S.S. AMERICA, S.S. UNITED STATES sailing on the 'All American' team to Europe

The days of civilized air travel


The story of the America and United States would not be complete without a look at the planes that sent them into early retirement. By the time the America made her maiden voyage in 1946, American aircraft manufacturers and airlines were mounting a challenge to the ocean liners.

At first it wasn’t much of a threat. Not only was flying was out of the reach of transatlantic passengers at $711 ($9,000 in 2016 dollars) it was also for many an ordeal. The 20-hour flight in a vibrating unpressurized DC 4 with two refueling stops was enough to keep passengers sailing. Staggering around a transatlantic liner in a dinner jacket with a martini was a rational, more reasonable alternative, to shuffling across a cold windswept tarmac to barrack-like terminals in the middle of the night for the mandated refueling pit stops.

The beginning of the end came in 1952. While the S.S. United States was thrilling passengers with her beauty and speed, engineers at Boeing were developing the jet powered 707.  By 1959 the business airline booking exceeded luxury liner passengers ticket sales as speed and glamor moved to the air.

The following pages take you back to the airliners that pioneered the air routes to Europe we now take for granted. They flew at a time when there was glamor in the air travel and joy in the journey. Airborne comfort had not yet been displaced no frills economizing, air rage, airport security lines, stun guns and impenetrable cockpit doors. 

Take a trip back to the days of civilized air travel. 

by Eric Margolis – 11 Dec 1997

bOEING pia 707poster_memo10 - CopyForeign correspondent Eric Margolis recalls his early flights on the Boeing Stratocruiser, a ‘sexy’ Lockheed Connie and the final flight of a PIA Boeing 707.


by Eric Margolis – 11 Dec 1997
Thirty-nine years ago this week, a National Airlines
Boeing 707 flew from New York to Miami – the first
commercial jet flight in the USA. The great air
transport revolution had begun.

And what a revolution it was. I vividly recall as a
child flying in 1949 from New York to Paris in a
prop-driven, Boeing Stratocruiser, a civilian version
of the B-29 heavy bomber.

The Stratocruiser was roomy, but agonizingly slow.
New York to Paris took 14-16 hours, as I recall,
depending on the winds. Prop-driven aircraft of the
era flew much lower than today’s jets, which meant
bumpy, rough rides. I even remember throwing up on
singer Eddie Fisher aboard an Eastern DC-6 back in
the early 50’s, when we were caught in a nasty storm
on the way to Miami. Fisher was extremely gracious.

A circular staircase in the Stratocruiser’s nose wound
down to where the bombardier once sat, a smart
cocktail lounge for the elegantly attired, first class
passengers. In those days, all passengers dressed up to

I actually had a costly berth bed, with curtains, just
like on trains, and recall feeling terribly guilty I
couldn’t sleep (and still can’t on planes).

Later, in the 50’s, I flew and hated loud, clunky,
DC-6’s. But I loved the gorgeous, sexy Lockheed
`Constellation,.’ designed by Howard Hughes.
`Connies’ were one of the most beautiful planes ever
built, like big, P-38 fighters.

Still, each 16 hour Atlantic crossing was torture.
Then, in 1959, as a teenager, I boarded a
just-introduced Boeing 707 for a flight from New
York’s Idelwild Airport (today JFK) to Paris. . Only
seven short hours across the Atlantic; no rough
weather, and no noise, the other curse of piston
engines. I was thrilled. The 707 was a miracle in sheet

The robust 707 flew twice as fast, a third higher, and
carried more than twice the passengers of older
aircraft. Its four jet engines were far more reliable and
TWA Boeingsafer than piston engines, which shot out flames at
night, petrifying passengers. The 707 opened the era
of popular air travel and mass tourism, driving
passenger trains, buses, and ocean liners into

Britain actually beat Boeing by launching the Comet,
the world’s first commercial jet. But Comet was
grounded after fatal crashes caused by metal fatigue.
My father took one of the first Comet flights. He got
off in Rome,. The Comet took off, and blew-up in


“The Convair 880 flew like a jet fighter and proved to be a challenge to captains who were upgraded from props… For jets, it had a “first love” impact with its agility and maneuverability … The 880 was a Corvette compared to the truck-like 707.” TWA captain Walt Gunn from A Life Aloft

Convair launched two competitors to the 707: the 880

and 990 `Coronado,’ sleek, beautiful planes, smaller
and faster than the stout 707. A Swissair Coronado
set a world speed record in the late 1950’s when the
jet stream boosted it to supersonic speed. But the
Coronados, which I really liked, carried too few
passengers and lost money,. They were taken out of
service. The handsome Douglas DC-8, an excellent,
sturdy aircraft, became the 707’s main rival. France’s
excellent Caravelle jet lacked the range to compete.

Today, most 707’s are out of passenger service,
though many still fly freight, and in military versions.
Boeing is just ending production of 707’s for AWACS
airborne radar and electronic intelligence versions.

