It is hard to believe that just a little over 100 years ago, heavier-than-air flight was just an idle dream. Like most everyone else, I grew up in the jet age. For perspective, this was well after the days when daring young pilots hedge-hopped their WWI surplus Jennies across the rural countryside. By the 1940’s, twin engine DC-3s with 18 or so passengers criss-crossed the country at 150 mph in all day trips. Most people still travelled by train. Flying in an airliner was very expensive and only for well-to-do folks.
Even though jets were the norm by the early 1960’s, there were still a few piston airliners flying their assigned routes, albeit to small regional airports. With the arrival of turbo-jets like the Boeing 707 and DC-8s, the era of multi-stop, multi-day DC-3 trans-con flights was over. The few remaining piston airliners were relegated to second-tier airlines flying non-glamorous routes between towns like Cleveland and Buffalo.
One of my earliest memories is of boarding a Lockheed Constellation in Charlotte. She was perhaps one of the last flying scheduled routes at the time. Connies are sleek, beautiful, tri-tailed airliners with four big Pratt and Whitney radial piston engines. Incidentally, a Connie was used as Air Force 1 during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950’s.
We were on our way to visit grandparents in Lexington, KY. Passengers were dressed in their Sunday best, women donned Pill Box hats and white gloves. Men wore suits, with hats and ties, and children were well behaved. There were no TSA Smurfs in purple, no virtual strip-searches and no metal detectors.
Dinner was served on real China with white linen napkins. It did not cost extra. Stewardesses were young and beautiful, not one over 5’7” or 120 pounds. Everyone checked their luggage. There was no vault-like door between the pilots and the passengers so kids like me were allowed to visit the cockpit during the flight. The captain would give us little metal Jr. Pilot wings for our lapels.
As we prepared to depart, it was a treat to have a window seat over the wing and watch those massive Hamilton-Standard propellers spin up. In sequence, each of the starters would whine and then slowly, the huge Pratt and Whitney radial engines would belch to life, one cylinder at a time. As each engine was started, the sixteen-cylinder Pratt’s spewed copious amounts of blue smoke, and sometimes flames. The blades flicked by slowly at first, but quickly the engines converted avgas into noise, and the individual propellers were replaced by a blurred disc.
For many older folks, these were the good old days that they still pine for, but for me they were just great memories as a kid. Things change, and not always for the better. However technologies like RADAR, GPS, NEXRAD , windshear alert systems and spherics have made our travels much safer, faster and more efficient….even as we endure rude fellow passengers, TSA intrusions, and surly flight attendants.