The Restaurants That Flew and Floated: Flying Boats

Zeppelins were the cruise ships of the skies, and offered unparalleled space for passengers to stroll and sightsee, but their competitors the flying boats managed to almost equal them at mealtime. Look at this picture of dinner aboard a Boeing B-314, which was probably taken in about 1939:

Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat Museum

Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat Museum

Though the aircraft had cabins and beds for up to 36 passengers, including a deluxe bridal suite, only fourteen people at a time could enjoy the hospitality of the dining room at once. A modern airline executive would look at this picture and figure out how to pack as many people as possible into the space, but in those genteel times it was accepted that passengers would dine in shifts, served by two formally dressed stewards. The tablecloths were linen, the utensils genuine china, crystal, and freshly polished silver.There were no spacious piano bars or lounges as were available on the zeppelins, but the trip across the Atlantic took a mere seventeen hours instead of three days.

Flying Boats circled the world – Imperial Airways flew across Africa, zigzagging between rivers and oceans for landings, and in partnership with Qantas operated services from London to Australia. Qantas boasted about the quality of their inflight meals with this jolly advertisement:

Courtesy Qantas archives

Courtesy Qantas archives

Other flying boat services linked cities in South America, island-hopped across the Pacific, and connected Dutch colonies in Indonesia with the motherland. The flying boat era lasted   longer than you might expect – TEAL, the predecessor to Air New Zealand, continued to fly Short Solent flying boats between Auckland and Pago Pago until 1960. It was a quaint way to travel, the first age of international travel surviving into the jet age, and when it ended something wonderful was lost.


A Flying Kitchen, Built By A Phone Company

The British R-100 and R-101 airships, both of which were finished in 1929, were designed and built under conditions that were bizarre. For political reasons a different government ministry was given control of each airship project, even though they were supposed to be built to the same specifications. The teams that built them were so competitive that they shared no information with each other and contracted with different suppliers for parts. If both had ever gone into regular service, as had originally been planned, two complete warehouses of spare parts would have been necessary, and any crew members who transferred from one ship to the other would need to be retrained. I have not been able to find out much about the specifications of the R-100’s kitchen, but came across this article about the R-101’s from Flight Magazine in July of 1929.R101Stove

The kitchen equipment was built by the Automatic Telephone Manufacturing Company, Ltd. of Liverpool, which had little previous experience making anything but telephone switching equipment, but had just started a division to manufacture traffic signals. What either of these has to do with inflight kitchens is questionable, but the equipment they made apparently worked well – it was used to prepare meals aloft for groups of up to 100 people who took demonstration rides during the testing period.R101-at_mast

Unfortunately the rest of the R-101 was not built to the same standard – the design had been more ambitious than the R-100, using unproven technology, and the resulting airship was unstable, difficult to steer, and used heavy, unreliable engines. The operators of the craft decided that to prove their design was sound they would fly it to India for its maiden voyage, rather than ease it into service on shorter runs. They were so determined to show that they could run on schedule that the R-101 left for the journey despite heavy rain and fifty mile per hour winds (over 80 km/h). The inexperienced crew was unable to control the ship, and it crashed into a ridge near Beauvais, France, less than 175 miles from its starting point. It was a fatal setback for the British airship industry; despite the fact that the better built and more thoroughly tested  R-100 made a successful trip to and from Toronto, Canada, no more airships were built in Britain. Though some military airships were built in the Soviet Union, the Zeppelin company had an effective monopoly on commercial passenger airship service, and they reaped great prestige until war put an end to operations.

TWA and the Happiest Passenger ever

Though United Airlines and Pan Am were probably responsible for more innovations in food and service than any other airline, TWA was much more consistent about using food quality in their advertising. Consider this example from 1936: TWAWaldorf1936

Though Lucius Boomer may not be a familiar name to people reading this in the 21st Century, he was a famous as a glamorous and successful millionaire who also ran the most successful hotel restaurant in New York. For the man who ran Oscar’s of the Waldorf to say nice things about airline food was much more impressive than some mere Broadway singer or movie star. Though Mr. Boomer wasn’t a celebrity chef himself, it could not be questioned that he was quite familiar with fine food well presented and served. This is one of the earliest celebrity endorsements, and it was an impressive one in its day.

