At the end of WWII Boeing needed a commercial plane that would compete with the Douglas DC 6 and Lockheed Constellation. Rather than design a new airliner, Boeing modified the C-97 Stratofreighter, a derivative of the B-29 Superfortress bomber. The end result was a jumbo luxury liner that cruised above the weather at 30,000 feet and covered 4,000 miles at 340 mph. Inside, the plane set the standard for first-class travel. Outside it was an ugly duckling in comparison to the graceful swan appearance of the Lockheed Constellation, or even the cigar-shaped DC 4 and 6.
What it lacked in looks was offset by comfort, roomy interiors, and luxury, The lower bar/lounge sat 14, the upper deck seating 55 passengers with 28 sleeper berths. Pan Am flew the plane on premier services to Hawaii and across the Atlantic. BOAC describes its premier Monarch service to New York as a roomy flying hotel with luxurious dressing rooms, comfortable armchairs, sleeper births with breakfast in bed, and a spiral staircase leading down to the club-like atmosphere of a bar and lounge.
Back then the flying atmosphere on board was different, more relaxed. with more social interaction between passengers and crew. Captains and officers circulated about greeting and visiting with passengers. Captains occasionally left the flight deck door open, with only a velvet rope strung to keep the overly curious out. Others had a Captain’s table set up for dining with important passengers.
I remember it as all very nice but painfully slow with cabin vibrations making sleep difficult. The vibrations diminished and the excitement kicked up after we lost an engine westbound to New York. The dead prop was just outside our window in the forward compartment. After several checks by the flight engineer, the plane landed at Gander, Newfoundland. There passengers moved from airliner comfort and luxury to Army barrack simplicity. Eventually, a passing New York-bound flight was diverted to pick some of us up.
Spent the Gander New York leg in the Bar – lounge of the diverted Strato flight. Glad to be out of Gander, but as a ten-year-old, the wonders of the lower lounge were lost on me. However not on James Bond or Ian Fleming who found the lower level appealing (see sidebar). – perhaps because. drinking a Martini at 30,000 feet in a flying bar lounge was a unique experience.
The Stratocruiser’s luxury or atmosphere.was never duplicated in the early jets. Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, a regular Stratocruiser passenger, preferred its slow stately luxury to the needless haste of jet travel. It was Fleming’s airliner of choice for Agent 007. In Diamonds are Forever Bond smuggles diamonds to New York on a BOAC Boeing Stratocruiser flight from London. In For Your eyes only Bond is jet bound on a Comet to Montreal and laments the passing of the Stratocruiser. Back in the 1950s, it took 16 1/2 hours from London to new York with a refueling stop in Shannon Ireland. On the lumbering jumbo here was time for the cocktail hour, peaceful dinners, seven hours of sleep in a comfortable bunk, and wandering down to the lower deck for a dawn ‘Country House Breakfast’. On the Comet or Boeing 707 speed replaced that feeling of suspended time and space. No more visits from the captain now absorbed in cockpit duties of a fast jet flight.[Read about James Bond’s Stratocruiser flights in ‘POST’ or click the link to the right.]
Mechanically temperamental, the cantankerous engines were high maintenance and the aircraft was a flop with commercial airlines with only 56 sold. Of those 56, 10 were lost in flight taking with them 135 lives. Luckily for Boeing the Stratocruiser was a hit with the military (the Air Force purchased nine hundred).
The last flight of the 377 with BOAC was in 1959, replaced by the Boeing 707. By November 1960 only a weekly Pan Am Honolulu to Singapore flight remained, and the 377 was retired by Pan Am in 1961.
Today, as I sit squeezed into a narrow seat with no legroom, I think back to the wide seats and comfort of the luxury compartment on the old Strato. Compared to today’s jets It may have been slow, but what a way to go!
New York to London on a BOAC Stratocruiser: Jeffrey W. Renshaw
Jeffrey Renshaw flies across the pond on a BOAC Stratocruisers first-class “Monarch” service between New York and London.