My First Air Trip to the Pacific Coast
Part I

By Armen S. Kurkjian
Air Line Pilot, June/July 2003, p.29

No, my father and mother were not birds; I have not inherited flying as my natural method of transportation. To be sure, I had made four trips across Lake Michigan from Grand Rapids to Milwaukee by airplane because each such trip saved a whole business day for me; but in the case of my first air trip to the Pacific Coast, a mistake was really at the bottom of the whole thing.

A clerk in the city ticket office at Grand Rapids made a mistake of one day in the written information he gave me as to the fastest train connections that would land me at San Francisco by the morning of January 23, where I was to attend an important meeting that noon; and so rather than give up and wire my regrets, I decided to take advantage of the newly established Boeing–Transcontinental Air Transport Service between Chicago and San Francisco and get there in plenty of time for that meeting.

I left Grand Rapids Jan. 20, 1931, on the Michigan Central late evening train to Chicago. The train ride was uneventful and brought me to Chicago Wednesday morning the 21st. The Chicago downtown office of the Boeing System is located at 400 S. Michigan Blvd. It is a newly furnished, beautiful place with phones, desks, deep leathered-cushioned seats, and various conveniences, including writing desks and post cards of the three motored ships.

I arrived there about 7:30 A.M. A businesslike young man welcomed me, sold me tickets, took $168.00, and said there will be a slight delay because of the lateness of the Eastern mail.

I took breakfast just around the corner at a very clean, newly fitted restaurant and filled in the balance of my time by writing a few postals.

At 9 a.m., a taxi took me to the Chicago Municipal Airport, which is far out and requires about one-half hour to taxi. The airport is covered at one end by hangars of the different air concerns that use the same. One of the largest is used by the Boeing System-T.A.T. These last three letters stand for Transcontinental Air Transport, and is the name of the branch that goes from Chicago to New York, while the Boeing system goes from Chicago to San Francisco and Seattle.

The station at the airport was very businesslike, all men in uniforms. At one corner, on a beautiful davenport, was seated a good-looking girl dressed somewhat like the Red Cross nurses during the war. She had about six beautiful wool blankets, all folded, on her right, and about six small cushions with white covers on her left, and one small overnight bag with zippers on the floor near her and close by, a stack of magazines, etc. Needless to say, I wondered what she was doing there.

On another chair nearby was a New York [businessman], very well dressed in brown ensemble—you know—various shades of brown from shoes to hat including shirt and tie, with two small but ritzy bags near him. I assumed he was a passenger to go somewhere. Smart men in uniforms came in and out. The airport station manager of the Boeing Air Transport was a Mr. Thompson who informed me that he was very sorry that the New York mail was late and that probably we would be delayed until 11:30 A.M. After waiting around a few minutes, I decided that I would like to see what they had at the airport so, at my request, Mr. Thompson personally conducted me through the entire offices and repair shops and hangars of the Boeing Air Transport, Inc., at the Chicago Municipal Airport. All buildings and offices are very new—things are not at all settled yet; but everyone from the telephone girls (God bless them) to the highest officer in command was wide awake, bright, on the job, quick to perceive, quick to reply, and busy all over.

"Miss Jones, please order a plane for Mr. Smith to Cleveland leaving at 12:10."

"Hello, Mr. Smith, plane 34, Mr. Picket’s attendant will be ready for you at 12:10 for Cleveland—right!"

"Miss Jones, please reserve one stateroom on the Pennsylvania out of Cleveland tonight for Washington for Mr. Brown, who will fly his plane this afternoon to Cleveland and meet with Mr. Johnson at a conference."

"Mr. Johnson, your reservation out of Cleveland is made; tickets will be in your hand by 4 p.m.—Right."

Orders for ships—commands—confirmations, all over, every second something vital, something unheard of before.

