The Pan Am Series – Part XXIV: The Boeing 377
1 February 2014 1 Comment
Pan American’s Boeing 377 – The Stratocruiser
One of Pan American World Airways’ most iconic airliners was Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. In the post war years and into the 1950s, it epitomized the ultimate in luxury air travel that was unparalleled at the time and probably never will be.
The Stratocruiser was developed from the C-97 Stratofreighter, a military derivative of the B-29 Superfortress. It was Boeing’s first commercial transport since the Boeing 307 Stratoliner and it possessed all the speed and technical improvements available to bombers at the end of the war.
Like the C-97, the Stratocruiser was developed by grafting a large upper fuselage onto the lower fuselage and wings of the B-29, creating an “inverted-figure-8” double deck fuselage. The aircraft had four huge Pratt & Whitney 4360 radial engines with Hamilton Standard propellers.
According to Ron Davies in Pan Am – An Airline and Its Aircraft, the Stratocruiser “looked as ponderous as the Constellation looked graceful. It seemed to bore its way through the air, defying apparent theories of clean aerodynamics. It was, in fact, as fast as the Constellation, and set many point-to-point records.”
The Stratocruiser set a new standard for luxurious air travel with its tastefully decorated extra-wide passenger cabin and gold-appointed dressing rooms. A circular staircase led to a lower-deck beverage lounge, and flight attendants prepared hot meals for 50 to 100 people in a state-of-the-art galley. As a sleeper, the Stratocruiser was equipped with 28 upper-and-lower bunk units.
Pan American placed the first order for 20 Stratocruisers, worth $24 million, and they began service between San Francisco and Honolulu in 1949. Fifty-six Stratocruisers were built between 1947 and 1950. In addition to Pan American, the Stratocruiser was also operated by American Overseas Airlines (acquired by Pan American in 1950), United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, B.O.A.C. and others.
The Stratocruiser was most remembered for its lower-deck lounge and staterooms. It was used on Pan American’s most prestigious routes and attracted the most discerning of passengers. Although its operating costs were high, they were offset by high revenue.
The Pan American Stratocruisers saw service all over the world. A “Super” Stratocruiser was deployed on the airline’s most prestigious route, the New York-London flight 100/101 and was operated until replaced by the Boeing 707. The “Strat” was also deployed on the New York-Rio “President Special” service but was eventually replaced by the DC-6B, the DC-7B and the Boeing 707. The aircraft also saw extensive usage on Pan American’s Pacific routes as well as the round-the-world service. The timetable images below illustrate these services:
The aircraft was also a favorite of flight crews, not the least for the fact that many celebrities were passengers. Barbara Sharfstein, a former Pan American purser who started working for the airline 1951 and stayed until 1986, when she went to United Airlines with the sale of Pan American’s Pacific routes, said, in a story in Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People:
“I applied and was hired as a “stewardess” by Pan American World Airways in July, 1951, one month after reaching my 21st birthday and after graduating from college. About three months later, my friend from home and school, Pat Monahan, joined me and three other new hires in a rented house one block from the Miami Airport. We started our careers flying to South America and almost all islands in between. We agreed it was the most amazing, wonderful life imaginable. The types of airplanes we crewed were: Convairs, DC4s, Constellations and our all time favorite, the Boeing- 377 Stratocruiser. * * *
“[O]ne of the most memorable times in my flying career happened on the Stratocruiser when Louis Armstrong and his band were downstairs in the lounge longing to get to their instruments. As it happened, there was a door to the cargo compartment right next to the bar. In fact, the liquor kits were kept in the same compartment as the luggage with only a mesh rope curtain separating us from what they could spot as a few of the instruments. I can only say it was fortunate for the weight and balance of the airplane that the lounge was centrally located or we might have been in trouble. Almost all the passengers were in the lounge seats or on steps. Passengers were helping me serve drinks and neither they nor I will ever forget it.”
Pan American was known for many historic “firsts” in commercial flight and the Stratocruiser was no exception, albeit, in one case, in a most unusual way. On 12 October 1957, Captain Don McLennan and crew started the four engines of Clipper America for a special mission. The story follows from the Pan Am Historical Foundation’s website:
“It was a charter flight for the U.S. Navy. The ultimate destination for the flight was just shy of 10,000 miles away, in the Antarctic at 77 degrees 51 minutes S,166 degrees 40 minutes E – the 6,000 ft. runway at the United States Naval Air Facility, McMurdo Sound; operations base for the Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze III.
“The passengers included thirty-six Navy personnel, the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and a New Zealand cabinet minister, some reporters, but public attention was directed mostly towards the flights’ two Pan Am stewardesses, Ruth Kelly and Pat Hepinstall. The pair were about to become the first women to travel that far south, and although the clipper would be “on the ice” for less than four hours, their arrival caused a big stir at the bottom of the world – and a great news story everywhere else. U.S. Navy Rear Admiral George J. Dufek, the polar veteran in charge of the operation had suggested that such a flight might provide a great PR coup for Pan Am. Operation Deep Freeze would be probing the mysteries of the massive Ross Ice Shelf. The Pan Am flight would mark the first commercial airline flight to the Antarctic. But the admiral was also in for a surprise.
“Three kilometers away from McMurdo was New Zealand’s Scott Base, and as the social calendar was fairly wide open at both facilities, invitations were extended to the Kiwis. Many of the personnel at both bases had been there for months, while some were more recent arrivals – “summer people”. But it seems the arrival of the two young women was apparently not appreciated universally.
“According to an article written by Billy-Ace Baker in the Explorer’s Gazette, official publication of the Old Antarctic Explorer’s Association, in 2001:
“Commenting on the report that there would be no women on the proposed Pan Am flight to McMurdo Sound, Rear Admiral Dufek said: ‘If there are any hostesses they’re going to be men.’
“The Admiral, before the flight anyway, was adamant about not opening the gates to other requests to accommodate women in what was – in 1957 – an exclusive male bastion. But apparently, the stewardesses’ arrival created other conflicts, according to Baker:
“The summer tourists made a big fuss over the girls, but some members of the wintering-over party, who had several more months to spend on the ice, ran away and hid. If you haven’t seen a woman in 12 months, it’s not going to do you much good to look at one who will be gone in a couple of hours. That explains why there were only 50 men in attendance.
“During their brief stay, Kelly and Hepinstall were tasked with judging a beard contest (categories included: longest, blackest, reddest, & sexiest) and were participants in a U.S. v New Zealand dog sled race. The latter event was a failure as far as a picking a winner was concerned, as the stopwatch froze up. So did Pan Am Navigator Earl Lemon’s camera, which also froze after getting one picture.
The event was commemorated in a John T. McCoy watercolor, one of his series of Historic Pan Am Firsts:
During its service for Pan American, the Stratocruiser was dressed in three liveries. The most familiar is pictured above. Below are images of the other two, the first, the original livery upon delivery and the second, the “blue ball”, applied toward the end of its service.
The Stratocruiser played an important role in the phenomenal growth of commercial aviation after World War II and remained a presence on the world’s prestige airline routes up to the beginning of the Jet Age. From Ron Davies:
“While the Constellation is remembered with affection as the epitome of elegance of the piston-engined era, and the DC-6B for its reliability and efficiency, the Stratocruiser was the last to be retired from the world’s prestige routes when, first the turboprop Britannia, and then the Comet and the Boeing 707 jets ushered in a new era that became the Jet Age.”
For additional information about Pan American World Airways:
The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories 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