Remembering the Birth of the Jet Age

Not long ago, I wrote about the sad passing of the 747, a magnificent airliner first flown for the public in 1970, whose manufacture has come to an end among all U.S. airlines. I haven’t been on a plane (747 or otherwise) in many years, but I still remember the excitement of taking a flight to a new destination, when getting there was half the fun. I do know that flying today isn’t what it used to be. In addition to extra fees for services that used to be free, seemingly excessive security probes, and smaller, more cramped seats for those on a budget, we hear stories almost daily about in-flight incidents with angry passengers, angry flight attendants, angry pets, and who knows what else. No doubt my rose-tinted memories will get a smack of reality the next time I fly.

But there was a time when it was all new, exciting, and life-changing. And it began sixty years ago, in 1958. The eventful arrival of passenger jets forever changed how we travel by air, by drastically cutting flight times–in effect shrinking the planet–and by offering more frills to a greater number of passengers on each flight.

It should come as little surprise that the jet engine—a faster, more powerful successor to the piston engine driving propeller planes—was first developed for Air Force use in the years immediately following the end of World War II.

The first commercial jet put into service by a civilian airline was the Comet 1, a 36-seat plane flown by British Overseas Airways (BOAC). It flew for the first time on July 27, 1949. Three years later, BOAC instituted a jet route from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, which included stops in Rome, Beirut, and several African cities. The most striking

aspect of the plane was its speed. While the common DC-3 prop plane achieved a cruising speed of about 180 mph, the Comet reached 480 mph, but was also quieter and relatively vibration free. However, after a series of accidents, the Comet was grounded, only two years after it began the London-Johannesburg route.

In the United States, a genuine competition between the two biggest aircraft manufacturers, Douglas and Boeing, resulted in both companies moving steadily closer to getting their respective first jets in the air. By the landmark year 1958, a new “first” in jet aviation occurred every few months:

May 31 — The Douglas DC-8 maiden flight (without passengers) took off from Long Beach, California and successfully landed at Edwards Air Force base.

August 24 –Pan Am’s Boeing 707 made its first test flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York City.
October 4 — BOAC instituted the first transatlantic service from London to New York.

 

Juan Trippe’s second “Time” magazine cover, 1949

October 26 — Pan Am, under leadership of its founder and commercial aviation pioneer Juan Trippe, made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (with a stop in Newfoundland for refueling), with a record 111 passengers. Pilot Samuel Miller became a celebrity.
December 10 — National Airlines was the first to offer domestic jet service, with leased 707s.
January 25, 1959 — American Airlines began domestic jet service, using its own aircraft.

August 26, 1959 — Flying a new Boeing 707-320, with a greater fuel capacity, Pan Am made the first non-stop New York – London flight, solidifying Pan Am as the American leader of international passenger jet flight. The airline had purchased jets both from Boeing and Douglas, although some airlines, such as United and Delta, opted for the Douglas DC-8.

The arrival and immediate popularity of jet service changed the world in countless ways. Long distance travel for tourists and business professionals had been made not only practical, but desirable.

Pan Am may have been the first American airline to offer 707 jets to the flying public, but it was TWA that was the first to treat passengers to in-flight movies. On July 19, 1961, after testing the feature earlier in the year to favorable responses from passengers, movies became standard on the airline’s New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes, followed by their addition to international flights the following month.  Alas, only first class passengers were given the option to view movies at the time, which were shown on a screen suspended from the cabin ceiling, from a special lightweight 16mm projector set up further back in the first class section.  Audio was provided via individual headsets, which also became the standard.

The first film to be shown was the United Artists drama By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Ephram Zimbalist, Jr.

But the first account of an in-flight movie can be traced back to April of 1925, as described in the British magazine Flight:  “An interesting experiment was carried out on April 7, when a Handley Page aeroplane ascended from Croydon aerodrome, with 12 passengers, and during a half-an-hour’s flight the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was shown on a screen fitted up in the cabin of the machine.”

The TWA system remained the standard for in-flight entertainment for a quarter-century, until the mid-1980s, when wide body planes first offered seat-back video monitors, giving each passenger an individual screen with a multiple channel selections. Alas, with laptops, phones, and tablets now providing passengers with much of their own private means of entertainment throughout a flight, even seat-back screens are becoming a dying feature, and no newly-constructed airliners will be including them (not good news for those who own none of the above devices).

I’d better get back on a plane soon, before I feel like Rip van Winkle.

Until next time…