Growing Up In The Jet Age
It is surely something how we travel by air today—so casually—like we’re getting on busses in our torn blue jeans and ratty old sweat shirts, scarcely noticing we’re leaving the surly bonds of Earth. How many passengers don’t even notice we’re taking off and experiencing the miracle of flight at 560 miles per hour? We don our laptops, cell phones and favorite reading material and never give the flying experience another thought. People close the window shades and hunker down for the “bus” ride. We cross the continent in five hours and take it all so for granted. We can jet around the world and be in Australia or China in 18 hours—and we complain about how long it takes.
I remember a different day and age… My first airplane ride in 1961 was aboard a United Airlines Boeing 720 jet from Baltimore’s Friendship International Airport to the old Kansas City Municipal with my parents and sisters. We stayed with family in suburban KC over Christmas long enough to catch the flu before the next leg to San Francisco and onto Hawaii where we would live for a year.
My mother recalled our trip out over the dark Pacific. She was shocked the pilot didn’t tell us we were about to take off. Thrusting us into the night sky was a new Pan American Boeing 707 with obnoxious Pratt & Whitney turbojet power that rattled windows around Travis AFB, California. She looked out the window in horror to observe sparks coming from the engines, not understanding we were on water/ethanol injection to give us more thrust for takeoff. She grabbed the armrests and held us up all the way to Honolulu. When we landed in the early morning darkness there were hula girls there to greet us and place Hawaiian lays around our necks, welcoming us to Oahu.
Ah—the magic of jet travel in the early 1960s. We were in snow-covered Kansas City that morning. In the wee hours of the next morning we were in balmy, tropical Hawaii headed for our new home in Pearl City Highlands. A whole new experience awaited us. When it was time for us to return to Washington, D.C. that fall, we boarded a chartered Trans International DC-8 jet to Travis AFB, California, then, over to San Francisco International to catch a United Airlines DC-8 to Baltimore via Denver. For a snot-nosed six year-old like me, it was exciting, but exhausting. I used up a lot of air sickness bags.
In those days, people dressed up to go flying because it really was a formal event. You dressed appropriately and acted with dignity. At the cusp of the 1960s, we had a new young president—John F. Kennedy—and the air was alive with promise and hope. We were going to the Moon. People very quickly got used to the thrill of smooth high-speed jet travel and the amazing phenomenon of speed, getting there fast and taking it slow—enjoying a vacation or visiting relatives.
In those days, the first words out of the mouths of those at your destination was, “How was the plane ride?” or “What do you think of the new Boeing 707?” It was an exciting time to be alive—especially for a kid. The wonderful world of Walt Disney magic and fantasy came alive when you left the ground. The future was ours to have and to hold. We were on the rise in the post-war years.
Today, jet travel is a rather “ho-hum” routine. People pour onto jetliners like cattle and fight for bin space. China and stainless flatware have been replaced with plastic packets of Lorna Doone cookies, Fritos and a drink. As recent as the 1980s, I remember a meal and a light snack to keep us content on long transcontinental flights. Airline travel in the United States in 2019 is more like riding in a cargo plane like a herd of cattle and people with comfort dogs rather than the elegant “pie in the sky” experience it was a half century ago.
It is remarkable how far we’re come in 100 years. One hundred years ago, we were running around on dope and fabric aircraft and flying was for the daring and wealthy. Aluminum aircraft construction didn’t really arrive until the 1930s. Jet travel came shortly after World War II. By 1969, we were on the Moon. Brain power, tenacity, and a lot of thrust, is what got us there.
Our own Boeing 707 revolutionized jet travel, followed by the Douglas DC-8 and Convair 880/990. Our good fortune was Britain’s misfortune. The Brits were first with the Comet jetliner, which experienced a series of fatal crashes—dooming the Comet forever. This series of accidents gave Boeing the edge with the 707. Boeing sold a lot of them as did Douglas with the DC-8. Convair’s super-fast 880 and 990 jets got you there quickly. However, the Convairs were limited at 80 seats, which made them impractical for the airlines, especially when fuel became expensive in the 1970s.
Boeing’s massive 747 jumbo jet in all its forms has made the world smaller and more accessible. Newer equipment, like the Airbus A350 and Boeing’s 787, have made flying more efficient and quieter. Flying today is considerably better than it was in the Jet Age though we tend to romanticize the era.
When I hop on a jet today, I realize the real magic of jet travel is gone though more efficient and quiet. Yet, for me personally I’ve never forgotten the remarkable experience flight is. I hear the engines power up and the flight experience begins. Next thing I know, I am high above Los Angeles headed out on course. What an incredible experience flight still can be given our passionate attention. The world is outside your window waiting to be seen.
— Jim Smart