facebook twitter pinterest instagram You Tube

From The Editors: Coming Down to Earth

Larry Bean

It is as much a spectacle as Mirabella V, the world’s largest sloop, and it possesses a pedigree as intriguing as that of Christina O, the 325-foot motor yacht that once belonged to Aristotle Onassis. Furthermore, neither of those vessels nor any of the others included in “Chartered Territories” (page 88), a feature in this month’s issue that spotlights some of the most distinctive yachts available for charter, can claim to have once flown at 20,000 feet, as Cosmic Muffin can.

Now available for dockside charters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the 56-foot Cosmic Muffin formerly was The Shamrock, an airliner that had been customized into a private plane—with a master bedroom, a bar and lounge, separate ladies’ and men’s rooms, and a galley—and once was owned by Glenn McCarthy, a Texas oil millionaire. After McCarthy sold the plane in 1962, a hurricane damaged the aircraft enough to permanently ground it in South Florida. Then in 1969, Fort Lauderdale businessman Kenneth London acquired the plane as scrap for $62 and spent five years converting it into a motor yacht, which he named Londonaire. David Drimmer, the present owner, acquired it in 1981 for $7,500. He renovated it and then eventually renamed it Cosmic Muffin, the moniker that singer/songwriter/author Jimmy Buffett used to reference the vessel in his 1992 novel Where Is Joe Merchant?

While we did not include Cosmic Muffin in the charter yachts feature, we did find room in the redesigned Front­Runners section for Jetmousine (page 40), the Oregon company that transformed a Learjet into a limousine. The vehicle may be a novelty, but it is not completely novel. For $10,000 a week, Limo King Enterprises of Chicagoland offers a 30-passenger bus that once was a Boeing 727.

Limo King is willing to sell the vehicle for $299,000, which is slightly less than the $315,000 price tag Boeing attached to its 307 Stratoliner, the propeller-powered airliner that, beginning in 1940, would greatly advance Americans’ concept of travel, perhaps even further than will either the Learjet limo or the 727 bus. 

The 33-passenger Stratoliner was the first airliner with a pressurized cabin, which enabled it to fly as high as 20,000 feet—above the weather and much of the turbulence that had plagued commercial air travel since it had begun a decade earlier. The aircraft would, as C.L. Egtvedt, Boeing’s president at the time, accurately predicted, “bring the substratosphere down to earth” and lead to its use as “the superhighway of the air.”

Pan Am purchased three of the planes, including Flying Cloud, the first to roll out of Boeing’s production center in Seattle, and would use them for its flights from Miami to the Caribbean. Transcontinental and Western Air, which eventually would become TWA, ordered five Stratoliners for its New York–to–Los Angeles route. Howard Hughes financed the acquisition and in doing so became the company’s principal stockholder. He also purchased one of the planes for himself, equipping it with more-powerful engines and extra fuel capacity in anticipation of flying it around the world in record time. However, World War II quashed those plans. Indeed, his plane remained grounded from 1939 until 1947, when Hughes had it refitted with a master bedroom, a bar, and a living room, prompting media members to dub the plane the Flying Penthouse.

The T&WA Stratoliners, staffed with five crew members, began making their transcontinental flights in July 1940. Four passenger compartments, each in a different pastel color, could seat a total of 24 passengers and sleep 16 in Pullman-style beds. Across the aisle were nine single-row seats. For a one-way fare of $150 (the equivalent of about $2,000 today), a passenger could, as a reporter at the time noted, have dinner in New York and breakfast in Los Angeles. Including stops in Chicago and Albuquerque, the journey required about 14 hours. Ten years earlier, and for about $400, such a trip could take three times as long. Air travel still was expensive, but it was becoming a more affordable and far more convenient means of travel.

Of the 10 Stratoliners that Boeing built (a prototype crashed in 1939, killing all 10 aboard), only two definitely have survived, though reportedly one still was flying and still carrying passengers in Laos as late as 1986.

Flying Cloud, which once was the personal transport of Haitian president “Papa Doc” Duvalier and in 1972 was on the verge of being converted into a crop duster, now belongs to the Smithsonian. After Boeing twice repaired and restored it—before and after a test-flight crash in 2002, which damaged the plane but did not seriously hurt its crew—Flying Cloud now is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington, D.C.

The other remaining Stratoliner, Howard Hughes’ Flying Penthouse, became David Drimmer’s Cosmic Muffin.

Photo by Darin Schnabel
Copyright 2013 American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
Photo by Stephan Cooper
Copyright 2014 Infiniti
Photo by Pietro Carrieri
Photo by Pawel Litwinski