A History of Night Flying, Part Three: The Early Jet Age Years (1945-1978)

A Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-104 near Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.

In case you missed the first two posts in this series, you can find Part I here and Part II here. And without further adieu, here’s Part III in this series about the history of night flying: The early Jet Age years.

*Please note: For simplicity’s sake, I’m staying focused on the civilian aircraft industry in this blog post except where otherwise noted. A discussion about night flights carried out by militaries around the world during the Cold War era would not only be an entire series of blog posts in itself, but has been extensively covered elsewhere!
   Also, please note that I’m by no means an aviation expert. If what you’re looking for is something more authoritative and technically detailed, you may or may not find the information you seek in this blog post series. This is more or less a series aimed at the average Joe who just wants to know a little about night flying during the mid-20th century and the basic technology and developments that made red-eye flights a part of our everyday lives.

The 1950s-1970s were decades of deep change and extravagance for Western airlines.

When the Jet Age began in the 1950s, it became increasingly possible – both technologically and financially – for passengers to fly to almost any destination in a matter of hours at any time of the day, including at night. Prior to the outbreak of war, an international airline trip could take well over a week and was unaffordable for most ordinary people who were already suffering financially from the Great Depression. While ticket prices were still a little on the pricey side for most people and turboprop airliners remained the standard for most airlines during the early and mid-1950s, flying overseas was no longer the excruciating, time-consuming chore it once was before the jet engine came along.
It was during the mid to late 1950s that airlines and airports around the world started becoming more “futuristic” and offered intercontinental flights that took only hours instead of days. Accomodating passengers at most hours of the day, including night, became a priority for the booming airlines. As a result, “red-eye flights” became routine for those airports that stayed open during the night.

A De Havilland Comet (center) and Boeing 707s at Lasham Airport, UK.


The Jet Age as we know it had two different beginnings.

On the one hand, the jet age unofficially began in the 1930s when the first jet engines were developed. During World War II, jet engines were finally put to use in various German, Japanese, and British fighter and bomber aircraft (especially later on during the war).

On the other hand, the Jet Age didn’t officially begin until jet engines made their way into civilian aircraft, which would not happen until after World War II reached its conclusion and jet propulsion technology could safely be shared with civilian aircraft manufacturers. Once World War II came to an end, work could resume on creating new types of airliners for the civilian aircraft industry. Out of the ashes of the war came two new types of planes that we all continue to fly today: The turboprop and the jet-powered airplane.

In 1948, the first turboprop airliner – the Vickers Viscount – made its first flight in its home country of the UK. It was also the first turboprop plane to be produced and sold in large numbers around the world. Turboprops have remained a standard to this very day among civilian and military aircraft.

That same year, Vickers-Armstrong Limited made aviation history yet again when they created the first jet-powered airliner: The Vickers VC.1 Viking. This airliner was a short-range airliner that saw use among some British airlines, as well as by a few foreign governments, airlines, and militaries in the early 1950s. 

When the war started wrapping up in early 1945, the British government awarded a contract to the De Havilland Corporation (manufacturers of the RAF’s Mosquito fighter-bomber) to start building a prototype of a turbojet-powered and pressurized airliner. That airliner, the de Havilland Comet, was first test-flown as a passenger aircraft on May 2nd, 1952, and flew from London to Johannesburg. It would continue to be a mainstay of British and British Commonwealth airlines until 1981, when it was replaced with newer jet airliners. Although it was pulled from production for a time during the 1950s after a number of accidents, the Comet was a huge hit with the British public .

After the Comet debuted to the world, other countries came out with their own comparable jet airliners during the 1950s and early 1960s. The US rolled out the Boeing 707 in 1958, the French the Sud Aviation Caravelle in 1959, and most importantly of all, in 1956 the Soviets unveiled what is officially the most successful (and widely regarded as the first) jet airliner of its time: the Tupolev Tu-104. The Tu-104 was the first jet airliner to see regular service among the world’s airlines, particularly airlines in the nations of the Communist bloc.

