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 Story of Snow Leopard – Part One: The Aircraft and the Operation

Snow Leopard-2comp

6-cat-profile-714

Snow Leopard:  a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia, mainly in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan (photograph by Steve Winter)

Part One:  The Aircraft and the Operation

The Aircraft

This is the story about an aircraft named Snow Leopard, which was a Boeing 747SP that was leased by Tajik Air, the national airline of the Republic of Tajikistan, then a newly independent former Soviet Republic located in Central Asia. The aircraft was operated exclusively on the international routes of Tajik Air and gave that airline a presence in London, UK, Delhi, India and Karachi, Pakistan.  The operation was controlled and managed by a management company in London, Tajik Air Limited.  This is what made this operation unique.  What also made it unique was that Snow Leopard was crewed by former pilots and flight attendants of Pan American World Airways, the former great airline that ceased operations in December, 1991.

The operation started with Snow Leopard’s departure from London for Dushanbe, Tajikistan in December 1993.  It ended in February 1994 when the aircraft was repossessed by United Airlines, the aircraft’s owner and lessor. What happened during these three months are stories of adventure, bravery, comedy, intrigue, loyalty and teamwork.  And they will be told in the following posts by those who were there, the pilots, flight attendants and the London management staff.

As background, the Boeing 747SP is a modified version of the Boeing 747 which was designed for ultra-long-range flights. The “SP” stands for “Special Performance”.  Compared with its predecessor, the 747-100, the 747SP retains its wide-body four-engine layout, along with its double-deck design, but has a shortened fuselage, larger vertical stabilizer, and simplified trailing edge flaps. The weight saved by the shortened fuselage permits longer range and increased speed relative to other 747 configurations.

Known during development as the short-body 747SB, the 747SP was designed to meet a 1973 joint request from Pan Am and Iran Air, who were looking for a high-capacity airliner with sufficient range to cover Pan Am’s New York–Middle Eastern routes and Iran Air’s planned Tehran–New York route. The aircraft also was intended to provide Boeing with a mid-size wide-body airliner to compete with the DC-10 and L-1011.

The 747SP first entered service with Pan Am in 1976. The aircraft was later acquired by VIP and government customers, but sales did not meet the expected 200 units, and production ultimately totaled 45 aircraft.

While in service, the 747SP set several aeronautical performance records, including three record-setting round-the-world flights, two operated by Pan Am and the third by United.

From Captain Sherman Carr, one of the former Pan Am pilots who flew Snow Leopard:

 “The airplane that was to be used for this operation was a Boeing 747SP.  * * *  The plane was originally developed for Pan Am to be able to operate non-stop from the U.S. to Hong Kong and be able to stay aloft for over 15 hours. It was actually a regular 747 with upstairs lounge seating but shortened by about 48 feet to make it lighter and additional fuel tanks for longer range. If it’s not loaded with full fuel for extended range flights, the aircraft actually scoots like a hot rod and will outperform any WWII or Korean conflict fighter aircraft and is a lot of fun to fly.  It will roll or loop or do most of the maneuvers you see at airshows but of course this is not authorized so no pilot would ever tell you he had done those things. For Dushanbe, surrounded by mountains in all directions, it was the perfect choice due to its ability to climb quickly, safely and be on its way in a timely manner and still carry about 260 people with an extended first class.”

Snow Leopard, Manufacturer’s Serial Number 21649, Serial 373 was first delivered to Pan American World Airways on May 11, 1979 registered as N540PA and named Clipper White Falcon.  It was renamed Clipper Flying Arrow on August 1, 1979 and later renamed Clipper Star of the Union on January 1, 1980. One year later, on January 1, 1981, the aircraft became China Clipper.

On February 12, 1986, as part of Pan Am’s sale of its Pacific Routes, N540PA was acquired by United Airlines.  The registration was changed to N149UA on June 1, 1986.  It was under this registration that the aircraft operated for Tajik Air, pictured below:

Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

After the aircraft was repossessed by United Airlines, it was bought by the Brunei Government and re-registered as V8-JBB.  It was then bought by the Government of Bahrain on December 24, 1998 and registered as A9C-HMH (below, left).  Today Snow Leopard is owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, registered as VQ-BMS (below, right, photo by Wong Chi Lam). She is still in operation.

747SP Bahrain Royal Flight     747SP VQ-BMS-Las-Vegas-Sands-Corporation

The Operation

Starting a new service in any market requires a great deal of research and planning.  There must be a suitable aircraft.  Government approvals must be in place.  Airport access, slots (if required), ground handling services and airport facilities (check-in desks, etc) must be obtained.  On the commercial side, the new service needs to be marketed, publicized and tickets sold.  Other details include setting up the ticket and operations offices, arranging catering, publishing an In-Flight magazine and printing safety information cards, timetables, paper tickets, baggage tickets, promotional materials and stationary.

