Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc.

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It was in July, 1929, just as the great bull market was reaching its climax, that an air-rail passenger service called Transcontinental Air Transport, or TAT for short, presented itself to the travelling public, offering service across the continent. Its originator was a financier and former editor of The Wall Street Journal named C. M. (for Clement Melville) Keys. A protégé of the late James J. Hill, the railroad mogul, Keys commanded strong financial support. His decision to create the passenger service stemmed in part from a series of shadowy confrontations he had engaged in with Frederick B. Rentschler, a corporate genius who was then in the process of building what later became United Air Lines. After grabbing control of National Air Transport from Keys and his associates (in order to complete a transcontinental link for his system), Rentschler was overheard to say: “The air between the coasts is not big enough to be divided.” This remark added insult to injury, giving the whole affair rather sinister overtones reminiscent of the monumental battle between railroad “robber barons” Hill and E. H. Harriman for control of the Northern Pacific at the turn of the last century, and it spurred Keys to greater effort in his search for revenge.

Keys thought he saw an opening: if Rentschler’s United Aircraft and Transport Corporation had a weakness, it was that the entire operation was geared to carrying mail and high-priority freight rather than passengers. United would carry passengers, but only reluctantly, for its principal aircraft was the Boeing 40, an open-cockpit biplane that could in a pinch fit two people into a tiny cabin just aft of the engine—provided the space wasn’t taken up by extra sacks of mail. As for airport waiting rooms, baggage service, and the like, United couldn’t be bothered. What, Keys wondered, if he could create an air-rail line dedicated entirely to passenger service—a first-class operation over the relatively safe “southern route” across New Mexico and Arizona to Los Angeles? With the right backing he was sure it would work.

 
 
 

Using his connections, Keys secured support from General Motors, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and a powerful group of investment bankers known as Bancamerica-Blair. Before he was through wheeling and dealing, he obtained control of the Curtiss Aeroplane Company and combined it with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation—which was a great irony when one remembers that the Wright brothers and Glenn H. Curtiss had feuded bitterly for years, in court and out, over alleged patent infringements. From this base Keys moved to acquire dozens of lesser aeronautical concerns, ranging from local service airlines to aircraft-instrument manufacturers, eventually combining them all into one giant holding company, or trust, known as North American Aviation. It was this company that controlled TAT. Keys had a sense of public relations, and he took care to sprinkle his boards of directors with famous names, among them many a Vanderbilt and Rockefeller; but none of these names inspired the confidence among the public that one did: Charles A. Lindbergh. After careful negotiations, involving a complicated stock-sharing deal, Keys persuaded the famous “Lone Eagle” to lend his name and services to TAT. And so it was officially dubbed “The Lindbergh Line.”

Thus TAT was certainly no flash-in-the-pan outfit. It had the resources to purchase ten of Ford’s mammoth Trimotors, each of them named after cities in the manner of locomotives, and to equip them with luxuries unheard of in that day: radios, in-flight attendants, lavatories, and kitchens. Furthermore, the service was inaugurated on a wave of press-agentry. The first trip eastbound from Los Angeles, on July 8, 1929, was piloted partway by Lindbergh himself. The new Ford plane was christened “The City of Los Angeles” by popular film star Mary Pickford. Whirring newsreel cameras and gawking spectators did not obscure the real significance of the flight, which was that even with the nighttime rail links included, the combined time bettered the all-rail time by twenty-four hours. “For those whose time is too important to waste” was the way TAT advertised itself.

For the typical westbound TAT passenger that summer the trip began at 6:05 P.M. at Pennsylvania Station in New York City, where he boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Airway Limited, a luxury Pullman, for the first leg of the journey across the Alleghenies. The overnight train ride avoided the mountainous region veteran air-mail pilots called “Hell Stretch,” where winds were adverse, the weather subject to sudden change, and aside from a few small fields like Bellefonte in Pennsylvania there was almost no place to land. The only inconvenience to the train ride was the baggage restriction: thirty pounds per passenger.