Hawthorn and the Stratocruiser

Hawthorn enjoyed bumping in to people on the Stratocruiser's staircase

Hawthorn enjoyed bumping in to people on the Stratocruiser’s staircase

It seems that Ian Fleming wasn’t the only British star of the 1950s who appreciated the finer things on offer from the tubby, propeller-driven Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in comparison with faster, more modern jet airliners.

In his biography Challenge Me the Race, the 1958 Formula One world champion was no less fulsome in his praise of the old bird than 007’s creator, saying:

“The fat old Stratocruiser is still my favourite aircraft for long distances. Its spiral staircase and bar on the lower deck give the passengers the opportunity to walk about and chat and get a change of scene which passes the time more agreeably than sitting glued to ones seat for hours on end in the slim modern projectiles.”

Of course, being Hawthorn, the possibility that some of his fellow passengers might be attractive young women would doubtless add more spice to the journey. Meanwhile here’s a BOAC promo film with James Robertson Justice pretending to fly one of these beautifully-appointed leviathans…

You can fly like 007!

Original artwork for the cover of Diamonds Are Forever

Original artwork for the cover of Diamonds Are Forever

It’s a seminal passage from Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond adventure, Diamonds Are Forever, when 007 and the glamorous criminal Miss Tiffany Case board the opulent Boeing 377 Stratocruiser for BOAC Monarch Flight 505 and their transatlantic journey from London Airport to New York’s Idlewild, with a stopover at Shannon Airport in Ireland.

Although the Stratocruiser – developed from the B-29 bomber that dropped atomic reapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – had an unenviable record when it came to flight safety, it offered passengers like Fleming a five-star experience. Within its porcine airframe the Stratocruiser had plenty of room and a downstairs cocktail bar – both of which would doubtless have been appreciated by the tall Englishman with the cruel, lidded eyes as he brandished his cigarette holder towards an engaging brunette.

Cutaway of the Stratocruiser - Fleming's home from home

Cutaway of the Stratocruiser – Fleming’s home from home

Indeed, so much did Fleming enjoy taking the Stratocruiser instead of more modern and convenient jet aircraft that his description of the flight is perfect down to the last minute. A recent academic study took Fleming’s description of the positions of the sun each time a landmark slips by beneath the wing and compared it to an accurate calculation of time zones, British Summertime and air speed of the Stratocruiser taken against the prevailing westerly winds. From this, it is clear that he was describing the 08:15 scheduled flight in mid- to late-July!

Back then the old Stratocruiser lumbered along taking 16 hours 31 minutes from London to New York. British Airways has now revived the route – including the Shannon stop – for its exclusive Club World flights, taking much less time than Fleming enjoyed but getting much the same ambience.

Because these ‘business class specials’ fly out from London City Airport, the runway is too short for a fully-laden Airbus A318 to take off with sufficient fuel for a transatlantic crossing. Thus the stop for a top-up at Shannon, which also allows passengers to fill out their US Immigration requirements and enjoy an unflustered arrival in the USA as domestic passengers.

Of course Fleming’s old BOAC Monarch flights of the 1950s, which this new service aims to replicate, came from the days before supersonic air travel shrank the Atlantic to a puddle. Transatlantic flying has regressed in so many ways since Concorde was prematurely retired – although the little Airbus A310 lacks any of the grandeur that 007 and Tiffany Case enjoyed. Today it is impossible to enjoy a cigarette on board and there is no cocktail lounge below decks, but it is possible to go online at a cost of £6 per MB or to use your mobile phone at a tariff of £1.99/£1.47 to make/receive.

The BOAC cocktail lounge, 1948

The BOAC cocktail lounge, 1948

The British Airways A318 'executive express'

The British Airways A318 ‘executive express’

Nevertheless, if I were in the company of a beautiful diamond smuggler, there’s only one way that I would accompany her to New York!