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.