The Pan Am Series – Part XI: The First Jet Flight
26 October 2013 2 Comments
Pan Am’s Inaugural Trans-Atlantic Jet Flight
THE LAST WEEK OF OCTOBER IS SIGNIFICANT IN THE HISTORY OF Pan American World Airways. Looking at the last six days of the month, the first Amazon route service was established on the 25th in 1933. On the 26th was the first service to Buenos Aires in 1931. On the 28th was Pan Am’s first scheduled flight in 1927. And on the 29th was the first operation at Pan American Field in Miami in 1928. There were two more recent events: On the 26th was the inauguration of the first scheduled trans-Atlantic service with an American-built jet, a Boeing 707-121 in 1958, the subject of this article, and on the 28th was the record-breaking Pole-to-Pole round-the-world flight with a Boeing 747SP in 1977, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Pan Am’s first scheduled flight, to be covered next week.
During World War II, Pan Am President Juan Trippe, Charles Lindbergh and Pan Am Chief Engineer Andre Priester explored the idea of jet propulsion. However, the idea that jets would eventually become commercially viable did not have its genesis until the early 1950’s. Then, there was no jet airliner even in the design stage in the United States. Britain had been developing the “Comet” jet, but it lacked range. Boeing was developing a bomber, called the B-47, but its design did not lend itself to commercial flight. In December 1951, BOAC (predecessor to British Airways) took delivery of its first Comet, notwithstanding its poor economy and range. What Pan Am wanted was a plane that could carry at least 65 passengers from New York to London at 500 miles-per-hour. In mid-1952 Pan Am engineers Priester and John Borger made the rounds to Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed. What was seen was disappointing. The manufacturers, however, soon began focusing on a commercial jet because by September 1952, jet airliners had become inevitable. Boeing developed the Boeing 707 prototype and Douglas was working on its DC-8 project. At the same time, the turboprop engine had been developed and airlines were lining up for the likes of the Lockheed Electras and British Viscounts. Pan Am was not in the line because its engineers were of the opinion that propellers were the cause of most mechanical breakdowns.
BOAC indicated its intent to start trans-Atlantic operations with the Comet jet, even though its range required two stops westbound and one stop eastbound. Despite that, it was still 3-5 hours faster than the comfortable Startocruiser that Pan Am was using on its trans-Atlantic routes. To play it safe, Pan Am ordered three Comets although doubtful they would ever be delivered. They were not. After a number of accidents it was determined the Comet had a design flaw that required its grounding.
Other problems had to be dealt with, most foremost were the lack of airports that could handle jets, lack of fuel to “feed them”, lack of tugs to tow them, lack of suitable stairways and lack of adequate hangers to overhaul their engines. Other issues included the engine to be used, the size of the aircraft and its range, and its economics, pitting the air-frame manufacturers, the engine manufacturers and Pan Am on seemingly a collision course, given the different needs of each group.
After hard negotiations, Pan Am got what it wanted: The Boeing 707 and the DC-8. And on 13 October 1955, Juan Trippe made the announcement that he had just bought 45 jetliners. According to R.E.G. Davies, in Pan Am – An Airline and Its Aircraft:
“Each [jet] had twice the capacity of all but the largest piston airliner, had the potential for trans-Atlantic nonstop range, and was twice as fast. In economic terms this multiplied to about four or five times the productivity of the DC-7Cs . . . . and furthermore the reliability of the engines and airframes held out the prospect of far higher levels of annual utilization. “
While the 707 got all the attention given it was the first to be delivered, the jet aircraft order was for 20 Boeing and 25 Douglas machines. The fact that Pan Am ordered more DC-8’s suggests, according to Davies, that “Pan Am was prepared to support the company which had supplied it with so many reliable aircraft during the postwar years, but was also warning it that its product had to be good and that tradition and sentiment would not guarantee a continued market.” In fact, the Douglas jets were bigger and had better range than its Boeing counterparts, and because Boeing feared the foreign airlines going to Douglas, Boeing and Pan Am renegotiated the order for a bigger 707. Pan Am did take delivery of six smaller 707s in order to open service in the north-Atlantic before anyone else did (BOAC, however, did beat Pan Am, operating the first jet service to New York from London on 4 October 1958, although not daily). Boeing took Pan Am’s warning to heart. It assembled a production and marketing team that, according to Davies, “out-produced and out sold the experienced Douglas. More important, Pan American switched to Boeing as its main supplier. * * * [And] when Pan American sneezed, the rest of the aviation world felt a severe [draft] and most of it caught [a] cold or worse.”
