TALKING TRANSPORTATION: The First Transcontinental Flight

By Jim Cameron

Aviation history was made July 7, 1929, when the first transcontinental flight from New York to Los Angeles, took off, not with an airplane, but on a train.

This was the real birth of commercial aviation in the US, and it was led by none other than Charles Lindbergh, just two years after his solo crossing of the Atlantic.

The journey from New York began with an overnight Pullman train. Christened by Amelia Earhart “The Airway Limited,” it arrived the next morning at Port Columbus, Ohio at a purpose-built train station and airport.  There the passengers boarded a Ford Trimotor and flew west stopping to refuel in St. Louis, Kansas City and finally arriving in Waynoka, OK. There they boarded another train overnight and finished the final leg from Clovis NM to LA the next day, again by air.

Lindbergh piloted the first eastbound transcon flight July 8th from Glendale, CA, having leant his name, expertise and reputation to, for its time, a Bezos-sized leap into the future.

The service pioneered by Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, later to become TWA) cut travel time between the east and west coast in half, to only 46 hours eastbound, and 50 hours going west against the wind.

The Fort Trimotor model 5-AT could carry up to 17 passengers, each of whom paid the equivalent, in today’s dollars, of about $6,200 for the one-way trip.

Because the plane was unpressurized and could only fly at low altitudes, the ride was usually bumpy. And noisy: sound levels as high as 120 dB inside the cabin meant that cabin stewards had to use megaphones to talk to passengers inflight.

The Trimotor cruised at 107 mph (compared to modern jets at 500 – 600 mph). The planes creaked and groaned and the wooden windows rattled in their frames.

It was said there would be random metallic sounds throughout the flight… hardly reassuring.

As daring (and exhausting) as daytime travel by air might have been, it was still considered far too dangerous to fly at night. There were few navigation beacons until 1930. After that the trains were then replaced with more planes.

In September 1929 Lindy’s line made another aviation first: the first air crash involving a commercial flight over land. All onboard perished in this, the first of three such accidents in the airline’s first few months of operation.

Despite the public’s fascination with aviation, this transcontinental service never turned a profit, even with their relatively high fares.  In its first year and a half of operations, the transcontinental service lost the equivalent, in today’s money, of $49 million. Less than four months after its launch, the stock market crashed in October 1929, ushering in the Great Depression, which slashed passenger numbers and badly needed revenue.

But this venture, visionary and creative as it was, led, through bankruptcy and mergers, to the creation of TWA, which itself was acquired by American Airlines in 2001. Today the New York to Los Angeles market sees 4 million passengers a year. Fares are as low as $150 one-way and the journey takes about five to six hours.

Lindbergh would be amazed.

JIM CAMERON has lived in Darien for over 30 years. He serves on the Darien RTM and is Program Director of Darien TV79. He served 19 years on the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, four as its Chairman. In 2014 he founded a new advocacy group, The Commuter Action Group which advocates on behalf of Metro-North riders. His newspaper column “Talking Transportation” runs in several newspapers as well as Greenwich Free Press. Archives can be found at   

You can contact Jim at [email protected]