• Paul Soprano

The Arrival of the Jumbo Jet at CLE

Updated: Nov 29, 2020


Still in its original delivery color scheme, this United DC-10 Friend Ship taxies to the runway in November 1978 (George Mihalek-GeorgeM757 via flickr.com)

Coping with Growth; Terminal Overcrowding & Development Delays

Despite the plans announced in 1969 for the expansion and modernization of the terminal (click here for a detailed article), Cleveland Hopkins International Airport did not expand as much as many other major airports at this time (remember that by 1968, Cleveland Hopkins was still the 14th busiest airport in the United States, versus 45th in 2019).


Serious social and economic problems racked the city in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and diverted the attention of the city’s leadership away from long-term, commercial aviation concerns, particularly with regards to the airfield and its one main runway, and its vastly overburdened terminal. While other cities built new airports in less developed areas, Cleveland Hopkins remained in its original landlocked location.

Just a bit more than a decade earlier, the new terminal, opened in April 1956, was lauded by Architectural Forum (June 1956) for its "close to CAA's ideal for quick entrance and exit, one-way circulation" The article further stated, "Cleveland has a carefully studied circulation system, unobtrusive concessions and an uncluttered lobby, handsome accent walls of red, blue and yellow glazed brick, nonbearing walls and partitions for easy expansion." With the tremendous growth in commercial aviation and the advent of jet aircraft in the early 1960s, the terminal had great difficulty coping.


Complaints by passengers and the airlines mounted as the expansion did not get underway as quickly as had been hoped. The airport was simply “bursting at the seams,” according to Port Director, W. Keily Cronin in 1971. The single-level roadway was always congested, the terminal was overcrowded and stiflingly hot in summer (only the new South Concourse was air conditioned), the single escalator from the lower level was often out of commission, the restaurant and snack bar in the main lobby was often packed, and the small gate areas in the two older concourses were increasingly insufficient for newer, larger aircraft.


Despite the obvious need for modernization, Cleveland City Council cut 75% off a proposed $2 million bond sale to finance preliminary architectural and engineering planning for the expanded terminal. Instead, it approved $455,000 in September 1971, preferring to divide the plans into four segments. Director Cronin stated that every month of delay added 1% to the construction costs, and that Council failed to understand the airport's or the airlines' needs. Council countered that it was simply exercising its role as "watchdogs" of the project. It took over two more years for the airlines and city to agree on a final expansion plan in December 1973.

The single escalator from the ticketing level up to the main lobby and departure gates often was out of service (Cleveland Plain Dealer-Author's Private Collection)

Typical congested scene on the roadway of the old terminal in the early 1970s prior to construction of the new one (Cleveland Memory Project)

American Airlines, the airport’s perennial number two carrier, reached a tentative deal with the City of Cleveland to expand its quarters on the North Concourse while it waited for the new East Concourse to be built. The $400,000 project, to be jointly financed by AA and CLE, was to have added three boarding bridges, air conditioning, and a new outbound baggage belt to serve American's 36 daily flights. The expensive equipment was to have been reused in its new concourse, then expected to open in 1975 (also to house Eastern, Mohawk, North Central). The deal fell apart in September 1971, after AA refused to sign a lease for its space stating that it was too risky to sign what it characterized as an unfair agreement.

The Jumbo Jets Arrive

In spite of the challenges, CLE began to prepare for the imminent arrival of the new jumbo jets, primarily the Boeing 747 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. United Airlines brought its first B747 Friend Ship to Cleveland on September 9, 1970, when one of its first 342-seat jumbo jets did a test run to ensure ground staff and equipment were able to handle the plane in case of a diversion from Chicago or an East Coast airport.


The jet actually parked in front of two gates (54 & 55) on the “banjo” of the South Concourse, as the jet bridges could not be raised enough to accommodate such a tall aircraft. The first regularly scheduled B747 route was not started until April 1972, flying from Cleveland to Honolulu (HNL) with a stop at Chicago (ORD).


A United B-747 Friend Ship taxis away from the South Concourse in August 1976 (George Mihalek-GeorgeM757 via flickr.com)

The first DC-10 arrived at CLE on August 12, 1971, when United did a proving run of its new 222-seat jets, complete with 8-channel audio! Regular service was initiated by United on a CLE-Chicago (ORD)-Miami (MIA) route on December 16, 1971. The aircraft also featured a Friend Ship Room lounge for coach passengers with Sunbird Swizzle cocktails on the Florida run. United touted the new tri-jet as an environmentally more friendly bird, smoke-free and with quieter engines than the first generation of jets.

A United DC-10 Friend Ship parked at Gate 38 on the South Concourse on March 11, 1972 (Kenneth Koehn via OPShots.net)
A United DC-10 Friend Ship on the cold ramp at CLE at sunrise in February 1976 (George Mihalek-GeorgeM757 via flickr.com)

American Airlines began DC-10 Luxury Liner service on March 12, 1972, on a routing of New York (LGA!)-Buffalo (BUF)-Cleveland-Los Angeles (LAX) and back. Their aircraft also seated 222 passengers, a large increase over the 135-seat B707 that it replaced. American decried the lack of suitable jetway-equipped gate facilities for these new wide-body aircraft at CLE, but eventually combined four of its six 50-seat gates on the North Concourse into one large general seating area and agreed to park the jets closer to the terminal to minimize the walk and exposure of passengers to the elements.


