In a mere twenty years, two short decades, the world had been transformed. In 1909 manufacturers in the United States had produced 828,000 horse drawn vehicles, and about 125,000 automobiles. In 1929 automobile production had soared to more than one million vehicles, and the manufacture of horse drawn vehicles had plummeted to fewer than 4,000 units. By the 1920s more American families owned an automobile than had indoor plumbing. In 1919 the first tricolor lights began regulating traffic in Detroit. Ten years later the first cloverleaf interchange opened in Woodbridge, New Jersey. And on July 7, 1929, an entirely new concept in transportation made its debut.
On this date passengers boarded a special Pennsylvania Railroad Airway Limited train at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. It was an overnight trip to Columbus, Ohio. At the city’s new airport terminal two Ford Tri-Motor airplanes emblazoned with the name of Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) transported them west to Waynoka, Oklahoma. IN that city the passengers boarded an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe train for an overnight trip to Clovis, New Mexico. The next morning wo other TAT airplanes were boarded for a three-stop flight that would end at the Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, California. It was unprecedented, people could now travel coast to coast in a mere forty-eight hours.
Mirroring the first decades of the American auto industry, TAT and the pioneering airline industry is a conflicting story of merger, buy out and corporate raiding. TAT was founded in 1928 with a goal to establish fast and safe coast to coast passenger service. Comfort that mimicked what was available on passenger trains was also a part of the company’s mission. This amazing feat would be accomplished by using established Pennsylvania Railroad and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway trains, and new state of the art Ford Tri Motor airplanes. Two years prior Jack Frye, Paul Richter and Walt Hamilton had launched Standard Airlines (SAL),to provide passenger service between Los Angles and Phoenix, Arizona. In March 1930, Standard Airlines was sold to Western Air Express (WAE). Jack Frye served as the company’s Chief of Operations. In October of that year, TAT and WAE merged to create TWA.
TAT was born in an historic informal meeting at the Engineers’ Club in New York City. In attendance of this 1927 gathering were Colonel Paul Henderson, the former Assistant Postmaster General and current Vice-President of National Air Transport, C.M. Keys, an aviation executive, banker and an ardent aviation enthusiast, and Charles Lindbergh. During the discussion about passenger air service, Henderson drew a rough map of the United States on the back of an envelope he pulled from his vest. Then he began identifying logical stopping points connected by a line that indicated available rail service. In the months that followed there were meetings with potential investors and attorneys, funding was secured, arrangements were made with Ford Motor Company, limited partnerships were established with railroad companies, and Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) was established.
Equally as ambitious was the plane to establish airfields and terminals in relatively remote western communities such as Winslow and Kingman, Arizona. As an historic footnote, Lindbergh was tasked with this project and often stayed at the Hotel Beale in Kingman, Arizona during construction of Port Kingman. Amelia Earhart stayed at the hotel during the ribbon cutting ceremonies. This terminal building has survived into the modern era as the headquarters for Brown Drilling. And recently the site of the Western Air Express airfield was rediscovered.
The TAT endeavor was relatively short lived. A crash that resulted in the death of all on board near Mt. Taylor in western New Mexico on September 3, 1929 dramatically curtailed the company’s ambitious plans. It also led to the implementation of safety initiatives and hindered development of confidence in passenger air service. Still, the TAT endeavor stands as a milestone in transportation history. The surviving remnants, such as the terminal in Kingman, are tangible links to the dawn of a new era, changing times that forever transformed the world.
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