DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.14 – 1959 Modern Air Travel

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times

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Published on July 24, 2013 at 3:00 am with 29 Comments

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.

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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.

Lockheed Constellation, the Douglas DC-7

Lockheed Constellation, the Douglas DC-7

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.

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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.

Lockheed Super G Constellation

Lockheed Super G Constellation

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?

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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29 Comments

Comments for DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.14 – 1959 Modern Air Travel are now closed.

  1. “Am I all alone in my nostalgia for the romance of air travel?”

    We hope not!

  2. Thanks for the interesting article.
    I’d like to recommend a book for anyone interested in the experience of early commercial flight. Night Over Water, is a thriller by Ken Follett. It’s fiction but the author did his research to give a historically accurate portrayal of a trans- Atlantic flight on the last Pan-Am clipper in 1939.
    My first flight was a bit past this time frame. I took a Delta jet, from LA to Dallas, in 1968. Even at that late date, people still “dressed” for travel. I was 16 and wore my best Nehru jacket. I’m glad there are no pictures of the event…..

  3. Love that photo of the four well dressed passengers on a C-shaped couch. They have drinks and the gentleman is lighting the lady in red’s cigarette. That just about sums up this period in time.

    While the apex of luxury travel had already passed, I can still remember all those beautiful stewardesses in their stylish short dresses with scarves and matching hand bags.

    I recall flying from LA to Japan (via Hawaii) on TWA in the very early 70′s. I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old but the experience made such an impression on me. All those hours on the plane, and I really loved the entire experience.

    Today, flying is an ordeal. Something to be tolerated in order to get from point A to point B. what a shame.

    • A red C-shaped couch on a United DC-7 very much like the one shown in your article was how I arrived in California from my native New Jersey in 1956. We were late in arriving to our flight. The plane was already taxiing to the runway when we showed up. The counter people radioed the pilot, and they brought the plane back to the terminal to pick us up! Yep, there have been a few changes in air travel! The stewardesses apologized as they took us to the very back of the plane to those red seats. Apparently the flight was slightly overbooked, but the lounge in the back had room for 8-10 people. Intended as a place for the passengers to take a break on the long flight, it also allowed the airline to accommodate a few extra guests. As a kid of 8 years old, I felt like I was on a space ship. I spent the better part of the flight turned around, looking out the window. During the flight, one of the pilots came through the plane, chatting up customers and paying special attention to the kids, pinning United wings on each of us.

      Bob, beyond bringing up some very good memories for me, thanks for letting us take a peek into your days working for Disney. Always an adventure, and you are so kind to share your memories with us!

  4. You probably don’t read these comments, but I’m happy to say I had the fun of flying in a DC-3 with my company, the old Pennzoil Company. As you know, it wasn’t pressurized so we had a great view of the landscape below. I remember my first flight in a commercial jet, a 727. I was amazed at the acceleration as it pushed me back in my seat on take off. I remember when we could say good-bye at the gate, or greet friends and family at the gate when they arrived.

  5. This was a really good retrospective on air travel Bob! I know it’s probably crazy coincidence, but today I found bunch of blueprints from a Michael T. Lott regarding travel and the new Tomorrowland of 1959. Some of the stuff alludes to even faster travel through portals! Had you seen any of these designs before?

    • Agreed! I want to hear more about this Lott fellow, and other adventures.

      The timeline of this article is right around when you were working on these projects. Recently, a young girl (Amelia) has found out that her grandfather, Carlos, may have worked for you (http://storyorbit.com) – or at least met you.

      Is it true?

    • Yes Jeph216…you may have knowledge of something I plumb forgot. Walt was always looking way beyond what he had us doing at the moment for next immediate projects. I’m going to have to rat thru my archive notes (Oh god but my back room is a mess, it may take some time, but I’ll look)

  6. Yes, the flying greyhound of today is not what people in those days would have envisioned as the future of air travel! :)

    To echo what Jeph216 refers to above – the timing of this article is interesting, given that we have been looking at your work on Tomorrowland over at the Optimist (http://storyorbit.com) – and just today have been talking about Hobbyland, which coincidentally also involved (much smaller) planes. Do you have any memories of working on that, or other Tomorrowland flight-related attractions like Flight to the Moon?

    • To poohmeg, other than the Thimbledrome stuff (I still have one of their earlier cars made of wartime cast aluminum) I’m not sure if we looked at something to fly that early…was it Cox doing them? But some sketches might have been started, sorry I’m getting fuzzy at age 82, so let me take a look.

