Convinced the public was ready for air travel, “Lucky Lindy” launched an innovative air-and-rail service.
At the tender age of 4, Gore Vidal flew on Transcontinental Air Transport’s inaugural cross-country flight in the summer of 1929. He later said he remembered only two things about it: the sight of lurid flames from the Ford TriMotor’s exhaust through the window and a sudden loss of altitude over Los Angeles, during which his eardrums burst. “Always the trouper,” Vidal wrote, “I was later posed, smiling, for the rotogravure sections of the newspapers, blood trickling from tiny lobes.” Aviation was now so safe that even a child could fly.
Like the pony express before it, Transcontinental—TAT for short—played a short-lived but romantic role in American history. The innovative airline began carrying small groups of well-to-do passengers between New York and California in airplanes by day and trains by night right before the 1929 stock market collapse. Just as the pony express provided a unique solution to a communications problem at a time before the telegraph, TAT provided a unique solution to a transportation problem before navigation systems and greatly improved aircraft made all-air service possible.
The idea for the airline that would become popularly known as “The Lindbergh Line” gestated in the months following Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight. Convinced the American public was ready for commercial air travel, Lindbergh and key Spirit of St. Louis backers, among them Harold Bixby, Henry Breckinridge, Harry Knight and Major William Robertson, discussed the notion of a regional passenger airline linking St. Louis and New York City. To carry out their plans, however, they needed substantial resources.
In February 1928, the group traveled to Detroit to meet with a possible investor—Henry Ford. Ford was reluctant to join the backers, explaining that he was in the business of manufacturing airplanes, not operating them. Another reason for his reluctance may have been the recent death of Ford test pilot Harry Brooks in a flying accident. “The meeting with Ford was one of the great disappointments of my life,” Lindbergh later said.
Lindbergh and his group next turned to Clement Melville Keys, one of the most respected business leaders in aviation at that time. C.M. Keys had gained his reputation as a financier and corporate organizer in 1916, when he came to the aid of the financially troubled Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. He brought the company from the brink of bankruptcy to a position as one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers.
Keys was definitely interested in the Lindbergh group’s venture, but he encouraged them to think bigger. Instead of linking St. Louis and New York City, he proposed linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The start-up costs for a transcontinental airline, he estimated, would be about $10 million.
To put together such a large sum of money, Keys knew, would require numerous investors. To begin, he suggested that the Lindbergh group approach a major railway company. The railroads in the 1920s were among the largest and wealthiest American corporations. They had previously demonstrated their willingness to invest in new businesses—and they had experience in timetables, ticketing, baggage handling, station layout and all the other aspects of moving travelers from place to place. In addition, railroads could provide alternate transportation in case bad weather or mechanical problems made flying impracticable.
After several failed attempts, Keys finally arranged a meeting between Bixby—a Missouri banker and president of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce—and William Atterbury, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Sensing an opportunity to participate in an emerging industry that might complement his railroad, Atterbury committed his company to the project.
Over the following weeks, Keys and Breckinridge (Lindbergh’s attorney) raised the rest of the money through a consortium of other investors. These included Curtiss, the Wright Aeronautical Corporation, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and five investment banks. In the spring of 1928 the group formed Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc., with Keys as president and a board of directors made up of representatives from the major investors. Despite its name, TAT’s initial plan called for the airline to combine air and rail transit until the cross-country route by air was made safer with improved navigation methods. The company’s promotional material described the passenger itinerary this way: “Ride all night on the Pennsy from New York City to Columbus, Ohio. Take the plane all day tomorrow to Waynoka, Oklahoma. Take the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad that night, and finally the plane at Clovis, New Mexico, to Glendale, California, near Los Angeles.” The trip from coast to coast took 48 hours, two-thirds the travel time by rail alone, which took 72 hours.
After some reluctance to participate in a plan that had grown beyond his own and his backers’ ideas for a regional airline, Lindbergh became chairman of TAT’s Technical Committee. He and his assistants spent the next year laying out the air route to be followed. They chose 10 cities spaced out between the coasts—Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; St. Louis, Mo.; Kansas City, Kan.; Wichita, Kan.; Waynoka, Okla.; Clovis, N.M.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Winslow, Ariz.; and Glendale, Calif.— where TAT bought or rented airport sites. They also hired pilots and mechanics, coordinated airline and railroad schedules and directed the construction of runways, airport terminals and weather stations.
