Early Air Travel / Planes Trains and Automobiles


Early air travel in the U.S., especially the transcontinental variety, was a unique adventure to say the least.

One of the most ambitious forays into this field was quite imaginative. It involved cooperation between the new airline industry and the well entrenched passenger railroad industry.

transcontinental air transport ford tri motor aircraft
Transcontinental Air Transport Ford Tri-Motor Aircraft

Two people who had a vision of transcontinental travel that included both airplanes and trains were the creators of Transcontinental Air Transport which incorporated in May 1928. They were a businessman named Clement M. Keys, at the time president of Curtiss Aeroplane and Motors Company and Charles Lindbergh. The vision was to transport people across the nation from New York City to Los Angeles California in just 48 hours. This was quite a novel idea in 1928. From the Atlantic to the Pacific in 48 hours was an aggressive plan. A connection to San Francisco was also available to passengers.

The idea, while novel, was not that complicated. Travelers would ride on Pullman rail cars by night and fly on the airline’s Ford Tr-Motor airplanes by day. The theory of course was by mixing in air travel with rail travel you’d greatly reduce travel time.

tat airlines transcontinental route map
Transcontinental Air Transport advertisement poster

Small Towns Help to Connect Transcontinental Air Travel

An interesting aspect of this endeavor was how elevated several small towns to national prominence. Among these towns were Winslow Arizona in the north Arizona desert, Waynoka Oklahoma about 75 miles northwest of Oklahoma City and Clovis New Mexico on the Texas border. Waynoka Oklahoma’s selection was in part because it had a new Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway railroad yard which ended up being the largest in Oklahoma.

The Route

TAT began operations on July 7, 1929. Of special note is that Charles Lindbergh piloted the first eastbound leg between Los Angeles and Winslow Arizona.

If you were traveling from New York to Los Angeles, yor first leg was the overnight Pennsylvania Railroad train to Columbus Ohio. In Columbus you would be put on a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. at the Columbus Airport. Heading southwestward you would have four intermediate stops on you way to Waynoka Oklahoma’s newly constructed airport. In Waynoka, passengers would then board an AT &maddux airlines,mt taylor new mexico, SF Railroad overnight train to Clovis New Mexico. In Clovis you would again board the airline’s Ford Tri-Motor with stops including Albuquerque, Winslow Arizona on the way west to Los Angeles.

tat train airplane transcontinental route
TWA transcontinental air/train route advertisement

There were several firsts with this new travel plan. Transcontinental Air Transport offered some of the first airborne meals as well as the first time the Ford Tri-Motors were used for passenger service. Most of the aircraft at that time were designed for mail service rather than passenger service.


It wasn’t long before TAT merged with Maddux Air Lines in California. The merger took place in late 1929 and added more Tri-Motors to the airline’s fleet. Maddux, a Los Angeles car dealer, owned a good sized fleet of Ford aircraft and had air operations ongoing in the west.

A String of Air Crashes

Transcontinental Air Transport suffered their first air crash during September 1929, just a few moths after it’s service began. The crash occurred on New Mexico’s Mt. Taylor west of Albuquerque. Mt. Taylor is one of the highest peaks in New Mexico. The press described the accident as the first commercial passenger airline crash. The TAT crashed flight was not found until six days after the crash occurred.Eight people died in the air crash. Five were passengers and three were crew members. One passenger had been a prominent Albuquerque and Gallup New Mexico businessman.

This crash on Mount Taylor was just the first of three crashes during the airline’s first eight months of operation. To say the least, the air crashes and the fatalities put a damper on the traveling public’s enthusiasm.


old newspaper stories of winslow arizona
Winslow Arizona newspaper stories concernin TAT airlines and Amelia Earhart visit

The Merger Creating TWA

Although Transcontinental Air Transport carried about 40,000 passengers during it’s first eighteen months of operation, it was losing a great deal of money. In November of 1930, TAT was forced to acquire Western Air Express.

Western Air Express was a mail carrier in California with federal airmail contracts. WAE found itself a victim to a newly organized air route system for the mails created by the Postmaster General. Esssentially, the Postmaster General at the time felt that no more than one airline company should service a particular air mail route.

This new merger was the creation of TWA. TWA received it;s first government mail contract in August of 1930. It’s coast to coast mail service began in October of that year and was an all airmail route, not a plane and train combination.

The New TWA

The new TWA concern, although eventually growing to be one of the largest of U.S. air carriers, was not a sure bet for success at it’s beginning. The main reason for this was the Great Depression which would get a lot tougher during the 1930’s before it would get better. During this period government mail contracts were the life blood of financial survival.

Following are two links on our Western Trips site that you’ll find interesting.

The F-15 First Responder on display at the Pacific Coast Air Museum.

The Beech 18 on display at the Western Aeroplane and Antique Car Museum.

On our Trips Into History site see the photo article on the Pullman Railroad Cars.

knute rockne of notre dame
Knute Rockne in gum advertisement

The Kansas Air Crash

TWA, struggling financially from the start, suffered a terrible setback with a crash in a Kansas wheat field in March 1931. This was merely five months after the new company’s start. The Kansas crash received enormous press coverage since one of the passengers killed in the crash was Notre Dame’s popular football coach Knute Rockne. Seven others aboard were also killed. The aircraft in the Kansas air crash was a Fokker Tri-Motor.

Sites to Visit to Learn More About TAT and TWA

If your travels take you to northern Arizona you’ll want to visit the Old Trails Museum in Winslow Arizona. Here you’ll view a lot of artifacts and posters relating to the first transcontinental air/train route.

In Waynoka Oklahoma you’ll want to stop by the Waynoka Air-Rail Museum. Lots of history on display there regarding the Waynoka connection on the transcontinental route. Waynoka was a stop where air passengers transferred to an overnight train to Clovis New Mexico.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. also has information regarding Transcontinental Air Transport in addition to a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft on display.

For those wishing to learn much more detail regarding this 1929 aviation/railroad venture, look for the book Steel Rails and Silver Wings:The Lindbergh Line to the Birth of TWA by authors Robert J. Serling and George H. Foster. You may also be interested in the book Howard Hughes Airline: An Informal History of TWA by author Robert J. Serling.

(Ford Tri-Motor, Winslow Newspaper stories and Knute Rockne photos and images from the public domain. Remainder of photos from author’s collection)