      • I just think it’s cool how much of the stuff that came out of that era has come to be important in all the different areas of transportation and technology!

  7. Very insightful article, Bob. There an interesting trend going around about your possible involvement in a big project at Disneyland back in 1959. Tell me, does the name Michael Lott of Lott Family Construction sound familiar to you? Or maybe, Carlos? He is a writer that we are trying to find some information about for a friend.

  8. Dear Mr. Gurr,

    I am interested in hearing more about your trip to Germany in late 1959, you and Roger Broggie Sr.made, for discussions with the Alweg Monorail Company. I have seen an old “to-do” list created by a “Carlos” that has a refrence to your name and a visit from Richard Nixion, along with an upcoming 4 day trip to Germany to discuss a monorail.

    I would love to hear more about your trip to Germany. Do you remember if you were accompanied by a “Carlos” on that trip? If so, what was his role on the trip…and at WED Enterprises?

    Thanks,

    Eric W.

  9. Well, it is good to see I am not alone here, Bob Gurr, to inquire Carlos’ relations with your projects. The Optimist Project has sort of spun its Wheel Of Names and has landed on you, I guess! Does the name Carlos come to mind from ’59?

    • OP, never heard of your OP thing…I’m trying to remember the folks that were trying to help Alweg sell a Monorail system to some agency in Caracas at the time. Going into the 1960s I did do some work in L.A. for Sexton Holmquist who made a number of trips to Caracas…could be a place where a Latin name like Carlos would be common. I did see some early maps of how they were going to do it. Sorry I can’t add any more to answer your question.

      • My bad, Mr. Gurr. In a nutshell, Disney is holding a game to solve a mystery in relation to a girl named Amelia at [http://storyorbit.com/] whose grandfather deceased a month ago. This grandfather of hers contributed to many different things during the late 50s/60s, and one of his projects with Walt was “eticket59″, as described on a discovered to-do list of his own. The “OP” project is named by Disney Imagineering as The Optimist, and has an official page on Disney’s own website at [http://optimist.disney.com]. Recently, Amelia mentioned your name in relation to her deceased grandfather, flocking about 10 users to this page. Hope it did not create an inconvience, Mr. Gurr. Besides, you are a true hero of mine. The original PeopleMover was my favorite ride, and long for its return!

  10. I just flew 14 hours from Sydney to LA on an Airbus A380. What a marvelous piece of machinery! Even though I was in economy, I still got 2 full meals, snacks, and alcohol, and it was all complimentary. They even let me check 2 bags for free. It’s amazing to think that was how all flights were regardless of where you were flying. Thanks for another great article, Bob! Will you by chance be at D23 in a few weeks?

    • Bob will actually be a featured guest at the MiceChat D23 booth. We’ll have a schedule out soon of all our guests and activities.

  11. Great article! I wish that things in the world today had a stronger sense of class!

  12. Dear Mr. Gurr-

    I can tell that you are very passionate about the world of flight; you and Disney both loved going the new heights. I was wondering…do you have any interest in Space Travel?

    • Love of Flight? – You betcha, I flew sailplanes and motorgliders for 50 years. Two weeks ago I visited Virgin Galactic and was invited into their SpaceShipOne.

  13. Excellent article, Bob. I was not around to experience the golden age of air travel, but it certainly seems like it was a delightful experience. It’s too bad that air travel today is something that few seem to genuinely enjoy as it is a hassle to deal with checking in and security and boarding the plane. I wonder if the experience has declined due mostly to changes in passenger standards or airline standards. I suppose it could be both. But without the airlines maintaining the standard they once had, it is hard to blame passengers for not dressing up or making more of an occasion out of it.

  14. The American public unwittingly demanded the air service we currently have, yet yearn for the service that was. It’s sort of like the Congress we say we want versus the one we keep electing. You can’t have everything for nothing.

  15. Oh, to have flown on a Connie!! Growing up next to LAX I can remember when Western Airlines still flew Lockheed Electras, and my first airplane trip was on a Boeing 720B, but the grand days of air travel had already passed me by at that time. I wonder if Bob ever flew on one of those L.A. Airways helicopters that used to run between LAX and Disneyland (until a couple of accidents hastened their end).

    • L.A. Airways was started in 1947 by the father of one of my schoolmates, Larry Belinn. I watched the very first flight, which landed at my high school field in North Hollywood with a Sikorsky S50 delivering air mail. In the 50s and 60s I flew LAA all over Southern California until the two fatal accidents – my log book shows I flew on both doomed aircraft several times. I also attended a LAA reunion a few years ago – only passenger to show up.