Just Where Was That First Boarding Bridge Installed?

April 17, 2013
How a brainstorm at 2 a.m. ushered in a new level of passenger convenience.

We heard from Joe Fuqua of Delta Air Lines and who also sits on our Editorial Advisory Board about last month's cover story on "The History Of Ground Support Equipment."

Joe filled us in more on who was behind creating the first boarding bridge, and points to a different airport than the two - San Francisco and LaGuardia - which are typically credited for the first such installations in 1959.

Until we hear otherwise, we think we can at least all agree on the year since Joe sent us a scanned-in copy of the October 1959 issue of Airlift published by American Aviation Publishing.

On page 47, in an article headlined, “2 a.m. Brainstorm: Delta’s Jetway,” one Glenn Hughie writes about how Delta developed the original “Jetway” and installed it in the nick of time at 5 a.m., July 22, 1959 at the Atlanta Airport.

Hughie describes “running 90 mph up a blind alley” as he was tasked with developing a boarding bridge in time to meet the arrival of the airline’s first DC-8. False hopes and wrong turns quickly frittered away what seemed like a generous, 20-month deadline.

“For me, insomnia was setting in," he writes. "Then about 2 o’clock one morning as I sat in my living room wrestling with the problem, the answer suddenly came. I realized we’d been using the wrong approach. Our philosophy had been slanted toward something complicated.”

Some handy shirt cardboard, scissors and glue were all he needed to get started at that early hour - well, that and his spouse.

“I roused my wife to help,” he writes. “By daylight, we had a working cardboard model.”

So with corporate approval, off he goes to Pacific Iron and Steel Corp.’s Los Angeles office. After listening to Hughie’s idea, Pacific agreed to build the bridge. (By the way, we mentioned our talk with Bob Kuzma in our February editorial, who was working for Pacific at this time installing bridges at LaGuardia.)

“Within a short time, their engineers produced working drawings for the ‘Jetway’ needed,” Hughie writes. “We placed a firm $265,000 order for 17 – conditioned on delivery of two prototypes needed in time to the meet the first jet.”

Everything went per schedule and both prototypes were loaded on a train headed for Atlanta. En route, however, the train suffered a wreck. The bridges arrived, damaged, a week before the DC-8 was due. Replacement parts were airlifted from LA, and Delta and Pacific personnel worked around the clock to meet the schedule.

“The morning of July 22 was like countdown at a missile base,” Hughie writes. “The DC-8 had taken off from Miami and the bridge still wasn’t working.”

Luckily, a Pacific executive named Carvel Moore was on hand at the airport. Hughie describes how Moore “kept probing for the trouble” and how each little bit helped. Finally, “Moore, with a can of dry lube in his hand, struck pay dirt.”

Delta Flight 801 taxied up to the ramp and “Moore pushed a button and the Jetway went out to meet her.”