The repair shop was the most interesting to me. It seems that after every trip all ships are thoroughly overhauled, and after every 1,000 hours of flying, the engines are completely disassembled, every part examined and most carefully reassembled with new parts replacing worn or doubtful parts so as to make sure of the perfect performance of the engines. In the hangars were many different kinds of ships. Some were of the single-motor monoplane type of the fast-pursuit kind capable of reaching to 200 miles per hour, but those are used for mail only and carry passengers (just two) very seldom. There were the Ford-Stinson three-motor monoplanes (beautiful looking, all-metal ships), which are used on the Chicago-to-New York jump, and then there were the Boeing three-motor biplanes of the type that is used between Chicago and San Francisco—the kind that was to carry me.

These ships have three Pratt and Whitney Hornet type of engines, each of 575 horsepower. The ships carry 12 passengers in addition to the regular crew and the mail. Most of the mail is carried inside the wings.

At 11:35 A.M. January 21, Wednesday, I was informed that the ship was ready. My big bag was checked and stowed away in the baggage compartment in the very tail of the ship. With my portfolio in hand, I boarded the National Air Transport—Boeing Tri-Motor Ship No. 793, with the kindly farewell of the station attendant Mr. Stanley F. Thompson ringing in my ears. There I was aboard the ship and in walked the New York [businessman] (Mr. F.E. Sutor) and the trim young lady whom I had seen at the station seated on the davenport; well, if you please, she was the "stewardess," Miss Hassel, and in she came with all the white-covered cushions and wool blankets she could carry.

The door was shut by port attendants, and the ship began to taxi across the field at exactly 11:40 A.M. The sun was shining brightly, the air was clear and brisk, everything seemed most propitious for a wonderful trip. Up we rose, up, up, and soon spread before us the wonderful panorama of Chicago, then west of Chicago, and then the open country—at first flying at an altitude of perhaps 400 to 500 feet above the ground and gradually rising in altitude although maintaining a uniform distance above the ground of about 2,000 feet.

Hardly had we gotten started when Miss Hassel, the stewardess, came to each of us, Mr. Sutor and myself (the only two passengers), and asked if we would like to smoke. She had two or three different kinds of cigarettes. I refused, but Mr. Sutor said yes, whereupon he took his choice of cigarettes and Miss Hassel hung, on a holder near him, a small ash receptacle with the admonition that he please be careful and put ashes and butts inside the ash receiver, which was provided with a flip-top to kill smoke or sparks once the butt is inside.

Then Miss Hassel inquired if we would like a blanket. We said yes, because the inside of the cabin was cold as yet. She brought a wonderful blanket for each of us and gently tucked it around our lap, legs, and feet.

Then Miss Hassel, with a bundle of papers and magazines in hand, asked if we would like something to read. We both refused. I said I would prefer to see what I could see, as I could read when I was not flying. Mr. Sutor said he had a book and at once took out of his Boston overnight bag with a zipper top a cap, which he wore (discarding his hat), and a book entitled The Rights of Hebrews in Palestine or some such important-sounding title, and he at once buried his eyes in that book. I watched the fields, the small cities, the farm houses, the auto roads, the villages, the small airports as we passed over them in swift succession at the speed of approximately 120 miles per hour.

The terrain was flat, no mountains, no sand dunes, no valleys, no gulches. The ship sped on smoothly and evenly without any more vibration than riding in an automobile. At first, having in mind one experience I had while flying across Lake Michigan, I was afraid I was going to be seasick—I should say "air sick," but in about an hour or so I knew that I was going to feel fine and everything that I had eaten for breakfast was going to stay with me. Oh what a fine feeling of relief. I looked at the stewardess.

(Miss Hassel)—"Are you comfortable? Can I do anything for you?"

(Yours Truly)—"Please put my hat on the rack, and I think I’ll take off my overcoat as the ship is getting warmer."

(Miss Hassel)—(After helping me with my coat and hat and tucking the blanket around me again) "There, how is that? Would you like a cushion back of your head? There, I think you would be more comfortable if I put a cushion right back of you—there! I believe that is better."