This type of ad was probably very effective with the businesspeople who were every airline’s principal market in the 1930’s, but in the 1950’s, when airlines were trying to lure families from traveling by train, something else was needed. TWA embarked on ad campaigns showing everyday American families in the air, encouraging the idea of air travel as the fast. modern, and comfortable way of visiting family and friends. One of my favorite examples is the ad from 1952: TWASuchService1952

Has anybody else ever been quite as excited about eating airline food as this kid? The typical ad of that era showed an urbane businessman accepting the offered meal with a suave smile, while this one shows uninhibited enthusiasm. We might all want to grow up to be as successful as the businessman, but we might be just a bit nostalgic about the days when we could be this happy about anything.

A Rare Picture of the First Modern Airline Meal

In my book I mentioned the first frozen airline meals, which were made by the Maxson Company for the US Air Force in 1945. Visionary inventor William Maxson invented the small convection oven and segmented aluminum trays, and though the meals weren’t gourmet delights, they were vastly better than the cold emergency rations that previously had been the only option. An article about these new rations appeared in Yank Magazine, a publication of the US Military,  in July of 1945, and it included this picture:

MaxsonSkyPlateThe picture of the smiling stewardess handing a plate to a civilian reflected the company’;s aspirations, since no civilian aircraft would be fitted with those ovens for another four years. The article in Yank Magazine claimed that the frozen meals would soon be available in fifty different varieties and would be for sale to civilian housewives, which shows that Maxson had big dreams for his new product. Alas, by the time the first Pan Am flight using the new meals took to the sky, William Maxson was dead. His heirs had no interest in the business and sold it, and the new owners were interested only in producing the small convection ovens and discontinued further research into creating better meals. Had they stayed in the food business and used the founder’s research, the Maxson Company would have been ideally positioned to take advantage of the postwar air travel boom. Others would make money from their ideas, and continue to do so today.

Fine Meals From A Tiny Space: The Challenges of Flying Boat Cooking

I have been in some restaurants that were remodeled from private homes and admired the way that chefs working in close quarters could turn out fine meals. The kitchen at Restaurant Jules Verne, the eatery located almost at the top of the Eiffel Tower, turns out gourmet delights despite being the size of large closet. This is still roomy compared to the galley of a flying boat. Take a look at the kitchen in this Sikorsky VS-44:

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Courtesy George Diemer and the New England Air Museum










And yes, that’s it. Two burners, two ovens, a prep space the size of two shoeboxes (that has a sink built in under it, covered in this photo), and the tall cabinet is the left photo is a refrigerator. That little space turned out meals for 26 passengers and three crewmembers, and they were fine meals – this aircraft was owned by American Export Lines, which also operated luxury liners and tried to match that standard of service. Harry Pember, in his book on the aircraft, wrote that meals were “prepared from scratch and served, in the style of the finest restaurants, to the 26 passengers on board.”

With thanks to George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

With thanks to George Diemer and the New England Air Museum

Look at something else about that kitchen and you’ll really be happy that you didn’t have to cook in it: There’s no lip on those electric burners, no barrier between them and the aisle, so if the aircraft hit some turbulence, a pot of boiling water could go flying. I thought this might have been  a detail left off of an aircraft that was extensively refurbished and now in a museum, but a look at the brochure from when this plane was new (left) shows the same situation.

The VS-44 was one of the last prewar designs, a relatively fast long-range aircraft that first flew in 1937. Pan Am, the major buyer for all passenger flying boats, decided they preferred larger aircraft from Boeing and Martin, but a few went into commercial service and kept flying passengers in the Caribbean until 1969. This aircraft was restored to beautiful condition after spending some years beached as a hot dog stand in St. Croix. To think of the kitchen that once produced luxury meals reduced to making hot dogs is sad, but the aircraft was rescued and is now available for viewing. Gourmet meals may never be cooked here again, but at least visitors can admire both the beauty of the aircraft and the agility of the people who cooked and served in her.

Imperial Service Aboard The Majestic Handley-Page

England’s Handley-Page company had developed large and powerful bombers during World War I, and had the new O-100 model coming off the assembly line just as the war ended. These were converted first to military transports, then to a civilian air liner that was furnished in almost Victorian luxury. Note the interior in this shot from about 1920:HandleyPageSaloon

My favorite detail is the candelabra… with the exception of the round windows, this might have been a particularly narrow luxury railroad car. There were neither heating or refrigeration facilities aboard, but cold suppers were loaded in wicker boxes lined with hay for insulation, and stewards in spotless whites poured hot drinks from thermos bottles.