For Tajik Air, however, there was one very important requirement missing: an operating base in London and sufficient infrastructure to crew and maintain a Boeing 747SP aircraft.  That presented a huge problem as the civil aviation structure of Tajkistan was completely inexperienced in intercontinental operations.  In fact, Tajik Air was created by the breaking-up of the Soviet Union and the then national carrier Aeroflot’s leaving of some old Russian-built aircraft (mostly TU-154s) for use by Tajik Air as the new national air carrier of Tajikistan.  Setting up a London base would seem impossible to achieve given the limited resources of Tajikistan.  However, through the foresight and creativeness of a few airline experts in London, the requirement was met.

To establish the necessary infrastructure so that Tajik Air could operate flights to/from London, a third-party UK management company, Tajik Air Limited, was formed.  Its purpose was to operate international flights on behalf of Tajik Air.  The company would obtain and maintain the aircraft and crew, organize the marketing and selling of the flights and essentially operate the flights.  This would be accomplished using Tajikistan’s Air Operator’s Certificate and Tajik Air’s call-sign and airline code.   Tajikistan committed to funding the new service and also obtaining the required government permissions for the operation.

How would this operation be viable and profitable?  The route of primary interest to Tajik Air was the London (Heathrow) (“LHR”)-Dushanbe (“DYU”) sector.  Operating that sector as an Origin-Destination route presented problems in that there was little, if any, traffic between the two points.  The question was how to fill an aircraft with 260 seats?  The answer:  Offer service between LHR and points beyond DYU.  This was to be accomplished using rights under the Sixth Freedom of the Air.

The Freedoms of the Air, established by the Chicago Conference of 1944, are a set of commercial aviation rights granting a country’s airlines the privilege of entering and landing in another country’s airspace.  The table below illustrates these Freedoms of the Air:

airfreedom

In the case of Tajik Air, the Third and Fourth Freedoms were the operative.  The former gives the “Home” (Tajikistan) country the rights to carry commercial traffic (passengers/cargo/mail, etc) to another country; the latter gives the “Home” country the rights to carry commercial traffic from that other country to home.  These rights are generally agreed-to between the “Home” country and the other country in the form of a Bilateral Agreement or an Air Services Agreement.  By using Third and Fourth Freedom rights, a Sixth Freedom operation can be created.  It is similar to a hub operation with the home country being in the middle of the operation between two different countries.

For Tajik Air, the beyond points selected were Delhi, India (“DEL”) and Karachi, Pakistan (“KHI”) due to the large number of Indians and Pakistanis living in the UK.  The schedule would work like this:  Tajik Air departs from LHR with a planeload of passengers on a Fourth Freedom flight to DYU.  Upon arrival in DYU, those few passengers destined for DYU disembark and the rest stay on board.  The flight then departs DYU with a new flight number on a Third Freedom flight for DEL or KHI.  Upon turning around in DEL/KHI, with a new planeload of passengers, the flight becomes a Fourth Freedom to DYU and from DYU, with another flight number, Third Freedom to LHR.  By operating this schedule, Tajik Air could fill the seats of Snow Leopard, and compete in a highly competitive market by offering good service with low fares.  In order to operate this schedule, Bilateral or Air Services agreements were required for scheduled traffic between Tajikistan and India/Pakistan in addition to the UK.

The published timetable shown below illustrates this operation.  Baggage tags are also shown.

Timetable Front     Timetable Inside

Baggage Tags

As outlined above, there were other details necessary for the operation.  For the aircraft, copies of the In-Flight magazine and emergency information cards were printed and are illustrated below:

Inflight Magazine0001     Inflight Magazine0002

Inflight Magazine0003     Inflight Magazine0004

Emergency Card0001comp     Emergency Card0001comp

Additionally, as part of the pre-launch publicity, an article was put in a magazine for business travelers about the new service:

LHR Mag-0001     LHR Mag-0002

For ticket sales, an office was set up in Kensington, London and a general sales agent was appointed in Karachi and Delhi.  In addition a large poster was printed for display at the ticketing offices with an image of Snow Leopard in the air:

Snow Leopard-1a-comp

The next steps in the launch of Tajik Air’s new service to London involved recruiting and training flight crews and taking delivery of the aircraft.  This will be coming in Part Two of the Story of Snow Leopard.

End of Part One