Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc.

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The Ford Trimotor had a fuel capacity sufficient to sustain Hight for nearly six hours, but TAT scheduled stops every 250 miles or so, partly because this increased the margin of safety in case of emergency and partly because there was a logical spacing of cities at about that interval throughout the Midwest, thus increasing the possibility of developing a profitable intercity passenger service. Accordingly, after Indianapolis the next stop was St. Louis, a harrowing landing over several houses and two highpower electric lines onto a narrow asphalt strip.

 
 

During the short ground period a sandwich lunch was brought aboard to be served en route to Kansas City, a three-hour Might away. The tedium of this leg of the journey was often broken by allowing the passengers to peek at the cockpit over the pilot’s shoulder—as long as they did not speak to or otherwise distract him. The cockpit was somewhat narrower than the rest of the airship, crowded with a bewildering array of gauges, dials, levers, and switches. There was a periscope through which the pilot could observe the tail assembly for signs of ice accumulation or mechanical malfunction. Unlike the single- and two-seat planes of that era, which had control sticks for steering, the Trimotor had two steering wheels, one for the pilot and one for the copilot.

After an uneventful stop in Kansas City, whose airport was much like the others, the plane continued to the southwest toward Wichita, a short leg of less than two hundred miles but one often subject to turbulence, The remedy for airsickness then was slices of lemon, handed out by the accommodating steward, though frequently passengers just opened their windows for a breath of fresh air. For those who could not stomach continuing, a train could always be taken, because the flight path followed roughly the route of the Santa Fe Railroad from Kansas City to Los Angeles.

The day’s air travel ended about 7 P.M. on a prairie field four miles east of remote Waynoka, Oklahoma. Waynoka was chosen because it was just a day’s flying time from Port Columbus. The town numbered barely twelve hundred souls, but its selection for the TAT system engendered a wild little speculative boom, local townspeople expecting to become rich by purchasing the empty pastureland surrounding the TAT field. Despite the modern look of TAT ’S new terminal, however, it was an unpromising place, stranded in the midst of parched semidesert.

A small but luxuriously upholstered trailer bus, called an Aero Car and manufactured for TAT by General Motors, carried passengers into Waynoka proper on a gravel road. There, shortly before 9 P.M. and after dinner in a special TAT Harvey House restaurant at the train station, they boarded a luxury-class Pullman for the nighttime trip across the Texas panhandle. It arrived at 6 A.M. in Clovis, New Mexico, where passengers were conveyed by Aero Cars five miles outside of town to the adobe TAT airport dubbed “Portair, New Mexico” for breakfast and an 8 A.M. flight to Albuquerque. The Waynoka-to-Clovis rail link was to be eventually eliminated once the government beaconlight system went into operation.These beacons, to be positioned at regular intervals along the route of flight, would allow the pilot to follow a winking series of lights in the darkness, and were similar to, though smaller than, the 2,000,000-candlepower “Lindbergh Beacon” already in use atop the Palmolive Building in Chicago.

The second day aloft differed from the previous day only in that now the plane flew over western mountain ranges rather than the flat plains of the Midwest. This occasionally forced the Trimotor to altitudes in excess of 8.000 feet, engendering considerable popping in everybody’s ears. A cabin heater, however, kept the temperature at a relatively comfortable 60 degrees. After stops at Albuquerque, Winslow, and Kingman, Arizona, the big Ford finally breasted the coastal range east of Los Angeles, settling to a landing at the Los Angeles airport about 4 P.M. The transcontinental odyssey—about 1,000 miles by rail and the remaining 2,000 by air —had taken forty-eight hours.

What became of this fascinating experiment in air-rail transportation? In one sense it was a casualty of the Depression. Transcontinental Air Transport catered exclusively to the “better class” of air traveller, charging 16¢ a mile for its services, or a minimum $351.94 one way with lowerberth Pullman accommodations. This fare was nearly half again as high as the most expensive railroad accommodations. In addition, TAT enhanced its snob appeal by lavishing luxury on every aspect of its operation, even going so far as to give every passenger on the full transcontinental run a solid gold fountain pen from Tiffany’s.