Friday, February 17, 2012

The First Airline in America

Claude Ryan's first converted Standard J-1, the Oneota, over the San Diego waterfront
flown by Dick Bowman (note the lack of a registration number...this was two years
before they were required).
The title of "First Scheduled Airline in America" has been claimed by two different companies, and far be it for this blog to attempt to settle the dispute. One of the claimants is Chalk's, which traces its roots back to Chalk's Flying Service, which established scheduled airline service between Miami and Bimini in February, 1919.

The other is the Los Angeles-San Diego Air Line (not exactly the most imaginative airline name in history...and rather limiting of route expansion!), which is the subject of today's gorgeous glossy 8x10 press and publicity photo.

Long before he was known as an aircraft designer, T Claude set up shop as a flight school and charter operator at a little field known as Dutch Flats in the early 1920s.He used a variety of aircraft, including U.S. Army surplus Standard J-1 trainers. Some of Ryan’s most lucrative charters were flights up to Los Angeles, and one day, one of his flight students, Benjamin Franklin Mahoney (B.F. or Frank, to his friends), who suggested that there might be some money to be made in establishing scheduled airline service between San Diego and Los Angeles. Mahoney offered to help fund the venture, if Ryan would provide the planes.

Ryan looked around for a relatively inexpensive, passenger-capable plane, and found none. On the other hand, there were plenty of Standard J-1s lying about. The type was, by all accounts, a terrible airplane. In the midst of WWI, the Army had desperately needed training aircraft, and simply couldn’t get all the Curtiss JN-4 “Jennys” that they wanted, so they bought the J-1 from Standard Aero Corporation of Plainfield, New Jersey.

A major part of the shortcomings of the J-1 can be attributed to the highly unreliable Hall-Scott A7a engine, which was underpowered, vibrated terribly and had a nasty habit of catching fire while in the air. The J-1 had been developed by Standard from the Sloan H-series trainers, originally designed by Charles Day. To meet the production demands by the huge Army orders, three additional companies, Wright-Martin, Dayton-Wright and Fischer Body also began to build J-1s, with over 1,600 being produced. Because of the technical and safety issues (the J-1 had a much higher accident rate than the JN-4), and with sufficient quantities of Jennies now on hand, the Army grounded them in 1918, and many were never even unpacked. An additional 2,700 aircraft were on order when the Armistice was signed, and the Army promptly cancelled these and began dumping the ones they still had.

Thus, after the war, Standards could be picked up for a song, many still in their original shipping crates. When re-engined with an OX-5 or even a more powerful Hispano Suiza, the reliability of the J-1 increased dramatically, and they became popular on the barnstorming circuit and with the private flight schools that were springing up all over the country, like Ryan’s.

Ryan found three “new” J-1s in Texas, bought them for a few hundred dollars, and brought them out to California. When the crates were opened, however what he had was really nothing more than a collection of pieces. Undaunted, he had his mechanics build up the machines, and then began to modify them. In Army service, the J-1 was a two-seater, instructor and student. For the new airline, Ryan re-engineered the fuselage, eliminating the forward open cockpit, and building an enclosed four-place passenger cabin, with large windows for sightseeing, in the fuselage forward of the aft cockpit. He replaced the troublesome 90hp Hall-Scott engine with a 180hp Hispano-Suiza, and suddenly he had a dynamic performer on his hands.

Calling the new variant the “Ryan Standard”, he christened the first ship Oneota after a friend’s ranch. The second was the Miramar and the third, which was further modified with a wider, two-person cockpit, the Palomar. Our featured photo shows the Oneota in flight over San Diego’s waterfront area, and was likely taken very early in the operation - or possibly before it officially started. This photo was used in both news releases about the Line, as well as on the cover of its time table, as can be seen in this sample.

Daily round-trip service commenced on March 1, 1925. (And that is where the claims for the "first airline" differ - Chalk's offered scheduled service, but it wasn't daily. Thus, the Ryan/Mahoney operation could justly claim to be America's first daily-scheduled, year-round airline.) The one-way fare was $14.50, and a round trip cost the princely sum of $22.50, calculated on breakeven costs if only one passenger was on board. The fares also included to/from hotel transportation.

Understanding that a regular airline was going to need a lot of publicity to draw passengers, Ryan invited Hollywood celebrities out to the inaugural round-trip flights, which would start from Los Angeles, flying from a small airfield at 99th Street and Western Ave. All three of the Ryan Standards – one of which would be flown by Ryan himself – would together make the first flight. Other celebs, including Robert Vignola, Hedda Hopper and Vera Reynolds, came down to witness the flight, drawing crowds to see them as much as to see his planes. As a part of the first-flight festivities, three military aircraft, representing both the Army and Navy, were tapped to “escort” the three passenger planes to San Diego.

With the military aircraft orbiting the airfield overhead, the three Ryans climbed skyward at 10am, heading south at 1,500 feet (ideal for sightseeing) for the 90-minute journey. At the same time, two Navy carrier pigeons were also released, a stunt that backfired on the airline, as one of the feathered birds arrived “home” at San Diego’s North Island before the formation of six airplanes landed at their destination just across the narrow harbor.

Naturally, large crowds greeted the arriving stars, complete with the mayor and civic presentations. After lunch at the Grant Hotel and a tour of the city, the stars returned to Dutch Flat for the return trip to LA. The following day, March 2, the regular schedule of 9am L.A. departure and 4pm return flight from San Diego commenced.

A month and a half after service started, on April 19, Mahoney bought half of all of Ryan's business interests, and the two formally became partners, under the name Ryan Airlines. Besides offering travel, Ryan Airlines soon started building and selling airplanes to other carriers as well, the first being the Ryan M-1, six of which were bought by Pacific Air Transport, an early forerunner of United Airlines. Despite its glamorous start, traffic - and revenue - from the San Diego to Los Angeles service started to drop off. To compensate, fares were increased to $17.40 and $26.50, and to further garner publicity and passenger interest, Ryan Airlines bought a larger Douglas Cloudster, which was converted to carry 10 people in carpeted luxury.

It was to no avail, there just wasn’t the needed demand. Even when no pax showed up, they kept the schedule with empty airplanes. In September 1926, the airline service was cancelled. Ryan and Mahoney's partnership was terminated two months later, with Mahoney buying out Claude's interest, but keeping the Ryan Airlines name, and continuing to build airplanes. And five months after that, a young air mail pilot by the name of Charles Lindbergh, who had been impressed with Pacific Air Transport's M-1s, contacted Ryan Airlines to inquire whether they could build a version of the aircraft capable of flying across the Atlantic.

The Palomar was sold to Lewis Hawaiian Tours, who re-christened it the Malolo and flew inter-island and sightseeing tours with it. One of the Lewis pilots was Martin Jensen who later won 2nd place in the tragic 1927 Dole Mainland-to-Hawaii race. The Miramar was sold to the Byerly Brothers in Mexico. It is not known what ended up happening to the Oneota.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum's Flickr stream has a large collection of the airline's Ryan Standards, starting at this image.

(Tip o' the hat to my bro Eric for giving me the photo for Christmas. And credit were credit's due: part of this article was based on information from the article “First Regular Daily Airline Service Was From L.A. to S.D.” by Richard Crawford, San Diego Union-Tribune, March 10, 2011.)

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