Transcontinental flight Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Flight across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast or from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast.

Since the completion of the Louisiana Purchase by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, traveling from one coast of the United States to the other has become a travel benchmark of sorts. The Lewis and Clark expedition, the crossing of the West by wagon trains and the Pony Express, and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad link have been celebrated events in American history. It is no surprise, then, that one of the goals of early aviators was to cross the country by airplane.

Early Records

The first transcontinental flight came in response to a $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst for a coast-to-coast flight in thirty days. Such prizes were often offered by those who wished to encourage early aviation in the United States to move beyond demonstration flights by exhibition groups such as those run by the Wright brothers and Glenn H. Curtiss. The prizes were efforts to convert aviation from dangerous, circuslike side shows and “meets” into a practical mode of transportation.

On September 17, 1911, Calbraith P. Rodgers, who learned to fly at one of the Wright’s flying schools and had less than sixty hours of flight experience, took off from Brooklyn, New York, in a Wright Model B aircraft and headed for the West Coast using railroad tracks for navigation. Rodger’s plane was named the Vin Fiz after a grape-flavored carbonated drink made by his primary sponsor, who paid him five dollars for every mile flown. The flight consisted of sixty-nine short segments, many ending in crashes, flying only as wind, weather, daylight hours, and recovery from injuries permitted. Rodgers was followed on the ground by a train carrying spare parts for his airplane, and so many were needed that at the conclusion of the flight, some three months after its beginning, the only things that remained of his original aircraft were a single wing strut and the rudder. He had crashed nineteen times and only managed to get into the air some forty-nine days during his journey to Long Beach, California. When he did reach the West Coast on November 5, it was with his head in a cast and a large scar on his forehead.

Despite his failure to make the trip in a month, Cal Rodgers had shown that transcontinental flight was possible and dreamers began to predict a future of regularly scheduled coast-to-coast airmail and passenger flights. However, Rodgers died in a crash after colliding with a seagull in an exhibition flight less than four months after completing his feat, further convincing critics that aviation was only for the foolhardy.

From 1911 until the mid-1920’s, the only real motivation for transcontinental flight seemed to be to set new distance and time records, and many of these were set by U.S. Army aviators. Lieutenant James Doolittle became the first person to fly across the country in less than a day, making a one-stop journey from Florida to California in 21 hours, 20 minutes in September, 1922. The first nonstop transcontinental flight was made in 27 hours by Lieutenants John Macready and Oakley Kelly in 1923 in a Fokker T-2. In June, 1924, Lieutenant Russell Maughan flew from Long Island, New York, to San Francisco, California, in less than 18 hours in a Curtiss pursuit aircraft, making refueling stops on the way.

Transcontinental Airmail and Airlines

Airmail and airline travel in the United States was slow in developing compared to the situation in Europe. Airmail flights were started by the Army, and taken over by the Post Office in July, 1918. Starting on the East Coast and slowly adding westward routes, airmail reached as far west as Omaha, Nebraska, in September, 1920. That month, the Post Office announced the beginning of transcontinental airmail service, but it was actually a combination of train and airplane travel with the planes flying in daylight hours and the mail transferred to trains at night. It was, in reality, no faster than train mail but it enabled the construction of a transcontinental route of airports and lighting aids.

By 1926, a coast-to-coast string of airports with flashing beacons lighting the route had been built. Radio and weather stations were scattered along the route to make possible twenty-four-hour flight operations. This allowed the Post Office to begin contracting the mail to private operators, many of which later grew into major airlines.

Under Herbert Hoover’s presidential administration, the Post Office established new rules for airmail contractors, strongly encouraging the use of larger, passenger-carrying airplanes on longer routes. Three transcontinental routes were established, leading to the beginnings of a nationwide airline structure, with TWA, American Airlines, and United Air Lines each serving one of the cross-country routes. TWA, then known as Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), had the first coast-to-coast service with a combination of airplane and rail travel. Passengers left New York City by rail on an overnight train to Columbus, Ohio. After flying from Columbus to Waynoke, Oklahoma, passengers got on another train to Clovis, New Mexico, and completed the trip by airplane to Los Angeles. The Ford Trimotor was typical of the largest and fastest aircraft used on such flights. At its best, the Trimotor had a cruise speed of just over 120 miles per hour and a range of about 500 miles, and it could not fly at the altitudes needed to get over the Rocky Mountains. With only crude navigational aids available, only daytime flight in good weather was permissible, making flying very unreliable for anyone seeking to get somewhere on time.

