Trans World Airlines:  Dawn to Dusk, Part I

Air Line Pilot, September 2001, p. 10
By Esperison Martinez, Jr.

As TWA ended its 71 years of continuous operations, it was the United States' longest flying air carrier.

Trans World Airlines, with one of the most recognized U.S. airline symbols, TWA, departs the world’s skies in almost the same industry environment in which it came into being—the end of an unfettered period of expansion marked by consolidation of airlines. Born of a 1930 merger, TWA had most of its assets purchased by American Airlines on April 9, 2001, to end TWA’s run as the longest-flying air carrier in U.S. commercial aviation. Still, its 71 years of flying millions of passengers throughout the world, of recording achievements that won’t be quickly duplicated, of establishing sterling standards of operations, safety, and professionalism, mean that it will forever be recorded in the annals of aviation history as one of America’s most prestigious airlines.

TWA was created on Oct. 1, 1930, when Transcontinental Air Transport and Western Air Express merged to become Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc. (T&WA).

Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) had been formed on May 16, 1928. The carrier’s financial backers named Charles A. Lindbergh to head the technical committee that oversaw development of the line and made all initial decisions involving technical or operational problems. Lindbergh’s influence was so great that TAT became popularly known as "the Lindbergh Line."

At TAT’s helm was Clement M. Keyes, who was a promoter of multimillion-dollar aviation corporations, including National Air Transport (NAT), and who later formed North American Aviation. Paul Henderson, then general manager of NAT, became TAT vice-president. But Lindbergh was in charge of planning and developing TAT’s infrastructure and its route structure, which forsook the lighted airways of mail routes across the country in the early 1920s.

After more than a year, all was in place—routes over new terrain, newly created landing fields, selected aerodromes, new weather reporting facilities, meshed rail/air schedules, and many other operational needs.

Securing pilots to fly the about-to-be-purchased 10 Ford Trimotors was an equally laborious task. Three men took on the job: Paul F. Collins, pilot veteran of World War I and postal mail flying, became general superintendent; John Collings, ex-chief pilot at Ford, headed up TAT’s eastern division; and Max Cornwall, the western. Collins directed the search for pilots with multiengine time, of whom he found few. In all, TAT hired 38 pilots, and 17 needed further training. Many began with fewer than 500 hours. Captains received $500 per month; copilots, $250.

TAT was developed to carry passengers, not mail, unlike most other airlines in those days. TAT’s transcontinental air/rail service would take passengers cross-country in 2 days instead of 3, as rail-only travel required. On the west-to-east schedule, passengers would board a Ford Trimotor at Los Angeles at 8:45 a.m. (PST), deplane at Clovis, N.M., at 6:54 p.m. (MST) for a night rail trip to Waynoka, Okla., via the Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, followed by an 8-hour 8-minute Trimotor flight to Columbus, Ohio, then onto the Pennsylvania Railroad to arrive in New York City the next morning at 10:05.

Lindbergh inaugurated TAT’s coast-to-coast air-and-rail service on July 7, 1929, using east-to-west routing. Ensconced in Gov. C.C. Young’s office in Los Angeles, Lindbergh, at precisely 6:05 p.m. (EST), pushed a button that sent a signal to New York’s Pennsylvania Rail Station where the Airway Limited train awaited. Amid a great deal of fanfare, which included political and cinema celebrities, a band, and radio broadcasts, the Limited caught the signal and moved out on the first leg of the country’s first scheduled transcontinental air-rail link. The train arrived at Columbus, Ohio (Port Columbus) at 7:55 a.m. the next morning. Five thousand people braved drizzling rain to witness the transfer of the 20 transcontinental rail-to-airplane passengers who, having each paid $350 (air portion $290 for a 16-cents-per-mile fare structure), would fly on the next leg aboard the two Ford Trimotors, City of Columbus and City of Wichita. Columbus, departing at 8:15 a.m., was the first aircraft airborne. Capt. Dean Burford, copilot H.H. Zimmerman, and courier D.W. Dudley were the crew members. The first west-to-east flight was made aboard the City of Los Angeles, piloted by Lindbergh and Eddie Ballande, a noted Glenn Curtiss test pilot, Navy World War I instructor, barnstormer, and movie stunt pilot.

TAT’s air/rail transcontinental service was to prove momentous, as historians said, "for the inception of an idea—intercontinental air travel."