Between June 20 and July 6, 1929, TAT tested its schedules, equipment and personnel on numerous practice trips. Before one paying customer ever took a seat, more than 50,000 testing miles had been logged. Finally, on July 7, TAT was ready for business.
While eastbound service began aboard a Ford TriMotor in Glendale, westbound service began aboard The Airway Limited luxury train from New York City’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station. There, westbound passengers got their first look at the kind of airplane in which they would fly on their journey. To promote the new airline, TAT exhibited a TriMotor in the railroad station’s main lobby.
In a surprise choice, Lindbergh had opted for the Ford TriMotor over the Curtiss Condor, which Keys’ company manufactured. According to Lindbergh, the Ford had more power and a better maintenance record than the Condor. The TriMotor was popularly known as the “Tin Goose” because its wavy, corrugated-metal skin looked like a tin washboard and its long body seemed to drag on the ground like the belly of a plump bird.
About 50 feet long, the Tin Goose had one thick outstretched wing that sat on top of the cockpit, high enough from the ground for a person to walk underneath it. Two of the airplane’s three engines hung from the wing, one on each side of the cockpit. The third engine stuck out from the tip of the plane’s nose. Having three engines made it safer to fly than many airplanes of the time. If one or even two engines stopped running in flight, the TriMotor could still land safely with a single power plant.
Adding to the company’s emphasis on safety, TAT boasted that its pilots were among the best trained in the world. Most had graduated from the Army Advanced Flying School; each had at least 3,000 hours of flying time, and all had to meet Lindbergh’s approval.
The TriMotors TAT flew were equipped with two-way radios for communication with the ground but lacked any navigation system to ensure safe night flights. They did not fly the first leg from New York to Columbus because it was too dangerous over the fog-topped Allegheny Mountains, especially over the so-called “hell stretch” between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where the weather often changed without warning.
The Airway Limited departed New York City at 6:05 p.m. headed west, stopping along the way to pick up additional passengers if necessary. One TAT flight usually carried from eight to 10 passengers and three crew members.
By early morning the next day The Airway Limited slipped into Ohio and approached the TAT terminal at Columbus, east of the city. Pilots called the airport “Port Columbus,” describing it as an air harbor located south of the Great Lakes snow belt and west of the unpredictable weather over the Allegheny Mountains. Calm weather most of the year, combined with central Ohio’s flat land, helped to make Columbus a near perfect way station for aircraft of all kinds.
Since the city’s Union Station was situated downtown, TAT built its own train station and terminal at the Columbus airport to make the train-to-plane transfer quicker and easier for passengers. There, a TAT courier, or flight attendant, greeted passengers. The courier’s main job was to help make the travelers comfortable and to keep the group moving along on a tight schedule.
As the courier led passengers from the train station to the airport terminal along a walkway covered by an orange-and-black-striped canopy, their baggage was whisked away in a TAT “aerocar” to the plane. Aerocars were ground shuttles, part of the standard equipment of each airport along the TAT route. A specially modified coupe pulled a large two-wheeled trailer big enough for 10 passengers and their suitcases.
Inside the terminal were restrooms, a restaurant, a newsstand with an assortment of magazines and newspapers, and a special waiting room, into which the courier escorted the TAT passengers. Because many passengers were flying for the first time, the courier prepared them as best he could for what they were about to experience.
After their briefing, the passengers walked from the terminal to a plane being readied for takeoff. TAT’s 10 TriMotors were all named for cities, in the fashion of railroad locomotives, such as City of Columbus, City of Indianapolis and City of St. Louis. The name of each plane was painted on both sides of its cockpit below the pilots’ windows. Red block letters spelling TAT, with a white arrow through them, were emblazoned on the aircrafts’ silver fuselage sides.
The passengers entered the airliner at the cabin door, near the rear of the fuselage. To get to their seats, they had to climb up an inclined aisle—thanks to the TriMotor’s two-wheel landing gear. The cabin could accommodate a maximum of 10 passengers. Although the plane had originally been built to carry more people, TAT had taken out six seats to make room for a kitchen.
A narrow aisle ran up the center of the passenger cabin. Single lightweight cane-backed chairs, adjustable to three positions, lined both sides. Next to each seat was a small window draped with brown velvet curtains. Each passenger had his or her own reading lamp and an electric cigar lighter with an ashtray.
The TriMotor was equipped with lightweight seat belts attached to each chair—more for keeping passengers in their seats during takeoffs and landings than for safety. The plane’s sliding windows were closed during takeoffs and landings to keep out cinders, mud and water. But once the aircraft reached cruising levels, the windows could be opened if the cabin got stuffy. Heaters in the floor regulated cabin temperature at high altitudes.
