Flying High in Days Gone By – Vintage Private Planes

Two great industries – motion pictures and aviation – rose side by side in the Twentieth Century. In December 1903, the same month Orville & Wilbur Wright’s flimsy little bi-plane skittered for twelve breathless seconds above the sand dunes of the Kill Devil Hills, Edison’s flimsy little epic The Great Train Robbery skittered for twelve breathless minutes across the silver sheet in New York City. Both made history and were harbingers of bigger things to come, much bigger things. It was quite natural that these two great ventures would intertwine with the thrills and excitement of early aviation combining with the thrills and excitement of early motion pictures. In the beginning, the mere sight of an airplane sputtering across the screen was enough to set moviegoers hearts racing, but as both industries began to mature, so did the action and before long, fiery crashes, daredevil leaps and even fistfights on the wings of planes became standard fare for “thrill” pictures, particularly the great serials of the day. After all, what could be more perilous for Pauline than hanging desperately from an airplane while her mustache-twirling arch-villain has seized the controls?

In the early days the thrills - and the danger - were real. This was the stunt that killed pioneer stunt man Jean Perkins.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Priscilla Dean!

But Hollywood’s love affair with the airplane went well beyond the screen itself. From the beginning, motion picture people were big boosters of air travel, instantly recognizing not only its potential, but its potential for publicity, the mother’s milk of movie people. Priscilla Dean, the “Queen” of Universal in the silent days caught on pretty early and in 1919 she took to the skies over the foothill communities from Altadena all the way out to Riverside, swooping down whenever she saw a knot of people and pelting the hapless onlookers with copies of her latest portrait, twenty of which (out of thousands dropped during the day) contained a free ticket to fly in an airplane, the rest, a broadside for her latest picture.

Cecil B. De Mille "suits up" Samuel Goldwyn for his first flight.

Several early stars bought airplanes for themselves at around this same time but it was Cecil B. De Mille and Syd Chaplin who took things even further. In 1919, both formed their own airlines. De Mille got off the ground first, if you will, closely followed by Chaplin and his Syd Chaplin Aircraft Corporation. Chaplin’s effort, a shuttle across the channel to Catalina Island, fizzled after just two months, but De Mille’s Mercury Aviation Company, flirted dangerously with success becoming, according to De Mille’s later claim, the very first commercial airline in the United States to offer regularly scheduled flights between cities. While this claim is disputed by an earlier service in Florida, De Mille was, nonetheless, a pioneer in aviation and deserves more credit than he gets. De Mille’s ambitious plan for Mercury was to offer regular flights up and down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego and points in between. This never quite came about, but Mercury did have regular flights and even their own airfields, one at the corner of Wilshire and La Cienega, another at Melrose and Fairfax and a third up in Pasadena. Ironically, had De Mille and his investors held on to their landing fields just a few more years, they would have stood to have made a fortune, not necessarily in air travel, but in the land upon which the fields sat.

De Mille Field #1 at Melrose and Fairfax. The middle of nowhere.

De Mille and Chaplin’s ambitious failures may have put an end to film people owning and running airlines, but it did not diminish their love of planes and air travel and by the 1920’s, aviation had grown sophisticated enough to see the birth of the ultimate status symbol – the luxury private plane. Then as now, owning a private luxury plane was a frightfully expensive venture that only the very few could afford. In fact, few, if any movie people, no matter how successful, could own the type of plane that were the great granddaddies of the G-6. But who did have such cash, not surprisingly, were oil people and they became the most conspicuous consumers of luxury private planes. While these may seem primitive by comparison with today’s flying palaces, in the early days they were the last word in luxury – luxury combined with what was considered an even greater luxury – time.

Below I present a few choice examples of luxury private planes from the 1920’s to the 1950’s for your enjoyment that were, no doubt, the envy of Hollywood in their day and planes I think would still be a treat to travel in today. Have a nice flight back in time!