Four years ago. I boarded a Pakistani Airways flight
at Lahore and was delighted to discover it was an
original, unmodified, late-50’s model 707, making its
last passenger flight before being converted into a
freighter. It had open shelves instead of stowage bins,
and big, dome lights in the ceiling. I felt in a 50’s time

But what really amazed me were the seats. The
original economy-class seats were larger, wider and
more amply spaced than today’s business-class seats.
Unlike current passenger jets, there was lots of fresh
air in the cabin, and room to walk around.

This PIA 707 was one of the last vestiges on earth of
civilized air travel.

Copyright: Eric Margolis, 11 December 1997


boac psterJames Bond (007) Flies to New York on a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.

Author Ian Fleming enjoyed the finer things in life and a BOAC Stratocruiser flights across the Atlantic was one of them. In Diamonds are forever Fleming’s provides us with his detailed observations of flying the big plane as experienced by his alter ego, James Bond.

Thanks to the website The Scarf and Goggles Social Club for the information


The BOAC flight dispatcher was close to Bond. She picked up the telephone – to flight control, Bond supposed – and said “I have forty passengers in the Final Lounge.”

‘Final lounge?’ Cheerful start to flying the Atlantic, reflected Bond, and then they were all walking across the tarmac and up into the big Boeing and, with a burst of oil and methanol smoke, the engines fired one by one. The chief steward announced over the loudspeaker that the next stop would be Shannon, where they would dine, and the flying time would be one hour and fifty minutes, and the great double-decker Stratocruiser rolled slowly out to the East-West runway. The aircraft trembled against the brakes as the Captain revved the four engines, one at a time, up to take-off speed, and through the window Bond watched the wing flaps being tested. Then the great plane slowly turned toward the setting sun, there was a jerk as the brakes were released and the grass on either side of the runway flattened as, gathering speed, the Monarch hurtled down the two miles of stressed concrete and rose into the west, aiming ultimately for another little strip of concrete carpet on the other side of the world.

A silhouette broke the rays of the evening sun… Tiffany Case walked past him to the stairs leading down to the cocktail lounge on the lower deck and disappeared. Bond would have liked to follow her. He shrugged his shoulders and waited for the steward to wheel round the tray of cocktails and the caviar and smoked salmon canapés.

Ian Fleming. Diamonds are forever


1954twa copy2


On June 18, 1946 a Pan Am Lockheed Constellation took off from New York bound for Paris. Shortly after takeoff one of the four engines caught fire. The flames severed the engine’s connection to the wing and it dropped off entirely taking the fire with it. The plane was still over land and the captain made a quick emergency landing in a Connecticut farmer’s field. Both plane and passengers survived the ordeal to the surprise of rescuers who were prepared for the worst.


Instead they discovered passengers recovering from the ordeal sitting on blue Pan Am Blankets, scattered pillows, with sandwiches cake tea and coffee. Nothing was going to interrupt that flawless Pan Am cabins service, not even a brush with death.

Crashes, 14 hours confined to an aluminum tube, the late night refueling shuffles to and from the terminal in Shannon Ireland, and/or a cold walk through wind swept snow to barracks in Gander Newfoundland. – none of it was glamours.

. Come_Fly_with_Me_FilmPoster_jpegThat image changed with the introduction of the Boeing 707; with flying times reduced to seven hours travelers took to the skies. Flying actually became glamorous. To those left on the ground the lucky people who flew experienced a world inhabited by attractive hostesses and a new leisure class of celebrities, international playboys, tennis pros, and carefree college students flying to exotic destinations. Jet air travel became part of pop culture. The romantic lyrics in Frank Sinatra hit song “Let’s fly away” evoked a desire escape the nine to five routine and join the fun in the sky.

Airlines were quick to market the magic and deliver the glamour. Only the best would do when it came to service, comfort and fine dining. On an evening TWA flight to Paris dinner started with fresh Malossol caviar in copious portions with an assortment of PanAmfisrtclassFrench hors d’oeuvres. On the liquid side as many martinis, manhattans, and single malt scotches as thought suitable. A choice of five entrées followed, including Roast Sirloin of Beef (carved at your seat), and Coq au vin. All washed down with vintage wines and champagnes. Then to guard against hunger prior to arrival a buffet provided sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs with Sangria and cold beer.
rememb1Today you can still buy luxury in the sky but the glamour is gone, even in first class. Where did it go?  Can we bring it back with blankets, pillows rolling roast beef carts, hot towels and good service? The answer is a flat no.  The glamour left when the terrorist moved in followed by security check, crowded airports and planes and low end service.  Today it’s just another form of mass transportation.
Well… so much for airline glamour. Who needs it anyway? It’s an intangible not a requirement to get us from point A to B. Perhaps, but it is one of the missing elements that distinguishes the deplorable here and now of airline transportation and what we all wished it could be again, a pleasant civilized way to travel.

Larry Driscoll


3 thoughts on “The days of civilized air travel

  1. Stephen Zubricki

    How do I get permission to use 2 photos I found on your web site of 1. A TWA Constellation in flight 2. Interior of airliner. The photos are for my legacy book.
    I flew out Chicago on one in 1960.

    How do I get in touch with Lawrence M. Driscoll for approval.

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