(Yours Truly)—"Thank you, that is better."

(Miss Hassel)—"Now we are approaching Iowa City, where we will stop about six minutes to discharge and take on mail. Would you like to get off?"

The plane landed smoothly, and attendants quickly made the change of mail. The station was small but convenient. Mr. Sutor and I walked about, and in the short interval I learned that he had made the trip Reno, Nev., to New York City and back every 10 days for quite a while.

A few more questions on my part, and the secret was given me confidentially. Mr. Sutor is in the jewelry business in New York and decided he must get a divorce from his wife and that quickly, so he went to Reno to get a divorce; but the Nevada laws require that he must establish three months’ continuous residence in Nevada before he can get a divorce. And so, Mr. Sutor rented a house, began to live in Reno, and every ten days at about 10 p.m., after the neighbors were sound asleep, he would go to the airport, take the air ship that leaves San Francisco at night and gets to Reno at a convenient hour, and Mr. Sutor would fly to New York, tend to his business, and fly back again to Reno, arriving there at the early hour of 4 a.m. usually, and he would be in his own bed and in his own Reno home the next morning and the neighbors would not know where he had been because he would be away only two days all told. You see, the air transport service is a godsend to Mr. Sutor.

Now we are aboard the air ship again and it is taxiing across the field. At the very end of the runway, it turned around and stopped, and each of the three motors was shut off and started again and tested by the pilot, and after he found all three motors would respond nobly, he released the brakes, and we were up again in the beautiful air, nothing in the way of pavements or steel rails to bother us.

This testing of all three motors, after each landing by the pilot himself, is a requirement to assure greater safety. As, after the ship leaves any airport, the pilot is the only one who has control over the ship. Not even the president of their company can order the pilot what to do between departure from one station and arrival at another station.

(Miss Hassel)—"Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?"

(A.S.K.)—"Yes, please."

Soon the stewardess produced from a small refrigerator a very nice box of lunch—half of a chicken cut up and nicely fried, four small, thin bread sandwiches, pickles, cookies. Oh yes! "Would we like coffee from the hot Thermos bottle?" We would! And for dessert would we like some fruit—oranges, apples, right now or later? I would like it later! But not Mr. Sutor, he took his orange, nicely peeled and separated in sections, right now. Would I like some cold water? No thanks.

Lunch over, and the inner man satisfied, we were approaching Des Moines, Iowa. Stopped for mail and gas, and off again. Soon we were in Omaha, Neb., where upon landing we were met by a delegation of a special committee from the Chamber of Commerce, who were going to inaugurate the Boeing Air Transport Service by flying to Lincoln, Neb., a distance of 48 miles, and there attend a banquet in the evening. The station here was very nice with a most convenient Men’s Room, which was conveniently used by Mr. Sutor and myself while Miss Hassel powdered her nose in the Ladies’ Room.

Mr. Sutor and I played tag, ran around a bit while mail was exchanged and dispatch orders received. And now, we were off for Lincoln with three passengers added.

One of the three, a rather talkative slim man of about 42 years of age, told his two companions (fat, big, and grim fellows) not to be afraid. At worse they would lose their lunch, but a dinner was awaiting them, etc., etc. Hardly had the words left his mouth when I noticed that the rosy color of his cheek had turned to greenish white. He ceased talking, he doffed his hat, he doffed his overcoat, he hung on to his seat, he ran to the lavatory at the rear of the air ship—he was gone like a shot before Miss Hassel could ask him any questions.

Now, I learned that Miss Hassel was really a trained nurse and that her duties as to punching your ticket and making record of passengers coming and going was more as a shadow under cover of which she would administer to the comfort of the passengers, and in case of air sickness she would revive them with such care as the medical profession has as yet discovered, which is darn little.

