The Story of the Real Mainliner 'OAHU'
January 15, 1950 marked a milestone in the history of United Airlines. It was on that day the carrier introduced its first-class Boeing 377 Stratocruiser service to the Territory of Hawaii.
United had placed orders for seven 377s in 1945 for eventual use on their prestige flights to Honolulu and although delivered over a year late the aircraft made a big impression with their customers. They were in fact the largest commercial airliners then in production, weighing in at more than 70 tons and with a wingspan of 141 feet. The 'Strats' as pilots often called them were designed to transport 70 people or more at ground speeds greater than 300 knots, and do so in pressurized comfort at altitudes up to 25,000 feet, higher than any competing piston airplane at the time. United's Strats were configured for only 56 first-class passengers and when service began scheduled crossings from San Francisco to Hawaii were cut to 9 3/4 hours, a reduction of nearly an hour over their existing Douglas DC-6s. With favorable winds actual flight times were often less. On the way passengers were treated to lunch buffets and drinks in the 377's unique downstairs lounge, or they could simply recline in 22 inch wide double cushioned seats that more resembled EZ-Boys than the plastic auto-da-fé inspired devices that contort modern air travelers.
Stratocruisers were expensive to buy and operate however, and drew power from four of the most complex piston engines ever mass produced, the massive 28-Cylinder Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major. Consequently, only those airlines with a need for high-capacity and long range placed orders for them. A mere 56 were produced before Boeing shut down production but the carriers who flew them were consistently rated the best in the sky, and for five years United counted itself among this group. Round trip tickets to Hawaii on the Stratocruiser were priced at $288 plus tax in 1950, with an additional $25 for an overnight berth or $32 for the private stateroom in the tail, or about USD$2,700 all up in today's money. That purchase included meals, beverages, wine or beer, two complimentary cocktails, free Chesterfield cigarettes, playing cards, sunshades, pillows, cushions, blankets and even a special stowage compartment for your hat. In those halcyon days of greater perceived safety (and actual greater risk!) it was customary for the flightcrew to periodically patrol the cabin to check on your comfort and passengers were encouraged in good weather to visit the cockpit--during the flight! Two spacious men's and women's lavatories straddled the main aisle about mid-way through the cabin. Inside, toilet compartments could be occupied while four other passengers used the sinks, and on the ladies side they even had a vanity table. The rear stateroom passengers had their own private washroom, a unique feature to United's 377s.
United labeled their aircraft Mainliners in tribute to the transcontinental trains they eventually replaced and all seven of the Mainliner Stratocruisers were given Hawaiian names to distinguish them. They included the 'Hawaii', the 'Kauai', 'Hana Maui', 'Hilo', 'Kano' and the 'Waipahu', christened on Hawaiian soil after the plantation where United's then president 'Pat' Patterson grew up.
Then there was the 'Oahu', flagship for the territory's most famous island and capital.
The Mainliner 'Oahu' first flew from Boeing Field in Seattle on December 19, 1949 and was delivered to United just two days before one of its sister ships inaugurated the over-water service. Assigned the civil registration N31230, it was the second to last to be delivered and like the others suffered from minor teething trouble, but within a month it too plied its trade over the Pacific. Sadly, its career would be a relatively short one. After a mere eighteen months on the job 'Oahu' was lost during a training flight while on approach to San Francisco Airport. The crash destroyed the airplane and killed the experienced crew and despite a thorough investigation no definitive cause could be found. There appeared to be no mechanical faults and weather posed no trouble. It looked as if the crew had somehow lost control of the airplane and stalled from an unusually low altitude into shallow water.
Air accident investigators often point out that crashes rarely result from a single cause. Mechanical failures were relatively uncommon even in 1951 and when they did happen there was usually a traceable defect. However in cases of human error the cause often results from a number of factors all acting in unison in an unanticipated manner. In the early fifties before the advent of voice and data recorders finding the root cause for such an accident was difficult at best. Investigators and even fellow pilots had few clues as to the crew's actual movements in those final moments and neither the wreckage or the few witnesses offered enough solid data. The answer to what brought down the 'Oahu' would likely go to the grave with the crew.
I first became interested in the story of the 'Oahu' while researching Boeing Stratocruisers for a science fiction novel I would eventually write. I was determined to wrap the narrative (historians seeking to recover an airplane for a future museum) around a real aircraft but soon learned that my options were limited. Having my characters fix up a tired old boneyard wreck seemed less than desirable (what self-respecting anthropologist wants to do that) and saving fifty poor souls from a major plane crash and sending them into the future would riddle my story with unnecessary complications. What a mess that would be!
Then I ran across the 'Oahu', whose fate had been sealed right in San Francisco very close to where part of my story originated. The more I delved into the events of September 12, 1951 the more curious I became. As an aviation history enthusiast and pilot I had read extensively about air accidents. I had even once taken a course on it as part of an aviation management curriculum in college. I found the CAB report on the 'Oahu' crash dissatisfying because it offered so many clues to a probable cause without actually specifying one. On the other hand, a mystery was exactly the kind of detail that made for a good story!
When this crash occurred United was in the middle of a very bad year. They had already suffered three accidents with significant loss of life and must have dreaded the prospect of public inquiry into the loss of their most advanced aircraft and three senior flight officers. The only saving grace was that 'Oahu' carried no passengers and so did not attract the same sensational press coverage. Funerals for the crew began just two days after the crash and the wreckage, situated in a remote area of the bay away from most onlookers, was quickly disposed of by salvagers. By the time the final CAB report came out the next year few recalled the event enough to pay much attention. Passengers were lining up to fly on the Strats more than ever as Americans with disposable income splurged for holidays in Paradise.
For their part United appeared to purge the 'Oahu' from the record. Almost no publicity material related to that particular airframe survives and no available official photographs of it have turned up. One explanation given was that the aircraft had only been in service for a short time and amassed barely 1,900 hours, but eighteen months was not too short for 'Oahu' to appear in a magazine advertisement and possibly a short company PR film shown in movie theaters. Blotting an aircraft out of the record is not unusual behavior either. Even today airlines quickly paint out company logos on damaged or crashed aircraft to avoid negative publicity and liability.
Never the less, both the mystery of its loss and the lack of an actual photograph put me onto the 'Oahu's' trail, one that not only led to its eventual use in my novel but also to a chance discovery.