The Handley-Page company became so famous for their large aircraft that any big plane was referred to as a Handley-Page, which must have made their competitors furious. The company built increasingly luxurious biplane airliners such as the model 42, which debuted in 1928. Here’s a cross-section – you can see a tiny galley marked “stewards” beneath the wing, next to the cocktail bar:handley-page-hp-42-03

And here’s an image of service aboard a Handley-Page 42 over Africa – note that the dapper gentleman on the left has a pith helmet in the luggage rack, the proper attire for the well-prepared traveler.handley-page-hp-42-07

The company’s last biplane airliner was introduced in 1929, and they didn’t make another civilian aircraft until 1950 with the turboprop Hermes model. Their postwar efforts were inferior to those built by Vickers and American companies, though they produced one fine design, the Jetstream commuter aircraft, before going bankrupt in 1960. It was a sad end for a company that once produced beautiful and technically brilliant aircraft reengineered from weapons of war.

The Other Airships – Food Aboard Naval Blimps

The luxurious zeppelins got the most attention from historians and the general public, but the smaller, less glamorous blimps stayed in service much longer and performed impressive feats. During the Second World War they patrolled the seas for submarines, and in 1942 one of them, the Resolute, was issued a Letter of Marque – a document last used during the War of 1812 that was usually used to justify attacks that otherwise would have been regarded as piracy. Letters of Marque were issued only to armed vessels, and the blimp did carry one rifle and some depth charges; if someone at the Naval airship office had a sense of history, they might at least have included some cutlasses and muskets. Eyepatches and a parrot would be optional.

Those blimps were called the K-Series, and over 100 of them were built by Goodyear Airship Operations in Akron, Ohio and fitted out to stay in the air for weeks if needed. Two of them made the first crossing of the Atlantic in non-rigid airships, flying round-trip from Massachusetts to Morocco, and others spent long, lonely patrols above the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean seeking U-Boats. Which raised the question – what could be cooked in that cramped cabin to keep up the morale of the crew? The picture below, which was provided by Richard Van Treuren of the Naval Airship Association, gives an answer:

Breakfast is served aboard  the K-28 above the Atlantic. Photo courtesy of the Naval Airship Association.

Breakfast is served aboard the K-28 above the Atlantic. Photo courtesy of the Naval Airship Association.

It’s hard to tell precisely what is on that plate, but it included eggs made on a tiny hot plate and coffee brewed in the electric pot that was built into the bulkhead of the blimp. Other meals included beans heated in a small crock, plus whatever meats and cold cuts could be found locally. Some crewmen complained about the blandness of the meals, but whatever was served hot was probably appreciated; according to Mr. Van Treuren, the heating aboard these blimps was so rudimentary that the eggs sometimes froze.

The blimps were very effective at their job, warning convoys and calling in airstrikes on surfaced submarines. Only one naval blimp was lost during the war, short down by a submarine they were attacking with a machine gun and depth charges in an attempt to keep the U-boat away from nearby merchant ships. One crewman died after a shark attack, the only American blimp crewman ever killed in action, and the rest were rescued a few days later. The navy tried to keep the event classified, which prevented the public from appreciating the service of the crew that initiated the last airship attack in history.

There’s a lot more to learn about these naval airships – if you’d like to know more, the Naval Airships Association has a page at

Mystery To Be Solved: Food Aboard CNAC and Air Eurasia

The history of airlines in China before World War II is shadowy, but it started surprisingly early. During the Chinese warlord period after the fall of the Empire, war surplus twin-engine bombers flew the skies of China, and some level of civilian aviation was up and running by 1925. The fact that China’s inland cities were built along rivers made seaplane travel practical, as seen in this letter from 1932 that shows the eight stops between Chengdu and Shanghai.28.Auktion The romance of air travel was played up in this timetable, which is from the same period.


CNAC had technical assistance from Pan Am, while their competitor, Air Eurasia, was a subsidiary of Lufthansa. Unfortunately I have been unable to find any pictures or descriptions of meals aboard either airline, despite contacting eminent historians of flight in Asia. Gregory Crouch, author of “China’s Wings,” a history of CNAC, found a mention of a “boxed lunch” in notes about an Air Eurasia flight, but the person who wrote that letter didn’t give any further details. Crouch also mentioned that CNAC outsourced their catering to an entrepreneur who became quite wealthy as a result, but he has never seen any menus. If anyone out there can find any descriptions, photographs, or menus from China in the 1920’s or 1930’s, please share them with me.

