The Pan Am Series – Part XXIV: The Boeing 377

Pan American’s Boeing 377 – The Stratocruiser

Boeing 377 - Clipper America (Mike Machat)

Boeing 377 – Clipper America (Mike Machat)

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:

Clipper America arriving in Antarctica, 15 October 1957 (John T McCoy watercolor).

Clipper America arriving in Antarctica, 15 October 1957 (John T McCoy watercolor).

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

For purchasing information, visit the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

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

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation

 

The Pan Am Series – Part IX: The Ditching of Flight 6

The Ditching of Pan American World Airways Flight 6

On 16 October 1956, Pan American World Airways flight 6 (sometimes referred to as flight 943) with 24 passengers and seven crew ditched in the Pacific Ocean after two of its four engines failed. The aircraft, Clipper Sovereign of the Skies, a Boeing 377 bearing the registration N90943 (hence the flight 943 designation), was operating the last sector of an around-the-world flight and had departed Honolulu the previous evening.

Boeing 377 Stratocruiser - Clipper Southern Cross

Boeing 377 Stratocruiser

According to the April 1956 and July 1956 timetables (the only two available for this article), flight 6 was part of Pan Am’s round-the-world service operating on Thursdays and Fridays as flights 70/6 (all-Tourist Class) and 100/6 (all-First Class) and on Fridays as 64/6 (combined First and Tourist). Flights 64 and 70 were operated with DC-7B or DC-7C equipment and flight 100 was operated with a Boeing 377 Super Stratocruiser. Flights 70 and 100 operated from New York to London where flight 6 took over with DC-6B equipment offering “Sleeperette” service. Flight 64 operated from New York to Beirut via Shannon (April 1956 only), Paris and Rome. In Beirut, the trip connected with flight 6 from London with a stop in Frankfurt. From Beirut flight 6 continued to Karachi, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo, where the equipment was changed to a Boeing 377 “Strato” Clipper. The flight then continued to Wake Island and Honolulu before terminating in San Francisco.

Captain John Marshall, who flew Pan Am Clippers for many years, wrote about flight 6 (flight 943) in an article that appeared in Airways Magazine.  Below are excerpts from his article:

“It was a gentler time.  A journey aboard a modern airliner, especially a trans-oceanic one, was an incredibly romantic adventure, and the passengers preparing to board Pan American’s flight 943 (flight 6) from Honolulu to San Francisco on that balmy October evening in 1956 were excited.  Purser Pat Reynolds stood at the top of the stairs at Honolulu Airport and greeted the 24 boarding passengers that were going to be in her charge for the next ten hours. Their chariot that night was a Boeing 377, at the time the largest airliner in the sky. She was powered by four huge Pratt & Whitney 4360 engines and pulled by Hamilton Standard propellers.

The Stratocruiser was the state-of-the-art airline transport; there was no more luxurious airliner anywhere. She had recently arrived from the Orient and around the world, and was finally headed back to her home base at San Francisco. Her flight crew that night consisted of veteran Pan Am skipper Dick Ogg, First Officer George Lee Haaker, Navigator Dick Brown, and Flight Engineer Frank Garcia.

“The passengers were a mixed bag. There were the Gordons, a young couple traveling with their two tow-headed twin girls, barely three years old, a French physician and two middle-aged California ladies traveling alone. Businessmen, holiday vacationers, young marrieds, they were typical of those that flew across oceans in 1956. What was not typical was the adventure that was to befall the crew and passengers of the Sovereign of the Skies during the next few hours.

“At 26 minutes past eight o’clock, Honolulu time, the big Boeing lifted from the runway at Honolulu Airport. Captain Ogg pointed her bulbous nose out past Diamond Head and into the darkening eastern sky, and took up a heading for California. The flight plan called for a flight of 8 hours and 54 minutes, leveling off initially at 13,000 feet, and then, just prior to the equal time point, climbing to 21,000 for the remainder of the trip. The big Pratts rumbled their song as they settled down into the cruise portion of the flight. The weather was good and the air smooth. Dick Brown would have no problems locating his favorite stars to navigate by on this evening. Flight Engineer Garcia carefully leaned the engines and set the spark advance, keeping close track of the fuel they were burning. In the cabin Pat Reynolds and her colleagues, Mary Ellen Daniel and Katherine Araki set about serving a light supper to the passengers. Soon the lights were dimmed and the passengers settled in for the night. Pillows and blankets appeared, and they slept.

