COME FLY WITH ME: The Silver Age Of Air Travel

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Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away
If you can use some exotic booze, there's a bar in far Bombay
               Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away! 

Flying was once for the elite and the leisured. There's a classic album by Frank Sinatra whose sleeve and title song epitomise the sophistication and elation of that aviation era - Come Fly With Me. The cover has him down there on the tarmac, in snazzy suit and snap-brim hat, a glorious candy-striped TWA Lockheed Starliner behind him, beckoning us - and an elegant lady friend - into the air.

Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru
In llama land there's a one-man band and he'll toot his flute for you
                Come fly with me, let's take off in the blue! 

The year is 1958, a time when air travel had reached a plateau of comfort and speed. Taking a plane was no longer a perilous experiment, as it had been in the 1920s and 30s, limited largely to the rich and the brave, nor was it yet the smooth and efficient mass transportation of the jet age, about to dawn.

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Airline travel in the beginning was fraught with danger, marred by discomfort, a pioneering adventure – the pilot even sat with his head in the air, thick goggles half-masking his face. Nowadays, some eighty years after its initiation, airline travel is effectively a form of mass transit, like getting on a bus, done with nary a thought. But in between these eras there was a fleeting period when flying was a form of luxury, was high class, was chic, was IT!

A golden age? Perhaps we should not call it that. Given the levels of safety, efficiency and popularity, perhaps the golden age of air travel is now. Or, given our customary pace of technological progress (and assuming we don't ruin the planet), it is yet to come, produced by innovations we can only dream of.

SAAT16Let's call that era “the silver age” of air travel, an age of exclusivity and luxury when a new breed of airliners ruled the air, steel-skinned, polished to brilliance, gleaming like the family silver after a vigorous Brillo session. Paint was costly, tastes were restrained, so airline liveries were simple and every plane had a silver shining. US airlines in particular were fond of "silver" all over -- top and bottom – with paint stripes along the window level alone, if that. 

Technology had produced the first great long haul airliners. From the late 40s to the early 60s, the skies were ruled by a propellered triumvirate: the Lockheed Constellation, the Boeing Stratocruiser and the Douglas DC-7C "Seven Seas".

SAAT06Important facets they shared were pressurisation, four powerful piston engines, a length of around 35 metres and wingspan of around 40 metres, nose-wheel undercarriage and a range of at least 7,000 km.

These features gave comfortable breathing at high altitude, stability in the air, security in the event of the failure of an engine, or even two (they could fly on two engines), horizontal attitude on the ground, and the ability to fly non-stop on the major routes from New York to London, Paris and Los Angeles.

The combination was a quantum leap in capability, comfort and safety beyond the previous generation's standard bearer, the twin-engined Douglas DC-3, and it also spelt doom for the great flying boats which until then had been the mainstay of intercontinental travel. Hopping from port to port, spacious and luxurious, passengers and crew overnighting on shore, the flying clippers – for all their romance - were noisy and slow, taking six days to transit the Pacific.

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Once I get you up there, where the air is rarified,
    we'll just fly, starry-eyed
Once I get you up there, I'll be holding you so near, you may hear
                    angels cheer 'cause we're together

Unlike today's jets, all much of a muchness, these three piston-engined airliners were totally distinct in looks: anybody could recognise them at a mere glance. The DC-7C: straight, lean and upright; the Stratocruiser: bulbous and double-hulled; the Constellation: curvaceous and triple-finned.

Whilst Douglas was the leading airliner brand of the 1950s, its DC- series carrying the majority of passengers overall, especially in the Americas, it was Lockheed that made the classic plane of the era, the Constellation.

 The Connie, as she was lovingly known, went through three incarnations, getting longer and ever more svelte: Constellation, Super Constellation and Starliner. Its curvy elegance made it the most feminine aircraft ever built, the queen of the air, the dolphin of the skies. Totally different in style, the Stratocruiser also gained much affection with its jovial double-decker bulk, like a portly uncle, and its downstairs lounge bar reached by a spiral stairway.

SAAT12Thanks to these stretched-steel birds of soaring ambition, during the 1950s the airplane overtook the ocean liner as the primary means of intercontinental travel. Bye bye Cunard, hello PanAm. For the wealthy at least, air travel also replaced the train for trans-continental travel in North America, Europe and Australia. So long Super Chief, hi TWA.

Inheriting those mantles, catering to an elite, the airlines gave priority to comfort and luxury, and the passengers dressed and behaved accordingly. There were spacious lounges in which suavely suited men clinked cocktails with women in Dior gowns and hats. The passengers sat in fully upholstered, reclining seats – innovative at the time. Sleeper bunks were plentiful, with breakfast in bed.

 


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                            Weatherwise, it's such a lovely day
       Just say the words, and we'll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay
                       It's perfect for a flying honeymoon, they say
                          Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away!


This was the first time in human history that you could travel from the temperate zones to the tropics, from the Americas to Europe, from the Middle East to the Far East, inside a day. Breakfast in London, dinner in New York; go to sleep in Bangkok, wake up in Beirut. This was the magic carpet come true.

Nowadays that's the norm, even a chore, for the planet's wealthier stratum, so it is salutary to recall that only four decades ago boarding a plane was a special occasion and a form of luxury no matter what class of seat you were in. Get this, slovenly reader! This writer remembers taking his first flight as an adult in 1962 and having to get his first suit made for the occasion. And this for a leisure trip!

By that time, whilst propellered planes (piston or turboprop) still dominated the skyways, big jets like the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 had already grabbed most of the long haul market, and France’s Sud-Aviation Caravelle was opening up short haul jet travel. Along with the consumer society, the age of mass air travel was dawning: suits soon gave way to jeans, gowns to mini-skirts. The airlines began to pack 'em in rather than pamper the elite. It was democratic, but decidedly less stylish. It was faster, but lacked the old-time grace. It was safer, but less of an adventure. It was the future.

It is interesting – and sad for sentimentalists of the silver age -- to note that the two great airlines which were then the lords of the air today no longer exist. Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines are grand motifs of a bygone age. Business analysts will have their take on this demise of the once mighty, others can speculate. Perhaps PanAm and TWA, the blue birds and the red birds, were so intimately linked with the age of the big band, rinky-dink and old Frank that they could not hack it in the new era of package tours and rock'n'roll.

 

Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly
                     - pack up! let's fly away!

 

Keith Mundy 2001. Lyrics Sammy Cahn & James Van Heusen, ASCAP

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