Ground crew await the arrival of the inaugural American Airlines DC-10 flight to CLE on March 12, 1972 (Kenneth Koehn via OPShots.net)
Since the North Concourse was still not equipped with jetways, the first AA DC-10 flight at CLE on March 12, 1972, used air-stairs (Kenneth Koehn via OPShots.net)

Other regularly scheduled routes from CLE served by the new wide-body jets included:

  • CLE-LGA (DC-10 on AA) starting December 15, 1972

  • CLE-Philadelphia (PHL)-Washington (IAD)—The Philadelphia Express, CLE-Chicago (ORD)-Portland (PDX)-Seattle (SEA)—The Pacific Northwest Express, and CLE-ORD-Anchorage (ANC)-Tokyo (TYO)—The Orient Express (NW28, NW 57, and NW3, respectively, all on DC-10s) starting in May and June 1973

  • CLE-LAX (B747 on UA) beginning in June 1973—this author was on the inaugural flight

  • CLE-MIA (L-1011 Whisperliner on EA, as far as I can tell, the only regular, albeit short-lived, service by a TriStar at CLE) as of December 17, 1973

  • An additional Snow Bird CLE-Tampa (TPA, DC-10 on UA), also in December 1973


Northwest Orient DC-10 taxis past the South Concourse on a snowy day in February 1976 (George Mihalek-GeorgeM757 via flickr.com)

In preparation for its new wide-body service to Miami, Eastern Airlines spruced up Gates 3 and 5 on the West Concourse by adding 3,600 square feet of carpeting and additional seating to accommodate the 254-passenger jets, as well as covered walkways extending from the doors to within feet of the boarding stairs. These renovations were considered temporary fixes until the eventual improvement of the concourse, ultimately completed almost a decade later.


Eastern Airlines briefly used L-1011 "Whisperliners" on a CLE-MIA route, seen here waiting to be towed to the gate in May 1976 (George Mihalek-GeorgeM757 via flickr.com)

A look at the schedules from the Official Airline Guide (OAG) from DepartedFlights.com effective April 1, 1974, shows a variety of wide-body service from Cleveland Hopkins consisting of 10 daily flights:

  • CLE-ORD (2x 747 on UA, 1x DC-10 on NW)

  • CLE-MIA (1x 747 on UA)

  • CLE-EWR (1x DC-10 on UA)

  • CLE-PIT (2x DC-10 on UA)

  • CLE-SFO (1x DC-10 on UA)

  • CLE-TPA (1x DC-10 on UA)

  • CLE-IAD (1x DC-10 on NW)

A year later (April 15, 1975, OAG), there were still 9 daily jumbo jets servicing CLE, with the addition of CLE-ATL (1x DC-10 on UA) and the resumption of CLE-PHL (1x DC-10 on NW) service.


A United B-747 taxis around the "banjo" on the South Concourse in May 1977 (George Mihalek-GeorgeM757 via flickr.com)
A United B-747 pushes back from the gate in November 1976 wearing the Stars & Bars livery. Note the ground service truck with the new Saul Bass UA livery introduced in 1974. (George Mihalek-GeorgeM757 via flickr.com)

Here are some vintage ads for the new wide-body service at Cleveland Hopkins in the 1970s.


Ad for United Sunbird DC-10 service from CLE to Florida, January 14, 1972 (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
Ad from March 9, 1972, for American's new DC-10 service from CLE to LAX, BUF, and LGA (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
Ad from December 14, 1972, for AA's new DC-10 service from CLE to LGA (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
Ad for Northwest DC-10 service from CLE, including "The Orient Express" to Tokyo from June 13, 1973 (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

United ad for B-747 service to Los Angeles from June 27, 1973 (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

United ad for B-747 service to Honolulu (via Chicago-ORD) from September 14, 1975 (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

A United B-747 taxies away from the South Concourse sometime in 1973 (Nelson Hoffman)

Some of these early wide-body routes from Cleveland, most notably those operated by American and Eastern, succumbed to the energy crisis of the mid-1970s and were replaced with smaller aircraft. Overall airline traffic slumped in the period between 1974-1976 due to limited fuel supplies and skyrocketing prices, which forced airlines to curtail service. It seems that only CLE-ORD sustained wide-body service over many decades, along with a variety of charter services. This is a far cry from recent years with the only daily wide-body flights at CLE being freighters operated by FedEx and UPS.


Check out this evocative vintage video of the action at Cleveland Hopkins in 1974 by Classic Airliners & Vintage Pop Culture (https://youtu.be/W9nsn0JyAyw). It includes both views of the approach to the airport and the old terminal, as well as United and Northwest Orient DC-10s parked at the South Concourse, plus plenty of United 737s and 727s, a United stretch DC-8, and American and Eastern 727s.


Future articles will focus on the 1970s expansion of the CLE terminal, public art at the airport, as well as the rocky history of United Airlines at Cleveland Hopkins. Stay tuned.

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