The new airmail subsidy rules encouraged the new airlines to seek bigger and faster airplanes and this led to the development of planes like the Boeing 247 and the DC-2 and DC-3 which ultimately brought airline travel into a new era, making true transcontinental flight possible.

Increasing Reliability

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1933, upset over the airline/airplane manufacturer monopolies which resulted from the airmail subsidy policies of its predecessors, changed the rules and turned the airmail back over to the Army Air Corps. The Army, with less reliable planes and pilots than the airlines, proved incapable of safely flying the mail. Jack Frye of TWA and Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Air Lines wanted to prove the superiority of the airlines in airmail delivery. On February 18, 1934, the last day of the airline contract, they flew the original DC-1 (the prototype for the DC-2 and DC-3) from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, with a full load of mail, setting a new transcontinental speed record (for transports) of just over 13 hours. The same airplane set a new 11 hour, 5 minute transcontinental record in 1935, beating the record set by Roscoe Turner in a specially built racing plane in 1933.

By 1937, the transcontinental flight record was cut to 7 hours, 30 minutes by Howard Hughes in his H-1 airplane. Transcontinental flight for the general public became a reality in the 1930’s with planes such as the Boeing 247 and the DC-2 and DC-3, but none of these planes had the range for nonstop flight across the country. Newer four-engine airliners, such as the Lockheed Constellation, the DC-4 and 6, and the Boeing Stratoliner, had almost enough range to make it nonstop from coast to coast, but at that time the really long-range commercial aircraft were the amphibian or seaplane type airliners flown on overseas routes by airlines such as Pan American. It was not until after World War II that there was enough passenger demand to stretch the limits of these same designs to create planes such as the Lockheed Super Constellation, the DC-7, and the B-29-based Boeing Stratocruiser, which could fly from one coast to the other without stopping for fuel.

Even so, at top speeds of just over 300 miles per hour, these transcontinental flights took a long time, especially the flights from east to west which were slowed by prevailing winds. It took the advent of the jet airliner to make nonstop coast-to-coast commercial flight a real success. With the 1958 and 1959 introduction of the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 into airline service, commercial passengers could finally make a transcontinental trip in less time than Howard Hughes’s record flight some twenty years earlier.

Transcontinental flight times have not changed much since the introduction of the jet to commercial service. Supersonic transports (SSTs) such as the Concorde could conceivably reduce the coast-to-coast flight time, but supersonic commercial flight is banned over the United States and most other land masses because of the noise they create. Shock waves coming from the leading and trailing edges of the aircraft’s wings at supersonic speeds are heard on the ground as loud, explosionlike booms, and may be strong enough to cause structural damage to buildings. While the sonic booms from high-altitude SSTs are likely to be very weak at ground level, the fear of their effect has ruled out supersonic flight over land.

Modern Speed Records

Military supersonic aircraft have been used to set coast-to-coast flight records. On March 6, 1962, the U.S. Air Force set a new transcontinental flight record with the delta-winged B-58 supersonic bomber by flying round trip between Los Angeles and New York in 4 hours, 42 minutes. The New York-to-Los Angeles leg of the flight took 2 hours, 15 minutes, meaning that it arrived at a local time earlier than the time it left New York.

The current record transcontinental flight time from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., was set by the Lockheed SR-71 supersonic aircraft on March 6, 1990, when it flew at an average speed of 2,153 miles per hour to cross the country in 64 minutes, 5 seconds.

While it is quite unlikely that airline passengers will ever match these record speeds on a transcontinental flight because of restrictions on overland sonic booms by commercial flights, coast-to-coast flight times may improve slightly with Boeing’s plans to build an airliner that will fly at Mach 0.95, faster than any existing subsonic commercial jet. Unfortunately, such improved flight speeds may be needed simply to overcome the flight delays found in ever more crowded airline operations.

Bibliography
  • Bryan, C. D. B. The National Air and Space Museum. 2d ed. New York: Abrams, 1988. A comprehensive and colorful review of the aircraft in the Smithsonian’s collection and their history.
  • Christy, Joe. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1984. An overview of the historic development of American aviation with hundreds of historic photographs.
  • Winkowski, Frederic, and Frank D. Sullivan. One Hundred Planes, One Hundred Years: The First Century of Aviation. New York: Smithmark, 1998. A beautifully illustrated book with photos of historic airplanes and brief explanations of their significance.

Airline industry, U.S.

Airmail delivery

Glenn H. Curtiss

High-altitude flight

High-speed flight

Jet engines

Military flight

Record flights

Supersonic aircraft

Wright brothers

Charles Lindbergh prepares to take off in a TWA Constellation from Los Angeles to inaugurate the airline’s transcontinental passenger service in 1929.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History Content