Spice, Flight, and Expectations in Africa

After the great colonial powers relinquished their overseas possessions, one of the symbols of sovereignty was having an international airline. Africa, Asia, and South America sprouted new carriers, which proudly flew new flags but usually served the same European food that was standard around the world. Take a look at this Ghana Airways menu, which is probably from the early 1970’s: GhanaAirwaysMenuThe new airlines had to deal with two facts: first, few of their own people could afford to fly, so they had to please European and American palates to have any hope of attracting customers. Second, for people who are used to spicy and flavorful food bland meals are dull but edible, while people used to bland food will reject spicy and unfamiliar items. Serving English or French -style meals was a safe choice, so even between points in Africa and Asia the food served usually did not reflect local tastes.

The reports I have read of food aboard most of these carriers were not positive, though service problems may not be entirely to blame for the demise of Ghana Airways. The airline ran off schedule so often and overbooked their flights so regularly that having a ticket and showing up at the airport at the appointed time was no guarantee that you would actually go anywhere. Like many other new airlines they were an instrument of state policy and flew some routes to serve political purposes – in three months of operation between Accra and Khartoum, they flew twelve paying passengers. Other routes that were actually popular were underserved; while those empty planes flew back and forth to Sudan, flights to Europe and America routinely were so overloaded that fistfights erupted over who would get to board the aircraft.  There were multiple instances of passengers taking airport personnel hostage, threatening to burn down ticket offices and terminals, and rioting because they had been stranded at remote airports. The only surprise when Ghana Airways went bankrupt in 2005 was that it had taken so long. The routes that made economic sense were taken up by less nationalistic but more reliable foreign carriers, and a new generation of private airlines provides a wider range of cuisine aboard flights that actually depart and arrive on something approximating a schedule.

Who Was First in Flight?

In my book I gave a few facts about the earliest airline service, a topic that always seems to start arguments. There are multiple claims regarding which carrier operated the world’s first airline service, and the correct answer depends on how you define the terms. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line started scheduled service in 1913, unquestionably before anybody else, but their operations weren’t really what we would now think of as an airline. The flights took 23 minutes to travel 23 miles, and attained the awesome height of five feet above the water while carrying the pilot and one passenger. The flights were subsidized by the city of St. Petersburg for five weeks, and when that subsidy ran out operations ceased immediately. Milestone that it was, it was still a publicity stunt. A similar service ran in Yorkshire between Bradford and Leeds in Yorkshire in 1914 – it was subsidized for two days, then promptly folded.

Red Arrow Flying Service started passenger flights from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the Bahamas in 1917, but like the air taxi service between Tampa and Sarasota they only carried a single passenger.  They changed the name to Chalk’s International Airline in 1919 and were first to carry multiple passengers on scheduled flights, still flying to Bimini in the Bahamas. That was their only destination for seventy years – the airline remained in business until 2007.

(I have been unable to figure out what type of aircraft were first used by Chalk’s. An article in Smithsonian Magazine incorrectly states that the airline operated their first service with a Stinson Voyager seaplane, but this can’t be true – the Stinson company didn’t start making aircraft until 1925, and their first model was the Detroiter. Chalk’s did use Voyagers later, but not until the late 1940’s. If anyone can enlighten me regarding the earliest aircraft used by Chalk’s that carried multiple passengers, I’d be obliged.)

Chalk’s never served meals during their entire existence, nor did any of the airlines that started in Europe between 1917 and 1919. Most used open-cockpit aircraft, which meant that no food could possibly be served, and the first closed-cabin aircraft from Junkers seated only three people plus the pilot. It wasn’t until 1920, when KLM, Handley-Page Transport and Air Union started service using modified First World War bombers, that passengers were inside a cabin and inflight beverage service became possible.

There was one interesting might-have-been. The famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille was an aviation enthusiast who built an airport at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, which he modestly named DeMille Field #1. In 1918 he started an airline called Mercury Air Service, and from their 1919 brochure you can see that he had big dreams:MercuryAviationAd1920DeMille wanted to operate regular passenger flights, but at the time only two-seat Curtiss Jenny aircraft were available, so Mercury operated charter service and sightseeing trips for two years. Air ace Eddie Rickenbacker delivered a closed-cabin Junkers in 1920, and soon thereafter Mercury Aviation offered scheduled flights to Bakersfield, Fresno, San Francisco, San Diego, and Catalina Island. This made them the world’s first airline regularly serving multiple destinations. Over 25,000 passengers flew the carrier, but it was never robustly profitable and was shut down in 1922. I haven’t been able to find out what food and drink was served aboard their aircraft, but with a showman like DeMille in charge, I can only assume it was the best that could be arranged.