Milestones in Jet Age Air Travel

by James Kraus

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Air France Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde

Paying homage to its Jet Age subtitle, today Auto Universum takes to the skies in celebration of three significant milestones in jet travel that occurred in the final year of the 1960s: the initial flights of the Boeing 747, Playboy DC-9 and Concorde. Before examining these, it is worth a glance back to the very birth of the Jet Age.

World War II was the first major battle whose outcome was largely determined by air superiority. Airplanes had come a long way since WWI in aeronautics, airframe design and propulsion. Aircraft designers soon realized that further speed increases were being held back by the limitations of engine-driven propellers, the efficiency of which falls sharply as blade tip rotational speed approaches Mach 1.0. 

By the late 1930’s, prototype jet-propulsion engines to power aircraft were under development in England and Germany. In 1939, a Heinkel He 178 fitted with an experimental HeS 3 turbojet became the craft that marked the debut of what would later be known as the Jet Age.

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Messerschmitt Me 262

The first jet aircraft to enter series production was the Messerschmitt Me 262-1a Schwalbe jet fighter issued to the Luftwaffe beginning in April of 1944. Powered by a pair of Juno 004B turbojet engines, the Me 262 achieved a maximum velocity of 870 kph (540 mph), over 25% faster than contemporary piston-engine propellor-driven fighters. Confiscated units were used after the war to help develop both U.S. and Soviet jet aircraft designs.

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Arado Ar 234 Bomber

In June of 1944, the Luftwaffe began flying the Arado Ar 234, the world’s first purpose-built jet-powered bomber. It was also the first four-engined jet aircraft; the 234C version being powered by a quartet of BMW 003 Strum turbojets. This BMW jet engine went on to survive the war; an updated version subsequently going into production in the Soviet Union as the GAZ RD-20, powering the Russian MiG-9 jet fighter.

Olympic Airways De Havilland Comet

The first civilian passenger jetliner was the De Havilland DH 106 Comet, which went into service with British Overseas Airways (BOAC) in 1952. The Comet travelled at one and a half times the speed of contemporary propeller-driven commercial aircraft while the non-reciprocating, continuous-combustion jet engines and lack of propellors allowed passengers to enjoy an exceptionally smooth and quiet flight.

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Pan Am Boeing 707

Boeing’s first passenger jet, the 707, was introduced by Pan Am in 1958 and is considered to be the plane that formally begat the Jet Age. It was also the first plane to be widely fitted with turbofan jet engines, in this case the Pratt & Whitney JT3D. Turbofan jets are more efficient and quieter than the original turbojet engine designs.

In production for over two decades, the 707 was a workhorse of the skies, used extensively as a short and long-haul passenger liner as well as a staple in cargo and military applications. The 1960’s were the heyday of the 707 and both the plane and the decade represented the pinnacle of the golden era of air travel.

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Lufthansa Boeing 707 with Polo Red O-Series Porsche 911S Targa

The convenience and speed of jet aircraft enabled easy and rapid transit to destinations heretofore considered rare and exotic, chiefly due to the time and effort once required to reach them. For the first time in their lives, many were exposed to distant cultures and beguiling cuisines, the likes of which they could previously only experience vicariously though reading a book or going to the cinema.

A three-week span in the winter of 1969 played host to three aviation events that would represent both the pinnacle and the swansong of glamorous Jet Age air travel.

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A pair of Pan Am Boeing 747’s behind a 1970 Ford Thunderbird Landau Special Brougham. It was commonplace for auto manufacturers to associate their products with Jet Age glamour by posing automobiles adjacent to the latest jet aircraft.

On 9 February 1969, the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet took to the air on her maiden voyage. The giant plane accommodated four times the number of passengers as contemporary jetliners and was originally meant to be the epitome of sophistication with its upstairs sky lounge, often equipped with a piano bar.

In reality, airlines soon began adding seats and slashing prices (driving some into bankruptcy.) Many 747s were converted to single-class configurations accommodating as many as 500 passengers packed in like sardines. The majority of 747s and later wide-body competitors quickly turned into airborne cattle cars, bulging with low-fare passengers dressed in little more than sandals and tie-dyed shirts; the overhead bins bulging with battered backpacks and frayed copies of Woodstock Nation.

Iconic Playboy logo adorning the tail of Hugh Hefner's bespoke Douglas DC-9

Iconic Playboy logo adorning the tail of Hugh Hefner’s bespoke Douglas DC-9

In sharp contrast to the ultimate fate of the jumbo jet, on 24 February, a custom designed, lavishly appointed Douglas DC-9-32 was delivered to one Hugh M. Hefner, editor and publisher of Playboy magazine.

Designed by Hefner and architect Ron Dirsmith, the plane resembled an airborne limousine with its gloss black finish, and incorporated a gourmet-quality galley, cocktail bar, theatre, electrically rotating lounge chairs and countless other sybaritic touches.

