Amphibious airplanes offered frequent six-minute flights between San Francisco and Oakland in 1930.
By Jay E. Wright
Onlookers lined the north side of Pier 5 in San Francisco on February 1, 1930. Dignitaries stood on the floating dock and surrounded the Loening Air Yacht as it loaded passengers. The airplane’s cabin door closed, and the bystanders on the dock were waved away as the crew started the engine and taxied into the bay. The co-pilot retracted the wheels into the hull, and the pilot taxied on the step the length of the pier for a clear takeoff. After a six-minute, six-mile flight, the seven VIP passengers deplaned at the foot of Franklin Street in Oakland, at the edge of the downtown district. The inaugural flight of Air Ferries Ltd. was completed.
The scheduled transport of passengers by air across the short expanse of San Francisco Bay actually began in 1914, when Weldon B. Cooke, a well-known California flier, inaugurated an air ferry service from San Francisco to Oakland. Two flying boats were used, one equipped with a 75-hp Roberts engine and one with a 100-hp Hall-Scott. The make of the aircraft is not recorded, but one of them was referred to as an “Airmaid.” It was piloted by Silas Christofferson, who once made a forced landing in the bay with two passengers. The name of the airline is not recorded, nor is the duration of its business life, but it may be assumed that it was a short one. The air ferry concept languished for years.
The availability of dependable seaplanes and amphibians led to the establishment in 1929 of other short-haul, water-based airline services. They appeared first in the Great Lakes area and later on the West Coast. Western Air Express set up a route between Los Angeles and Catalina Island, and Gorst Air Transport serviced the Pacific Northwest, with Seattle as the hub. Both of these airlines flew the Loening Air Yacht.
The successes of these efforts encouraged Joseph J. “Buster” Tynan, Jr., to form Air Ferries Ltd. in San Francisco. Tynan was the son of the vice president of Bethlehem Steel Company and, through his father, had a direct approach to the checkbooks of many of San Francisco’s wealthy businessmen. Tynan raised capital, built a management team and ordered airplanes. When his short-haul airline service was inaugurated in February 1930, passengers were charged $1.50 a flight.
The dock in San Francisco used by the service was a float that was shaped somewhat like the top of a mushroom, so the airplanes could lower their landing gears in the water and taxi up onto the float to deplane and load passengers. The facility at the Oakland terminal was a barge with a hinged ramp; the airplanes could taxi out of the water and onto the barge for passenger loading, refueling and any minor maintenance necessary between flights. To save time, planes occasionally moored at the ramp–and passengers would then use a plank as a gangway. Special ground taxi service, which cost passengers 10 cents each way, was arranged to transport passengers to the business areas of both San Francisco and Oakland.
All maintenance was done at night at the Oakland airport. The planes were flown empty to the Oakland seaplane terminal in the morning and returned to the airport at the end of the flying day. The schedule called for a flight every 20 minutes from 8 a.m. to dusk.
The Air Ferries fleet began with three airplanes. Soon, a third terminal was opened at Vallejo, 20 miles from San Francisco. Another plane was added to handle the Vallejo route. Plans also were made to extend air ferry service to three more northern California cities, including Sacramento, the state capital 85 miles to the northeast.
The aircraft chosen for the service had previously proven its reliability by its exceptional military service history. The Air Yacht was the commercial version of the Loening OL (observation-Loening) series that had served both the Army and the Navy well since 1924.
The Air Yacht had a crew of two, seated side by side in an open cockpit. Behind them was an enclosed cabin that seated six passengers comfortably. The engine exhaust was arranged to discharge over the upper wing center section to minimize engine noise in the cabin. Two of the first three airplanes were equipped with Pratt and Whitney Hornet engines and the third with a Wright Cyclone; both types were dependable radial engines of 525 horsepower.
Grover Loening had sold the Loening Engineering Company to Curtiss-Wright by the time the Air Ferries’ planes were ordered. That company merged the Loening concern with the recently acquired Keystone Company, and the division was named Keystone-Loening. Grover Loening was named vice president of the parent company.
The name Loening was already well-respected in the aviation industry by 1930. In 1910, Grover Loening had received the first master’s degree in aeronautics awarded by Columbia University. He established the Loening Aeronautical Engineering Company on Long Island in 1917. The Navy awarded Loening a contract to build the M-80 two-place fighter and later the M-81.
In 1918, Loening’s company built a five-place seaplane with a pusher Liberty engine and christened it the Air Yacht. Loening was awarded the 1921 Collier Trophy for the design.
The Air Ferries’ Air Yachts flew well, with only a couple of minor complaints. Frank G. “Jerry” Andrews, a pilot for Air Ferries, said that most of the pilots preferred to fly behind the Hornet engine rather than the Cyclone. Andrews said: “The Hornet was a far better performer, although they both had the same rated horsepower and ground-adjustable props. With the Hornet, the plane seemed to leap out of the water.” Andrews added: “The Cyclone was easy to drown out when you hit a wave that washed over the engine [not an unusual occurrence during water operations]. There were two problems with the Air Yacht. With that big round engine up front you had absolutely no forward visibility when you were on the water. The usual procedure was to make a ninety-degree turn to the right and let the co-pilot take a look down the takeoff path, then a one-eighty to the right so the pilot could get the last look, then straighten out and hit the throttle. Once airborne, there was some forward visibility–not much, but some.
