The Story of the Real Mainliner Oahu - Continued...
From the beginning my aviation background compelled me to provide as realistic a portrayal of the Boeing 377 as possible. Anyone who reads a story or watches a movie that involves their area of expertise dreads inaccuracies. Even little ones pull one away from their enjoyment of the story and big errors destroy any suspension of disbelief. The trick is to make the narrative as realistic as possible without boring your audience, to mix details in with action and dialogue so everyone can follow along even if they don't know what every word means.
To do this I collected as many details as I could find on the aircraft; operating manuals, memorabilia, advertisements, flight records and most importantly personal accounts and photographs. Photographs turned out to be crucial because a good detailed photo could either confirm or contradict people's memory, and sometimes even published material. This was especially so with the Stratocruiser. I quickly learned that there was a tremendous amount of revisionist history at work with regard to the aircraft's service record. I will go into this in a future posting but suffice it to say that despite the limited number produced 377s were still very popular with nearly every airline that flew them. Nearly. The sole exception to this was United.
In the years since United Airlines had ordered the aircraft the expected post-war aviation boom had faded. Cheaper airliners like the Douglas DC-6 though less stylish proved more economical with lower volumes, and United was a good customer of Douglas. DC-6s fit in well with its fleet of DC-3s and 4s as there was a lot of commonality in maintenance and crewing. This was not the case with the Boeing. The Strats stuck out like a sore thumb and when the manufacturer decided to stop production at the end of 1949 so ended any reasonable chance of United adding to its small fleet of seven. The only place where the big 377 fit in at all was on the Hawaii run.
United initially operated daily flights from San Francisco to Honolulu and then in October of 1950 commenced additional service through Los Angeles. Spare Strats would sometimes bridge the west coast up to Seattle and back for cheaper fares but the principal routes would remain over the Pacific. The main cabin layout on United's 377s held the reserved first class passengers but on those occasional short domestic legs United offered an additional 14 tickets downstairs in the snug lounge.
Most of the Hawaii flights flew at or close to capacity and yet United still lost money with the Boeings. A series of expensive retrofits ran up the airline's primary investment and stiff competition from the Pan American and Northwest Stratocruisers forced them to keep fares uncomfortably low without the benefit of a larger international route network for passengers to connect with. Only their coach flights in slower, less luxurious DC-6s allowed the Hawaii routes to remain profitable. Any hope of recouping the cost of the 377s gradually faded in blue smoke every time a Mainliner pulled up to the crowed Overseas Terminal in Honolulu.
After the 'Oahu' accident occurred in September of 1951 United found themselves even shorter on equipment, a situation that did not improve until they finally sold the Boeings off to BOAC and bought new DC-7s three years later. In those intervening years the remaining Strats soldiered on still pleasing customers, and the record of their service became well documented. All of the photos you've seen in this story up to now are of those other aircraft thanks to the apparent purge of the 'Oahu'. Even published books on the aircraft type lack a photo of it, yet I knew that some had to exist out there in personal albums or in newspaper and magazine archives. The trouble lay in knowing where to look and how to reach people who may have flown on that particular plane, or had family who did. My search stretched on for two years and scoured every available printed and web source until I could eventually tell aircraft apart from their oil stains. But no 'Oahu'. No N31230.
While I hunted Strats I also researched locations for my story, determined to provide the same realistic portrayal of 1951 California and Hawaii as with the airplane. There was fashion to look into, common colloquialisms, politics, even little things like the price of a cup of coffee. The internet is a wonderful resource for much of this and slowly I began to find personal accounts from the period. Many of the answers I sought were discovered within them, and during one of these searches I came across a slide show on YouTube depicting one man's childhood trip to Hawaii in 1950. The video montage ended with two pictures of his family standing in Honolulu before a United 377 decorated with a big lei. That was odd, I thought, and when the final picture appeared my eyes bugged out. There was a side view of the nose with the name OAHU written below its airline crest. Wow. Could it be?
No. There was a problem. The name matched but the aircraft registration did not. The number identified the 'Kano', the Boeing delivered after the 'Oahu'. Following a long search I discovered that the 'Kano' had been renamed for the inaugural overnight flight between Honolulu to Los Angeles in October, 1950. Oahu was a more familiar name to the general public and so a temporary switch was made for that one flight. Close but no cigar!
My hunt for location details continued and sometime later while hunting for pictures of an old bowling alley in Waikiki I stumbled upon the Margo Duggan Collection.
Margaret Duggan was a veteran of World War II, a sea and air recognition instructor and the first woman from Massachusetts to enlist in the US Marines. In 1949 she became a civilian employee of the United States Trust Territories Administration and in the course of her five years of work traveled to a number of locations in the Marshall and Marianas Islands as well as Hawaii, all the while chronicling her experiences in Kodachrome slides. After her death in 2005 her collection of over a thousand photos was graciously donated by her nephew Ned Daly to the University of Hawaii Hamilton Library in Manoa. It is a fascinating glimpse into early post war Pacific life and I recommend you take a look. http://digicoll.manoa.hawaii.edu/duggan/
Margo sure got around, and in the process created a rare color archive of Hawaii and the Pacific islands from the period. She also flew on some very interesting aircraft!
Back to the story. While I perused Margo's pictures of Waikiki trying to find some good angles of the bowling alley it dawned on me that this woman might have brought her camera to other places around town as well. It turned out she did! Among the photos was an ultra rare color shot of Trader Vic's Bar & Restaurant on Ward Avenue, beautiful interior shots of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and one of the now demolished Waikiki Theater, so maybe she went to the airport too. I soon discovered that Duggan had, and for a very special occasion.