Did You Know...?
Series Air Dates
Exec. Producer Bio
Exec. Producer Interview
Photo & Video Credits
Soon after moving to California, Howard Hughes made a name for himself as both a hotshot Hollywood movie producer and a record-setting pilot. Hughes' fame and fortune caught the attention of Jack Frye, the president of TWA. At Frye's urging, Hughes quietly bought up TWA stock and gained controlling interest in the airline. Hughes approved TWA's purchase of the new Boeing Stratoliner, the first plane with a pressurized interior cabin. But for Hughes, the Stratoliner was still not good enough. Wanting an even bigger, better, and more luxurious plane, Hughes enlisted the Lockheed Company to design a revolutionary new plane for TWA - the Constellation. To gain a competitive advantage over other airlines, Hughes demanded the plane be developed in absolute secrecy. But in spite of Hughes' obsession with secrecy, his plan to build the Constellation was uncovered - not by a competitor, but by the military. In 1941, with war looming on the horizon, the army demanded that airplane manufacturers share their latest designs. When the "Connie" finally made its debut, it was hailed as the most advanced plane in the world. Such technological prowess would prove highly useful in the next few years - not to TWA, but to the U.S. military.
The Millionaire Maverick...
The Airlines Go to War...
World War II would forever change the airline industry. Once America entered the war, the nation's aircraft manufacturers were transformed almost overnight into mighty conglomerates. Together they produced a staggering 50,000 warplanes a year - planes which pushed the technological envelope like never before. By the end of the war, domestic airlines had circled the globe carrying troops and cargo. Now they wanted - and received - a piece of the international pie that until then was held by Pan Am. Post-war passengers soon had many international flights to choose from, and they traveled to foreign countries in increasing numbers. It seemed like airplanes might finally overtake ocean liners and trains as the most popular way to travel long distances. The only thing missing was a faster, smoother engine to power the planes. As it turned out, there was just such an engine waiting in the wings.
While it was understood that aircraft encounter far less turbulence at higher altitudes, one of the great scientific obstacles of early aviation was figuring out how to fly higher when piston engines performed increasingly worse at higher and higher altitudes. A young working class officer in the British Royal Air Force came up with the solution. Frank Whittle's idea to use high-pressure gases to create a jet-propelled engine was a burst of pure genius. Unfortunately, not all of Whittle's RAF superiors at the Air Ministry were enthusiastic about testing his revolutionary ideas. Whittle's plans were shelved until years later, when several of his RAF colleagues decided to invest in his idea and set up a company called Power Jets. In 1937, the company succeeded in building the "WU," the Whittle Unit. The unwieldy contraption couldn't possibly fit in a plane, but it could demonstrate that jet propulsion was feasible.
The Birth of the Jet Engine...
Just as money was running out and his project was about to collapse, Whittle's fortunes changed. With war looming in Europe, the Air Ministry decided to make a modest investment in Power Jets. With tests of the WU proving successful, the Air Ministry awarded Power Jets a contract to develop a flight-worthy jet engine, called the "W1." With British industry under attack, rapid development of the revolutionary engine would not be possible, so one of Whittle's engines was packed up and sent to the General Electric Company in America. Whittle's company, Power Jets, was nationalized, and Rolls Royce and De Havilland convinced the British government that they alone should build the jet engines. Frank Whittle had helped create a new industry, but he and his team were pushed aside in the wake of their success. With the war over, it was now a race between companies and countries to reap the rewards of this new technology.
In 1945, the war in Europe was over, but the competition between airplane manufacturers had just begun. The first battle was over the aviation advancements of the Germans. Within weeks of visiting a secret German aircraft factory, both Boeing and De Havilland engineers were incorporating German innovations, such as "swept-back" wings, into their designs. The British aircraft industry took a commanding lead in aviation at the 1949 Farnborough Air Show when the De Havilland Company stunned its U.S. competition by unveiling the first jet-powered passenger plane, the Comet. Soon airlines around the world were beating a path to De Havilland's door. But in its first two years of flying, the Comet had several serious crashes. Clues had to be found as to why these disasters were happening. Gradually, remains of the wreckage were pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. One entire plane fuselage was immersed in water - its wings pushed hydraulically to simulate thousands of hours of flight. After the equivalent of 9,000 hours of flight, the fuselage burst. Metal fatigue was the Comet's Achilles' heel. De Havilland redesigned the Comet into a safe, reliable aircraft, but the setback allowed the Americans to gain valuable ground in the air race.
The Rise and Fall of the Comet...
Welcome to the Jet Age...
In the early 1950s, Americans were flying on bigger and better piston-powered planes. Aircraft manufacturers were decidedly uninterested in building passenger jets, arguing that jet engines burned too much fuel to be economically viable and that the traveling public was perfectly content flying in propeller airplanes. One man disagreed: Juan Trippe, the head of Pan Am. But for his strategy to pay off, Trippe needed jet engines and bigger planes - planes that the manufacturers did not want to make. Pitting one airline manufacturer against the other, Trippe lured both Boeing and Douglas into the jet building business. But it was Juan Trippe who was the big winner. He got his large new jet - the Boeing 707. Juan Trippe's Pan Am soon had an unheard of 90% occupancy on his fleet of jets. Jets were the future, and the 707 helped guarantee that America, not Britain, would dominate the aviation industry. It was one of the most influential planes ever built. By the end of the century, every large passenger jet would be a direct descendant of the 707.
An Airborne Fantasy World...
In the 1950s, the airplane surpassed the train as the preferred way to travel. The airlines now highlighted service instead of safety. The efficient nurses of the 1930's had transformed into glamorous stewardesses of the 40's and 50's. With this new emphasis on appearance came new regulations. Stewardesses had to be single and of a particular physical appearance. The airlines controlled everything from make-up and nail color to hair length and heel height. By the late 1960s, airlines such as Braniff, National and Pacific Southwest unabashedly began marketing their stewardesses as mere sex objects.
In the early 1960s, as science and technology was advancing with breathtaking speed, many Europeans believed they were falling behind in the technology race. The French government thought they could take the lead in aviation away from the U.S. by building the first SST, the supersonic transport. For the British, the demise of the Comet jetliner made their reasons more personal. Hoping for redemption, the British signed a treaty with the French in 1962 to build the first supersonic passenger jet, the Concorde. American politicians were not about to let the U.S. fall behind, and the government began funding SST research. But there were disturbing unanswered questions. How much would this new craft really cost? And what about that annoying byproduct of supersonic flight - the sonic boom?
The Plane of the Future...
In spite of these unanswered questions, both Boeing and Lockheed unveiled lavish mock-ups for an American SST. Boeing beat out Lockheed for the lucrative government contract, but Boeing engineers soon discovered serious technical problems with their design. Even more challenging were the political problems. Environmental groups loudly opposed the SST. In 1971 Congress voted to end any further SST funding, closing the door on supersonic passenger flight in the United States. The British and French completed their SST, but it soon became a financial failure. Two hundred and seventy Concordes had been planned, but in the end, only twenty rolled off the line. British Airways and Air France each bought seven, but Pan Am and the rest of the airlines canceled their orders. While the Concorde was an undeniable triumph of engineering, the project ended up an economic fiasco. Supersonic travel for the rich was not where aviation was headed. The future was in low-cost, subsonic jet travel.