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The Big Bunny airborne

Hef’s private suite, accessible through its own boarding door, included shower facilities and an elliptical bed covered in Tasmanian Possum fur.

The Big Bunny, staffed by a Hare Force of flying Jet Bunnies (schooled at Continental Airline’s stewardess training facility) called to mind the lavish private rail cars of Gilded Age barons. While the Big Bunny redefined private jet travel, the pinnacle of commercial jet travel was waiting in the wings.

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Air France Concorde

The supersonic Concorde jetliner first lifted off a runway in the South of France on an overcast Sunday morning, the 2nd of March. Some believe that man’s progress on earth can be measured by the speed of his earthly travel. From walking upright to moving astride the horse, sailing ships to steam; to trains, autos and aircraft. If you agree to that hypothesis, than Concorde, with it’s 2160 kph (1350 mph) cruising speed, represented an apogee of development.

Civilian man has not travelled faster before or since. Concorde flew from New York to London in less than three hours, flying so high that passengers could gaze out the windows and view the curvature of the earth.

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View from Concorde: the darkness of space and the curvature of earth

All 100 passengers enjoyed the same Concorde Class service that included Champagne and caviar followed by five and six course meals served on fine china. The dedicated British Airways Concorde Lounge at New York’s JFK Airport was as stylish as the Concorde itself, filled with iconic 20th Century designs including chairs by Charles Eames, Le Corbusier and Eileen Grey.

Although Concorde did not begin commercial service until the seventies, it was very much a 1960’s design and concept, a brilliant reflection of the embrace of technological progress that was a hallmark of the decade.

For a period video tour of the Playboy Big Bunny including a glimpse of Hefner’s 1969 Mercedes-Benz 600 6-door Pullman and vintage airborne entertainment technologies including 2” quad videotape and 8-track Stereo 8 audio, view this YouTube clip.

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2 thoughts on “Milestones in Jet Age Air Travel

  1. A landmark (or should I say airmark) of technology and design to be sure. The only thing needed to complete the story is the fashions and foods of the era…

    Very cool and interesting story J!

  2. Another aircraft worth mentioning was the 1958 French Sud-Aviation SE210 Caravelle, which didn’t achieve the expected commercial success, but definitely changed the face of mid-range travel. Most noticeable were its tail mounted engines, which bore numerous advantages. The Caravelle, designed to fly between the main European cities may indeed look familiar to American readers, not without reason, even if they are unlikely to have seen any.

    The programme was launched in 1951 by the French Secretary General to Civil & Commercial Aviation Equipment and assembly of the first prototype began in earnest in 1953. Equipment and jet engine installation were finalized in Spring 1955, and the Caravelle flew for the first time on 27 May the same year.

    Simultaneously, work began on the Caravelle 02, which was to undertake a circum-Atlantic demonstration tour, which ultimately may have led to the Caravelle’s commercial demise. The plane left Orly Airport near Paris on 18 April 1957, for Casablanca, Dakar, Recife, Buenos Aires, landing at NY International (aka Idlewild) Airport on 25 April, thus becoming the first twin-jet engine civilian aircraft to land on US soil. The demonstration Caravelle then flew on to Seattle, via Culver City where it was inspected by Howard Hughes, returned to New York on 18 June, flew off to Montreal and Toronto and back across the Atlantic via Newfoundland on 25 June for a flight that lasted 6 hours and 20 minutes.

    During this voyage, several airline companies had expressed interest in purchasing the aircraft and the Howard Hughes Aircraft Company had also said that it wanted to produce it under license. The aircraft had many qualities. In 1957, General de Gaulle returning from Algiers on one called it “the speedy, safe, sweet Caravelle” (“la rapide, la sûre, la douce Caravelle”), which became the commercial tagline that Sud-Aviation used. Shortly after the Caravelle III was launched, its maiden flight having taken place on 18 May 1958 in an Air France livery, General Electric said it was acquiring a plane to examine the possibility to replace the Rolls Royce Avon RA29 jet-engine with its own. A Caravelle bearing the name ‘Santa Maria’ was flown to Idlewild on 18 July 1960, operated by Douglas for a round-US demonstration tour before being delevered to General Electric. A new version with GE CJ805 jet engines called Caravell IV was built, embarking on a 5-month test programme at Edwards base, eventually returning to France for the 1961 Paris Air Show. A few months later, the two-year commercial agreement signed between Sud-Aviation and Douglas, which specified that Douglas would produce Caravelles under licence if US companies made large advance orders, came to an end. But order books remained empty. Douglas eventually went on to produce the DC-9, and the rest is history.

    The Caravelle, not to be confused with the 1962 two-door Renault bearing the same name is perhaps best remembered for its flight between Paris and the French city of Dijon, of mustard fame, on 16 April 1959. With jet engines on low throttle, the aircraft managed to glide during 46 minutes at an altitude of 1 600 meters (5200 ft), the whole distance to Dijon airport nearly 200 miles away. (Jet engines were then put back on full power for the landing.)

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