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Friday, March 25, 2011

Mr. Joe flies inaugural TWA Boeing 707

LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

In 1959, I became a small part of Trans World Airlines (TWA) aviation history. While in New York City on a business trip, a change in plans allowed me to cancel my Friday flight to New Orleans and return home to San Francisco on Saturday instead. The ticketing agent offered me two options. I chose to take the flight scheduled to depart from LaGuardia at 9 a.m. rather than 1 p.m.

On the morning of my departure, a crowd of passengers seemed to be celebrating some sort of festivity. The reason: We were flying to San Francisco aboard a Boeing 707, TWA’s first commercial west-bound non-stop cross country flight. Their inaugural east-bound flight from San Francisco had arrived in New York City the day before.

Joe Finnerty

Before boarding, each passenger received a framed certificate with the TWA logo commemorating the flight. It hangs on the wall of my den. Almost as an afterthought, they later mailed me an egg timer neatly wrapped in a TWA emblem. It’s now missing from my kitchen.

From the outset, one knew this inaugural flight would be memorable. The plane had a new-car smell about it. Everything looked spic-and-span, bright and clean.. My seat was next to the window which really pleased me.

My journey started out inauspiciously. The plane left on time and ambled along the tarmac at a slow speed toward the runway where it paused a few moments. The pilot then began to crank up the jet engines to full power. At the precise moment he released the brakes and the plane surged forward, as if on cue, a young boy seated behind me let out a yell, "Charge!" This shout of bravado and encouragement matched my emotion perfectly. For that brief moment, I thought of myself as a member of the Light Brigade, about to ride heroically into the jaws of . . . the unknown.

As we flew across the country, the pilot provided a running commentary, relaying our air speed and current location. We flew too high to see the landmarks he identified below, but we strained to see them. Was that the Mississippi? The relative lack of noise compared to piston-driven planes astounded me. We encountered some minor turbulence on three occasions during the five-hour flight, but it was the smoothest plane ride in my experience.

Actually, this was not my first encounter with jet flight. In 1947, while stationed at Ladd Field, Alaska, a P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter plane approached the runway on its first flight to the arctic, accompanied by an escort of two P-51 Mustangs. As the three planes flew by the control tower, just a few hundred feet above ground level, the P-80 pilot hit the jet engine throttle, and then pulled the plane straight up into the sky, leaving the escorts in its wake. In that flash of time, one could see that jets had made piston-driven engines obsolete.

Not every passenger enjoyed the flight. The editor of the Wall Street Journal, West Coast edition, sat next to me. He grumbled before, during and after takeoff. The airline had bumped him from first class, even though he had booked his flight months in advance in order to be aboard this first jet trip. He fumed when I told him that I had purchased my seat just a day earlier, and had no idea of its maiden status.

In 1966 my wife took our six children ages 1 to 9 to New York City (by herself) to visit relatives. The cost staggered us. I asked TWA for a discount because of my pioneer status with the airline. They told me, in polite terms, to ‘take a hike.’ The value of my inaugural flight status had declined faster than a jet zooming up on takeoff.

It’s regrettable that TWA folded before it could offer me a chance to be aboard its first flight to the moon. I need another egg timer.

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