Wednesday, March 27, 2013

International Air Travel in 1958

I'm not the only one in my family who has the travel bug. My father also loves journeying around the world. Perhaps it was destiny since his Chinese name is "Pui Ping" which means "The Wanderer." For over a decade, he lived the expat life in Montreal, Paris, Southeast Asia and China, seizing each work holiday as an excuse to travel everywhere from New Zealand to Kashmir. Now in retirement, he and my mom recently returned from a trip to Brazil and Argentina.
Years before he was an expat, a husband, and a father, he was a young man growing up in the Philippines and graduating summa cum laude from university. Then, it was on to England for a graduate training program scholarship which happened to include money for air travel. How exciting this must have been for him! In my father's own words, here's the story of his first international airplane journey.

Getting ready to board the plane

On November 1958, I left Manila for London via Hong Kong.  In those days, very few people went overseas.  There were about 50 people consisting of relatives, friends and business associates who saw me off at the Manila Airport.  I stopped over in Hong Kong to get tailored suites and warm clothing,woollen underwear, gloves and other accessories before flying off to London, England. 

During that time “common people” travelled by ship to Europe and America.  Only the rich and senior executives could fly.  It was the era of propeller planes, with top speed of 250 miles per hour and carrying 60 passengers, with 15 rows of two seats on each side of the aisle.  This is in contrast to modern day jet planes with a cruise speed of over 600 miles per hour and a seating capacity of 450 passengers. In those days, there were no different classes. Seating was much like the economy class of today, except there was more leg room and the service was excellent. 

The propeller plane had a limited flying distance and had lengthy stop-overs for re-fuelling and picking up passengers. To get to London from Hong Kong the airplane made numerous stops.  From my recollection -- starting from Hong Kong, we stopped at Saigon, Bangkok, Rangoon, Bombay, New Delhi, Cairo, Beirut, Bahrain, Rome and finally London.  It was exciting to visit all these places.  It was like my geography class coming alive.  The flight time was very long, maybe 36 hours in the air.  In contrast today’s commercial flight for the same route would take 16 hours.  All I remember was after lunch we had a snack, then dinner, then breakfast and then lunch again. We flew past so many time zones in that trip. 

All the airports we stopped by were small and austere, not the large, multi-level complex of today’s international airports that require trains and long hallways to move from one terminal to another.  There were no shopping mall inside the airports, and neither were there restaurants or fast-food outlets. 

Most of the passengers were Caucasian businessmen.  The passenger next to me was a young Chinese from Hong Kong on his way to England to be trained as merchant marine.  It was good that I had somebody to chat with during the very lengthy flight. 

I remember two things about that long trip.  There were U.S. marines carrying guns in the Beirut airport to intervene in the 1958 Lebanon conflict between Christians and Muslims.  It was quite scary as I had flashbacks to the horrors during the World War II in Manila when I was a child. 

The other incident was an announcement by the airplane captain for us to look down as we flew over Athens.  We saw the ruins of the arena of ancient Greece.  Half a century later, my wife and I were on a cruise of the Greek Isles and went to that arena where we posed as if we were in a race.

A crowd showed up to see my dad (center, in the suit and tie) off at the Manila Airport.

My father has been on hundreds of international flights since this first trip. Before returning to the Philippines three years later, he toured much of Europe by train as well as flying to the U.S.A. to visit New York City, see John F. Kennedy's inauguration parade in Washington, D.C., then continuing on to San Francisco. I wonder if, at the time, he realized what great world travelers his grandchildren would become.

Would you have minded the small planes and long flight times of late 1950's air travel?

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursdays on Budget Travelers Sandbox and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-word travel inspiration.


  1. How funny. I found some old family-photos this week as well - only they were about skiing :)

    Early days airplane travel seems so romantic; I would love to travel back to a time when a flight from say Europe to Africa would take several days - and no one was hurried.

  2. Loved the peek back in time! Can you imagine making that many stops to fly from Hong Kong to London? - What an adventure!

  3. What an amazing account of old world travel. I love reading about the nostalgia and romance of early days of air travels. What an extraordinary experience traveling must be back then. I also love the nostalgic photos. I lot of things have changed in air travel since, but let me tell you what hasn't change about traveling from the Philippines --- 50 people can still see you off at the airport! :)

  4. How wonderful to be able to travel in such a relaxed and free style. Wonderful vintage images. Such happy faces.

  5. I love vintage, and stories about the old days of travel. This was such an interesting post and how air travel has changed since then.

  6. Your dad's story is fabulous - I loved, loved, loved it! And I can't even imagine such a send off by family and friends - most of ours don't pay attention to our comings and goings.

  7. My grandmother was a great traveler, but she traveled by train. Plane tickets in the 1950s were too expensive. If she were around today, she'd love traveling the world with me. :)

  8. What a cool story. Growing up in the era of jumbo jets has made me forget how different travel was, even 50 years ago.

  9. I love this story - thanks for sharing it.
    I've been documenting my aunt's first trip on a ship to England in '52. The voyage took 3 weeks! Talk about slow travel. Much has changed in travel in 50 years but the sense of adventure is still there.

  10. I do remember the incredible service you got on a plane even as a kid in the early 60's. I also remember to having get dressed up to go - and that part I n ever liked. In the early 80's Canada had an airline Wardair - where they would cook your steak on board the way you wanted. Can't even imagine that anymore - and that was in economy.
    What a great story.

  11. How great that your dad shared this story. I love reading about these types of travel stories when customer service meant something with a lesson in travel history. I can't get over how many stops his plane took. I had to laugh at Marisol's comment because it's just like the Filipinos to have a big send-off. Love that your parents are still traveling the world!

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  13. What a lovely old photo and story!

  14. Great that your dad could share his experiences on your blog. My mum was photographed getting off a jet in Sydney (it must have been around 1958 to) and it ended up in the social pages. So different from travel in our own era.

  15. I love how people dressed up then, when they flew. Like Leigh, I remember when service on planes was actually very good. I'm not sure when airlines turned down this long dark hallway of bad service being the norm. I don't care how long it takes me to get somewhere. If I want to go, I endure! :)

  16. Can a name bestowed upon us at birth influence our destiny? An interesting thought.


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