At Lincoln we got rid of the three trespassers on our transcontinental personally conducted air tour, and then Miss Hassel brought out three rolls of U.S. government maps, showing the "air lane" we were traversing. No, Mr. Sutor would rather read his book. I was glad of that because I just devoured all the explanations she gave me about those maps, and then studied them to my heart’s content.

The Boeing system publishes a time table containing a map on which a heavy black line delineates the route from Chicago west.

The air ships in the air are able to stay in the middle of this air line, almost directly above the dark line on the map, because the government, at its expense, maintains a radio signal system that gives a certain peculiar sound through the ear sets that the pilot wears. If he is directly above the route, he gets either no sound or a pleasing low tone. Should he get over too far to the right of his course, a distinct warning sound will tell him that he should go toward his left; and similarly, should he go too far to his left, he receives another type of warning sound that will tell him that he is too far to his left, and so the pilot, by following between these two types of warnings, is bound to keep to his course.

In addition to the radio signal guidance, the government has established and maintains at its cost a series of beacon lights and emergency landing fields at intervals of about ten miles, and what is still more astonishing to me is the development of the two-way radio telephone system with which the Boeing air ships are now equipped. By this device, the pilot can talk to the ground stations, and the ground stations can reach any air ship in the air and thus transmit, by actually talking to them, all available information regarding the weather, directions, locations, landing conditions, fog, lights, etc., etc. Marvels will never cease!

As we approached North Platte, Neb., it was evident that we had been gradually climbing higher and higher, not that we were any higher from the ground, but the altitude of the ground was gradually getting higher. The stop at North Platte was uninteresting. It is really a new airport station created for the convenience of regassing and dividing up the trip into stops of approximately every two hours’ flying time.

Now it was dark, and the only visible things were lights of auxiliary landing fields, beacon lights, and street lights of small towns, villages, or farms (darn few of them, too) over which we were climbing. On and on we sped in darkness, except for the lights in our ship and the beacon lights down be1ow.

Then, all of a sudden, I said, "Nothing to do—why can’t we play cards?"

Says Miss Hassel, "Sure, we can play cards. I have a deck of cards right here."

She got the cards. Mr. Sutor thought of his approaching divorce, smiled, and turned around facing me. Miss Hassel produced a thin board, usually used as an improvised table for any passenger, and laying it across the arms of the two chairs just ahead of us, sat on the same, looking toward Chicago while Mr. Sutor and I faced west. Then we used another board as a table, which Mr. Sutor and I supported on our knees. Then, the question arose as to what to play. I offered to teach them Russian rummy. They were delighted with the suggestion, and the game started. Thank heavens for that game. It was all in fun. No stakes, no gains, no losses—just a good time with me keeping score. We forgot everything except the game.

We were so absorbed in the game that time passed much swifter until all at once Miss Hassel said we must stop now, as we are approaching Cheyenne, Wyo. And so we were. I looked at the altitude meter at the front end of the ship and saw that we were flying at about 8,000 feet above sea level. The "speedometer" showed that we were making about 100 miles per hour.

Soon the lights of Cheyenne were ahead of us. We circled them and in a few minutes had landed at the important station of Cheyenne, where we were promised a hot meal. Regular schedule would have brought us here at about 6:15 p.m. but having left Chicago late, we arrived at Cheyenne at about 9 p.m.; and since we were late, we must not take more than ten minutes according to the Post Office regulations, or at any rate we must start as soon as the mail is transferred.

The minute we landed, a uniformed miss who we learned was the station mistress met us, but…told [us] we must get out in ten minutes. Thank heavens I can eat soup pretty hot. All etiquette ceased. Down went the soup and the crackers, down went the roast beef, potatoes, salad, coffee, and then just as apple pie à la mode came in, our guardian angel rushed in with the statement that the time was up and we must leave. She got my coat and hat and handed it to me while I was ushering the first forkful of pie and ice cream to my mouth. Nothing to do, but I must leave the balance of pie and ice cream against my protestations. The lady was kind and said as far as the Boeing Air Transport and she were concerned, they both thought it a shame that Uncle Sam would have such regulations, also that the Post Office inspectors were more numerous than usual, so we must rush and get into our new ship. I forgot to tell you that at Cheyenne a complete change of ship is made, and the pilots and the stewardess who brought us safely to Cheyenne returned to Chicago after a rest, and a new crew with a new ship with the mail transferred took us the rest of the way.

