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An Aviation Legend Lives Again

July 15, 2001, by Bill Cawthon

Sixty-one years ago, war was already raging in Europe and Asia and America was still recovering from the Great Depression. It was the end of the “golden age” of aviation; the last hurrah for the pilots who had earned their wings in the first World War and the barnstormers who had come after them. By the late 1930s, a decade of GeeBees, Stearmans and Wacos had captured the hearts and imaginations of the boys and more than a few girls who would grow up to shape the future in which we live today.

Even though the railroad was still preferred for most long-distance travel, the seeds of its downfall had already been planted. The pioneering Boeing 80 and later planes like the Boeing 247 and popular Douglas DC-3 had already ushered in the age of reasonably pleasant passenger air travel. In 1930, Boeing (following the suggestions of a very determined nurse named Ellen Church) had introduced another first, the stewardess. These new members of the flight crew quickly helped overcome the public’s fear of flying. Correctly reading the trends, Boeing president Clairmont Egtvedt had decided the company’s future was in large aircraft. At that time, Boeing and Douglas were fierce competitors in the airline market and both were already working on an exciting new type of airplane.

Boeing was first in scheduled service with its next-generation passenger plane. On July 8, 1940, Transcontinental and Western Air flew a new SA-307B Stratoliner on a 12-hour, 18-minute trip from New York to Los Angeles. Based on the B-17 bomber, the Boeing 307 incorporated a number of firsts that would have a dramatic impact on the future of civilian aviation. The Stratoliner was the first pressurized commercial airliner and could fly at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet, “above the weather” and far higher that the 5,000-10,000 ceiling of non-pressurized planes like the Douglas DC-3. It was also the world’s first four-engine commercial airliner and the first land-based airplane to carry a flight engineer as a normal part of its crew. The flight engineer was responsible for power settings, maintaining pressurization and other systems, leaving the captain free to perform other duties.

The Boeing 307 carried up to 33 passengers in relative luxury. The cabin was almost twelve feet wide and there were swing-down berths for the passengers. The four Wright Cyclone engines gave the Stratoliner a top speed of 246 mph. Its cruising speed was 220 mph and it had a range of 2,390 miles. It was small by modern standards, only 74 feet, 4 inches from nose to tail and with a wingspan of 107 feet, 3 inches.

Although it offered many advantages, only ten Stratoliners ever made it into the air and Boeing sold only nine. The first prototype, built for Pan American World Airlines, made its maiden flight on December 31, 1938. Testing continued until March 18, 1939 when it crashed, killing everyone on board, including a delegation from Dutch airline KLM. The second S-307 was completely successful becoming one of three purchased by Pan Am. Pan Am named them the Clipper Rainbow, Clipper Comet and Clipper Flying Cloud. They were based in Miami and flew the South American routes. Transcontinental and Western Air bought five SA-307Bs. TWA’s principle stockholder, the flamboyant millionaire Howard Hughes, paid more than $315,000 to buy a SB-307B to convert for a trip around the world, hoping to beat the Collier Trophy-winning mark he had set earlier in a Lockheed 14. Equipped with a master bedroom, a living room, kitchen and a bar, Hughes’ Stratoliner was the first airliner converted to private luxury use.

The United States’ entry into World War II ended Boeing’s hopes for more airline orders. Besides, the company was now busy building thousands of B-17 Flying Fortresses. Most of the existing 307s were drafted into military service. Howard Hughes gave up on the idea of flying his 307 around the world and stuck it in a hangar.

The Stratoliners spent the war years as transports. They were re-designated as C-75s and generally flew to South America or across the Atlantic.

By the end of the war, the Stratoliner’s heyday was over. Wartime advances in aviation science and engineering meant bigger, faster and more powerful planes and the age of the jetliner was rapidly approaching. In fact, the Stratoliner’s successor, the 377 Stratocruiser, was Boeing’s last propeller-driven new plane. The five SA-307Bs originally bought by TWA were re-engined and sold to Aigle Azur, a French airline flying in Indochina. Operated by such carriers as Air Laos, the Stratoliners were still flying well into the 1960s. Howard Hughes gave up on the idea of flying his Stratoliner around the world and sold it to a Texas oil millionaire. The only SB-307B ever built wound up converted into a luxury houseboat in Florida.

Fast-forward to the present. A generation and more have grown to maturity never having heard the magic roar of mighty aircraft radial piston engines as they, one-by-one, come to life or seen the propellers take a hesitant turn, then quickly spin into blurs. To them, the airliner is a jet - usually a large one seating a hundred people or more and whose engines keen anonymously. For these people, as well as for generations to come, one more memory of that era was reclaimed from oblivion. On Saturday, June 23, 2001, the last surviving Boeing S-307 Stratoliner was rolled out of the hangar.

Six decades after it was delivered to Pan American, the Clipper Flying Cloud has been totally restored to its original condition. A group of retired Boeing employees discovered it on a trip to the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona. A previous owner had converted it to a crop-duster and now it was owned by the Smithsonian. No one at the museum realized what an important piece of aviation history the old plane represented. The Boeing group offered to rebuild it and the Smithsonian agreed.

Boeing reconditioned the plane to the point it could be flown from Tucson to Seattle in June 1994. In March of the following year, crews moved the Stratoliner to Boeing Plant 2, where it was originally built. Parts that no longer existed were fabricated using the original specifications and designs. Even the interior wall fabric was faithfully reproduced using a vintage loom. Other parts, like the Pan Am radios and compass were located in the hands of airline retirees and collectors. The project lasted six years and Boeing retirees did much of the work. Other Boeing employees and suppliers helped the core group by producing many of the components and structures.

Now the restoration is complete. In time, the restored Clipper Flying Cloud will fly to Washington, D.C. to become the centerpiece of the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opening in 2003. Located at Washington’s Dulles Airport, the Center will be a companion exhibit to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.

As much as collectors enjoy the models of today’s magnificent airliners, it is also fun to learn about the rich history and romance of commercial aviation. If we’re lucky, in the future the manufacturers like Herpa, Dragon or Wooster, will explore the opportunities presented by the many fascinating airplanes that flew before the dawn of the jet era.

My sincere appreciation to the Boeing Company for their assistance and my special thanks to Amanda Landers, who helped me obtain the excellent pictures of the restored Stratoliner. Please note the photographs are all copyright © 2001 The Boeing Company and all rights are reserved.

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005