First Flight as a Child

The Douglas DC-6s and -7s were modern airliners in their day. iStock/Jgaunion

In summer 1954, I was 10 going on 11; the “going on” part is important when you’re 10. My father was in New York for some reason or another, and my mother and I were to join him there for a month. It was the first great travel adventure of my life. Born and living in Los Angeles, I had never been outside California, and now I was to go 3,000 miles away, to another city in another state. Maybe I would see Niagara Falls.

I had also never been in an airplane.

My mother did not fully share my enthusiasm. No doubt, she was happy to be going back to New York, where she had grown up after arriving a Russia-born, German-speaking 8-year-old in 1925. She and my father had met and married there. He was a photographer then, and after traveling to Los Angeles in his rumble-seat convertible Ford, named Fubs, on a magazine assignment to photograph Marlene Dietrich, he had returned to New York to announce to my mother that they were moving west. Their talk when I was small was often of New York friends and happenings and of my maternal grandparents' summer house in Woodstock.

They moved to Los Angeles in 1942. In due course, my father was drafted, assigned as a photography instructor to the Signal Corps and stationed, as luck would have it, back in New York. My mother visited him there, leaving me in the care of her parents, who by then had migrated to California as well. A family story had my mother returning from a protracted stay in New York and entering my nursery in expectation of an ecstatic welcome. Instead, I started screaming in terror of the invading stranger.

My mother’s wartime trip was probably made by train. Transcontinental air service—which had begun in the 1920s with Ford Tri-Motors that took a couple of days, with an overnight stretch in a train, and had graduated in the 1930s to multiple hops in Boeing, Douglas or Lockheed taildraggers—would still in 1944 have been an expensive and, I imagine, to her a rather alarming option. But by 1954, much had changed in air travel, and so she and I found ourselves at Los Angeles International Airport—it had changed from “Municipal” to “International” in 1949—at the foot of a boarding stair. Looming above us, unimaginably gigantic and extremely shiny, was an American Airlines Douglas DC-7.

The trip had required certain preparations. My mother would later arm herself for flight with Miltown, but I suspect that in 1954, she was still obliged to rely on Chivas Regal. And then there was the matter of proper attire. Air travel was still an event; it was necessary to dress properly. No shorts, sweats or muumuus. Men wore ties. I wore a clean white sport shirt and slacks. My grandmother and grandfather drove us to the airport in their 1951 Chevy, whose feltlike upholstery I still cannot recall without experiencing a frisson of rug burn. They saw us off at the boarding gate.

The monstrous airplane was actually, in modern terms, smallish, with a wingspan of 127 feet, space for 80 to 100 passengers and a gross weight of 143,000 pounds. It descended from the legendary DC-3, by way of the World War II-era DC-4 (the military C-54) and the later DC-6. The template for the -6 and -7 was the -4, with its cylindrical fuselage, tricycle gear and four engines. There had been a DC-5 as well, now all but forgotten. It was a twin-engine, shoulder-wing, tri-gear intercity commuter airplane—smaller and faster than the DC-3. The DC-5 was born at an inopportune moment for air travel, just at the start of the war, and was never as successful as its bigger siblings.

Read More from Peter Garrison: Technicalities

The DC-7 looked almost exactly like the DC-6. Apart from the usual beefings-up and stretches, the difference was the engines. The DC-6 used twin-row P&W R-2800 Double Wasps rated at 2,400 or 2,500 horsepower. The -7 had Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones—you have to love these names—with a takeoff rating of 3,400 horsepower. The Wrights were turbo-compound engines; three exhaust-driven turbines geared directly to the crankshaft enabled them to recover several hundred horsepower from the exhaust stream. This was, in effect, free power because the exhaust gases were going overboard anyway, and it resulted in exceptionally low fuel consumption, allowing the DC-7 to fly coast to coast nonstop in eight hours, provided that one of the enormously complex engines did not quit along the way.

As I climbed the stairway into the airplane, I knew none of this. A stewardess directed us to our two seats on the right side of the aisle. I sat by the window. After an eternal delay, the engines puffed into life, one after another, with premonitory wheezing sounds followed by clouds of smoke. We taxied out. The chuffing engines smoothed, and their sound swelled to a roar. My mother’s hands gripped the armrests, and her eyes closed. The entire airplane shook as it moved forward, creeping at first, then gaining speed until the rumbling of the ground ceased and we rose into the air. The furious engines calmed themselves and settled into an undulating hum. Tiny drops of sweat had appeared on my poor mother’s forehead. She retrieved a tissue from her handbag and dabbed them away.

In the course of the flight, we would be served lunch and dinner. I no longer remember how we whiled away the time. I suppose we read. Maybe we played cards. I looked out the window at landscapes whose geologic and historical significance I did not understand. Perhaps I napped; there were pillows and blankets in the open overhead racks, and we must have arrived late at night. I do not remember any special weather or turbulence; I think the flight was kind to my mother, once we reached cruising altitude. Fortunately, on that trip no engines failed.

I do remember, however, going forward in the cabin and looking out a window at the sinister, spidery engines, nestled in cowlings crowned with an airscoop whose scowling mouth, raised clear of the cowling top and thrust hungrily forward, deeply impressed me, though I did not then understand its use or the reason for its peculiar shape.

We returned late in the summer, driving in my father’s ’53 Caddy. I remember lying on the cool, stiff red leather of the back seat as we sailed along Route 66, the lights of passing cars sweeping across the ceilings of insomniac motel rooms, a lake at which I insisted we stop so that I could go fishing. St. Louis had no traffic lights. Joplin, Missouri, had a never-to-be-forgotten steak with a girdle of bacon. The Mississippi River! The Painted Desert! The Petrified Forest! Burma Shave! The Beast of Barstow!

It was a different country, seen from the Caddy, than it was seen from the DC-7. I could not know it then, but in my life I was to crisscross it many times on the road and in the air, fast and slow, high and low, until from each vantage point I could imagine the other and all flowed together into a single vast and beloved America.

This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Peter Garrison taught himself to use a slide rule and tin snips, built an airplane in his backyard, and flew it to Japan. He began contributing to FLYING in 1968, and he continues to share his columns, "Technicalities" and "Aftermath," with FLYING readers.

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