Let’s go up, up and away with Disney Legend Bob Gurr as he takes us back to the Golden Age of Air Travel. Yes, there really was a time when folks dressed up to fly and when stewardesses greeted passengers at their seats with a freshly poured flute of champagne. Let’s see what the amazing Bob Gurr has in store for us with the latest spin of the wheel of years . . .
The Wheel of Years has stopped at 1959, so here we go. If you were born after around 1960 or so, you probably missed the Golden Age of Modern Air Travel – I mean the age of dressy travelers and big round noisy engines with propellors. Yes, those giant whirling fans right outside your window, chopping the air to bits and hammering your ears into submission. Quite amazing! Cross America in one day with only one stop to buy gas. I used to do that – and I still have the records of every flight I’ve ever taken in my entire life, starting with a ride in the Goodyear Blimp in 1942, in Arcadia, California.
You betcha – air travel was something very special to me. The planes, and the blimp, were adventures. Not at all like the test of patience and endurance today, what with post 9/11 security checks, ever increasing fees for baggage, snacks, pillows and such. No sir – not just plain transportation, but actual voyages. Going somewhere by air was approached with exciting anticipation, not the dread of long waits, long lines, half undressing for the scanners, removing everything from your pockets, even including scraps of paper. If you goof anything up, you get pulled aside and electronically wanded by a government security agent. But it was not like this forty years ago.
A reminisce back thru my flight records show a tale of flight experiences in what are now regarded as classic aircraft. My first airplane ride was in a private Weatherhead Corporation Lockheed Lodestar, which was the sexiest twin piston engined airplane of its time in 1946. Next was flying from Burbank to famed Catalina Island for a water landing in a twin engined Grumman Goose in 1948, then going big time in 1952 in a United Mainliner four engine Douglas DC-6B, a pressurized real airliner. Some airliners at the time were all first class, no suggestion of anything second class!
Also in 1952, the idea of second class passenger airlines did actually began with North American Aircoach, which started using old military Douglas DC-4s, unpressurized four engined planes with fabric covered interior walls which gave you the feeling of flying in an army tent. Being a low paid car stylist at the time, all I could afford was the cheapest R/T to visit my Los Angeles home on vacation from my job in Detroit. It took several stops for gas along the way. The rattling old crate could never fly higher than 8,000 feet due to being unpressurized. The return trip was a horror under rough thunderstorms with many passengers air sick and being fed oxygen! But that was the genesis of todays high volume economy class.
After just one year with Disney, I made an adventurous European vacation in 1955 during which I could experience the graceful modern Lockheed Constellation, the Douglas DC-7, even the British de Havilland Elizebethan twin, before returning via the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. This was one the first Trans-Atlantic long range airliners that began the doom of the classic ocean liners in favor of the eventual dominance of ocean crossing by non-stop jet airlines. But the Stratocruiser required four fuel stops and 17 hours to reach New York City from London, England. Equipped with the largest piston engines (4,360 cubic inches) and monster four bladed square tipped propellors just a foot outside my window, the all night racket was something I never forgot. But I did escape several times down to the lower level cocktail lounge where it was a bit more tolerable with libations.
Despite these quirky characteristics, the earlier modern airliner voyages are now viewed as something classic. Folks always wore suits and ties, hats, and carried topcoats. Ladies were just gorgeous, as if going out to the theater. Absolutely no flip flops, tank tops and backpacks, as is common today. Many airlines had complimentary waiting lounges where a hostess would gather everyone up after pre-flight cocktails to escort you all the way into your aircraft. Many times the Stewardesses (now called flight attendants) would immediately serve champagne as you settled in comfortably for your flight.
When Walt Disney started me on the Disneyland Monorail project in late 1959, Roger Broggie Sr. and I made a trip to Germany for discussions with the Alweg Monorail Company. We boarded a TWA Lockheed Super G Constellation at Los Angeles. We taxied out to near the start of the runway where the flight engineer would “run up” all for engines, one at a time. This was to make sure they would develop full power, cycle the propellors, and check the magnetos – always about 5 minutes of vibrating racket. Sure enough, some spark plugs had fouled during the taxi. So we sat for a half hour while a mechanic climbed up a ladder, opened the engine cowling, and changed a few plugs. Not like today’s jets where you just go right away. After a stopover in New York City, we again boarded a Lockheed Super G Constellation, this time with German Lufthansa Airlines. The cabin was luxurious, with several of the seats made up into enclosed double deck sleeping compartments for the really wealthy passengers – just like a railroad Pullman car.
It was common for the Captain to roam the cabin, chatting with the passengers, even inviting anyone interested up for a cockpit visit during flight. Naturally I was always first to put my hand up! As late as 2000, I was able to visit the flight decks of international 747s, sometimes with a cockpit view over cloudless Greenland. Meals were a treat; multiple courses with Rosenthal China, all the cocktails and wine you desired; all complimentary of course. TWA flew the Lockheed 1011 which was equipped with 8 first class chairs that could swivel into table service for four by adding a table that plugged into the floor. Disney used TWA Royal Ambassador Service for years. I reveled in our flights to New York City during the New York World’s Fair project having lunch with my co-workers in superb style! Unfortunately, some businessmen enjoyed their after dinner cigars, so the cabin was soon a smoke filled club. There were no rules against smoking – these were the times before anyone thought that smoking was a health hazard. Every seat was equipped with an arm rest ash tray for convenience.
But alas, the world has changed. Classic voyages are now for the private jet set, first class still offered today, but sort of a ghost of times past. Disney first began the use of private planes in 1963 with a piston powered propellor twin Beechcraft QueenAir, followed soon by a Beechcraft turboprop KingAir, finally the Grumman Gulfstream G1, onwards to a fleet of Jet Gulfstreams. I have enjoyed air travel for over 73 years, flown every major Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed airliner, plus a few more obscure smaller ones, with 1,074,178 miles and 2,819 hours listed in my flight log. Today’s jet travel is super reliable but a test of one’s endurance – the Modern Airline Era of long ago was so glorious – I’m sorry you young folks were born too late to be a part of it, but wow, do I ever have memories!
Am I all alone in my nostalgia for the romance of air travel?