Boeing 247D in Flight, 1930s
The first “modern” commercial airliner, the 247 and its rival, the Douglas DC-3, carried passengers and mail across the US in the late 1920s and 30s. During WWII, both planes flew in the US Army Air Force as cargo and transport planes: The Boeing C-73 and the Douglas C-47. The DC-3 in particular had a long service history precisely because it was so slow, maneuverable, and rugged. The US Forest Service used it for dropping smokejumpers and retired the last one in 2015! The Boeing 247 had the dubious distinction of being the first commercial airliner to be blown up in flight. United Airlines Trip 23 from Newark New Jersey to Chicago was carrying four passengers, three crew, and US Contract Air Mail when a bomb blew it out of the sky over Indiana on the night of October 10, 1933. Everyone on board was killed. The investigation quickly determined that a bomb had destroyed the plane, but no suspect was ever identified. The FBI only declassified its investigation in 2017. One of the passengers, 25-year-old Dorothy Dwyer, was on her way to Reno to marry her fiancé, who had just completed his divorce there. Much of the mail on board was bound for Chicago, but some of it was headed to Reno and San Francisco too. It never made it.
A Flight Attendant Serves Drinks Inside a Boeing 237
Though the interior is cramped, and the outfits are clearly 1920s, air travel is starting to look familiar to 21st century travelers: something the Model 40B or DH4 could not achieve! Boeing came out with the truly modern 307 “Stratoliner” in 1938, which included more space and a pressurized cabin for the ultimate passenger comfort at high altitude. That meant faster travel and happier customers, leading to more air travel. All these planes also carried mail.
A Boeing 307 “Stratoliner” In Flight
The 307 was the first commercial passenger plane with a pressurized cabin, meaning it could fly over 10,000 feet without passengers and crew needing oxygen masks. Boeing also pioneered the pressurized bomber: the B-29 in 1943. Up until then, crew had to wear oxygen masks at high altitude, as well as very warm protective clothing. Pressurization changed all that.
The Interior of a Boeing 307 Stratoliner, 1940s.
It’s starting to look a lot like a modern airliner: comfy temperature, plenty of oxygen, and people dressed in comfy, casual clothes, with crew bringing drinks and meals. Now if only they could reduce that legroom and cram a few more rows of seats in there!
Sources on the Bombing of UA Trip 23
FBI Report on the First Bombing of a Commercial Airline Flight, 1933
NBC Story (with Video) on the Bombing of United Airlines Trip 23, 1933
New Jersey Article on the Bombing of UA Trip 23, 1933
This is a good, well-researched, and very in-depth look at the bombing of the Boeing 247. It has lots of detail and it connects with many other issues in American history. Note that while the article mentions the Nevada connection, the focus is on New Jersey, where the plane took off, since, hey, we all want to be connected with a disaster!
Other Sources on Aviation History
DC-3 History Society
The History of Commercial Aviation
San Francisco Airport Museum
Arguably the strangest and one of the most unexpected and amazing discoveries I made during this research project was the SFO museum, inside the airport international terminal. Going there requires driving to SFO and paying to park, but the collection is incredible. There are exhibits throughout the airport, but the museum and library are amazing, and anyone can just walk in and browse the books and artifacts. It’s particularly strong on Pan Am’s seaplane service to Asia, but there is something on almost every aspect of aviation history, and aside from parking fees and gas, it’s free!