Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

Wednesday January 10, 12:37 pm Eastern Time

'Golden Era' of flying ends with TWA buyout

By Steve James

NEW YORK, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Trans World Airlines (AMEX:TWA - news) filed for bankruptcy protection on Wednesday in a buyout deal with AMR Corp.'s (NYSE:AMR - news) American Airlines, marking the end of a ``golden era'' for U.S. aviation.

With a long history of firsts in the airline industry, TWA along with archrival Pan American World Airlines, was a highly visible symbol of America abroad as the jet-set era shrank the globe and made foreign travel possible for millions.

It was a TWA plane that flew Pope Paul VI home from the historic first papal visit to America in 1965, a year after rival Pan Am carried the Beatles to America for the first time. Pope John Paul II flew on specially configured TWA planes during trips in 1987 and 1995 to the United States.

``TWA was a member of the 'Golden Era' club with Pan Am and Eastern and now they're all defunct,'' said Robert Moorman, transport editor of Aviation Week magazine. "It was a once-proud global airline that became a shadow of its former self.

``For aviation enthusiasts everywhere, this is a sad day,'' he told Reuters.

Under the 25-year ownership of multimillionaire Howard Hughes, the airline ushered in many firsts, including trans-Atlantic flights with sleepers, and turned air travel from a luxury for the few -- Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck promoted its flights -- into a transit service for the masses.

TWA was the first airliner to introduce air hostesses, non-smoking sections, freshly brewed coffee and in-flight entertainment with radio in the 1930s and movies in 1961.

Along the way, the airline saw tragedy too -- from the TWA Super Constellation that collided with a United Airlines DC-8 over New York City in 1960, killing 134 people, to the ill-fated Flight 800 jumbo that exploded and crashed in the Atlantic off Long Island with the loss of 230 people in 1996.

And for many, the photo of a pilot with a hijacker's gun at his head in the cockpit of a TWA airliner at Beirut International Airport in 1985 is still a searing image of terrorism.

TWA was the first with air cargo service, the first with white-gloved, uniformed ``air hostesses'' and passengers were given crude radio headsets in 1940. Lana Turner's ``By Love Possessed'' premiered as the in-flight movie in 1961.

But now, TWA -- affectionately known as ``Try Walking Across'' to many passengers and aircrews -- is about to follow Pan-Am and Eastern, into the annals of aviation history.

In three-quarters of a century, TWA saw its share of ups and downs, though it hit turbulence in recent years. It went into a financial tailspin with airline deregulation in 1978. Corporate raider Carl Icahn acquired control in 1985 and three years later took the company private.

TWA has not made a profit for 12 years, twice previously filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has $100 million in debt that starts to come due next week.

It's a far cry from the early days of aviation when a small company called Western Air Express was incorporated in July 1925, and two years later, Transcontinental Air Transport started a coast-to-coast air and rail service on a route laid out by legendary flyer Charles Lindbergh.

On Oct. 1, 1930, TWA was born when the two companies merged to form Transcontinental and Western Air Inc. -- although it wasn't until 1950 that TWA's corporate name was officially changed to Trans World Airlines.

The airline inaugurated a coast-to-coast air service in 1930, which took 36 hours, including an overnight stop in Kansas City. The next year, TWA inaugurated the first air cargo service in the United States with a shipment of livestock from St. Louis to Newark, N.J.

In 1932, TWA and Douglas Aircraft signed a contract for development of a revolutionary new all-metal twin-engine airliner, dubbed the Douglas Commercial Model 1. It was the only DC-1 ever built, and two years later the DC-2 entered commercial service on TWA's Columbus-Pittsburgh-Newark route.

Legendary airline executive Jack Frye became president of TWA in 1934 and in the dozen years he was in charge TWA emerged as a major world airline.  Hughes, the reclusive Hollywood producer and aviation industry mogul, acquired control of TWA. Although never holding an official position with the airline, he owned and controlled TWA until the mid-1960s.

Hughes and Frye even piloted a new Lockheed 049 Constellation in 1944 from California, to Washington in 6 hours 57 minutes, setting a cross-country speed record. 

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