Coast-to-coast in 13 hours, 4 minutes

Posted December 18, 2003

From Ed Schotting

This story by TWAer Bob Van Ausdell was originally published in a 1973 issue of AIRLINERS INTERNATIONAL magazine, and was provided to Contrails by Ed Schotting, editor of the TWA/PIT RETIREE-GRAM where it was published in April 2002.

(February 18, 1934) -- Jack Frye had a sore neck. He could turn his head to the right without complaint to converse with his longtime friend Eddie Rickenbacker who was holding down the right seat on this particular flight, but when Jack wanted to look to the left he was forced to shift his torso 45 degrees in that direction and his head another 30 degrees. Then, with his eyes locked full travel he could take in everything that was of interest to him. His affliction was more annoying than painful, and he wondered if he had acquired the stiffness from spending too much time on the telephone. Or was he suffering from a mild form of bursitis? Probably the latter. Bursitis was common among those who flew and invariably it was on the side nearest the skin or the window of the airplane. This area of the plane always was considerably colder than the center of the fuselage and produced the effect of resting one’s arm and shoulder in a deep freeze.

From where Jack sat, there wasn’t much to see except the slight sweepback of the wing and the big Wright engine nestled snugly in its smooth cowling. It was the engine that fascinated him and caused him to turn and ponder from time to time. How the hell did they get anything which had that much internal monkey motion to purr like a big kitten and be so damned reliable? Amazing, he thought. As a matter of fact, the entire airplane was amazing -- and so was the manner in which it had been brought into being. As far as Jack Frye was concerned, this flying machine was the direct result of the crash of a Fokker F-10 that took the life of the famous Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. That incident had to be of inestimable influence on commercial aviation.

Frye and Rickenbacker were at the controls of the spanking-new Douglas DC-1. The aircraft was one- of-a-kind and Transcontinental & Western Air owned it. The two pilots were cruising eastbound at 11,000 feet on a night that was as black as a knave’s heart, but the trip was one that had to be flown. This was the "Show the Nation" flight. The lights of Albuquerque were sliding by below, then the Sandia Mountains were behind them and they could relax a bit. From there it was all downhill, and Kansas City was their first stop.

Shifting to the other check, Frye let his mind wander back a few years. He reviewed the series of events that had transpired in such a short period and that had placed him and his airline executive friend at this particular point over New Mexico at this particular moment and in this particular airplane.

At age 29, Jack Frye was the youngest airline executive in the business. He was Vice President in Charge of Operations for Transcontinental & Western Air Inc. (later to become Trans World Airlines), and he had had an office strategically located at the Kansas City airport that enabled him to view all aircraft movements on the field. Frye was a fully qualified transport pilot and he loved to fly. Many times when he heard the sound of big radial engines he would rise from his desk and walk to the window to watch the airliners as they arrived and departed.

On March 31, 1931, the sky to the west was dark and foreboding. Some thunderstorms were reported in the area, even though it was a little early in the year for such weather conditions. The weather system was moving rapidly eastward, but the wind still was gusting strongly out of the southwest. The westbound flight today was a VIP flight, and Frye was concerned about its progress. For his own edification he checked the Wichita weather. The reports told him that the sun was shining in the air capital.

The westbound plane was poised on the ramp in front of the terminal. It was a big Fokker F-10 tri-motor, one of nine inherited from Western Air Express in the merger of 1930. Departure time had come and gone. Frye had an obsession about scheduled operations and this caused him to stick close to the window. Soon he could see Captain Bob Fry and Copilot Jess Mathias strolling out to the airplane. Mechanics and other ground personnel moved rapidly through their duties, and the passengers began filing out the waiting room. There were six passengers in all, including Knute Rockne, who was the last to board. The engines roared to life, the chocks were pulled, and the Fokker waddled slowly to the north end of the airport. As the airplane swung as nearly into the wind as possible the props became a blur, then it began its takeoff roll. Frye watched the aileron the pilot was using against the crosswind. The takeoff was a nice one, and a smile crept over Frye’s face as he facetiously thought to himself that it was just the way he would have handled it if he had been the captain.

