December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
New York to Los Angeles in an unheard-of 48 hours! And what a way to go—luxuriously appointed planes, meals served aloft, and a window seat for every passenger
It was midsummer of 1929, and all seemed right with the world. Herbert Hoover was in the White House, riding high on a tide of prosperity and popularity. A few critics muttered that stocks were dangerously overpriced, but to most Americans such foreboding seemed no more worrisome than a small cloud on a distant horizon.
To the businessman in a hurry, time was money. He needed to get there quick, and while trains in that day were marvels of speed and luxury, the best they could do for the businessman travelling from New York to Los Angeles was about seventy-two hours, and that involved a change of trains in Chicago. For the truly busy man all this constituted an intolerable delay when urgent affairs beckoned him from one coast to the other. Consequently it wasn’t long before rudimentary airlines began to blossom in the late 1920*5, eager to cater to these men on the go. But for the most part these early airlines were local affairs, suitable only for passengers who were both brave and hardy. It was inevitable that somebody would attempt a transcontinental air-passenger service as soon as developments in aircraft technology made such coastto-coast service seem possible. Lockheed, Stinson, and Boeing already manufactured quality aircraft by 1929, but for the average American nothing attracted attention like Henry Ford’s magnificent Trimotor, popularly known as the Tin Goose.
Given the euphoric sense of limitless possibility that characterized the New Era (as businessmen liked to call the 1920’s), industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and aviation attracted investors and entrepreneurs in record numbers, at least $550 million being invested in aircraft and related companies between 1927 and 1929. Moreover, the benign policies of the business-oriented administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, attuned as they were to the subtle nuances of tax advantage and hidden subsidy, made the climate for “pioneering” as risk-free as it could possibly be.
It was obvious to many businessmen that the large bombing planes developed both here and abroad late in World War 1, which were capable of dropping heavy loads of explosives on distant enemy cities, might as easily carry commercial cargoes. With the Armistice, schemes sprang up simultaneously in many nations to do just that; but aside from mail service, commercial ventures in aviation foundered when no governmental subsidies were available, and even air-mail services relied heavily on governmental support. Legislation, notably the McNary-Watres Act of 1930, changed the method of compensating the air-mail contractors from the “pound-mile” method to the “space-mile” method. That is, instead of paying the contractors for the actual number of pounds of mail they carried, the Hoover administration agreed to compensate them according to the amount of cargo space they made available for carrying mail, regardless of whether they carried any or not.
Obviously the McNary-Watres Act was a tremendous boon to the larger aeronautical enterprises, vastly encouraging the construction and operation of large trimotored aircraft. While this might seem like a rather straight-forward denial of the 1920’s ideal of unfettered, self-reliant free enterprise, in fact there was a certain harmonious consistency between these notions and the government’s policy. The man in charge of it all was Hoover’s Postmaster General, Walter Folger Brown. Brown feared that the nation’s air-transportation network might develop in the same inefficient, messy, illogical way that the railroads had, and he determined to use the financial clout of the federal government, through the hidden subsidy of air-mail payments, to force the nation’s airlines into cooperating with one another to form an integrated, effective nationwide service. He reasoned that as long as the Post Office paid merely for efficiency, in the form of low-cost open-cockpit single-engine planes designed solely for carrying mail, the contractors would remain content to live on governmental subsidy and would never bestir themselves to purchase the large multiengine aircraft that could lead to the profitable and safe transportation of passengers. Lines that geared their operations to passenger service would someday become independent of governmental subsidy, Brown believed, while small lines operating merely as mail carriers would never leave the federal dole. Of course Brown would have preferred that well-financed major experiments in passenger transportation succeed on their own, in classic laissez-faire fashion, but such was not to be the case, as the first transcontinental service would prove.
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.
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.
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.
After the stock-market crash and a particularly nasty fatal accident in New Mexico—on September 4, 1929, when the “City of San Francisco” hit Mount Taylor during a thunderstorm, killing all eight persons aboard—the number of boardings declined precipitously. In desperation Keys took to flying his employees about to make it appear as if there were plenty of passengers. But in fact businessmen, the group TAT really focused on, suddenly found that they weren’t in nearly so much of a hurry as they had thought. Even in its best month, August of 1929, TAT lost money. Overall it lost nearly three million dollars in its short life. In October, 1930, TAT was merged with Western Air Express, which, after many corporate twists and turns, became Transcontinental & Western Air, the predecessor of TWA .
The inability of TAT to turn a profit convinced Postmaster General Brown that he would have to bludgeon the air-mail contractors into undertaking passenger operations. Most of the contractors shook their heads sagely and vowed to stick with open-cockpit mail planes. Far better, they thought, to placate Brown by offering rudimentary passenger services (mostly unadvertised), in cramped, noisy single-engine planes, than to get into the risky business of competing with the railroads. But Brown had other ideas, and in May of 1930 he called a conference of all air-mail contractors ( TAT , one must remember, had no mail contract) during which he engineered shotgun weddings of several lines, offering as inducement longterm contracts. In addition, he consistently rigged the bidding process to favor the larger aeronautical concerns, which alone could afford the multiengine aircraft that made passenger operations feasible.
Brown was operating in a completely legal, though somewhat devious, manner; but his critics—mostly-smaller aeronautical operators who lacked the financial capacity to buy large airliners—labelled the meetings “Spoils Conferences,” charging fraud and collusion. Democratic politicians began to listen to their complaints after 1932, in almost direct proportion to the amount they contributed to party coffers, and such men as Tom Braniff, an unsuccessful bidder who owned an airline in the Southwest, were known to be generous and on good terms with President Roosevelt himself. Accordingly, Senator Hugo L. Black of Alabama held a sensational series of hearings in 1933-34 during which the testimony tended to support Brown’s critics. The Black Committee’s report prompted Roosevelt to cancel the contracts Brown had awarded, and his decision to allow the Army to fly the mail brought forth the first great barrage of criticism from the business community alleging that the New Deal was “socialistic.” This criticism, in which Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Amelia Earhart, and other aviation personalities joined, was the New Deal’s first public-relations setback, but it was the Army’s sorry performance in flying the mail, rather than aviators’ taunts, that persuaded the President to return the mail service to private contractors. A few new airlines got in under the wire to join the old (reorganized) contractors in qualifying for subsidies under the Air Mail Act of 1934. but in essence the entire process tended to vindicate the muchmaligned Walter Kolger Brown. A viable national air-passenger service required the hidden subsidy, and the fine hand of government control was necessary. Once these facts were established, the future success of the nation’s major airlines was assured.
But all this came too late for TAT — “The Lindbergh Line.” In reality TAT represented a dream for which the technology of the day was inadequate. The transcontinental trip was fast, but it wasn’t that fast. It only beat the train by twenty-four hours, and the train was reliable—a businessman could make an appointment and keep it. With TAT he might be able to keep an appointment one day sooner.
Still, for all its drawbacks, TAT was a pioneering success in aviation history. It set new standards for safety and comfort, and, above all, its association with Lindbergh generated an enormous amount of enthusiasm for commercial passenger service. This enthusiasm began to pay off soon— but not in time to save TAT .
Many years later most of its crumbling air-rail stations still stood, mute and futile monuments to an idea whose time had not yet come. And today, nearly a half century later, in Waynoka, Oklahoma, all but the oldest residents seem puzzled at the mention of the name of Transcontinental Air Transport.