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Jack Frye, Howard Hughes, and TWA – June 23, 2017

Robert Novells’ Third Dimension Blog

June 23, 2017

Good Morning and Happy Friday,

Today I want to go back in time and talk about a man, Jack Frye, who is one of the cornerstones of commercial aviation; however, most of his accomplishments were overshadowed by his boss Howard Hughes. Robert Serling, the author of “The Presidents Plane Is Missing,” had this to say about Jack Frye:

Jack Frye of TWA may very well have been the most underrated and unappreciated
airline president of them all. He was a pilot himself, smart and as likeable as he was capable,
but was also saddled with the fact that he was overshadowed and subservient to TWA’s majority
stockholder, who controlled TWA and happened to be Howard Hughes.”

Jack Frye is a person we all need to know about so enjoy today’s blog and remember that it was Howard Hughes who took TWA from first place, to last place, and the airline never fully recovered their footing after his departure.

Jack Frye, Howard Hughes, and TWA

Jack Frye was a founder of the Aero Corporation of California, which became Standard Airlines in 1927, a major airmail transporter.  Standard was consolidated with Western Air Express to form Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) in 1930.  Frye became president of TWA after his famous letter to aircraft manufacturers calling for the development of a safer, more efficient aircraft. Donald Douglas, as we all know, responded with the DC-1, DC-2, and other DC models which gave TWA an advantage over their competitors.

Under Frye’s leadership, TWA was known as a “pilot’s airline”.  He took the lead in exploring high-speed, high-altitude, all weather flying.  This research led to the development of the Boeing 307 “Stratoliner”, the first fully pressurized passenger aircraft.

Negotiations went quickly, and smoothly, with Boeing and on Jan. 29, 1937, TWA ordered five Boeing 307 Stratoliners, with delivery of the first set for Dec. 22, 1938. However, between the time T&WA placed the Stratoliner order and Boeing’s promised delivery date, Frye’s vision clashed with the practicality of TWA’s major stockholder, John Hertz (yellow cab and rental car mogul), who believed the price of the new airplane, which Frye saw as TWA’s future, was too much for the financially strapped airline. The dispute caused problems with the delivery, and the order was cancelled.

Frye then turned to Howard Hughes, who, sensing a major opportunity, surprised onlookers and bought enough shares to gain control of the company. The Stratoliner contract was resurrected in September 1939, and delivery of the pressurized, all-weather airliner was made on May 6, 1940, with the inaugural flight following on July 8, 1940.

Once the Stratoliner situation with Boeing had been settled, Howard Hughes’s vision turned toward more-advanced, larger, and faster airplanes, talking with Frye about future equipment even before the first Stratoliner was delivered. The new airplane would be big—carrying 50 passengers and 6,000 pounds of cargo, it would be fast with over-weather capabilities, it would be luxurious, and it would fly across the continent nonstop. But most importantly, all talk and plans pertaining to it would be highly secret.

Many meetings with Lockheed contacts resulted in an order for 40 Constellations at a cost of $425,000 each to be bought by the Hughes Tool Company, as would be all future aircraft purchases. Announcement of the Constellation program, which had managed to stay a tightly held secret, just a few months before Pearl Harbor caused a sensation within the aviation industry. But TWA was not to immediately reap the rewards of its marvel; war needs prevailed. All Constellations that came off the assembly line were designated C-69s and went into military service.

However, the airline did accept the first Constellation, dressed in TWA livery, and after its acceptance flight, turned it over to the military. The acceptance flight—Burbank to Washington, D.C.—was a record-maker. On April 17, 1944, Hughes and Frye flew the cross-country trip in 6 hours 58 minutes. Although the Constellation was to have given T&WA a healthy 3-year lead over its competitors in operating the highly sophisticated transport, the war eliminated that possibility. Owing to the “Connie’s” transport configuration, the government gave production preference to combat aircraft, so that Lockheed manufactured only half of TWA’s original order for 40. Hughes had contracted to retain buy-back rights from the government, so at the war’s end, a sizable fleet returned to T&WA.

On July 5, 1945, TWA gained temporary authority to serve Paris, Rome, Athens, and Cairo, finally placing the Constellation into commercial service on Feb. 5, 1946, when it made the first commercial flight from Washington, D.C., to Paris, via La Guardia. Capt. Hal Blackburn commanded the crew of co-captains Jack Hermann and John Calder, flight engineer Art Ruhanen, plus a navigator, a radio officer, and two cabin attendants. On February 15, the inaugural Los Angeles-to-New York flight became reality.