As the engines sputtered to life, the noise inside the cabin got loud, and it grew even louder as the pilots opened the throttle. At first the noise was only unpleasant. But it soon became a deafening 110 decibels. (By comparison, modern jets taking off measure about 140 decibels.)
Back at the terminal, a green fireball arced up into the sky to signal the all-clear for takeoff. On the signal, the TriMotor moved down the runway, slowly at first, then quickly gaining speed. The engine noise grew still louder. The one thing TAT passengers remembered most was the uncomfortable takeoff noise.
Once the plane was in the air and had leveled off, the engine noise lessened somewhat as the pilots eased off the throttle. At that point the courier distributed a letter of welcome from TAT officials, a flight log for charting their progress across the country and a small oiled-paper envelope, in case anyone got airsick. According to TAT’s own estimates, nearly three out of every four passengers became airsick at some time during a flight. Chewing gum and cotton were also distributed to help with ear pain due to changing altitudes.
Along its westward course from Columbus, TAT passed over Richmond, Ind. When TAT first began flying over that part of the state, many farmers complained bitterly about the noise, claiming their cows had stopped giving milk because the engine roar made them nervous. Over time, however, the cows apparently grew more at ease, seemingly accustomed to TriMotors flying over at regular intervals.
Shortly after 9 a.m. Central time, the westbound flight landed at Indianapolis, the first of four scheduled 15- minute stops between Columbus and Waynoka to make routine checks on the equipment and refuel. The TriMotor usually carried enough gasoline to keep it in the air for six hours, but TAT scheduled more frequent stops to increase the margin of safety in case of an emergency.
About noon the TAT flight made its next stop, St. Louis, where pilots who had flown from Columbus made way for a new flight crew. TAT limited its pilots to no more than five hours in the air on any one day and also paid them well: Each flier earned more than $12,000 a year, more than twice the salaries most professionals earned back then.
While mechanics refueled and serviced the plane, the courier loaded fresh meals aboard for the passengers. At the same time, the captain conducted his preflight walkaround, inspecting the plane’s wheels, wings and fuselage, and the mate, or co-pilot, visited the weather station to get a report on conditions along the westward flight path.
TAT’s weather network was the pride of the airline, providing detailed and accurate weather information all along the airline’s cross-country route. Seventy-two expert weather observers and professional weather forecasters gave reports on a band 150 miles wide from coast to coast, creating a complete national weather picture. Their reports were placed directly in the hands of the pilots before each takeoff. During every flight, ground crews radioed updated weather information to the pilots. If an unexpected storm developed, access to the latest information might help pilots decide whether to change course or land at the nearest airfield.
For passengers, the highlight of the St. Louis-to-Kansas City leg was lunch. As soon as the TriMotor leveled off at its cruising altitude, the courier would bring out a stack of light aluminum trays and snap each tray to a bracket on the cabin wall and to a leg on the aisle. On each tray he then positioned a napkin and a small lavender tablecloth, where he placed chicken salad, cheese and egg salad sandwiches, a pickle, salt and sugar, a piece of cake, an apple and a banana. Passengers were offered a choice of either coffee or milk with their meals.
Over the mostly open, flat farm country the TriMotor reached its top speed of 110 miles per hour. Tail winds pushed it along faster from time to time. Before long, the pilots were on their approach to Kansas City, where any passenger who was still nervous about flying had the option of making a train connection. From Kansas City, the air route roughly followed the rail route of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to the next stop at Wichita.
Although TAT’s operation in Wichita was just another fuel stop, the airfield there was pretty impressive. Grass-covered runways stretched in different directions on a 640-acre tract southeast of the city. Between two runways were an administration building and several hangars. By 1929, Wichita was already the country’s leading airplane production center. The locals proudly promoted their town as the “Air Capital of the World,” with more factories being built each year. Leaving Wichita, the trip to Waynoka was a hop of only 117 miles.
Landing at Waynoka, nicknamed “Airport, Okla.,” the TAT passengers climbed inside an aerocar and were driven to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad station, where they ate dinner at the Harvey House Restaurant. The food there included delicacies that most travelers did not expect to find at a remote railroad stop such as Waynoka: blue point oysters, salmi of duck, prairie chicken with currant jelly and pickled lamb’s tongue.