Climbing slowly, the airplane made a gentle right turn out of traffic, then headed southwest toward Wichita. The time was 0915.

Less than an hour later disaster struck. In a wheat field on the farm of Stewart Baker near Bazaar, KS, lay the shattered remains of the airliner. According to eyewitnesses, the airplane had emerged from the clouds with part of its wing trailing behind. With a sickening crunch it had plunged nose first into the ground. All aboard were killed, and the death of Knute Rockne was a staggering blow to the nation as well as to TWA.

What had happened? Newspapers and headline-hunting Congressmen across the nation were quick to blame the airline and the aircraft manufacturer. As usual, most of the accounts were biased and grossly ignorant of anything aeronautical. The airliner had been designed by Anthony Fokker, the Dutch genius, and was considered to be one of the finest of its type ever built. Many history-making flights had been flown by Fokker airplanes, and the aircraft enjoyed a proud heritage.

Under the Air Commerce Act of 1926, the Bureau of Air Commerce had jurisdiction over all private and commercial aviation. For months after the Rockne accident the wreckage was probed. Government investigators found what they believed to be structural failure in the wing. Their official report said that signs of dry rot were found in the spars and the ribs. As a result, the Government required all aircraft of this type to undergo periodic inspections of the internal wing. The continuous-piece internally braced full cantilever wing panel was built of laminated spruce spars, spar flanges and mahogany plywood ribs reinforced with plywood stringers and completely covered with a plywood veneer skin. In order to comply with this airworthiness directive the plywood covering had to be peeled off the wing each time an inspection came due; and one came due often. This meant almost constant major repair of the wing panels. The time and expense of such an operation would have put the young airline out of business, and this factor caused the eventual demise of the Fokker airliners.

Jack Frye was a man of unlimited vision -- more so than many give him credit for -- and in his lap was thrown the task of finding an airplane to replace the Fokker. He had in mind a machine that would revolutionize the industry -- an airplane bigger, faster and designed with passenger comfort high on the list. And it must be constructed entirely of metal.

Frye heard that the Boeing Company in Seattle had under construction a new all-metal, low-wing, retractable-gear, twin-engine transport that would carry 10 passengers in a soundproof cabin at speeds of 3 miles a minute. This was approximately the aircraft he had in mind, so he contacted Boeing to see if he could purchase a quantity of these planes for TWA. The answer was yes, if he wanted to get in line behind United Airlines which had ordered 60 of the new model 247’s.

Jack Frye was in a quandary. He called a meeting of all the departments of his airline -- engineering, operations, sales -- and requested each department head to submit within a fixed time what he thought should be incorporated into an ideal transport airplane. The project was given top priority, and by the middle of 1932 all the specifications were complete and letters had been mailed to various aircraft manufacturers. That letter was to have globe-girdling implications. It propelled the Douglas Aircraft Company into the manufacture of commercial transport airplanes, and the result was an airliner prototype whose descendants were to change the entire concept of air travel.

Donald Douglas called the day the letter came from Frye the most important single date in the history of the Douglas Aircraft Company. He referred to the letter as "the birth certificate" of the DC series of aircraft. In only 10 days of round-the-clock computations Douglas and his staff of engineers came up with a set of specifications that not only met Frye’s dream specs but exceeded them.

The contract between Douglas and TWA was signed on September 30, 1932, and nine months later, on June 22, 1933, the DC-1 rolled out of the factory at Santa Monica. At 1336 hours on Saturday, July 1, 1933, just about the time the thirteenth annual National Air Races were getting under way over at Mines Field at Los Angeles, test pilot Carl Cover listed the DC-1 off the ground. On this maiden flight the DC-series of airplanes came close to being terminated. Pilot Cover flew the airplane around the field with both engines alternately quitting and starting, quitting and starting. As the nose was brought up to assume a climbing attitude both engines would quit; as the nose dropped blow the horizon both engines would run again. With the entire complement of Douglas workers and executives gaping with their hearts in their mouths, the DC-1 porpoised in to a hasty but respectable landing.

