Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc.


The first stop the next morning was Port Columbus, a specially built air-rail facility outside Columbus, Ohio— the only one of its kind in the world. There the TAT traveller passed through a briskly efficient ticket confirmation, then walked out the airfield side of the Station under a luxurious orange and black striped canopy to a waiting Ford Trimotor. The aircraft stretched seventy-four feet from wing tip to wing tip. Its massive engines—as the copilot explained at a preboarding briefing—would sustain flight if only two were functioning; with only one engine the plane could maintain a long, slow glide that would enable the pilot to find a suitable emergency landing field. Thus reassured that parachutes were unnecessary (the question inevitably arose in those days), the passenger enplaned as an attendant rather self-consciously announced: “All aboard by air for Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and points west.”


Once on board, the passenger was greeted by another attendant, who introduced himself by name as the inflight cabin steward. These attendants were selected by TAT for their cleancut college-boy good looks (flying was considered a man’s work in those days), and they lavished attention on the passengers. There were five wicker seats arranged along each side of the Ford, with a narrow aisle up the center. Each had a seat belt and was elegantly appointed, with a small window next to it draped in brown velvet curtains. There was even an individual reading lamp, with parchment shade, and an individual electric cigar lighter with ashtray. The cabin was a rhapsody of brown and gold lacquered surfaces.

The pilot was already in the cockpit, his head and shoulders visible through the half-partition separating the passenger cabin from the flight-control area. He was usually a man in his mid-thirties who was being paid up to twelve thousand dollars a year. The airline had adopted the policy of uniforming its flight personnel, giving them the titles “captain,” “first mate,” and “steward” in order to borrow the reputation for solid dependability those terms suggest. Furthermore, TAT encouraged its captains to mix with the passengers (though not in flight), and it was official company policy to have the pilots debunk the image of youthful daredeviltry that the public then associated with flying. One method of accomplishing this was to have the pilots joke about their age by saying: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots—but there are no old , bold pilots!”


For newcomers to aviation the takeoff was always exciting. A muffled shout came from the cockpit: “Clear!” First one, then the other two engines, in rapid succession, clanked, shuddered, popped, and sputtered to a full, even-throated life. The noise was loud and got worse as the pilot opened the throttle and eased the Ford toward the warm-up area.

Once there, the pilot braked the plane abruptly about into the wind and commenced checking out each engine individually by running up to high power. The roar, merely unpleasant at first, became so deafening that the cabin attendant passed out balls of cotton to stuff in the ears. A Very pistol was discharged, and its green fireball, arcing up from the distant terminal building, signalled the all clear for takeoff. The plane began moving to a crescendo of noise and vibration. Bump, bump, the tail was up; a few more bumps on the two main wheels and the craft was airborne. After a climb to an altitude of about 2,500 feet, the plane levelled off, the engine noise decreasing somewhat as the pilot retarded the throttle. Cruising at about 100 miles an hour, a westbound plane maintained a relatively low altitude in order to stay below strong head winds higher up (on the eastbound route the pilot flew higher to take advantage of the velocity of the prevailing westerlies).

Once the plane was airborne, the steward passed out small aluminum trays bearing coffee, rolls, and small bottles of milk. The serving ware was a specially designed lightweight service called dirigold.

At 10:00 A.M. ,after a two-hour flight, the plane arrived over Indianapolis and commenced a slow descent toward the turf landing field on the southwestern outskirts of the city. Another green fireball arced upward, clearing the pilot to land.

After deplaning at the spanking-new terminal, which housed a telegraph office and a small but elegant dining room, passengers had a few minutes to walk about and send messages while a swarm of TAT linemen pumped gasoline into the Ford and performed other routine checks, often to an audience of curious onlookers. The terminal building also contained a weather-reporting station, one of a nationwide network of seventy-two observation and reporting stations recently established by the Department of Commerce.