R.I.P. TWA: Obituary for an Aviation Pioneer

Trans World Airlines, a pioneer of transcontinental and international flight whose initials were synonymous with trendy jet-setting and corporate takeovers, is capping its history as an aviation pioneer with an ignominious ending: filing for bankruptcy protection prior to its buyout by competitor American Airlines. TWA was 75 years old.

The nation's eighth largest airline, TWA entered bankruptcy protection for the third time in a decade by filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware today. But before the latest (and final) financial troubles came a long line of firsts — the first carrier to offer transcontinental and, later, transatlantic service, the first to fly the Boeing 747 on a domestic route, the first to offer business class seating, and nonsmoking sections on all its aircraft.

TWA was born out of two carriers — Western Air Express, formed in 1925; and Transcontinental Air Transport, which debuted in 1928, out of a merger of several air companies and the Pennsylvania Railroad. TAT launched the first transcontinental service between Los Angeles and New York (consisting of two rail links and a Ford Tri-Motor, with a top speed of 140 mph). In 1930, the two airlines merged and took the moniker Transcontinental and Western Air, or TWA.

Having pushed transcontinental service in the 1930s (albeit with a sleepover in Kansas City, Mo., which was for a time the company's headquarters), TWA became a favorite of the Hollywood jet set before there were even jets. Referred to as the "Airline of the Stars," TWA later became a papal favorite as well, having four times returned visiting popes to the Vatican after stateside trips.

Hughes Takes the Controls

In 1939 effective control of TWA was purchased by billionaire Howard Hughes, head of Hughes Aircraft. Though precluded by law from selling his own company's planes to his own carrier, Hughes was able to thwart one of his competitors, Douglas Aircraft, in the rapidly growing civilian airline industry.

While United and American Airlines were moving forward with Douglas' advanced commercial plane, the DC-4, Hughes and TWA President Jack Frye pushed their concept of a four-engine pressurized airliner that allowed it to cruise at 20,000 feet at a top speed of 340 mph. Development of the Lockheed Constellation was slowed by the war, but Hughes showed off his handiwork in 1944 by flying it cross-country in 6 hours 57 minutes, beating the then-current speed record.

During the postwar years, TWA emerged as a leading carrier, inaugurating transatlantic service when a Constellation flew from New York to Paris on Feb. 5, 1946. Service to Rome, Athens, Cairo, Lisbon and Madrid began soon afterward, as did the first regularly scheduled overseas air cargo service. Having established a global name for itself with its "Sky Chief" sleeper flights, the airline took a new name: Trans World Airlines, conveniently keeping its recognizable initials.

Among other firsts for the airline: The first nonstop eastbound scheduled transcontinental service with Super Constellations — Los Angeles to New York in eight hours. (Because of head winds, westbound transcontinental service was forced to stop in Chicago for refueling.)

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