It's a late January afternoon at New Jersey's Newark Airport. The year is 1939, and Newark is the only major airline terminal for the entire New York metropolitan area. They had broken ground for another airport at North Beach, in Queens, New York, and it was due to open in a few months as LaGuardia Airport.
The 1939 World's Fair was soon to open and we were expecting a major influx of tourists to the metropolitan area. LaGuardia would make it convenient for tourists to see the Fair landing them about three miles from the airport.
The sky is cold and clear but there were war clouds on the horizon. Hitler had reoccupied the Rhineland in defiance of the Locarno Pact, and there were open hostilities between England and Germany. We knew it would not be long before we were involved. For Americans, life was getting better. We felt a gradual easing of the Depression, as more of us were working, albeit in defense related industries.
Rib roasts were selling for 31 cents a pound, the New York Times was still two cents if I remember correctly. The well- off could avoid an exhausting coast-to-coast rail trip by booking passage on one of American Airlines' new Douglas Sleeper Transports (DST), the first model in the rapidly-becoming-famous DC-3 series.American Airlines "Mercury Service" flight 401, Flagship California, would depart Newark at 5:10 p.m. and touch down at 8:50 a.m. the next morning in Los Angeles' Glendale Airport (baring disagreement from Mother Nature). It was fully booked with 14 passengers, myself being one of them.
That was a fourteen hour and 40 minute flight but when you subtracted the three hours time difference it wasn't a bad trip in those days. Coming east, however, seemed much longer when we had to push our watches ahead by three hours. The same trip by rail took several days, so if you were in a hurry to conduct business the plane made sense.
For the two movie stars on this flight who have paid an additional $160 over the standard round-trip fare of $264, they had the privilege of occupying a private compartment known as the "Sky room," where they are duly and regularly soothed by the ardent attentions of the flight stewardess.
In those days we called them stewardesses, and as part of their job, they were required to be registered nurses.The DC-3 was introduced into American Airlines service about six months after the Douglas company rolled it out in December 1935. It was the first airplane that could make money flying people and not depend on the mail subsidy.
It was an instant success pushing the noisy and dangerous Ford Tri-Motors quickly to the sidelines.Once in the air we were served cocktails, but then it was complements of the captain, who said so over the public address system. Drinks were followed by our choice of a sirloin steak or a Long Island duckling, with a choice of salads and dessert, all served on genuine Syracuse china with Reed Barton silverware.
During the meal service the captain would send back his written flying report to be passed among his guests, as he called us. Most of us did not understand the technical details of the report but we sure appreciated being informed of our progress and what was ahead of us. In those days flying was still pretty mysterious and for some scary.
One hour after takeoff, the DST was drumming sonorously westward in a valiant but futile attempt to catch the setting sun. Eight thousand feet below the land was already wrapped in the covers of darkness with only the electric fires of civilization maintaining the reality of motion.
Memphis, Tennessee, the first stop was just over the deepening purple horizon. Later the captain came out of his "office" as he called it, and walked the comfortably wide aisle of the passenger cabin pleased to answer any questions his visitors might have.
I liked the idea of being called a visitor and a guest. Later we would all retire to very comfortable berths, designed to the standards of the Pullman sleepers on the railroads. The captain would later walk the same now darkened aisle making sure everything was buttoned down properly.
By then we were all asleep, wrapped in warm cocoons of goose-down comforters nestled snugly on feather mattresses, behind individually curtained upper and lower sleeper berths.This night it was clear and the two pilots had easily followed the long winking airway lights into Memphis.
We stopped there for fuel and mail, and the captain made the landing, in the new style rather than the three-pointer which may awaken his sleeping passengers. Another crew would take the Flagship California, and its sleeping cargo on to Dallas, the next stop.
This flight is part of American Airlines "Flagship Fleet," named because each new DC-3 proudly carried the name of one of the 48 states in the union. Upon landing, the copilot would "strike the colors," as the aircraft taxied into the terminal. The flag, bearing the eagle insignia of American Airlines would always snap sharply in the wind above the copilot's window.We bumped along a bit after departing Dallas, in the wake of a passing thunder storm, but most passengers weren't bothered by the mild turbulence.
Oh, I have been on flights where everyone was so sick we thought we'd die, but this was not one of them.Once airborne out of Phoenix the stewardess would waken each of us, serve a hot breakfast, this trip it was fresh coffee, juice and a choice of wild rice pancakes with blueberry syrup or a Julienne of Ham Omelet. She would then tidy up the cabin for our on-time arrival in Glendale Airport.
When we deplaned we would be refreshed after a long night's sleep and ready for a new day, more than can be said for today's jet-lagged passengers who endure a flight over the same geography.
©Copyright Henry M. Holden