More will be discussed below about the Tu-104’s role in expanding Aeroflot’s nighttime operations.

Baggage claim at Stockholm’s Bromma International Airport in 1964.

As more and more people around the globe started flying, airports and airlines began offering night flights to help accomodate the ever-growing number of passengers.

Passengers flying aboard Pan-Am’s Boeing 377s could spend their midnight hours going down to the second deck to gaze at the stars and have a drink in the lounge. If first-class customers wanted to sleep, they could pay an extra $25 and snooze away comfortably in one of the “Sleeperette” berths in the upper deck of the plane. SAS Scandinavian Airlines offered their red-eye passengers breakfast before landing – a tradition that has lasted to this very day.

Throughout the 1950s-early 1960s, British European Airways offered a night service from London to Belfast five nights a week via their Viscounts, as well as a Saturday night London-Rome-Athens-Nicosia service via Olympic Airlines.

In South Africa, Trek Airways had some of the world’s cheapest airfares and flew night flights to various European locations regularly with stopovers in Cairo and Entebbe.

Meanwhile the Soviet airline Aeroflot began their night services in 1948 and a key point of the 5th Five Year Plan (1951-1955) of the annual CPSU Congress made expanding Aeroflot’s nighttime operations a priority. With more advanced aircraft than ever to work with, Aeroflot was able to fly to most destinations around the USSR. When Aeroflot began flying international flights in 1956, their brand-new mainstay airliner – the Tu-104 – flew to a large number of international destinations. As a result, Aeroflot was the world’s first airline to offer regular jet airline services.

As people began traveling by air more for work-related purposes and worked more hectic schedules than ever before, American airlines gradually began to offer discounted “red-eye” night fares as a regular service as well beginning in the late 1950s. One of the USA’s biggest airlines, Delta Airlines, offered low-cost night flights throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as did Allegheny Airlines (the airline that became US Airways in 1979) with their “Moonlighters Service “, which was 20% cheaper than their daytime flights.

In the US, night flights became a popular choice not only for passengers, but for UPS, and later, Federal Express (FedEx) employees as well as they received employee discounts for these flights to any number of destinations worldwide.

As nighttime operations became routine during the late 1950s and 1960s and as the number of air travelers grew exponentially in the US, many American airports kept surplus military aircraft on standby and put them to use during the night hours when no seats were available on the daytime flights. These off-peak flights were known as “fly-by-night operations” and only left the airports if all seats were booked.


An early 1950s era ad for British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines.

The airline industry started booming in the years after World War II. Airports were being built or being expanded worldwide. Prices of airline tickets were dropping like a rock, causing more people than ever before to fly rather than ride the rails or drive to their destinations. From the late 1950s onward, new jet-powered airliners were making all kinds of travel possible that wasn’t possible for most people just a few short years before. They wanted this brave new era of traveling to be as comfortable and sophisticated as possible for their passengers.

Scenes of night flights during this period of time call to mind magazine ads showing well-dressed passengers casually lounging in a Pan-Am terminal while waiting to board one of the state-of-the-art 707s. Or maybe the classic 1970 thriller Airport (the big screen adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s best-selling novel of the same name), later parodied in 1980’s Airplane. Or maybe a terrified William Shatner staring out a cabin window of a airliner flying through a stormy night sky and seeing a “gremlin” on the wing of the plane in that famous episode of The Twilight Zone.

Airlines started focusing on making flying as comfortable an experience as possible for their passengers. Airports began expanding from relatively small, square-shaped buildings to the vast octagonal-shaped buildings we know today that are capable of accomodating dozens of airlines at dozens of terminals throughout the building. Beginning in the early 1960s, passengers could walk through a jet boarding system instead of climbing an outdoor staircase into an airliner.

During these decades, airlines weren’t trying to cut costs like they are today and weren’t afraid to give their passengers a few “creature comforts”. Even on relatively short red-eye flights, passengers could expect to be pampered with a hot meal, blankets or robes to fend off the chill from flying at high altitudes, a travel bag filled with goodies to use during their trip, and sometimes even a bed to sleep in! And of course, flying in a plane adorned with plush carpeting was a plus!