1920’s

James B. Talbot's custon F10-A Super Universal Fokker

In 1928, James B. Talbot, president of Richfield Oil, ordered for his own personal use a Tri-Motor F10-A Super Universal Fokker, which arrived in Los Angeles and hand delivered by Anthony Fokker himself. Described as “one of the most luxurious planes operating in California,” the Fokker F-10A had a wingspan of 90 feet and was powered by three 425 hp Wasp motors allowing for a cruising speed of 115 mph. The custom interior of the Fokker, which seated eight passengers and two pilots, was fitted out in comfortable seats and a chaise lounge, each upholstered with a unique zodiac design. A kitchenette, refrigerator and table accommodated in-flight dining. Richfield and Fokker became involved with each other and a fleet of the planes were ordered for service for Western Air Express (later Western Airlines).

Fore and Aft views of the Talbot Fokker. "The side walls and floor are in black, the upper walls in tan and the ceiling in blue, silver and gold. The chairs are covered in henna and sand colored rodier, which is designed after the signs of the Zodiac."

1930’s

A Douglas DC-2, this one used as an airliner for KLM.

In 1933, another oil company, Cities Service Company (CITGO), purchased a brand new supersleek DC-2 straight off the assembly line in Santa Monica and had it customized by famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss into a flying club and boardroom for the Cities Services top executives. Dreyfuss masterfully converted the airliner into a private luxury suite designed, as he said, “to make you feel at home in the air.”

The main lounge. Both sofa and chairs convert to beds as needed.

In his design, Dreyfuss incorporated a main lounge, a conference room, a galley, lavatory and pilot’s quarters in what was an absolute minimum of space. In order to keep the plane light as possible materials were measured by ounces and inches and even today, Dreyfuss’ design is shown to be a marvel of efficient use of space.  “Perhaps the most dramatic decorative note,” wrote Arts & Decoration in 1935, “is the illusion of width. The furniture comes in irregular heights, the ceiling is green and every third cross-wise rib is gunmetal to shorten the usual tube-like look.”

Dreyfuss also included such amenities as a two-way phone between the plane and airports; a phone from the cabin into the cockpit; automatic heating controls; reading lights; and seats that fold out into beds as needed. Dreyfuss was also highly conscious of one of the most common irritations in early air travel – vibration – and used only materials that would move together without rattling. He even used a fabric over the card table that would keep ones cards from vibrating off the table.

The board room. Center leaf folds down to allow passage.

1950’s

Two of the Kendall PBYs. They ultimately planned on buying fourteen of them.

In the 1950’s, Los Angeles industrialist Thomas W. Kendall and his wife came up with an interesting idea. Purchasing three World War II era PBY Flying Boats, the Kendalls’ hired noted interior designer George Erb A.I.D. of Barker Bros. to convert the surplus war planes into a set of flying and floating luxury suites. The PBY planes were particularly unique as they were designed to be amphibious with both wheels and pontoons.

A Kendall PBY off Catalina.

Erb gave the planes their own unique color scheme and personality creating a “Gold,” “Turquoise” and a “Red and Black” plane. Each of the giant planes had a capacity to sleep fourteen with foam rubber sofas that converted to beds, a full galley, lavatory and even a dining room with a table that seats eight. Erb masterfully took advantage of the planes’ twin “Blisters,” the glass domed spaces at the rear, which he converted into spacious and gracious lounge areas.

The main lounge of the "Gold" plane with its padded walls and "blister" dome.

The Red and Black Plane was done in Oriental decor.

"The Turquoise Ship with beautifully textured upholstery fabric specially designed wall pictures, gay colors, deep luxury carpet and coloful cushions, is truly a home aloft."

The dining room and galley.

In 1959, the Kendalls, both licensed and experienced pilots, embarked on a year-long round-the world trip with the three planes, bringing along their four children, aged 8-20 as well several other lucky friends including prominent L.A. physician, Dr. Ellwood L. Schultz and his wife. Kendall and his 20 year-old son Bob piloted one plane, Mrs. Kendall another, and Dr. Schultz, also a licensed pilot, the third. The amphibious planes were so complete in their mobility and the luxurious accommodations aboard, the L.A. Times declared “About the only way you could improve on this arrangement would be to take an automobile or two along on the journey. Then all you need to do is drive away from the plane and do some sightseeing.” Today, they, no doubt, could do just that by simply sticking a few “Smart Cars” in the cargo holds. And who says money can’t buy happiness? It can certainly buy fun!

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One Response to Flying High in Days Gone By – Vintage Private Planes

  1. John Bengtson says:

    Wow!! Another completely fascinating post! Great work Steve!

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