“Flight 943 (flight 6) cruised into the night at 13,000 feet until close to the midpoint of their Pacific crossing, when their clearance to the final level, 21,000 feet, was approved by ATC. Garcia set the engines at climb power, and she climbed easily upward to the new level. In a few moments they leveled off, and the crew once more allowed the aircraft to increase speed, settling into the routine for the final pull to San Francisco. Stewardess Mary Ellen Daniel had just stepped onto the flight deck to take coffee orders from the crew. Lee Haaker, who was doing the flying, had just called for cruise power, and Frank Garcia began easing the throttles back from the climb setting.

“Suddenly, in an instant, the placid atmosphere of the flight deck was shattered, and everything changed. The soothing beat of the engines was interrupted by a shrill high-pitched whine; the airplane lurched, Mary Ellen staggered, and almost fell. The propeller noise increased quickly, and First Officer Lee Haaker, who was flying the airplane, felt the controls vibrate. A quick glance at the engine instruments told the crew the bad news:  the prop on the number 1 engine was running away. Haaker saw that the RPM was rapidly approaching the upper limit; it was over 2900 on the gauge, and he quickly pushed the feathering button to bring it under control. At the same time he slowed the huge Boeing and lowered 30 degrees of flaps. This was the ‘book’ solution to the problem; at the lower speed the propeller would be easier to control. Frank Garcia, meanwhile, pulled the mixture to cutoff to shut off the fuel to the number 1 engine, and pulled back the throttles on the other three to help slow the airplane. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to help. The needle on the number 1 tachometer hit the upper limit of the gauge and stayed there. They had a true runaway.

“Captain Ogg had been sitting at the navigator’s station, and he quickly regained the left seat. He had some rapid decisions to make.  His first action was to make a radio transmission to Ocean Station Vessel ‘November’, a Coast Guard cutter named Ponchartrain, that was permanently stationed midway between Hawaii and the mainland. She was there to provide navigational assistance as well as to render whatever other help might be required by an airplane flying over that loneliest stretch of the Pacific. Incredibly, flight 943 (flight 6) was less than 40 miles from the ship, and Ogg motioned to Haaker to pick up the bearing to the cutter.

“An uncontrollable runaway prop presented a considerable problem. Unlike a damaged engine which could be stopped and the propeller feathered into a minimum drag configuration, a runaway acted like a flat plate disk out there in the slipstream, creating terrible drag.  Ogg knew that if they were unsuccessful in controlling the number 1 prop, they could well be faced with the ultimate horror of ocean flying: a ditching at sea.

“The aircraft had been in a slow descent as they headed toward the Ponchartrain, the crew trying several times to unsuccessfully feather the uncooperative prop on the number 1 engine. Ogg finally told Garcia to cut off the oil to the engine in hopes that it would eventually seize, stopping the prop.  A few minutes later there was a momentary decrease in the prop speed, followed by a heavy thud, and an increase again in the RPM.  They had been successful in freezing the engine, but now the prop was just windmilling in the airstream.

“At 5,000 feet they added power to level off, and received another surprise, one that effectively sealed the fate of the unlucky Stratocruiser. The number 4, the outboard engine on the opposite wing, was not responding; it would only run at about half power. The vital signs were all pretty close to normal, it just wouldn’t produce the power. The crew discovered that they could keep the airplane in the air with rated power on the inboards, and partial power on number 4.  They also found that if they slowed to 140 knots the problem prop out there on number 1 was just barely controllable at the upper limit of the tach, but 140 was about twenty knots below efficient two engine cruise speed.

“It wasn’t long before the crew sighted the Ponchartrain, it was a bright clear night and visibility was good. Some quick calculations revealed what they already knew to be true. With only two good engines trying to pull their reluctant brethren as well as sixty-five tons of airplane, they only had fuel for 750 miles.  It was over 1,000 miles to the nearest dry land, be it San Francisco or Hawaii. There was a finality to it now; they were committed to a landing in the Pacific. In a way, however, they were incredibly lucky. There was fuel enough to loiter over the cutter until sunup, when they would be able to accomplish the ditching in full daylight. Also they wouldn’t have to wait long to be rescued; their rescuers were already alerted and waiting, 5,000 feet below. They set up a large orbit over the Ponchartrain and awaited the morning.