Two months into TAT’s operations, a Trimotor crashed, killing all on board. Within a year, passenger interest had withered, and losses mounted. Within 18 months, TAT recorded $2,750,000 in losses. Still, its owners were able to weather the financial storm. Within a few years, the carrier would be thinking of globe-circling flight.

TAT weathered the storm by acquiring two airlines—one sought, the other "directed."

Other TWA roots

On Nov. 16, 1929, TAT bought Maddax Air Lines, a profitable Southwest carrier, and began its move out of a financial hole and toward an air-only transcontinental service. Just 18 months earlier, Maddax had begun Ford Trimotor service between Los Angeles and San Diego, followed by Los Angeles–San Francisco service. In 1929, Maddax opened service from Los Angeles to Phoenix and southern California locations. By the time TAT bought Maddax Air Lines, it was operating 16 Trimotors along with two Lockheed Vegas and two Travel Airs. Having carried 40,000 passengers in 18 months, business was obviously good, but a carrier could not be sustained on passenger service alone and needed a contract to carry the mail. Maddax knew that no mail contract would be offered and accepted TAT’s buyout offer.

The pilots Maddax Air Lines brought to the TAT–Maddax merger were a proud and very experienced lot who became top number holders on the eventual TWA seniority list. These included, among others, Arthur C. Burns (11), Daniel W. "Tommy" Tomlinson (14), Ernie Smith (15), Henry G. "Andy" Andrews (16), Felix Preeg (18), Goodwin T. "Ted" Weaver (21), and Albert D. "Major" Smith (38).

TAT’s second acquisition, more "directed" than "sought," was Western Air Express (WAE). Incorporated on July 13, 1925, by a wealthy Los Angeles group to capture one of the private airmail routes that the U.S. Post Office was offering, WAE gained the CAM-4, Los Angeles–Salt Lake City, route. But WAE had no airplanes, or pilots, only desire and determination.

Undaunted, Harris Hanshue, WAE’s founder, began creating an air carrier. One of his first moves was to hire Maj. Corliss C. Moseley, a World War I pilot and a highly respected, well-known West Coast aviation authority. Moseley quickly added an old college classmate, Fred Kelly, a 1912 Olympian and ex-military pilot, who became equipment procurer and selected the Douglas M-2 as the carrier’s first aircraft. Three more Army aviators were added to the roster: Maury Graham, Al DaGarmo, and Jimmie James.

These pilots, the initial cadre selected to haul the mail on the CAM-4 route, were cautious to the point of inspecting from the ground the route they would fly while delivering the mail between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. During their 2-week inspection, they laid many "markers" visible from the air to reveal where a forced landing might be managed. This certainly paid off. The first WAE mail flight took place on April 17, 1926, and within the first year, pilots made 36 forced landings using those markers.

Carrying its first passengers only 1 month after startup, WAE ended 1926 carrying 209 passengers. But the financial mainstay and key to the airline’s existence would prove to be its mail contracts, which in 1926 were paying $1,500 per flight and cost WAE only $360 to operate.

The late 1920s marked a time of public enthusiasm for flying, unfettered regulation, and great freedom of action, resulting in a proliferation of new carriers. WAE’s growth was continual and impressive, and its route structure expanded with acquisitions. But the stock market crash of 1929 also affected the aviation sector economically. By 1930, WAE had built a solid reputation as a passenger carrier; still, it discovered that, without mail contract routes, it could be awash in red ink. Early in 1930, WAE bought the Aero Corporation of California to gain its subsidiary, Standard Air Lines, in hopes of snaring the southern transcontinental mail route. With the purchase of the carrier came pilots like Jack Frye, who would in time become head of TWA, and other notable flyers such as Paul Richter, Walt Hamilton, and Lee Flanagin.

T&WA is formed

WAE found itself caught in the reorganization of the transcontinental airmail route system, under the auspices of the Watres–McNary Act. Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown had developed a vision for the nation’s airways, especially its transcontinental system. He did not believe more than one company should serve a single route and forced WAE, TAT, and PAIC (Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corporation) to merge and become Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc. (T&WA), which became better known as TWA, an acronym that became official in 1950 with the name change to Trans World Airlines. Company ownership was split 47.5 percent each to WAE and TAT, and 5 percent to PAIC. Harris Hanshue became president of the newly formed airline.