A 1950s-era AN-FPS-8 radar used by the US Air Force and American airports.

Of course this new era in aviation and the airline industry would not have been possible without all the new developments in aviation that occured during and as a result of World War II. Nor would red-eye flights have become so commonplace for that matter.

During the war, many devices such as radar and radio navigation systems were either classified and/or were restricted to military use only. After 1945, the Allied militaries started allowing these new technologies to be used by civilian institutions such as airports and government agencies.

One of the wartime innovations that made red-eye flights an everyday part of our world was the radar.

Throughout the World War II era, radar was used by various militaries as part of the ground-control approach (GCA) system of landing planes at an airstrip or airfield. Simply put, GCA is air traffic personnel guiding a plane to a runway via the radio and a radar unit.

In the US, while some United Air Lines aircraft were equipped with radar units as early as 1938, it wasn’t until 1947 that the American Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA, or the forerunner to the modern-day FAA) gave the go-ahead for radar devices to begin entering civilian service.

From the late 1940s onwards, airports began acquiring radar units and antennae and put these to use for scanning the skies and working in conjunction with ground-control approach (GCA) and the aircraft’s instrument landing systems (ILS-see below) and cockpit radar systems to guide airplanes to safety 24 hours a day.

Night flying became a whole lot easier when new innovations in navigation technology began replacing older World War II-era radio beam technology such as the Lorenz/Consol beam duirng the 1950s and 1960s.

The VOR (Very high-frequency, or ‘VHF’ Omni Range) receiver made navigation during bad weather and nighttime conditions easy for small aircraft pilots. Having been in existence since 1937, VOR receivers became the standard for aviation navigation by the end of the 1940s and have remained the standard up to the present day. VOR works by broadcasting

From the 1950s onwards, instrument landing systems (ILS) began replacing the beam technology of World War II. ILS systems can guide a plane toward a runway for a smooth landing via a series of radio signals received by a special ILS receiver and/or high-powered lighting arrays. Sometimes ILS transmitters can automatically land a plane via the autopilot or a flight computer.

In March of 1964, the very first automated landing occured at the Bedford airport in Bedford, UK with the guidance of an ILS system.

In the 1980s, there were efforts to replace ILS in civilian aircraft with state of the art microwave landing system in the US and western Europe. However, that push fell out of favor once global positioning system (GPS) and other satellite navigation systems rapidly became the airline industry’s favorite means of navigation.

Weather Forecasting
As the technology used for weather forecasting underwent drastic changes during the 1950s and 60s and as radars began to be used in countries such as the US and UK for predicting storms, flying at night became even safer than before.

Runway lights at Ust-Kut Airport in Irkutsk oblast, Russia.

Without runway lighting, night flights would not be possible….period. After World War II, a number of innovations in runway and aircraft lighting made flying by night much more easier and safer.

Runway Illumination
The slope-line approach runway lighting system introduced during the 1940s remained the standard for many years to come. Simply put, this system are the two lines of lights lining an airport’s runway that light up during the night. The two lines form a funnel which guide the pilot in for a smooth landing while additional lines at some airports let her/him know that that they are off-course.

The lights themselves would also change over the next few decades. Omnidirectional lights that used halogen as well as normal incandescent bulbs started making appearances along airport runways during this time. Many of the center runway lights were embedded in the ground, protecting them from the elements or from damage by planes or passing vehicles.

The approach lighting system at Bremen Airport, Germany.

Approach lighting systems (ALS) also underwent many changes during this time. After WWII, the US Navy and United Airlines worked on a means of creating a system of lights that would guide planes to a runway at night or under any zero visibility weather conditions. This system – thirty eight 75-foot tall towers with gas lights on top positioned at a 3,500 foot approach – is the basic ALS system still in use today. During the 1950s or early 1960s, a system of strobe lights known as Strobeacon replaced the gas lights on these towers and during this period of time, the first civilian airport – New York International Airport (later renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport) – received its first strobe-illuminated ALS system.