Several events hurt TWA’s operations and precipitated a drop in TWA stock price from $71 a share to $9, along with a loss of $4 million in 1946. The 18 Constellations on order were cancelled. The TWA Board of Directors voted Jack Frye, ever the visionary, out of office. Although the company was experiencing equipment, financial, and labor problems, Frye wanted to buy more Constellations; Hughes and the Board did not. In early 1947, Douglas introduced the DC-6, which proved to be serious competition to the “Connie” fleet. But the next year, TWA placed a new-model Constellation, the L-749, into service.

For 25 years, the elegant, streamlined Connie, with its distinctive triple tail and long fuselage, dominated TWA skies. The airplane underwent much modification, culminating in what has been referred to as the “most luxurious piston aircraft,” the L-1649A. The last TWA Constellation flight, Flight 249, took off from Kennedy Airport at 3:15 p.m. on April 6, 1967. The crew of Capt. Joseph Duncan, First Officer Richard Green, and flight engineer George Martin closed a chapter of TWA aircraft history as TWA prepared for the commercial jet transport.

Now, we know how it was really Jack Frye who guided Hughes and made TWA a great airline let’s talk about how Hughes, after Frye’s departure, made the worst possible chess move possible.

Just as the Douglas series of transports, the Boeing Stratoliner, and the Lockheed Super Constellation had played such vital roles in TWA’s development during the piston-engine era, the jet-engined Boeing 707, 727, and 747, along with the L-1011 and the DC9/MD 80, would become the airline’s vital equipment in years to come. During the 1950s, 1960s, and through the early 1970s, TWA further developed its first-class character for which it will long be remembered. The carrier would acquire airlines and international routes that spanned the globe, its pilots would set many aviation records, and its safety record would be second to none.

But all that was not entirely evident from the Boeing order pad for the first American commercial jet transport, the Boeing 707, which showed 186 aircraft ordered by the nation’s airlines, except for TWA, whose order tallied “0.” This was not for lack of interest. Howard Hughes continued to dominate TWA and its planning and equipment procurement. He was working with Convair to develop a jet larger and faster than the B-707; the deal collapsed at about the same time that his company, Hughes Tool, which bought all of TWA’s airplanes, suffered a serious cash flow problem that was not publicly evident. Ironically, TWA was earning good profits.

Hughes’s resistance to ordering the B-707 wilted; and on March 2, 1956, he allowed an order for eight “domestic” B-707s to be placed; his executives were aghast at the meager number and aircraft type. Ultimately, the order was increased to a total of 33 as of Jan. 10, 1957. On March 20, 1959, TWA inaugurated jet transcontinental service from San Francisco to New York with its single Boeing 707, almost 2 months after American’s B-707 coast-to-coast flight on Jan. 25, 1959. The first TWA B-707 flight over the Atlantic was on Nov. 23, 1959. In that year, TWA experienced its best financial year to date.

The Convair 880 was brought on line in 1960 to supplement the long-range B-707. The CV-880 was faster than either the B-707 or its competitor, the DC-8, and helped TWA pilots set many city-pair speed records. The jets’ voracious thirst for fuel, however, caused TWA to sell them in the early 1970s.

In the meantime, Howard Hughes’s financial problems with Hughes Tool had deteriorated to the point that on Dec. 29, 1960, his financial backers placed his TWA stock (78 percent of all company stock) into a 10-year voting trust, repossessed all the aircraft, and ousted Hughes from control of the airline. By 1965, TWA’s value had zoomed up, and its stock was again in the range of $97 per share. The airline had revenues exceeding $500 million and a profit of $50 million, and paid its first dividend to stockholders in 30 years. Hughes sold his holdings for $550 million and cut his last ties with the airline.

Source Document

The source document above is one of the primary documents used but there were others. Take some time to look around the web and discover a few more facts for yourself; however, before I wrap it up my story on Jack Frye, and introduce you to Mr. Randall Reynolds, I want to share an interesting fact about Jack Frye that is not known by many.

In 1934 President Roosevelt ordered all air mail contracts to be canceled because of airline inefficiency and, in a defiant gesture, Frye flew from Los Angeles, in the new DC-1, to Newark Airport in a record transcontinental time of 13 hours, 4 minutes.  Because of this flight, mail contracts were awarded back to the airlines.

