Graceful Bird

As a kid, I had the fantastic good fortune to experience air travel as it used to be. Growing up in the ‘50s was a true gift. Those who came along later will never have the thrill of racing a huge steam locomotive along a 2-lane highway adjacent to the tracks. They will never experience the neighborhood excitement of the day the family down the street brought home their new ’55 Buick. Above all, younger folks have completely missed the excitement when air travel was a truly wonderful experience laced with a bit of adventure or tension.

Probably the most beautiful example of utility and grace of the period was the Lockheed Super Constellation. With its dolphin shaped fuselage and triple tail, it combined form and function with power and allure. The shaking, snarling, belching-to-life of its 4 huge radial engines totaling 13,000 horsepower would stir the blood of pilots and passengers alike as they announced we were about to “slip the surly bonds of earth. ” As a machine; it represented a technology at its zenith, soon to eclipsed by the evolving jet airliners that would sweep the Connie from the skies.

Here are a few minutes of shots of the Breitling Watch Company Constellation that was restored from junk and now flies the air show circuit in Europe.

An air trip was a magnificent pleasure when these planes plied the continental and ocean routes at about 340 MPH. Tickets were expensive because the government prevented much competition between airlines. Only the well-off or business traveler could afford an air journey. The middle class took a car, train or bus to go cross country.

We endured no security lines or metal detectors. Bombs, hijackers, and terrorists were not a threat. However with thousands of individual moving parts in powerful, temperamental gasoline engines, there was always a chance of some heart palpitations enroute. The Wright 3350 engines on the Connie had cut their teeth in B-29s during WW II, but still had their quirks. Occasionally one would not just expire peacefully. Throwing a prop blade or a master rod could lead to nail-biting emergency landings or an occasional spectacular crash.  An old pilot joke about Connies goes like this:

“A DC-6 is a 4 engine plane with 3 blade propellers. A Constellation is a 3 engine plane with 4 blade propellers.”  The main difference being the DC-6 had Pratt & Whitney engines, and that often one of the Connie’s Wrights would toss its cookies along the way.

Once aboard the Connie, the seats were well spaced and comfortable. The food was good, and there was even a small pack of cigarettes served with each meal so passengers could light up after lunch. We kids would slip them into our pockets to show off when we got home.  The vibration and monotonous drone of the engines had an affect of lulling one to sleep, which was beneficial as the trips lasted a lot longer than now. Flight Attendants were called “Stewardesses” who acted and looked the part. Passengers were pampered as honored guests; not crammed in like cattle.

These days air travel has all the unpleasantness of a long bus trip complete with hygienically challenged fellow passengers; some so big they must be greased with Crisco to fit in a seat. Adding to this are the hassles of crowded airports, security screening, minimal food service, packed seating, baggage fees, robot check-in, and the occasional frowzy and grumpy flight attendant. Contemplating a plane trip is about as pleasant as heading for the dentist’s office. Yes the fares are much lower, and millions more people can enjoy the speed of air travel today, but the trade-offs may not be worth it.

Personally, this writer has reverted to land travel whenever possible. The moment that new toll bridge to Hawaii is opened, my old ’93 Jeep shall be the first in line.

If you are really interested, check out the first few minutes of this old California promo film. You will be amazed at the comfort, treatment, food, and some beautiful in flight shots. Flying into LAX, my little brother and I were astounded to see the “Daily Planet” building from the Superman TV series. It appears at about 8 minutes in if you have the time.


6 responses to this post.

  1. dang sweet story dude.


  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the post and video. It was a differnt era and I am glad you shared it with us. You are a terrific writer. thanks!



    • Glad you enjoyed it! My first plane trip was on a Boeing Stratocruiser from here to Detriot when I was 7. We visited relatives there for a month and dad picked up a new ’54 Pontiac at the factory. With 5 of us in the car, the return trip soon became unbearable. Dad dumped my infant sister and mom off in Minneapolis and mailed tham home on another Stratocruiser. My little brother and I drove him nuts for the remaining 2000 miles.


  3. Posted by Wendell on April 22, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Makes me think of when I was 5 years old, in 1968, leaving from SFO to go to Disneyland with my father – my first plane trip. The next time I flew was 1972, when we flew from SFO to New York to visit my aunt for Christmas – we flew on a 747 and it was quite an adventure for a 9 year old. I remember getting a pack of playing cards from the stewardess. A few years later, on a trip to Hawaii, my stepfather got us bumped up to first class and we got to spend part of the flight in the first class lounge at the top of the “hump” in the 747 – quite a thrill!


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