The new company received the mail contract on Aug. 25, 1930, and made the first all-air-service coast-to-coast U.S. flight on October 25. The flight took 36 hours, including a 12-hour stop at Kansas City. It was the start of an auspicious but dubious future.

Auspicious because TWA would eventually become one of the largest U.S. air carriers; dubious because the airline’s immediate future was fraught with the uncertainty caused by the Depression, merged operations, and dependence upon mail subsidies. Hanshue never really got heavily involved in "leading" the company, and directors seemed to act individually regarding company needs; consequently, the operation had no management cohesiveness. Richard Robbins replaced Hanshue in early 1932.

Financially, the newly formed company also did poorly, losing as much as $200,000 per month during its first year of operation and carrying only 36,613 passengers, for a systemwide load factor of 3.9 passengers per airplane. The Los Angeles to San Francisco route accounted for the greatest amount of traffic, averaging 22 passengers per day, 7 per airplane.

A devastating blow to the company’s operation came just 5 months after its first coast-to-coast flight. On March 31, 1931, a Fokker F-10 that came from WAE during the merger crashed in a Kansas cornfield. Famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, one of the nation’s best-known personalities, was one of its fatally injured passengers.

The precise cause of the crash was never determined, but another F-10 from WAE had evidence of dry rot in the wooden wing. The fleet of F-10s was grounded. Eventually all of the company’s wooden airplanes were intentionally destroyed, after their engines and other usable equipment were salvaged. As staggering as the accident was to the company’s good fortunes at the time, the crash helped set the tone for the high aircraft standards and safety practices that would come to be identified with TWA.

New equipment

Robbins advanced this movement by establishing an equipment task force of himself, Lindbergh, and pilots Jack Frye and Tommy Tomlinson. After serious reviews and discussions, the group set new requirements for the next generation of T&WA equipment. A letter outlining the company’s needs, dated Aug. 2, 1932, to leading aircraft manufacturers called for an all-metal trimotor monoplane; powerplants optional; 14,200 pounds gross weight; complete instrumentation, including night-flying equipment; cruising range of 1,060 miles at 150 mph; crew of two; 12 passengers minimum capacity; and ability to take off with two engines from any T&WA airport.

Thus was born the Douglas DC-1. It was to bring new design, performance, and economics to the world of commercial aviation.

Assured by Donald Douglas’s team that its two-engine design would be able to operate on one engine, Robbins et al gave the go-ahead in September 1932 for one prototype of the DC-1. The prototype was to be the first commercial transport of the Douglas line. Near disaster resulted from the first test flight on July 1, 1933. Test pilot Carl Clover was at the controls. Shortly after takeoff, he lost one engine but regained it when he lowered the nose down. When he raised the nose again, both engines sputtered. He managed to get the airplane down safely. Fortunately, the problem proved to be only a poorly designed carburetor float.

The only DC-1 ever built was delivered to T&WA in December 1933.

T&WA ultimately ordered 25 stretched (two additional passenger seats) DC-1s, designated the DC-2, at a cost of $65,000 each. It entered service on May 18, 1934, on T&WA’s Columbus–Pittsburgh–Newark route.

The passenger side of the T&WA operation proved to be unprofitable within its first year; mail contracts provided the cash that kept the airline alive. Hence, T&WA mail aircraft needed to be swift and dependable. Originally, the single-engine Northrop Alpha was selected for use. Powered by a 450-horsepower Wasp engine, the Alpha could carry a 1,000-pound payload at an average speed of 150 mph and had a landing speed of 61 mph. Its inaugural flight with T&WA was on April 20, 1931.

By the end of the year, the airline had ordered 13 Alphas; four Lockheed Vegas were also part of the fleet. Among the pilot group to first relay the mail across the country in these airplanes were Harlan Hull, Cliff Abbott, Ted Moffitt, Swede Gulien, and Bill Coyle.

The mail contracts garnered from Postmaster Brown’s "spoils" conference were to last only 4 years, ending in 1934. But that was sufficient time for the course of commercial aviation to be set. The competition among carriers forced improvements in operations, lifted standards for equipment and facilities, and paved the way for the commercial aviation scene in which TWA would come to play such an important role.

Pilots’ role

While managements reorganized, rebuilt, and renamed the surviving air carriers during those formative years, the industry’s pilot force was undergoing a metamorphosis of its own. Historians have chronicled well the plight of Depression-era airline pilots: pay cuts, reduced authority, loss of status, rigid discipline—all leading to the pilots’ being compared to chauffeurs rather than to sea captains. The adverse working conditions had led a clandestine movement toward self-protection—the formation of a national pilots’ union.

In early 1931, T&WA changed its pay formula from mileage to an hourly rate. The company claimed it was a compromise that beat a flat pay rate; the pilots believed it would eventually lead to reduced pay through management-established flight-average duration times for which pilots would get paid. This move further aggravated a nervous pilot force, and in late May 1931, a small group of T&WA and United pilots secretly met and approved a plan to form a new national organization. A few months later, on July 27, 1931, a pilot convention of "key men," held in the Morrison Hotel in Chicago, officially established the Air Line Pilots Association. Organizing began, but membership was kept secret, as public exposure was sure to lead to a pilot’s removal from a carrier’s payroll.

Union recruiting at T&WA proved difficult because of management intimidation, but pilots like Hal George were convinced of the union’s value and traversed the airline’s routes explaining its worth; although the pilots achieved little initial success, ultimately their efforts were rewarded with members signing up.

In 1933, most operators were intent on "reforming" the pay system and copying T&WA’s hourly rate. The threat was so acute that ALPA threatened a nationwide shutdown to stop it. T&WA’s response was to create a company union—the TWA Pilots Association. Management intended to control the pilot workforce; many pilots who willingly became TPA members did so because they feared the threatened ALPA nationwide shutdown would cost them their jobs or because of management intimidation. The T&WA MEC chairman at that time, Waldon "Swede" Golien, led the pilots out of ALPA. Seventeen pilots remained loyal to the national union, and some other pilots simply quietly maintained memberships in both organizations.

The full character of the in-house union was exposed during congressional hearings concerning the crash of a T&WA DC-2 at Kirksville, Mo., on May 6, 1935. Sen. Bronson Cutting had been killed, along with the pilots, Harry Bolton and Ken Greeson, and one other passenger; nine others survived. Testimony by the company union president, Harlan Hall, an executive pilot, revealed how thoroughly the management controlled the union and how quickly pilot interests were cast aside.

By 1936 the in-house union had withered away, pilots having deemed it ineffective and finding it unconcerned with advancing any pilot-interest work or operational issues, except for those that management wanted pushed. Former in-house union members began returning to ALPA’s rolls.

One of the positive remnants of the TPA experiment, reinforced by the Cutting accident hearings, was T&WA management’s increased awareness of the need to recognize the value of independent pilot voices relative to operational safety and efficiency.

No doubt this new management enlightenment played a role in T&WA’s becoming the second carrier to sign an ALPA pilot contract, on July 18, 1939.

Historians have suggested that had the TWA in-house union succeeded, such creations would have proliferated in the industry and piloting as a "profession" probably would not have developed.

By the time the ALPA contract was signed, T&WA, becoming more commonly known as TWA, had weathered the consequences of the political change in government when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933. Scrutiny of the manner in which the government awarded air mail contracts during Postmaster Brown’s "spoils conference" began in earnest during September of that year. Following congressional hearings and Attorney General investigations, President Roosevelt on Feb. 9, 1934, cancelled the air mail contracts—putting T&WA, among others, out of, and the Army Air Corps into, the mail delivery business. T&WA placed its entire roster of workers on furlough and began hemorrhaging about $250,000 per month, far exceeding the $130,000 profit it recorded in 1933.

But the commercial carriers were to soon be back in the mail carriage business. President Roosevelt called a temporary halt to the Air Corps involvement on March 10, 1934, because of the high accident rate the Air Corps was experiencing. The Army became active again on March 19 and continued to meet its schedules until its last schedule flight on June 1, 1934. But the die was cast. In March the government asked airlines for bids on carriage of the mail, pending enactment of new legislation that would become the Air Mail Act of 1934.

T&WA, by virtue of its award of the Los Angeles to Philadelphia transcontinental route, joined with United, American, and Eastern as one of the largest U.S. airlines. T&WA also gained a new president, Jack Frye. Named in December 1934, he departed 12 years later, in 1947. His leadership moved T&WA pilots from Trimotors into pressurized cabins and into the renowned "Connie," while positioning the carrier to span the globe.

Part II will cover the Howard Hughes years, equipment modernization, TWA’s postwar expansion, and the consequences of fuel shortages, deregulation, and corporate manipulations.