On the ground the trouble was diagnosed as faulty experimental carburetion and quickly was corrected. TWA placed an order for 25 aircraft with slight structural changes; and when the order was received in Santa Monica, the Douglas engineers knew they were building a new airplane and they designated it DC-2.

For the previous three months, TWA had been using the DC-1 in promotional and publicity ventures but never had used it in commercial service. Now there loomed on the horizon a new and monumental problem which could spell doom for most of the airlines.

The Democrats had swept the election of 1932, and for several months a special investigating committee under the chairmanship of Senator Hugo L. Black of Alabama had been scrutinizing the airmail contract situation. The committee had unearthed what appeared to be favoritism and fraud in the manner in which the Post Office Department of the previous administration had awarded the contracts to the airlines. The results of the hearings caused Postmaster General James A. Farley to advise President Franklin D. Roosevelt to cancel all airmail contracts. On that same day, the President summoned General Benjamin D. Foulois, the Chief of the new Army Air Corps. The General was asked whether the Army could fly the mail. The result was the allocation of over 150 miscellaneous aircraft, 200 officers and 300 enlisted men for mail service. On Friday, February 9, 1934, President Roosevelt signed an executive order which declared that the airlines would cease carrying mail at midnight on February 18, 1934.

Back in Kansas City, Jack Frye heard about the cancellation order and a wave of despair and indignation swept over him. He had worked hard to get this airline on a paying basis and he was determined that all of his labors would not go down the drain without a battle. He owned the latest, most modern and efficient airliner in the world and now was the time to put it to work for the good of all who were engaged in this budding industry.

Frye had a wild plan and needed some moral support. He placed a long-distance telephone call to his good friend, Eddie Rickenbacker, who at that time was Vice President of Eastern Airlines. "Rick," Frye said, "as you well know, they’ve cancelled our mail contracts, and we’d better do something fast to show the public that we can fly the mail better than a bunch of Army fliers. Hell, it’s an entirely different kind of flying, and the Army isn’t trained for it. The newspapers are insinuating that our flight crews, operational procedures and equipment are below par. Let’s show them they don’t know what they’re talking about. How’d you like to go for an airplane ride?"

Frye estimated that Rickenbacker took nearly 10 seconds to "think over" the proposition.

After Frye had completed the phone conversation he set the wheels of his plan in motion. The DC-1 was positioned in Burbank, CA. The time was 2200 hours PST on February 18, 1934, two hours before the airmail cancellation order was to go into effect. The DC-1’s baggage compartments were filled with sacks of the last load of eastbound transcontinental mail. In the cockpit, Frye was in the left seat and Rickenbacker in the right. They did not flip a coin for the leg. The two men had made sure that the flight was well-publicized, and a large crowd had gathered for the departure. Engines were started, Frye waved to all the girls, then he eased the airplane away from the gate.

After the wheels had lifted from the Burbank Airport, Frye banked gently left and began a cruising climb toward Cajon Pass. The men were headed for Newark, NJ, some 3,000 miles to the east and they needed a fast flight to emphasize their mission. That mission was a defiant answer to the critics of the airlines -- a final fling meant to show the nation what courage, American ingenuity and a damned good airplane could accomplish.

The DC-1 cut the corner a few miles north of Amarillo, and Frye descended to a more comfortable 7,000 feet. The lights of Panhandle and White Deer were visible over the nose and to the right. Passing Wichita, the forward visibility began to diminish, so Frye eased the DC-1 lower in a gentle descent. The weather people had promised good landing limits at Kansas City. Soon the two pilots could see Emporia as they flew over Bazaar, KS, and the exact spot where the big Fokker had crashed three years earlier. Keeping Ottawa on the right and Lawrence on the left, they intercepted the Kansas River at Bonner Springs, then followed it to Argentine railroad yard, banked slightly left as they skimmed well below the rooftops of downtown Kansas City, crossed over the future home of the Rudy Patrick Seed Company, slipped over the dike and landed in light snow.