“The second problem occurred only on the morning flight from the airport. With no passengers aboard, there was a forward center of gravity and, in the normally smooth water found in the early a.m., the plane landed, slowed and then it stood up on that long boot-nose and looked at you! It did a 180-degree water loop while standing on the boot. No pilot technique I ever learned could prevent that.
“The gear retraction system was manual,” Andrews continued. “It retracted easily in the water, the flotation of the tires helped it along. The big problem was putting the gear down in the water. The gear was designed to put down in flight; they’d fall down by themselves with shock-cord snubbers to prevent damage to the gear system. Cranking the gear down with those big air-filled tires in the water meant fighting their floating tendencies. Our co-pilots had the biggest biceps of any pilots in the world–occasionally the first pilot had to lean over and help crank the [gear] down [the] last few turns.
“The Loening had a lot of wing, and the takeoff characteristics were good. Depending on wind conditions, we could get off in 12 to 14 seconds. The biggest problem was exceeding gross weight. The plane would always pick up a little water in the hull during water operations, and we usually didn’t stay on the ramp long enough for the hull to completely drain, although there were drain holes with check valves. Each flight would add a little more water to our load.”
A fifth airplane was added to fill in when another airplane was down for maintenance. It was a Loening Commuter, a four-passenger biplane with a Wright 350-hp engine mounted between the wings. Andrews said: “It was one of those planes that had just one speed. It did everything at eighty mph–took off, climbed, cruised and dove at eighty. You couldn’t make it go any faster or slower. You really didn’t need a pointer on the airspeed indicator; it could have been painted on at the factory.”
Any airplane that operates off water has continual leakage problems caused by any number of factors: choppy water, hard landings, floating debris, etc. The fact that the Air Yacht fuselage/float was covered with aluminum sheet screwed to the wood framework made it easy to replace wrinkled or bent sheet metal.
Summer fog would sometimes creep through the Golden Gate in the early morning hours, often right down on the water, resulting in zero visibility. No flights were made under those conditions, but the fog usually burned off by midmorning. Even when skies were overcast, if there was a 300- or 400-foot ceiling underneath and fair to good visibility, there was ample room to skim across the bay. Flights were canceled for a full day only once in the three years of operation–due to damage to the terminal float at San Francisco.
The only accident with injuries occurred on June 2, 1930, when pilot George McCallum and co-pilot Fred Hammer were taking off from the Oakland Estuary and hit a tug that was towing two barges. The airplane glanced off the cabin of the tug, hit the last barge and hung up. Fortunately, the front of the plane was in the water, which extinguished the fire that started from a broken fuel line. One woman passenger suffered a head injury, but she later recovered. The other five passengers and two crewmen suffered only minor injuries. There was a drop-off in passengers for a few days after the accident, but traffic soon picked up again.
Air Ferries Ltd. carried 11,391 passengers in the first 30 days of operation. There was a line of passengers for every flight. The biggest day was February 16, 1930, when 947 passengers were carried during 158 flights. Often 50 or more crossings per day were flown, more on Sundays and holidays. The airline advertisements claimed, “By using Air Ferries and taxis, a trip from business center to business center takes just 18 minutes.”
A New York Times editorial on May 1, 1930, said: “The best way to make a community airminded is to establish a short-haul service with a standard company employing competent pilots….Air Ferries Ltd. seems to have scored a great success with no lack of passengers. In the first two months, 7,400 persons who had never flown, took a chance with Air Ferries Ltd.”
According to a passenger questionnaire, 71 percent used the planes for business reasons; after 30 days of operation, 25 percent of the passengers became habitual fliers. Women passengers ranged from 20 percent of the passengers on bad weather weekdays to 33 percent on Sundays. Crossing the bay by air to fill social engagements became quite common.
Business Week reported in its July 21, 1930, issue: “In the first six months of operation Air Ferries Ltd. carried, at the lowest fares in the history of air transportation, 46,000 passengers averaging 254 per day. One for every 2.2 minutes of operating time.”
Air Ferries Ltd. continued successfully for three years. Sometime in 1932 it was purchased by Varney Speed Lines. The east bay terminal was changed from the Oakland Estuary to the San Francisco Bay Airdrome in Alameda (still only a short cab ride to downtown Oakland), where the Varney Terminal was located. The Air Ferries schedule eventually was changed to coincide with the arrival and departure of the Varney Lockheed Orions serving Sacramento, Glendale and Reno. The Loenings later were replaced with three Sikorsky S-39 amphibians.
The airline continued to operate until 1933. However, on March 23 of that year an Orion was “scud running” beneath a low ceiling in rain and poor visibility when it crashed into two houses. The pilot, his two passengers and 12 people in the houses were killed. The resulting bad publicity and financial reverses spelled the end of Varney Speed Lines, including the Air Ferries division. Varney moved to Southern California and established an airline flying into Mexico, but it had no connection with the original Varney Speed Lines.