The issue of economics of the jets was a major consideration during the transition from prop to jet. There was the belief that the jet would be a “rich man’s airplane” – “extra speed at extra prices. . . a “super-first class premium ride” for well-heeled patrons, according to Robert Daley, in An American Saga – Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire. Pan Am took the opposite view. Daley notes that Pan Am saw the jet as a way to keep costs down as the tourist fare had just been introduced with great success resulting in increased trans-Atlantic travel 30% over the previous year. Once the jets were in service, Pan Am’s position was clear, as shown in the 1958 Annual Report to shareholders:
“In April, 1958, Pan American inaugurated transatlantic Economy class service offering fast, comfortable transportation at a greatly reduced fare. Whereas the roundtrip fare between New York and London was $783.00 First class, and $567.00 Tourist class, the new Economy class fare was $453.00.
“Economy class service increases aircraft seating capacity by use of close seat spacing required for that new class…Luxury services are curtailed. Economy class service, sponsored by your company, again emphasizes the leadership in expanding air travel by bringing it within the budgets of more and more people who heretofore could not afford to travel abroad.
“Over 100 transatlantic Clipper flights per week are scheduled during the 1959 season, all offering Economy class service. Jet Clippers will operate 50 of these flights with the remainder being flown with long-range Super-7 Clippers”.
This page from a 1959 timetable (above) demonstrates the extent of Economy (“Clipper Thrift”) class service on trans-Atlantic flights. Every flight offered it. Tourist (“Rainbow”) service was only available on a handful of flights. It should be noted, however, that Rainbow (and not Economy) service was available on all flights beyond the UK and European gateway cities, probably due to limitations in the bilateral agreements between the US and the countries concerned. Deluxe “President Special” service was only available on jets. The other aircraft used on the trans-Atlantic routes was the DC-7C with a change of gauge to DC-6Bs once “over the pond”. One interesting note is that some flights offered three-class service: First, Tourist and Economy.
Pan Am’s first scheduled jet flight was No. 114 from New York to Paris on 26 October 1958. The flight was operated with the smaller 707-121 and required a fuel stop in Gander along the way.
Former Pan Am purser Jay Koren was a flight attendant on the first trans-Atlantic jet flight. His story about his experiences on that flight is featured in the book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People published by BlueWaterPress. Below are excerpts from his story:
“Pan American flight 114 to Paris, slated to depart New York on October 26th, would not only mark America’s entry into the Jet Age, it would mark the inauguration of the world’s first daily trans-Atlantic jet service. * * *
“Crew rosters had been posted weeks earlier and the lucky chosen few notified of their assignment to the first fights. Four days before the inauguration, my supervisor called. “We’ve decided to add a seventh flight attendant to the inaugural, Jay, and you’ve been selected.” I couldn’t have been more excited if I were being sent to the moon. Day before our departure, we were given an extensive briefing. * * * First Class on the Boeing 707s, with seats and aisles wider than any pre-jet aircraft, was designated Deluxe Class and Pan Am’s President Special dining service would be featured. * * *
:On the eve of participating in this historic event, although supercharged with anticipation, we all confessed to a sense of apprehension. We were about to zap across the Atlantic at more than eighty percent of the speed of sound—nearly twice as fast as any of us had ever flown before—at an altitude nearly twice as high, and in an aircraft capable of carrying double the load of our old, familiar, piston-engine airplanes. * * *
Until boarding began we were busy checking out our new workplace: its closets and cabinets, galleys and equipment, food and bar provisioning. * * * [Captain Miller announced], ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the runway. Flight Service, prepare for take-off’. * * * As we began our roll down the runway and Captain Miller opened the throttles to full thrust, the powerful force of our rapid acceleration pressed our backs into the thinly-padded bulkhead behind us. Even more startling was the unexpected vibration and violent roar of the jet engines as we gathered speed for our leap up into the night. We grasped hands and stared wide-eyed at one another in disbelief. Where is that vibration-free, quiet-as-a-whisper ambiance the airline ads have been touting? We discovered why the first-class section is now located in the front. Just opposite to piston-engine aircraft—where the cabin becomes quieter toward the rear—we were seated in the noisiest spot in a jet. * * *
“Also unlike conventional airplanes that lift off the runway in a horizontal attitude, jets do it nose up. No one has given us prior warning of this characteristic either. As we attain take-off speed approaching 200 mph, Captain Miller rotates the nose of the Clipper sharply upward. This causes us, seated in the very tail of the jet, to drop sharply downward—a sensation I would never become totally comfortable with. We are airborne!
“In half the time required of the “pre-jets,” we reached cruising altitude. The vibration disappeared completely and the engine roar subsided to little more than a gentle hum.”
Arrival in Paris
The introduction of jet service changed the travel industry forever. Slowly, trans-Atlantic travel by passenger steamship as a mode of transportation (as opposed to cruising or pleasure) disappeared. Similarly did long-haul rail service in the United States. Because of the jet, more places are available to more people than anytime in history. What Juan Trippe envisioned some 80 years ago not only has become a reality, but also a part of the life we live today.
Jay Koren’s story about his first flight on Pan Am jets is one of 71 stories in Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.
Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People
Also available in a Kindle Edition
For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline.
For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation