Chapter twenty from the book:
Ernest K. Gann's Flying Circus
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
866 Third Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10222
Copyright © 1974 by Ernest K. Gann
Illustraded with pictures from the internet or my collection.
Visitors to Israel's Tel Aviv airport in the early 1970s were astounded to recognize the unmistakable conformation of certain Boeing aircraft squatting in the boiling sun. Ten years previously at Oakland airport in California it had been much easier to believe a rank of the same type of aircraft marooned in the grass off the main runways. They presented a sorry spectacle, all sheen gone from their hulls, an entire engine missing here and another there, various elements of the empennage disappeared, windows purpled in the sun, and a general air of shabbiness hanging like nettling over the assembly. As the afternoon winds off San Francisco Bay whispered through the crevices and gaps where essential elements of these aircraft had once been and month after month the rains and salt air perpetuated their subtle attack, only the airport jack rabbits brought movement to those neglected monuments. For the passing aviation world was much too busy with jets and a multitude of new electronic devices to care about those fallen queens, who in their heyday had never enjoyed quite the total trust of airmen.It was as if man predictions had come true and harlots were never destined to become grand ladies no matter in what guise they first appeared at the ball. There had been many who believed this final repose in a scrapdealer's alleyway should have been mandated soon after their debut, for in spite of being christened by such illustrious damsels as Margaret Truman and Eva Peron the Boeing 377 Stratocruisers had difficulty living down their earlier sleazy reputation.
A part of this inability to climb the social ladder was timing. In aircraft production, as in anything else, the success or failure of any type is as dependent on timing as on either its attributes or faults. Unfortunately, there is such a mandatory time lag of years between original conception and first test flight that not even the most confident swami dares predict the sundry world events and future situations which might influence those customers who should be reaching for their checkbooks.
The Stratocruisers at Tel Aviv airport were a part of the Israeli Air Force and bought at considerable bargain in relation to their original cost. The Stratocruisers at Oakland were bought at even more of a bargain, specifically $105,000 for a total of 14 aircraft. At the time of purchase four were serviceable, tow of which had current airworthiness certificates. The balance were partly cannibalized, and as late as 1972 the bones of one were still in the same place and unburied. As such it represented the last visible remnants of the intrepid Orvis Nelson's Yankee trader enterprise, TALOA, a swashbuckling outfit which included the anything-for-a-dollar Trans-Oceans Airlines. The almost immediate bankruptcy of TALOA after purchasing the Stratocruisers could have interpreted as further proof that there might have been something of a curse pattern hovering about the careers of these once imposing aircraft.
At Boeing's Seattle spawning ground 56 Stratocruisers were eventually built with Northwest Airlines a customer for 10. They were also purchased by United Airlines who proceeded to phase them out as expeditiously as possible, American Overseas Airlines, and BOAC who operated their all tourist "Coronet" service and luxury "Monarch" service with the type.
Pan American Airways was also an early champion of Stratocruisers, although with a loss of four through one cause or another they were soon acutely aware of whatever jinx kept lurking outside the hangar doors.
Boeing has ever been recognized as creators of extraordinarily stout, admirable, and expensive aircraft. The company has often carried quality to the extreme and customer pleas for corner-cutting, and therefore price tag reduction have been ignored with unusual fortitude. It is sometimes possible to tell a Boeing-built part from an identical part built elsewhere simply by the quality of workmanship and if there is ever any doubt a glance at the price tag should settle all speculation. Unfortunately, fine and honest workmanship does not always eliminate the unforeseen.
On the ground the Stratocruiser was a buxom and quite clumsy looking bird that gave the impression of being much heavier than it actually was. Yet in the air it became curvaceous and graceful, generally acknowledged as one of the most beautiful transports of all time. An early ancestor of the Stratocruiser was the Boeing 307 "Stratoliner" design, a monstrous pressurized tail-dragger often referred to as the "Fat Cat." It too was unusually plump for its time and might have become one of aviation's milestones if again the timing had been right, which it was not. The Stratoliner carried only 33 passengers despite its four engines and cruised no more than 230 miles per hour. TWA had barely time to promote them in their service when World War II turned all energies away from the production of commercial aircraft. The Boeing company devoted itself to producing the enormously successful Flying Fortress (B-17) and late the considerably less faithful "Super-Fort" (B-29).
The Stratocruiser was basically a civilian version of the B-29 with similar wings and empennage. Both types were initially burdened with engine problems, the B-29s with the infamous pyromaniac 3350s and the Whitney 4360 "corncob" engines. The long list of woes attributed to those 28-cylinder monstrosities defeated the most determined efforts of engineers and public relations officers. Pilots, at first enamored of the visibility of any transport aircraft ever built, soon learned there was a hidden penalty for such an exalted environment. For a few their enthusiasm turned to bitterness and their sense of being master of all they surveyed from such a comfortable throne aloft curdled in response to procession on unnerving events. The evil engine-propeller combination definitely soured the view from their beautiful domain. Passengers, however, were most favorably impressed with Stratocruiser comfort. The figure 8 shaped fuselage embraced the latest appointments for travel comfort, including berths on long flights1. The lower part of the eight was ideal for baggage and cargo storage and also contained a 14-seat lounge-bar which was nearly always filled to capacity.
Most Americans are relatively carefree as the decade of the 1950s begins. Truman is still in the White House, God is in his heaven, and the U.S. share of world trade stands at the highest it has ever been. Moral values are about the same as the shock of World War II left them, but now a new involvement in Korea labeled a "police action" promises further erosion of accepted standards. A Style of music known as "Rock" is just beginning to be noticed, and something called the military-industrial complex has commenced a voracious march through the national treasury. In 1957 when this turbulent decade has just begun to fade, the Russians will launch Sputnik I and thus inaugurate history's longest and most expensive air race.
Moving into the spotlight aeronautical stage-center at the beginning of this decade is the Stratocruiser. It promises to give passengers a whole new way of life aloft and will succeed admirably in this intent -- most of the time. There are, however, teething problems involved in employing any new type aircraft, and in the case of the Stratocruiser several molars prove to be rotten.
Before anything else can go very wrong, even before airline comptrollers can juggle their magical seat-mile figures, it becomes painfully obvious that the Stratocruiser is an extremely expensive aircraft to operate. The principal American users, Pan American and Northwest, soon deplore their bookkeeping and once again plead for comfort from their rich Uncle Sam. As a consequence a sort of aeronautical Watergate is revealed. The usual cast of politicians including one Harry Truman, then president of the United States, combined with certain government agencies and a mighty corporation to make the first Stratocruiser operational and keep the rivet guns hammering on more.
Since the price tag on these revolutionary flying machines was heady even by Boeing standards it should have been obvious to the most naive executive that a medium-sized airline such as Northwest would have trouble luxuriating in such equipment unless some sort of financial transfusion could be arranged. The dilemma was conveniently solved by applying an age-old remedy -- power plus money. Northwest was invited to apply for a route to the Orient and also Hawaii which would command a healthy subsidy. Next, an arm of the U.S. Treasury, the RFC (Reconstruction Finance Corporation), was induced to provide a suitable loan to Northwest even though the less discreet RFC officials protested mightily and declared the entire transaction "financial folly."
President Truman was not an ungrateful man, and he was pleased that the Boeing company had demonstrated both wisdom and foresight in contributing generously to the Democratic party. It was not surprising then the politically oriented and appointed CAB found reason to smile upon Northwest's application, make the very necessary award, and thus incidentally assure the sale of ten Stratocruisers.
The key reason announced for such largesse was quoted from CAB policy: "... the underwriting must be predicated upon the attainment of optimum costs and revenues and must serve the developmental purposes of the act"-- or in less fancy language the CAB was frankly sponsoring an aeronautical experiment which might have been regarded as fair and benedictum was: "underwriting fully the extra cost for each airline that bought the Stratocruiser depends on the wisdom and management in buying the plane and continuing to operate it -- not on whether the aircraft turned out to be a disappointment."
Since such logic suggested that the Mad Hatter must be in charge of CAB decisions it followed that Pan American, who had also purchased bevy of Stratocruisers, should likewise move to the trough. Pan American appealed for a higher mail and subsidy rate on its North Atlantic route to cover the extra cost operating their magnificent new land version Clippers. Immediate howls of inequity were heard from TWA who competed over the same route with Constellations. They cried with considerably more logic than any other party had displayed that TWA was being penalized because they had been intelligent enough not to buy Stratocruisers in the first place. At this point, while the odor of political clout continued to blight the mobility of Boeing's new transport, other more tangible events contributed to the Stratocruisers' questionable future.
While nearly all pilots were soothed by the ego-pleasing dimension the Stratocruiser they were less than enthusiastic about certain of its characteristics once in flight. Once the CAA had been convinced the wing spoilers they had insisted be installed did more harm than good and the devices had been removed, "nose-wheel" landings were no longer necessary. Thereafter, when all went well, the Stratocruisers were easy to fly, land and take off, the overall skill demands being far less then possessed by those pilots actually engaged. Airmen were beginning to regard them as a forgiving airplane. Even so it was a very good thing no amateurs were at the helm for frequently all things did not go well.
During the initial states of Stratocruiser operation the "corncob" engines displayed a discouraging need for changing cylinders almost as frequently as spark plugs, and the propellers were four villains dancing in an row. Those used by Northwest Airlines had a steel shell with a mastic core filler. If the filler came loose blade breakage came next with spectacular results. The "corncob" engine mounts were of magnesium which instantly gave way followed quite as instantly by the departure of the entire 28-cylinder engine from the aircraft. If, as has since been claimed, this design was deliberate, then the theory was disgracefully ignorant of aerodynamics. For once one of those huge engines hat parted company from the mother aircraft the fat was literally in the firewall because it bare face offered such an aerodynamic blockade the Stratocruiser simply could not maintain altitude. Only one runaway propeller mandated an immediate landing.
