Today's Tidbit... Flying to Away Games in 1940
Michigan and Alabama play in the Rose Bowl today. Both teams and most fans from other parts of the country flew to California for the game rather than driving or traveling by rail. However, that was not always the case, and to illustrate that point, we will look at the first time Michigan’s football team flew to California in 1940, a weekend in which a handful of significant figures in football history happened to fly to their games at the end of September 1940.
It was unusual for football teams to fly to games until after WWII; instead, they traveled by rail. Commercial air travel was not in its infancy by then, but it was still a toddler. United, a top airline, had limited routes, and its propellor-driven planes had to stop at several times along long-distance routes to refuel.
To boost passenger levels on the Pacific Coast, United borrowed a technique used by the railroads by publishing a brochure combining the year's football and flight schedules. How many football fans flew commercially for road trip games is unknown, but the brochure below shows the limited number of daily flights heading north and south along the coast, so the number of flying fans could not have been large.
United Air Lines also tried to convince football teams to fly to games, publicizing those events to increase awareness of the airlines' safety records. For example, it was a big deal when Michigan announced plans in June 1940 to charter three United Air Lines mainliners to fly Fritz Crisler's team and traveling party to their opening game at Cal, its second-ever trip to the West Coast. Michigan's first trip West came in 1902 when Fielding Yost took his team to Pasadena for the first Rose Bowl game.
In his last year as Michigan's athletic director in 1940, Yost was part of Michigan's advanced party when he attended 15 alumni receptions during the trip. The team left Detroit on Wednesday of game week, flying to Chicago to take on enough fuel to get to Denver, where they stayed overnight. Thursday morning, they flew to Salt Lake City to refuel and practice before arriving in Oakland on Thursday night. Their return trip would start Sunday morning and arrive in Detroit before midnight.
Despite Michigan's innovative use of heavier-than-air flying machines, San Jose State did not them one better. More accurately, San Jose State did them five better by flying to all six road games in 1940, chartering two United mainliners each away weekend. Since each plane accommodated 21 passengers, their traveling party included 35 players, two coaches, two trainers, one manager, and two newspapermen. San Jose's head coach in 1940 was Ben Winkleman, assisted by Pop Warner, and both flew with the team to Butte to play Montana State that first weekend, a location where Warner took his Iowa State team 45 years earlier.
The same weekend that Michigan and San Jose State flew commercially, the San Diego Marines football team flew three separate USMC planes to Eugene for their game with Oregon. One plane had to make an emergency landing elsewhere due to heavy smoke in the area, with automobile headlights illuminating the runways.
Later that season, the Green Bay Packers became the first NFL team to fly to a game or, at least, partway to their game. The Packers, headed by Curly Lambeau, intended to fly United from Chicago to New York for a mid-November game with the Giants, but upon landing in Cleveland to refuel, they learned there was bad weather in New York. After hanging out at a Cleveland hotel for a few hours, the team completed the trip by sleeper train before practicing on Saturday in Central Park.
After losing 7-3 to the Giants at the Polo Grounds, the Packers successfully made the flight to Chicago and finished their return to Green Bay by train.
So, while flying to games remained rare in 1940, four big names in football history took off and landed safely during the 1940 season. Flying to games seems trivial today, but one way to offer perspective on the rapid change that occurred in air transportation is to note that Warner and Yost had nine and seven years of college coaching under their belts before the Wright Brothers first took flight in December 1903. So, for them to fly with their teams to games 37 years later had to seem remarkable.
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