Now, let’s talk about the work that Mr. Randall Reynolds has done to set the record straight:

The Jack and Helen Frye Story

Mr. Reynolds has spent twelve long years getting the story right and in his book you will go back and explore what I refer to as the “Golden Years of Aviation.” Mr. Reynolds will tell you in great detail why Howard Hughes was not the man at the helm of TWA and why it was Jack Frye who kept Howard Hughes out of trouble.

What I want to highlight today, however, is an interview that he had with Robert Serling. Robert is the brother of Rod Serling, who created the series Twilight Zone,  and Robert is an Aviation Historian. That which follows is that interview:

Three years ago I had the great honor of meeting Robert Serling at Tucson Arizona (now passed
away) who was (is) the most renowned (perhaps the most qualified) airline historian ever. Bob
has always been especially fond of Jack Frye in my dealings with him and as well in his visits
with Jack’s daughter Nevajac Frye. In regard to my work on Jack Frye, Bob gave me his own
“future project” notes which addressed Frye, stating to me, that I could use the information in
any way I desired as he doubted at his age he would be able to finish many future projects. The
pages addressing Frye are current (2008) as opposed to his writings about Frye in his 1983 book
“Howard Hughes’ Airline; an Informal History of TWA”. Bob conveyed the following sentiments
in his notes as reprinted below and in person he basically stated similar sentiments to me
personally about Frye, and I quote:

“Jack Frye of TWA: “He may very well have been the most underrated and unappreciated
airline president of them all. He was a pilot himself, smart and as likeable as he was capable,
but was also saddled with the fact that he was overshadowed and subservient to TWA’s majority
stockholder, who controlled TWA and happened to be Howard Hughes.”

“Frye was a true visionary, far more so than Hughes who was not as farsighted as the film “The
Aviator” portrayed him. (Bob was especially adamant about this film being grossly inaccurate
historically and maligning Frye’s accomplishments and reputation). It was Frye, not Hughes who
actually ran TWA from an operational standpoint and who truly belongs in the ranks of civil
aviation’s most significant pioneer contributors. For example, he was the airline chief who
convinced Donald Douglas to design and build an airliner that could out-perform Boeing’s new
247. The eventual result was the DC-2 which begot the DC-3.”

“Hughes had no cause to quarrel with Frye, but Jack had the misfortune to run afoul of Noah
Dietrich, at the time Howard’s financial advisor. He was jealous of Frye, viciously bad-mouthed
him to Hughes, and Jack was brutally fired. There is no doubt that Dietrich deliberately
orchestrated the ouster of one of the industry’s most far-sighted and charismatic leaders.”

“What cost Frye his job, and also cost TWA dearly, was an ill-timed 25-day pilot’s strike in
1946, just when TWA was getting its postwar international service into full operation, and about
the same time Hughes was recovering from near-fatal injuries suffered in a plane crash
(Beverly Hills). Dietrich managed to convince Hughes and TWA’s board of Directors that the
strike was Frye’s fault, and that Jack’s mismanagement had put the airline in a precarious
financial state.”

“Both these claims were outrageously false, but Dietrich timed his campaign against Frye to
coincide with the post-crash trauma Hughes was experiencing. Howard was in no shape either to
judge or grasp what really was happening at TWA in those difficult months, and foolishly
believed what Dietrich was telling him.”

“The cold-blooded execution of one of the airline’s most brilliant presidents was unnecessarily
cruel in the way it was handled: a terse one-sentence announcement to all TWA officers and
employees that “Jack Frye is no longer associated with the Company.”

“This was the official epitaph for the man largely responsible for elevating TWA to its
leadership position as one of the nation’s five most influential air carriers. If Hughes hadn’t
personally authorized that humiliating final slap-in-the-face, he certainly did nothing to stop it.
Yet to his dying day, Frye refused to blame Howard for his ouster and would scold anyone who
criticized Hughes.”                                                                                        -Robert J. Serling-

Now, for those who are not familiar with Robert Serling please click HERE.

While Mr. Reynolds has certainly done his homework on the subject of Jack Frye, Howard Hughes, and TWA there is no way that I can duplicate here what he has done in his book, so I encourage you to explore the following links and then click on the image of Mr. Reynolds book and invest in aviation history.

I think Mr. Reynolds has it right when he says: History is Meaningless- Unless Shared!”

Jack & Helen Frye Tumblr

Sedona Legend YouTube Channel



Have a good weekend, enjoy time with family and friends, and remember that today is yesterdays tomorrow…..life is short so enjoy every moment.

Robert Novell

June 23, 2017