“Dick Ogg and Frank Garcia turned the controls over to Lee Haaker and went aft to see to the preparations in the cabin. Pat Reynolds and her crew had already gone through the aisle and briefed their charges; Ogg and Haaker wanted to be sure that everyone knew how to handle the over-wing exits and the escape lines. Ogg later remarked on how calm everyone was, it was almost becoming a non-event. One concern that the captain had was the placement of the passengers in seats over the wings; he was afraid that when they struck the water the spinning prop on number 1 would dig into the sea, spin the aircraft around and break the tail off.

“When he returned to the flight deck Ogg had time to really think about the landing he was about to make; the last landing that the Sovereign of the Skies would ever make. It was difficult to imagine that everything that they looked at and touched in the spacious cockpit would soon be at the bottom of the sea. The book said to land the airplane parallel to the major swells and across the secondary swell. Ocean pilots often mused about how one would ever accomplish such a thing at night, or in a storm-tossed sea. Dick Ogg and his crew were lucky; it would be daylight, and the sea below was glass calm. He would fly her down as slow as possible, with the gear up and full flaps, and the nose slightly raised so that the huge flaps took the brunt of the initial impact.

“Soon the sky paled in the east, and the sharpening horizon took on more definition. Below were the comforting lights of the Ponchartrain. It was a beautiful morning, just right for a ditching, Ogg thought. He made one last orbit and picked up the PA mike. ‘There is absolutely nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘Things couldn’t be better.  I’ll give you a ten minute warning, and then at one minute to touchdown I’ll tell you, this is it.’”

At 0540 Captain Ogg notified Pontchartrain that he was preparing to ditch. The cutter laid out a foam path for a best ditch heading of 315 degrees to help the captain to judge height above the water. After a dry run the plane touched down at 0615, at 90 knots with full flaps and landing gear retracted, in sight of the Pontchartrain at 30°01.5’N. 140°09’W. One wing hit a swell, causing the plane to rotate, damaging the nose section and breaking off the tail.

From Captain Marshall’s article:

“Frank Garcia remembers:  ‘At touchdown I didn’t feel the initial contact of the wing flaps as Dick and Lee did on the control columns…I saw the water spray over the windshield then felt a force pulling me into the seat and noticed the first officer’s control column going back and forth. After that I saw nothing but water covering the windshield, and as soon as it started to recede I knew we were OK. After opening the cockpit door I got a shock when all I saw at the back of the aircraft was the Pacific Ocean.'”

All 31 on board survived the ditching. Three life rafts were deployed by the crew and passengers that had been previously assigned to help. One raft failed to inflate properly, but rescue boats from the cutter were able to promptly transfer the passengers from that raft. All were rescued by the Coast Guard before the last pieces of wreckage sank at 6:35 a.m.

From Captain Marshall:

“The rest of the saga was an anticlimax.  The flight deck crew quickly abandoned the cockpit and went aft to assist the passengers.  The stewardesses had already opened the emergency exits, and the orderly egress had already begun.  The only raft that was unusable was the one launched from the main cabin door that got trapped between the tail and the fuselage.  It was a remarkable feat of airmanship and skill that Dick Ogg was able to accomplish a water landing in the open sea with a large airliner, not only with no loss of life, but without serious injury.  Only five passengers were injured, and they only slightly.  The airplane floated for twenty minutes; plenty of time to get the 31 occupants to safety.  In fact even the dry and bureaucratic Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the body responsible for aircraft accident investigation in 1956, stated in their official report of the accident,  ‘The Board highly commends the crew members for their ability in recognizing the malfunctions and taking correct emergency actions consistent with known procedures.'”

At the end of Captain Marshall’s story, there was an interesting sidelight: When the cutter was en-route to San Francisco, Frank Garcia was told by a senior chief petty officer on board that Pan Am “was going to have his [behind] because the airplane had been dispatched with enough fuel to make it from the most critical point of the flight to go ahead or return with two engines out.  Of course we could have made it, if we’d been able to feather both of them.”

Many thanks for Captain John Marshall for his contribution to this story.  He has written a large number of stories covering his career with Pan Am, many having appeared in Airliners Magazine. He also contributed a story, “Desert Storm”, describing his involvement in the airlift supporting Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf War, to Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People, published by BlueWaterPress.  This book contains 71 stories written by people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People:

Preview

For purchasing information:

BlueWaterPress

or

Amazon

For information about Airways Magazine, visit:

Airways Magazine

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit:

Pan Am Historical Foundation

Below is an US Coast Guard film about the ditching of Pan Am flight 6: