Of course, it helps if you lived through those times. A time when young boys like I was would pay special attention to any airplane with a jet engine and spend hours of anticipation wondering what your first jet flight would be like. And, at the same time, we wept over seeing essentially brand new aircraft like the DC-7 and Super G Constellations being relegated to scrap heaps years before they should have retired. But, firsthand experience isn’t necessary, not as long as you have access to books and photos.
A must-have book for anyone with an interest in how airlines operated before the jets is is Ernest K. Gann’s first autobiography, Fate is the Hunter. He writes about his life as an American DC-2 and DC-3 pilot before World War 2, his time with the Air Transport Command all over the globe during the war, and then with Matson Airlines flying DC-4s from the West Coast to Hawaii, and later Trans Ocean out of OAK. There is a movie that borrows his title but has no relevance to the book, so read, don’t watch this one. Another of Gann’s books is a great novel and a great movie, The High and the Mighty. Based on one of the true stories described in Fate is the Hunter, The High and the Mighty describes the early days of transoceanic travel by land-based aircraft. The final chapters provide a tense, nail biting description of how the old radio-beam navigation system worked.
Covering much of the same period is Flying the Oceans by Horace Brock, a Yale graduate who joined Pan American as a lowly apprentice pilot. New Pan Am pilots had to work in all areas of the company including reservations and maintenance before moving to the cockpit, where they weren’t allowed to touch anything during their initial training. In his personal story, we see many of the technical innovations that Pan Am developed that improved aviation safety. As a senior Captain and Pan Am executive, he played a major role in the introduction of many of Pan American’s post-war aircraft.
Noted aviation writer, Robert Serling (brother of the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling) wrote a novel, The Left Seat, that covers the last year that piston aircraft ruled the airways. It’s a bit preachy, but a priceless look at when the DC-7 was the newest aircraft in the sky.
Next are two more recent books that specifically depict the transition from the big heavy piston engines to the jet. Jet Age by Sam Howe Verhovek tells the story of the development of the de Havilland Comet and the Boeing 707.
For a pictorial look at the period Verhovek describes, grab a copy of From Props to Jets: Commercial Aviation’s Transition to the Jet Age 1952-1962. Those are the crucial ten years that virtually eliminated the big radial piston engine airliner. The book has great period airport shots, interiors, and airborne shots. The shot of the DC-8 taking off on the cover epitomizes those early days when the sky really wasn’t the limit and speed meant everything.
One final book anyone with an interest in U.S. airline history should have is Airlines of the United States since 1914, by R.E. G. Davies. Ron Davies is Curator of Air Transport for the Smithsonian. I proudly own the 1972 version of this book, which was printed in England, but it was updated in 1982. If you want an accurate, concise history of the airlines of America, this is it. Everything is here, from the development of airway beacons to the air mail controversies of the 1930s, the rise of the local carriers in the 1940s, and the “new” edition contains the push to deregulation. The appendix is one of the most amazing parts of the book, and it is filled with maps drawn by Davies and family trees.
Most of these books are out of print, but you should be able to find used copies online. With summer coming up, why not grab one of these books, head to someplace like the In-N-Out Burger near LAX and let aviation overwhelm your senses.