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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Reading List: Boeing 377 Stratocruiser

Veronico, Nicholas A. Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, [2001] 2002. ISBN 978-1-58007-047-8.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, launched in November 1945, with its first flight in July 1947 and entry into airline revenue service with Pan Am in April 1949, embodied the vision of luxurious postwar air travel based on the technological advances made in aviation during the war. (Indeed, the 377 inherited much from the Boeing B-29 and was a commercial derivative of the XC-97 prototype cargo aircraft.) The Stratocruiser, along with its contemporaries, the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-7, represented the apogee of piston powered airliner design. This was an era in which air travel was a luxury indulged in by the elite, and passengers were provided amenities difficult to imagine in our demotic days of flying cattle cars. There was a luxury compartment seating up to eight people with private sleeping berths and (in some configurations) a private bathroom. First class passengers could sleep in seats that reclined into beds more than six feet long, or in upper berths which folded out at nighttime. Economy passengers were accommodated in reclining “sleeperette” seats with sixty inches seat pitch (about twice that of present day economy class). Men and women had their own separate dressing rooms and toilets, and a galley allowed serving multi-course meals on china with silverware as well as buffet snacks. Downstairs on the cargo deck was a lounge seating as many as 14 with a full bar and card tables. One of the reasons for all of these creature comforts was that at a typical cruising speed of 300–340 miles per hour passengers on long haul flights had plenty of time to appreciate them: eleven hours on a flight from Seattle to Honolulu, for example.

Even in the 1950s “flying was the safest way to fly”, but nonetheless taking to the air was much more of an adventure than it is today, hence all those flight insurance vending machines in airports of the epoch. Of a total of 56 Boeing 377s built, no fewer than 10 were lost in accidents, costing a total of 135 crew and passenger lives. Three ditched at sea, including Pan Am 943, which went down in mid-Pacific with all onboard rescued by a Coast Guard weather ship with only a few minor injuries. In addition to crashes, on two separate occasions the main cabin door sprang open in flight, in each case causing one person to be sucked out to their death.

The advent of jet transports brought the luxury piston airliner era to an abrupt end. Stratocruiser airframes, sold to airlines in the 1940s for around US$1.3 million each, were offered in a late 1960 advert in Aviation Week, “14 aircraft from $75,000.00, flyaway”—how the mighty had fallen. Still, the book was not yet closed on the 377. One former Pan Am plane was modified into the Pregnant Guppy airlifter, used to transport NASA's S-IV and S-IVB upper stages for the Saturn I, IB, and V rockets from the manufacturer in California to the launch site in Florida. Later other 377 and surplus C-97 airframes were used to assemble Super Guppy cargo planes, one of which remains in service with NASA.

This book provides an excellent look into a long-gone era of civil aviation at the threshold of the jet age. More than 150 illustrations, including eight pages in colour, complement the text, which is well written with only a few typographical and factual errors. An appendix provides pictures of all but one 377 (which crashed into San Francisco Bay on a routine training flight in 1950, less than a month after being delivered to the airline), with a complete operational history of each.

Posted at September 21, 2008 22:49