Over time, newer technologies such as pilot-controlled systems that allow the pilot to remotely control the runway lights at smaller airports also became more commonplace.

A group of US Marine helicopters at an airfield in Incheon, South Korea during the Korean War.

The Korean War (1950-1953) was the war when helicopters first saw action in combat. Naturally It was during this war where helicopter pilots and ground crews also began pioneering the ability to fly their aircraft at night.

When helicopters were introduced into the war, they were intended to be used for transporting wounded servicemen to MASH units. Over time, they were also used for transporting equipment, hunting down Communist guerrillas, and much more. Officially flying at night was prohibited by the US military during most of the war since most helicopters did not have night flying equipment or even luminescent lighting in the control panels. Nor did they have external lighting, although some pilots and their passengers did bring spotlights aboard. However, there were a few American pilots who broke those rules (and took a huge risk of crashing) banning night flying in order to save wounded comrades who might not have survived during the night. Some of these pilots who dared fly at night held flashlights between their legs to illuminate the instrument panels and just hoped for the best!

Soon after the Korean War, spotlights and red cockpit lighting (for nighttime flying) began to be installed on the newer helicopter models such as the Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw and the UH-1 Huey used by both the police and military.

Please stay tuned for the final installment of this series, which will cover the period of 1978 up to the present day! Also, if you have any personal reminiscences about flying during this period of time, feel free share your memories with us! Or if you have anything you’d like to add that I haven’t covered here thus far, please post any corrections or historical facts in the Comments section below.

http://www.everythingpanam.com/1946_-_1960.html (Pan Am catering during the post-World War II years. From the Virtual Pan Am Museum at everythingpanam.com.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeroflot (Aeroflot at Wikipedia.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VHF_omnidirectional_range (VOR Wikipedia entry.)
http://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Government_Role/landing_nav/POL14.htm (Essay from The US Centennial of Flight Commission about a history of aircraft landing aids.)
http://www.airport-technology.com/features/feature1422/  (Jan. 2008 article from Airport-Technology.com about airport lighting systems and their history.)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airport (Wikipedia entry on airports.)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Approach_lighting_system#History (A history of the approach lighting system from Wikipedia.)
http://airfieldrunwaylighting.yolasite.com/ (Website dedicated to worldwide airport runway lights from WWII to the present era.)
http://gettheflick.blogspot.com/2007/12/faa-history-lesson-gca.html (FAA History Lesson — GCA. From the Get the Flick blog.)
http://www.heli-archive.ch/en/helicopters/in-depth-articles/sikorsky-s-55h-19/ (Info about the Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw.)

-Sandler, Stanley. The Korean War: An Encyclopedia. London: Routledge Books, 1995, pgs. 129-131.
-Galdorisi, George; Philips, Tom. Leave No Man Behind: The Saga of Combat Search and Rescue. London/New York City: Zenith Press, 2009, pgs. 190-192.
-Aspray, William; Hayes, Barbara M. Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America. Boston: The MIT Press, 2011, pgs. 128;129.
-Bailey, Elizabeth E.; Graham, David R.; Kaplan, Daniel P. Deregulating the Airlines. Boston: The MIT Press, 1985, pg. 17. 
Woodley, Charles. The History of British European Airways. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Aviation, 2006, pgs. 48-49.
-Guttery, Ben R. Encyclopedia of African Airlines. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, Inc. Publishing, 1998, pg. 196.

Image Credits:
-Tu-104 pic: Anthony Ivanoff.
-De Havilland Comet/Boeing 707s pic: Barry Lewis. Used via Wikimedia Commons per CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
-Bromma International Airport baggage claim pic: SAS Scandinavian Airlines.
-AN-FPS-8 radar: US Air Force.
-Runway lights pic: Lucky Fighter. Used via Wikimedia Commons per CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
-Bremen ALS pic: Garitzko.
-USMC Korean War helicopters: US Marine Corps.
-BCPA ad: VintageAdBrowser.com.

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