Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

Monday January 8, 5:11 pm Eastern Time

TWA marked many firsts in aviation history

By Steve James

NEW YORK, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Trans World Airlines (AMEX:TWA - news), a once proud ambassador of U.S. aviation for 75 years that flew the pope home after the first papal visit to America and introduced in-flight movies and coffee, could disappear in a proposed merger with American Airlines (NYSE:AMR - news).

Under the 25-year ownership of legendary billionaire Howard Hughes, the airline ushered in the jet-set era and trans-Atlantic flights. TWA was the first to offer air cargo service, the first with white-gloved, uniformed ``hostesses'' and a pioneer of fresh coffee, no-smoking sections and in-flight entertainment: Radio was introduced in 1940 and the first movie was ``By Love Possessed,'' starring Lana Turner, in 1961.

Pope Paul VI returned to Rome on a TWA special charter flight after his historic 1965 visit to New York, the first by any pope to the United States. Two decades later, Pope John Paul II flew on a specially configured TWA Boeing 727 and also a 747, during his 1987 trip to the United States.

The airline has seen 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 photograph 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.

In its three-quarter century history has seen its share of ups and downs, though it hit turbulence in recent years.

The airline went into a financial tailspin with airline deregulation in the 1980s. Corporate raider Carl Icahn acquired control of TWA in 1985 and three years later stockholders approved Icahn's proposal to take the company private. The privatization took $610.3 million out of TWA and added to its debt.

TWA has not made a profit for 12 years, has twice filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has $100 million in debt that starts to come due next week.  On Monday, executives of AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines, were locked in negotiations with advisers on a possible deal to acquire TWA.

It's all 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 piloted a new Lockheed 049 Constellation in 1944 from Burbank, California, to Washington in 6 hours 57 minutes, setting a cross-country speed record. 

Home - Last Updated: 
 © 2000 William S. Donaldson III.  All rights reserved