Above It All
It took a maze of valves and venturis—and a trio of tycoons—to whisk passengers into the stratosphere.
- By Nick D'Alto
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
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Tragedy struck in March 1939, when the 307 prototype crashed, killing all 10 aboard (seven Boeing employees, two executives from Royal Dutch Airlines, which was considering buying a 307, and a representative from TWA). Wing and tail modifications solved the airplane’s technical shortcomings, and Claire Egtvedt dubbed his new airplane the Stratoliner, to highlight what he called “travel in a new region of the atmosphere.” “Outside scientific circles,” he told reporters with suitable flourish, “[this] substratosphere has been regarded as something mystical. But before many years, I believe we will all become familiar with this superhighway of the air.”
Travelers agreed. “See you at breakfast,” New York Times aviation writer August Loeb imagined telling friends in Los Angeles as a Stratoliner took off at night from New York’s LaGuardia Field. Loeb praised industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s lavish interiors (“with dressing room for men, and ‘charm room’ for ladies”) and listened in as stewardesses explained the virtues of supercharged cabin air to passengers. What was “Stratolining” like? By night, cloudless skies resembled a planetarium; by day, vistas from Meteor Crater to the Grand Canyon were “visible in a single glance,” wrote Loeb’s colleague at the Times, Malcolm Kerr. Although it wasn’t truly stratospheric (which begins 37,000 feet up), to the pre-World War II crowd, it must have seemed like space tourism. And with a flight from New York to California (with two scheduled stops) taking just 14 hours and nine minutes, Loeb wrote, “the dream of overnight air travel across the United States, has come true.”
Because pressurization enabled it to attain an altitude of 20,000 feet, the Stratoliner offered a vastly smoother ride than long-haul competitors like the Douglas DC-3. Publicity stills of Stratoliner passengers relaxing while their children read the comics offered a new image of flight. Travelers now were living, eating, even shaving in the air. “There is no sensation of altitude, no gasping for air, no shivering in cold drafts,” went one review in Popular Science in 1940. As wide as the later 707, the Stratoliner had room for a crew of five and 33 passengers.
Though pricey, with a cross-country ticket costing $1,000 in 1940 (the equivalent of about $15,000 today), “Stratoliners were always booked,” says Mike Lavelle. For a while, everything went “Strato”—fans could don a Stratoliner hat (guaranteed weatherproof), dress in Stratoliner blue (like the seat color), or join Stratoliner clubs (for tall people).
It didn’t last. By 1942, TWA’s fleet was drafted into the service as C-75 military transports, while Pan Am’s Latin American routes were taken over by the U.S. military’s Air Transport Command. The airplane’s sky-scraping altitude helped ferry Allied brass across the Atlantic. One passenger was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “A pretty fair flyer,” recalled TWA Flight Chief W.L. Trimble, despite a penchant (assisted by cabin pressure) for “lighting up those damn cigars!” Another Stratoliner leaped the Himalayas during World War II, carrying China’s Madame Chiang Kai-shek to America.
“It was a great airplane,” says Robert van der Linden, a National Air and Space Museum curator of aeronautics. “It’s just that World War II got in the way.” After the war, larger, faster, and more reliable aircraft took the Stratoliner’s place.
Of 10 Stratoliners built, just one survives, in the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia. But the airplane’s legacy lives. Beginning with Lockheed’s Constellation and the Douglas DC-6, both available in 1946-47, later commercial (as well as military and personal) aircraft continue to use systems largely inspired by the 307’s. When aviation topped the stratosphere, the same industry players who “supercharged” this pre-war airplane also provided life support systems for Gemini and Apollo spacecraft—all to breathe easier.
As an aerospace engineer, Nick D’Alto has evaluated modern aviation systems against the rigors of high-altitude flight. Writing about Boeing’s pioneering Stratoliner gave him a new appreciation for how engineers solved the problems of flying above the clouds.