In that grand tradition of American capitalism, airlines and airplane makers have spared no effort in marketing films about the wonders of modern airline travel. One of the most ambitious was this promo produced for Pan Am’s Clipper service with the then-new Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. We clipped it from the Classic Airliners channel. As it would do later with the 747, Pan Am was instrumental in the development of the 377 and Boeing was well positioned to do it.
Boeing leveraged its developmental investment in the wartime B-29 and C-97 variant to create the Stratocruiser. To the modern eye, its unique dual-hull design gives the airplane a whalish look, especially compared to one of its contemporaries, the sleek Lockheed L-649 Constellation. Among many eyebrow raisers in the film is the price: $1.5 million. Is that right? Yes, it is. Even adjusted for inflation, that would be only $15 million today, just a bit more than a Citation XLS. Comparing it to, say, the modern Boeing 777 at $300 million shows how much aircraft prices have escalated, even as ticket prices have plunged. For their day, the two airplanes had similar globe-spanning aspirations.
For all the glory in the film, the Stratocruiser’s impact was short lived. Only 55 were built for the airlines and Pan Am bought 20. By comparison, 856 Constellations were built, 704 DC-6s and another 338 DC-7s. Given the small passenger volume of the days, those were pretty big numbers nonetheless and they drove the post-war expansion of airline travel. Pan Am’s eye was on oceanic crossings and the 377s plied the California-to-Hawaii trade, plus destinations in Asia. This was a smaller market than domestic U.S. travel and flights to Europe challenging the steamship business. Oceanic tickets on the 377 were expensive; more than $4000 in today’s dollars. That explains why a cabin with 30 passengers wasn’t unusual.
The Stratocruiser’s accident record was, bluntly, abysmal. Fully 20 percent of the fleet were involved in civil-operation crashes and that doesn’t count the two that were lost by Aero Spacelines, which had converted 337s for use as oversized Super Guppy freighters. As were other piston airliners of the day, the Stratocruiser was a serial ditcher, the most celebrated of which was piloted by Pan Am Captain Richard Ogg on Oct. 16, 1956. The Pan Am Stratocruiser was nearing the midpoint of the 2100-mile flight between Hawaii and San Francisco when it lost first one engine, then a second. In those days, just for the purpose of salvation, the Coast Guard maintained a cutter halfway between the U.S. and Hawaii called Ocean Station November. All 31 persons aboard the ditched 377 survived and the cutter USCGC Pontchartrain fished them out of the Pacific. This video tells the story and it’s fascinating.
The last operational 377 still in use is a turbine-powered variant owned by NASA as a large-component transport aircraft.