. It was a wooden-wing spar in a Fokker that broke apart in a thunderstorm killing famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and galvanizing public sentiment against air travel. It was nothing less than a tectonic shift from the corrugated Ford to the sleek monocoque Boeing 247, and then the grand DC-3 in 1936.

These aircraft brought new standards of flying safety and reliability, but all things remained relative, and airplanes still had a nasty tendency to crash. As dis­cussed later, the airlines of the 1930s were obsessed with advertising campaigns aimed at bolstering the safety of flight and the quality of their product. American Airlines even went so far as to broach the subject of safety in their ads. That frankness seemed to have a pos­itive effect overall, but flying was still not like taking the old, dependable train.

Following World War II, four-engine transports like the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-6, along with the new twins from Convair and Martin, launched the next refinement of the technological base featuring pressurized passenger cabins and strong all – metal construction utilizing new advanced aluminum materials. Augmenting this were radio navigation aids, a flight engineer to handle the new complex technolo­gies, weather mitigating devices such as heated wing and tail leading edges and propeller deicing systems, and of course, the obvious redundancy of two more engines on the larger transports.

And yet, airliners kept running afoul of consistent safety records. Airplanes still crashed often enough to give many folks a fleeting second thought before board­ing a “giant silver bird” or “queen of the sky” bound for points near and far. Train service continued to main­tain its passenger appeal even throughout the 1950s. So what was causing that persistent, albeit lowered, sense of worry when it came to flying commercially?

The Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) mandated that all Low – and Medium-Frequency (LMF) radio ranges be decommissioned in favor of new the technology, Visual Omni Range (VOR). Lighted air­ways were nearly a relic of the past, leftovers of the air­mail open cockpit days. Most major airports were now equipped with Instrument Landing System (ILS) preci­sion approach aids, and en route traffic radar centers popped up across the nation to separate airplanes from one another along the airways. Aircraft were flying higher and avoiding more weather, flying faster to stay ahead of that weather, and flying with greater fuel range

Safety and Reliability—Not Quite There Yet

As the airline industry matured and grew, new modern "super airports" came into existence to serve the equally new and modern airliners carrying more and more pas­sengers every year. Here we see a gleaming new LaGuardia Airport terminal and tower with a United DC-3 flying overhead in 1939. The terminal building contained a glamorous restaurant and sweeping obser­vation deck back in the day when a trip to the airport was considered an exciting excursion for the entire family. (Mike Machat Collection)

so as to be able to go around that weather. Advanced weather radar onboard the DC-6B, DC-7 series, and 1049/1649 Constellation series (covered in Chapters 3, 4, and 5, respectively) all added more margins of dependability to daily airline operations. So why were airliners continuing to fall out of the sky?

For all the technology invented to improve piston – powered airplanes, and as the working and regulatory environment for fast aircraft continued to grow (although always seemingly behind the latest speed and efficiency of the airplanes it served), it appeared that two chronic problems kept hampering a better safety record for airliners in the late 1940s and the 1950s: unre­liable technology and weather.

Piston engines such as the Wright R-3350 Turbo Compound or Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Double Wasp certainly marked the pinnacle of reciprocating power – plant technology and made possible the advancements noted above, but the very complexity of these engines was also their Achilles heel. More complex than a Swiss watch, these engines required as much maintenance per – flight-hour as several fleets of DC-3s combined! They certainly were not reliable. How many DC-7s landed at their destinations with one engine shut down, its pro­peller feathered? How often did contemporary films characterize airliner engines as being temperamental and cantankerous devices that came apart in flight, threw propellers, and then burned up, terrorizing all passengers onboard?

When one examines hull loss statistics in the United States from 1946 to the present, the overall number of accidents still falls within a pretty narrow range. The negative trend, however, existed in the types of hulls destroyed. A striking reality found in the probable cause of each accident in the prop era identifies the air­craft more often than not as a commercial transport. As years pass with the world’s airlines fully transitioning to all-jet fleets, the same number of accidents then begins shifting more to general aviation or small regional air­craft. Today, air safety for commercial transports around the world, and especially here in the United States, is enviably exemplary, with more people flying per-airplane, per-day, and on more airlines and air­planes than ever imaginable in the early 1950s.

Although technology has truly made a life-sustaining difference to air travelers today, aviation still suffers the occasional grandiose air accident with its attendant headlines, especially those involving large jetliners with hundreds of passengers aboard. What is the explana­tion? Many times we still see weather as a culprit, for we just cannot surmount every single type of atmo­spheric disturbance Mother Nature sends our way. Mighty jet airliners have been ripped apart by thunder­storms, and ice is still the largest operational problem faced by the air transport industry. Let’s flash back to earlier times and imagine flying in a Constellation somewhere over the East Coast in February.

The airplane is flying in ice more than in the clear; and because the Connie uses rubber deicer boots on its leading edges, you can actu­ally see the wings icing up, then the boots expanding to break sheets of it loose. It even shears off the prop blades and slams against the fuselage. The weather is abysmal all the way down to a near zero-zero landing and you’re landing at a field without an ITS, so the Captain is conducting a VOR, or in really tough situations, an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) approach.

Landing minimums are higher for these non-precision approaches, which means you may or may not see the ground from those slightly higher altitudes. Hopefully the wind isn yt so strong that you are blown completely off course, placing you farther away from your missed approach point, where you either see the runway or have to execute a go-around and try again, or even divert to your landing alternate.

Our pilot has flown into this airport “a mil­lion times" and he’s sure he knows where he is by looking straight down at the ground. If only he can get a few feet lower and sneak into the clear to be able to see the runway straight ahead. As he gingerly continues to feel for clear air; the copilot suddenly screams, “Pull Up!”

But with engines snarling with increased power to escape impending disaster, the ground rushes up to meet the aircraft, the left wingtip contacts the earth, and the rest of our story becomes tragic front-page news the next morning.

More the exception than the rule, the above sce­nario focuses again on an inherent complexity, and how this aspect of postwar propliner operational capability affected air safety. Flying a large, piston-engine airliner, already an extremely complex system, within another incredibly complex system (radio navigational aids) while at the mercy of a precocious and unpredictable weather phenomena is just begging for the ominous chain of events found in all air accidents to be forged, several links at a time.

It is, therefore, a vast tribute to the men we called aviators in those days that many a safe trip was con­cluded at their hands despite all the challenges. By the late 1950s, these incredibly talented and wise individuals began to experience first-hand the almost unbelievable improvement in safety standards, and the simplicity of flight operations made available to the airlines when the world finally transitioned from props to jets.