For all of our complaints about the agony of domestic air travel, if you jump on a plane in New York right now, you could be in San Francisco in less than six hours. Maybe you add a couple hours because you miss your connection in Chicago. Either way, you’re done in eight hours.
As this incredible illustrated map should make abundantly clear, we’ve got it pretty good compared to the transcontinental air travelers of the Roaring ’20s. It took these aeronautic pioneers 48 hours to fly from New York to San Francisco.
Given out to passengers as a souvenir foldout map, the Illustrated Map of Transcontinental Air Transport was designed by mapmakers nonpareil Rand McNally for Transcontinental Air Transport. The precursor to TWA, TAT was formed in 1928 by famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and financier Clement Melville Keys with the goal of designing the first transcontinental airline, mostly with the pursuit of landing juicy government airmail contracts.
Starting in 1929, TAT expanded its scope and started offering coast-to-coast trips to paying customers. By modern standards, the trip was a nightmare. Passengers took the Pennsylvania Railroad overnight from New York to Columbus, Ohio, then jumped on a Ford Trimotor airplane with a capacity of 12 passengers. Sitting in a wicker seat, travelers would look out the windows and sightsee as they passed over Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Wichita. They would then disembark in Oklahoma, hop an overnight train to New Mexico, and continue their sightseeing voyage until they reached San Francisco.
As far as getting from point A to point B is concerned, a flight on TAT was pretty grueling, but the point wasn’t just to travel across the country as quickly as possible (although TAT was still the quickest way to do it at that time). What TAT was really selling people was a sightseeing trip of the most scenic views America had to offer, all compressed into a 48-hour period.
Hence the map. The map itself was surprisingly small: Its dimensions were 14 inches tall by 30 inches wide, compact enough to fit into a shirt pocket. Despite the tininess of the map, though, the design is extraordinarily detailed. It shows not only the flight route but also the major American landmarks passengers would fly by on the way. The map is bordered on all sides with illustrations of the vistas TAT passengers would encounter on their journey, as well as an east-to-west elevation map. On the back of the map, Rand McNally included a weather map, a “Certificate of Flight” log passengers could fill out as they went.
It’s almost enough to make you pine for the golden age of air travel again, isn’t it? Except less than three months after TAT commenced transcontinental service, they crashed their first plane, killing all persons aboard. It was the first commercial plane crash ever, just the first of three serious accidents that would plague TAT over the next few months.
It might have been a pretty way to fly, but it certainly wasn’t very safe. Heck of a souvenir, though, don’t you think?