A Century Later The Same Old Thrill

July 10, 2014 / 5 Comments

Marian flies alone to visit grandparents

The first time I flew in an airplane, I was six. It was an Eastern Airlines flight from Miami to Newark, probably in a DC-8, but I can’t say for sure. I do remember that a flight attendant strung a cardboard bib in the shape of a Teddy Bear around my neck with my name and other information printed on it, and off I went. If my parents worried about me, I was unaware of it.

Many years later when I bundled my own 8-year old daughter off to see her grandparents in Connecticut, I worried some, but I’d already done it myself.

Try to imagine what it was like to be Abram Pheil, the very first passenger on the very first passenger flight – a 23 minute trip from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa in 1914. Like the 12-second flight of the Wright Brothers eleven years earlier, this brief time in the air has had an enormous impact on the world.

Which is why the 100th anniversary of Pheil’s flight in a Benoist Airboat is being celebrated by the industry it created. And not just for a day but for this entire year.

First flight: Photo courtesy Florida Aviation Historical Society

In June, at the annual meeting of International Air Transport Association in Doha, Qatar, airline executives on their way to meetings, stopped and admired a replica of the plane, brought halfway around the world by its builders, Bill Barnes and Robert Walker, directors of the Florida Aviation Historical Society.

 

“You couldn’t envision what happened, what came about from that flight,” Barnes told CNN’s Richard Quest and Walker added that the promoter of the airline “had vision farther than anybody else.”

Barnes (L) and Walker with replica in Doha

And while the plane provided the context – the desired lookie-how-far-we’ve-come-effect, it was the cutting of the enormous 100th anniversary cake with a ceremonial sword that provided the metaphor for look-where-we-are-headed.

Certainly, IATA director general, Tony Tyler with his urbane British accent and waspy-good looks is picture-perfect representing aviation’s gentlemanly past. He spent 30 years at Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, the last 4 years as its boss.

His partner in cake-cutting, Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker represents the back then-unimaginable piece of aviation’s future. The combative CEO and host of the 2014 meeting is the noisiest of a group of ambitious executives who are piloting airlines of the developing world into new positions of strength.

Al Baker single-handedly wields the knife

One only needed to watch the cake ceremony to be enlightened. A confection so large it required four men just to bring it into the hall, Tyler and Al Baker and Makato Natsume the CEO of Narita Airport each gripped the handle of the ceremonial sword they would use to cut it, but were unable to slice through ten inches of cake and froth.

That’s when Al Baker seized the blade and, with with his left arm in a sling from an injury sustained in an auto accident, single-handedly hacked the cake into serviceable slices.

That’s right ladies and gents, aviation is no longer a gentleman’s game. The next century of flight will only be more push-and-shove. From hard-ball competitors in previously overlooked corners of the world like China, India, Africa and the Middle East, to the hard-to-please customers who want much but are willing to pay little.

IATA likes to point out that Abe Pheil paid $400 to make the hop across Tampa Bay one hundred years ago. But after the flight, the fare quickly dropped to $5 a trip, a price that “barely covered the cost of operations,” according to the Aviation Historical Society.  In that respect how different is it from today?

Regardless of what he paid, what Pheil got for his money was a place in world history; the first of billions who have since been able to fly near or far; for business, political, educational or pleasurable reasons. He also got a memory to last a lifetime – just like the little girl the teddy bear bib.

What do you remember from your first flight? Post it on IATA’s One Hundred Years of Commercial Flight website.

 

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5 responses to “A Century Later The Same Old Thrill”

  1. My first airplane ride was in 1974. I was only eight years-old, but I recall much of it in vivid detail. The plane was an American Airlines 727, flying from Boston to Washington, D.C. — about a 70-minute flight. I remember they served sandwiches and cheesecake desert. In economy class! I have a photograph, taken by my mother, of my sister and I walking up the stairs to the plane.

  2. Patrick, I want to see that photo.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I don't remember it because I was only 3 weeks old, but I read about my first flight in a "baby book" my mother kept and later gave to me. I was in a bassinet on a flight from Miami to Puerto Rico and my mother fell asleep. The bassinet slipped off the seat and onto the floor with me in it. I didn't wake up and neither did my mom. She panicked when she woke up and I wasn't there beside her, but the bassinet and I were under the seat a row ahead and I was sound asleep. Decades later, I'm still a sound sleeper (but don't sleep well on airplanes).

  4. b0yzero says:

    My first flight was actually on the Goodyear Blimp when it came for a visit to my hometown of McAllen, TX. I believe the year was 1973 and I was 13 or 14 years old. I took pictures of our house from the air with the shadow of the blimp below us too! It was very exciting.

    My first flight on an airplane took place in 1979 when I was around 19 years old. It was on board a Texas International DC-9 and the flight was from Houston IAH to McAllen MFE in Texas. A humorous footnote to that flight: The flight took place well after dark and, as we crossed the great expanse of miles and miles of acres and acres that is otherwise known as South Texas, it became impossible to tell where the blackened night sky ended and terra firma began. I became fascinated by the lights of a particular farm house that I could see slightly below the left wing. It was the only light that one could see down below us on the ground. I became concerned when it dawned on me that that farm house wasn't disappearing. Were we circling? I had no point of reference. I can only imagine the giggles amongst the flight attendants in the back galley after I summoned one of them to share my concerns and she pointed out to me that I was seeing the marker light on the tip of the aircraft's wing!

    In early 1982, I went on to become one of the very first male flight attendants hired by Southwest Airlines after they were forced by the courts to start hiring males as flight attendants. I had an amazing 16 years with WN. I treasure those memories and everything I learned from Herb and Colleen during that time. Absolutely priceless!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lighting struck Malaysian Airlines twice.

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