THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
(Douglas DC-3 Airliner, 1943)
WHO BENEFITTED FROM THE END
OF THE AIRSHIP INDUSTRY?
The Official Story
American Airlines, Inc. (AA or AAL), is a major US-based airline headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, within the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. It is the world’s largest airline when measured by fleet size, scheduled passengers carried, and revenue passenger mile. American, together with its regional partners and affiliates, operates an extensive international and domestic network with almost 6,800 flights per day to nearly 350 destinations in more than 50 countries. American Airlines is a founding member of the Oneworld alliance, the third-largest airline alliance in the world. Regional service is operated by independent and subsidiary carriers under the brand name American Eagle.
American Airlines and American Eagle operate out of 10 hubs, with Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) being its largest. The airline handles more than 200 million passengers annually with an average of more than 500,000 passengers daily. As of 2019, the company employs nearly 130,000 people.
American Airlines was developed from a conglomeration of 82 small airlines through acquisitions in 1930 and reorganizations; initially, American Airways was a common brand used by a number of independent carriers. These included Southern Air Transport in Texas, Southern Air Fast Express (SAFE) in the western United States, Universal Aviation in the Midwest (which operated a transcontinental air/rail route in 1929), Thompson Aeronautical Services (which operated a Detroit-Cleveland route beginning in 1929), and Colonial Air Transport in the Northeast. Like many early carriers, American earned its keep carrying U.S. Mail. By 1933, American Airways operated a transcontinental route network serving 72 cities, mostly in the northeastern, midwestern, and southwestern United States.
In 1934 American Airways Company was acquired by E. L. Cord, who renamed it “American Air Lines”. Cord hired Texas businessman C. R. Smith to run the company. Smith worked with Donald Douglas to develop the DC-3, which American Airlines was first to fly, in 1936. American’s DC-3 made it the first airline to be able to operate a route that could earn a profit solely by transporting passengers; other carriers could not earn a profit without U.S. Mail. With the DC-3, American began calling its aircraft “Flagships” and establishing the Admirals Club for valued passengers. The DC-3s had a four-star “admiral’s pennant” outside the cockpit window while the aircraft was parked. American operated daily overnight transcontinental service between New York and Los Angeles through Dallas/Fort Worth and other intermediate stops, advertising the service as an “all-year southern route.”
American Airlines was the first to cooperate with Fiorello LaGuardia to build an airport in New York City, and became owner of the world’s first airline lounge at the new LaGuardia Airport (LGA), known as the Admirals Club. Membership was initially by invitation only, later changing to an open policy that accepted members who paid dues.
For more than eight decades, American Airlines’ “signature” service has been its daily transcontinental flights between New York and Los Angeles designated as #1 (westbound) and #2 (eastbound). While the current 2,500 miles non-stop jet service between John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) averages six hours, in 1939 Flight #1 (which departed from Newark Airport in New Jersey at 7:10 a.m. Eastern Time and terminated at Glendale Airport in suburban Los Angeles at 12:29 am Pacific Time) took 20 hours and 19 minutes to complete, made eight intermediate stops (in Washington, DC; Nashville, TN; Memphis, TN; Dallas, TX; Ft. Worth, TX; El Paso, TX; Tucson, AZ; and Phoenix, AZ), and had a change of planes from a DC-2 to a DC-3 “Flagship Skysleeper” in Memphis. Although on March 1, 1962, Flight #1, operated by a Boeing 707 (N7506A), crashed in Jamaica Bay two minutes after takeoff from Idlewild (now JFK) Airport, killing all 87 passengers and 8 crew on board, American Airlines retained #1 as the flight number of the service instead of retiring it, as is the general practice after a fatal accident.
The Douglas DC-3 is a propeller-driven airliner, which had a lasting effect on the airline industry in the 1930s to 1940s and World War II. It was developed as a larger, improved 14-bed sleeper version of the Douglas DC-2. It is a low-wing metal monoplane with conventional landing gear, powered by two radial piston engines of 1,000–1,200 hp (750–890 kW). (Although most DC-3s flying today use Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines, many DC-3s built for civil service originally had the Wright R-1820 Cyclone.) The DC-3 has a cruising speed of 207 mph (333 km/h), a capacity of 21 to 32 passengers or 6,000 lbs (2,700 kg) of cargo, and a range of 1,500 mi (2,400 km), and can operate from short runways.
The DC-3 had many exceptional qualities compared to previous aircraft. It was fast, had a good range, was more reliable, and carried passengers in greater comfort. Before the war, it pioneered many air travel routes. It was able to cross the continental US from New York to Los Angeles in 18 hours, with only three stops. It is one of the first airliners that could profitably carry only passengers without relying on mail subsidies.
Following the war, the airliner market was flooded with surplus transport aircraft, and the DC-3 was no longer competitive due to its size and speed. It was made obsolete on main routes by more advanced types such as the Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation, but the design proved adaptable and useful on less glamorous routes.
Civilian DC-3 production ended in 1942 at 607 aircraft. Military versions, including the C-47 Skytrain (the Dakota in British RAF service), and Soviet- and Japanese-built versions, brought total production to over 16,000. Many continued to be used in a variety of niche roles; 2,000 DC-3s and military derivatives were estimated to be still flying in 2013; a 2017 article put the number at that time at more than 300.
Design and development
The DC-3 resulted from a marathon telephone call from American Airlines CEO C. R. Smith to Donald Douglas, when Smith persuaded a reluctant Douglas to design a sleeper aircraft based on the DC-2 to replace American’s Curtiss Condor II biplanes. The DC-2’s cabin was 66 inches (1.7 m) wide, too narrow for side-by-side berths. Douglas agreed to go ahead with development only after Smith informed him of American’s intention to purchase 20 aircraft. The new aircraft was engineered by a team led by chief engineer Arthur E. Raymond over the next two years, and the prototype DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport) first flew on December 17, 1935 (the 32nd anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk) with Douglas chief test pilot Carl Cover at the controls. Its cabin was 92 in (2,300 mm) wide, and a version with 21 seats instead of the 14–16 sleeping berths of the DST was given the designation DC-3. No prototype was built, and the first DC-3 built followed seven DSTs off the production line for delivery to American Airlines.
The DC-3 and DST popularized air travel in the United States. Eastbound transcontinental flights could cross the U.S. in about 15 hours with three refueling stops, while westbound trips against the wind took 17+1⁄2 hours. A few years earlier, such a trip entailed short hops in slower and shorter-range aircraft during the day, coupled with train travel overnight.