Northwest was plagued with a series of such failures, yet fortune was so in their league that all occurred within descending range of an airport.
Pan American was less blessed. The Clipper Good Hope was lost over the Brazilian jungle, Clipper Romance of the Skies vanished in mid-Pacific, Clipper United States ditched off the coast of Oregon, and Clipper Golden Gate took a blade of the number three propeller through the cabin during a landing approach at Manila. In one of the most beautifully executed ditchings in aviation history Captain Richard Ogg eased his Clipper Sovereign of the Skies into the ocean near a Pacific weather ship and all twenty-four passengers plus seven crew were rescued.
There were other slightly less hairy deficiencies in this beautiful bird. Rudder control was inefficient in comparison with those on other aircraft of comparative size. Most of all, Stratocruiser pilots were extremely wary of cowl flap settings which were controlled by the engineer who often became the busiest man on the flight deck. Cooling the "corncob" engines was ever a challenge only partly solved by the employment of over-large cowl flaps. When even partially opened beyond the "trail" position their mass was enough to cause severe buffeting and a very serious loss of lift. As a direct result of cowl flap setting one Stratocruiser was ditched in Puget Sound soon after takeoff from Seattle. When fully loaded, performance on any three engines was always marginal and the necessary wider cowl flap settings to cool the surviving engines usually combined to make the situation even more critical. As a result of such power difficulties, the Stratocruisers carried "Chines television" on the flight deck, an engine-analzing device which enabled the flight engineer to observe ignition performance via a cathode tube. The resulting information was most useful in resolving mixture settings, detection of possible valve failures, and in effect reported on the compression in each cylinder.
The flight deck of the Stratocruiser was serenely quit even if on a good day, just outside the windows, all 112 cylinders were in a reciprocating mood. But that commodious cell had its own peculiar disadvantages. In tropical climes the large areas of glass made it too hot and in colder regions prudent pilots carried raincoats and hats since they could be reasonably certain that soon after descent for landing was begun they would be sitting in the middle of a shower not indicated on their weather charts. The cause was soon discovered, but since the solution demanded the passengers stop breathing the problem was never entirely eliminated. Vaporous moisture expelled by the passengers during their ordinary life process rose and condensed as ice along the stringers at the top of the fuselage. Once the Stratocruiser assumed a descent altitude and passed thorough the freezing level, the ice melted, flowed forward in rivulets, and eventually emerged as a light rain condition directly over the pilots' heads.
A far more serious and tragic situation occurred on Northwest which was not directly the fault of the Stratocruiser but was a by-product. And here the ravens of political machinations came hungry to the feast. Hoping to avoid a Congressional inquiry into Northwest's Stratocruiser route award and purchase arrangements, the CAB demanded almost impossibly high load factors. Northwest had no choice but to fill them. To perform the job a new and fast twin-engined transport, the Martin 202 was put into service specifically to feed the longer-range Stratocruisers. In later years the Martin 202 proved itself to be an efficient transport, but Northwest, like Faust, having sold its soul to the devil, simply did not have time to carry out a proper "de-bugging" program so necessary to every new type. Nor could they devote the enormous maintenance man-hours required by the Stratocruisers and have money, parts, and personnel remaining to properly service their other aircraft. During the last ten months of 1950 they lost five Martin 202s in a catastrophic series of crashes, which in light of later experience with the same aircraft by other airlines, could hardly be blamed entirely on the Martin Company's product.
The ill-winds of the Korean War and time itself eventually came to Northwest's rescue. The line was heavily engaged in the Korean airlift, and the Stratocruiser were very much liked by paying customers whose only indication there might be something less than perfect about the aircraft were the not so occasional "delays" for "minor maintenance." And in spite of Pan American's uninspiring record, Northwest kept most of their Stratocruisers in operation for more than ten years, many retiring with as much as 30,000 flying hours. Moreover, after so much use, Northwest managed to trade nine Stratocruisers off to Lockheed as down payments on New Lockheed L-188s for $390,000 each -- which was very good business indeed.
In spit of its checkered career the Stratocruiser died represent a bold step forward in air transport and fundamentally its subsidizing from the public purse was lawful if unwise. The Stratocruisers showed an impressive survival record with the large majority going to the scrapdealer rather than into jungle or drink. A few in considerably altered form are still alive and well, if the union of many odd parts salvaged from others and combined with considerable new construction cam be considered at least a direct descendent of the true blood line. These are the aptly named "Guppys" -- Pregnant, Super, and Mini -- which hauled Saturn space rocket and Apollo components for NASA. Watching one of these behemoths make an ascension is enough to convince the most skeptical that old Stratocruiser never die.