Waynoka was a tiny cattle and farming town located on a dry plateau known to the townspeople as the “Little Sahara.” Though it numbered fewer than 1,200 residents, Waynoka was growing rapidly. News that Charles Lindbergh had chosen the town as a stop along TAT’s cross-country route sparked a land boom. People bought up acres of pastureland around the airfield, expecting to become rich when the new airline expanded its operations.
By 8 p.m. the courier escorted the TAT passengers to a railroad car standing on a special siding, which soon became part of a train named The Missionary, bound for Clovis. The train left Waynoka by 11 p.m. and during the early hours of the next morning wound through western Oklahoma and northern Texas, stopping at towns such as Woodward, Shattuck, Canadian, Miami and Amarillo. In Clovis the passengers breakfasted on ham, eggs and toast with fresh fruit preserves at another Harvey House.
Some people called Clovis TAT’s “Port Columbus West” because it was another train-to-plane connector. From the train station, an aerocar took passengers to the Clovis “Portair” terminal five miles west of town for a scheduled 8:10 departure. The plane quickly rose to 2,500 feet, then continued climbing toward the west, reaching 8,000 feet. The first stop of the second day of flying was Albuquerque. After that a light lunch was served, and the trays were collected before reaching the Continental Divide.
Although TAT chose not to fly over the Allegheny Mountains in the East, the western air route took its TriMotors over higher and more hazardous peaks. So many flights were canceled on this leg of the trip that critics joked TAT stood for “Take a Train.” Two months after beginning coast-to-coast service, TAT lost its first airplane to an accident on September 4, 1929, when City of San Francisco flew into Mount Taylor in a blinding rainstorm. The crash killed all eight people aboard.
The most dangerous part of the trip, the flight from Albuquerque to Kingman by way of Winslow, was also the most scenic. Between Albuquerque and Winslow the flight path took the passengers south of the Zuni buttes and over the Painted Desert in eastern Arizona. From Winslow to Kingman the air route passed the northern rim of Crater Mound, a deep hole in the earth almost a mile wide, formed when a gigantic meteor plunged into the desert floor, burying itself hundreds of feet in the ground.
By late afternoon the TAT TriMotor was zooming through Cajon Pass between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains in California. In its approach to the Glendale airport, the airplane glided over Pasadena, north of Los Angeles and over Hollywood and the movie studios. Many of TAT’s passengers were celebrities. Mary Pickford christened the first eastbound TriMotor when TAT began operation on July 7, 1929. Will Rogers was also along for that inaugural west-to-east flight, part of which Lindbergh himself piloted.
Although TAT’s air-and-rail service was well publicized among the rich and famous, it faced numerous problems, not the least of which was its failure to attract the general public. Air travel was still much too costly for most people, and the time saved was not great enough to be an inducement.
After the crash of City of San Francisco, many of TAT’s regular well-to-do passengers began choosing the train. To counter the bad publicity, TAT tried offering more in-flight amenities, including hot meals and newsreels. The changes had little effect, however, and the airline began to lose money. Then the stock market crashed.
The October 1929 crash and the Great Depression that followed affected many businesses in the United States, especially those such as TAT which served mostly wealthy customers. In addition, a second deadly accident in January 1930 made many travelers even more reluctant to fly. The company was soon flirting with bankruptcy.
TAT was not alone. Every airline lost money in those early days of commercial air travel. The industry’s record of losing money soon convinced the federal government that it needed to take an active role in developing passenger operations. So the government offered airlines long term mail contracts in exchange for their efforts to buy larger, safer airplanes to carry passengers. As a result, Transcontinental Air Transport, which did not carry mail, merged with Western Air Express, which already had a mail contract. The merger created Transcontinental and Western Air. The same day that merger was announced, October 25, 1930, the new company—which later became Trans World Airlines (TWA)—stopped operating its airand-rail service and began flying the whole route with an overnight stop in Kansas City.
At a time when air travel had been largely limited to stunt flying and airmail runs, TAT advanced the cause of commercial aviation. It did so by fulfilling its original purpose—to bring the Atlantic and Pacific coasts within 48 hours of one another. Like the pony express before it, TAT helped unite the United States.
Freelance writer Donald Lankiewicz once lived in Columbus, Ohio, where a chance meeting with someone who had flown with TAT sparked his interest in the early airline. For further reading, he recommends: Airlines of the United States Since 1914, by R.E.G. Davies; and TAT, Transcontinental Air Transport Inc.: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Transcontinental Rail-Air Service, by Alan Hogenauer.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.