Ground crews swarmed over the DC-1 filling the fuel tanks and checking the oil as Frye and Rickenbacker stretched their legs and checked the weather ahead. The forecast for Newark made their hearts thump a little faster. The metro boys painted a black picture and advised them that if they had not reached Newark by 1600 hours, they would not reach it at all because they wouldn’t be able to find the airport. The two pilots agreed that making another fuel stop in Columbus, OH, would be a sanitary procedure.

After the DC-1 was airborne again, the men aimed in the general direction of Columbus. Daylight had come and their eyeballs were beginning to burn. Rickenbacker declared that he felt as if he had a mouthful of pipe cleaners, and Frye moaned in agreement. Approaching Dayton at low altitude, Frye imagined that he could see the bicycle shop where Wilbur and Orville had begun all this nonsense. They whistled into the Columbus Airport under a rapidly lowering 1,000-foot ceiling.

A record of sorts was set for this fuel stop. A blizzard was moving southward from the Great Lakes region, and the DC-1 lifted off Columbus just in the nick of time. Ten minutes later the field was zero-zero. Staying in visual contact was out of the question, so the two decided to try to top the stuff. As they sucked on oxygen tubes, they nursed the DC-1 to more than 18,000 feet.

During the several hours the airplane was on instruments on this trip, Frye kept thinking how nice it would be to have a duplicate set of blind flying instruments on the panel directly in front of each pilot. The center panel would be a good location for the engine gauges. The DC-1’s dials were spread helter-skelter, and he had to do considerable stretching to read them all. By golly -- maybe that’s where he got his stiff neck!

The DC-1 broke out into the bright sunshine above the clouds and picked up a tailwind that boosted ground speed to a phenomenal 225 mph. They would be on the east side of the Alleghenies in no time.

Before long, the time came to begin the final descent. Frye and Rickenbacker established visual contact sooner than they expected, and they sailed swiftly along over the picturesque Quaker countryside. How beautiful it is, Frye thought to himself. Green had to be one of his favorite colors.

Frye spotted New Brunswick at the one o’clock position. He eased the nose a couple of degrees to the left and flew directly over Metuchen and past Roselle Park and Elizabeth, and -- lo and behold -- they were on the downwind for the old Newark cinder patch.

Neither man was sleepy now, and strangely, the soreness in Frye’s neck had disappeared. His fanny was outraged, but a brisk walk would cure that. There was the TWA hangar next to the terminal building, and the three-in-a-row belonged to United, Eastern and American. Under the DC-1’s tail was the police station, and slipping by the trailing edge of the wing was the little Greek restaurant where many of the airport people appeased their appetites. And who needed a windsock this morning?

When the DC-1 landed shortly before noon on February 19, 1934, it had set a new transcontinental record for transports. The elapsed time was 13 hours 4 minutes, more than 3 hours ahead of schedule. These two airline executives had proved their point, and the airplane, as one New York paper said, "has made obsolete all other air transport equipment in this, or any other, country."

Plagued by bad weather had hampered by inadequate equipment and training, the Army pilots made a brave try to carry the mail. By March, ten pilots had been killed in some segment of the operations and public opinion was running heavily against the entire unfortunate experiment. On April 20, 1934, 45 operators attended a meeting called by Postmaster General Farley to bid on new mail contracts, and, thus, the job of carrying the mail was placed back in private hands. The "Show the Nation" flight was largely responsible for this quick action.

What happened to the DC-1? It went into various types of experimental work and occasionally was referred to as TWA’s flying laboratory. In April of 1935 it set a new transcontinental speed record of 11 hours 5 minutes. TWA later sold it to Howard Hughes, who, in turn, sold it to an Englishman. It had other owners and eventually it was destroyed in a takeoff accident on an airfield near Malaga, Spain, in 1940 – an inglorious and to the granddaddy of all the eminently successful and highly profitable Douglas Commercial series of airplanes.

Ed Schotting (1947 – 1983) worked in operations/ticket counter/baggage service at PIT.

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