In this great tradition of American capitalism, airlines and aircraft manufacturers have spared no effort to market films about the wonders of modern air travel. One of the most ambitious was this promo produced for Pan Am’s Clipper service with the all-new Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. We pulled it from the Classic Airliners channel. As it would later do with the 747, Pan Am was instrumental in the development of the 377 and Boeing was well positioned to do so.
Boeing leveraged its development investment in the B-29 and C-97 war variants to create the Stratocruiser. For the modern eye, its unique double-hull design gives the aircraft a whale-like look, especially compared to one of its contemporaries, the sleek Lockheed L-649 Constellation. Among the many eyebrow enhancers in the film is the price tag: $ 1.5 million. Is it correct? Yes it is. Even adjusted for inflation, that would only be $ 15 million today, just a little more than a Citation XLS. Comparing it to, say, the modern $ 300 million Boeing 777 shows just how much plane prices have gone up, even as ticket prices have plunged. In their day, the two planes had similar aspirations around the globe.
For all of the film’s glory, the Stratocruiser’s impact was short-lived. Only 55 were built for airlines, and Pan Am bought 20. By comparison, 856 Constellations were built, 704 DC-6s, and another 338 DC-7s. Considering the low passenger volume at the time, these were nonetheless quite large numbers and led to the post-war expansion of air travel. Pan Am’s eye was on ocean crossings, and the 377s traded between California and Hawaii, as well as destinations in Asia. This was a smaller market than domestic travel to the United States and flights to Europe, challenging steamship activity. Ocean tickets on the 377 were expensive; over $ 4000 in today’s dollars. This explains why a cabin with 30 passengers was not unusual.
The Stratocruiser’s accident toll was downright appalling. At least 20% of the fleet were involved in civil operations accidents and that doesn’t count the two that were lost by Aero Spacelines, which had converted 337s to be used as oversized Super Guppy freighters. Like other piston airliners of the time, the Stratocruiser was a serial joker, the most famous of which was flown by Pan Am Captain Richard Ogg on October 16, 1956. The Pan Am Stratocruiser was approaching the middle of the century. 2100 mile flight. between Hawaii and San Francisco when he lost first an engine, then a second. At that time, just in an attempt to save themselves, the Coast Guard was maintaining a cutter halfway between the United States and Hawaii called Ocean Station November. All 31 people aboard the abandoned 377 survived and the USCGC Pontchartrain recovered them from the Pacific. This video tells the story and it is fascinating.
The last operational 377 still in service is a turbine variant owned by NASA as a large component transport aircraft.