Out of the station we rushed to obey the rules of the Postmaster General but just as we got near the ship, one of the men loading mail said, "Don’t rush, you still have five minutes because we had to make a ‘double shift’ of the mail."

Suffering Sisyphus! Pie and ice cream left to the tender mercies of the cowboy waiter, and me standing outside waiting for Uncle Sam to do his bit in removing mail. What I told the station mistress was definite and to the point. We all laughed, said good-bye to Miss Hassel (a plump, smiling, kindly young soul), and went in the ship with our new stewardess, who was a small, skin-and-bones type of an active young lady.

Both Mr. Sutor and I thought it about time we tried to sleep. We were not even interested enough to ask the new stewardess’ name. She asked the usual first questions: "Would you like to smoke? Would you like something to read? Would you like a robe or blanket? Is there anything I can do?"

Yes, there was! Would she please show me how the chair inclined so that I could try to sleep, and would she please call my attention to any high mountains or unusual sights as we came to them?

She pushed a button on the side of my chair and it gently reclined very much the same as the divided individual day coach seats in railroad cars incline, allowing you to stretch your feet and rest backward in a comfortable position. This done, and blankets tucked around me, I dozed off in good shape.

I forgot to tell you that the pilot of the first ship was Mr. R.J. Johnson and the co-pilot was Mr. Barnham. Both were dressed in regulation flying costume much as Col. Charles Lindbergh is often pictured in. The pilot has a radio headset against both of his ears (just like ear muffs); therefore, when you try to talk to him at any of the landings, he can’t hear you—just looks ahead or away as if you had not spoken at all, unless, of course, he sees your lips move. Then he says, "Pardon me, I can’t hear" and points to his ear muffs. I presume our second ship also had a pilot and co-pilot; but since I did not see them, I cannot vouch for their existence nor can I tell you their names. You see, they were just "men that pass in the night."

Cheyenne has an altitude of about 6,500 feet above the sea level, but we had hardly left Cheyenne when we began a slow but steady climb. I could tell because my bed-seat was just in front of the instruments that recorded the speed and the altitude. We passed over Laramie at about 8,000 feet elevation; then came mountain peaks after mountain peaks. Every now and then the stewardess would wax eloquent in her admiration of the gigantic peaks laden with snow, majestically defying the ingenuity of mankind, by remarking, "Isn’t that cute, right there in the dark?" I would look and would gasp in silence. Of course, some of the peaks I knew were thousands of feet away, yet it seemed as if I could reach out of the air ship and touch them.

Editor’s note: This article is the first of two installments of an interesting letter from a salesman for the Oliver Manufacturing Co., based in Chicago, about his first airline trip. The manuscript came to light a few years ago when a long-time Oliver employee, Gordon DeVries, was going through his father’s papers. His father, Ralph DeVries, was at one time Oliver’s export manager and a co-worker of Armen S. Kurkjian. Oliver has been in business since 1890—originally manufacturing woodworking machinery. Oliver started making bread slicers, packaging equipment, and labelers in the 1930s and started printing bakery and food labels (and producing the adhesives used to adhere them to packages) in the 1940s. Today, Oliver’s biggest division manufactures packaging materials for the medical-device industry. We are aware that the article includes certain prejudices of an earlier era. Despite that, we decided to edit the original letter as little as possible. We feel that the letter provides a unique view of the early days of airline travel. The letter’s author died in an airliner crash in the early 1940s.