Delta Air Lines is worth $37billion (£28billion) and flies to 370 destinations on six continents with state-of-the-art aircraft.
Truly, it’s a titan of aviation.
But it started life as a crop-dusting outfit in 1924. And when it expanded to passenger transportation it used planes that could only hit 90mph, with the wind behind them. Delta has been on quite a journey, then – and these fascinating pictures illustrate the carrier’s dramatic transformation over the decades.
They show some of its earliest passenger planes, a restored 1931 model with five passenger seats, a 1940 Douglas DC-3, which had 21 seats and was capable of 170mph, and a 1946 DC-4, which had 44 seats and a brisk-for-the-time top speed of 215mph.
By the late 1950s, air travel with Delta was an entirely different proposition. Its DC-8s cruised at over 500mph and offered leather first-class seats and lounges.
From 1970 the revolution continued apace, with Boeing 747-100s, 727s and 757s. Fast forward to 1999 and there are hi-tech seat-back TVs on board the airline’s 777s. Today, Delta’s fleet includes the impressive Airbus A350, which has business-class suites with privacy doors and flight decks that look distinctly sci-fi.
Scroll down to see, in pictures, how Delta took off – in a big way.
Wobbly screen time. This is a restored 1931 Curtiss-Wright 6B Sedan that has been painted in the ‘international orange and black’ of Delta’s first-ever passenger aircraft, the Travel Air S-6000-B, which flew Delta’s first passengers on June 17, 1929. The 6B Sedan was built from the same design as the S-6000-B and tail number NC8878 celebrates that Travel Air plane, says Delta. Curtiss-Wright acquired Travel Air Manufacturing Co in August 1929 and rebranded. This is one of only four 6B Sedans still intact. It had a top speed of 95mph (5mph more than the S-6000-B) and carried executives from a pipeline company until 1941, and then helped to fight fires in Montana for 31 years, from 1941 to 1972, hauling smoke jumpers and supplies
Air speeds jumped in 1936 with the 190mph Lockheed Electra 10, Delta’s first all-metal plane. It had capacity for 10 passengers and had 450 horse power, thanks to two Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines. It also had retractable wheels – which practically rendered it space-aged for the time. Passenger comforts included hat nets, window curtains, reading lamps and ashtrays. And with the Lockheed 10, Delta introduced its first onboard meal service – box lunches and coffee, served by the co-pilot
Air travel with Delta took a big step forward in 1940 with the Douglas DC-3. It could hit 170mph, had room for 21 passengers and had a range of 500 miles. It revolutionized commercial aviation. By 1940, DC-3s carried 80 per cent of the world’s airline traffic
In 1946 there was another leap, with the Douglas DC-4. This had a relatively huge range – 2,000 miles. And could cruise with up to 44 passengers on board at 215mph. A Delta DC-4 flew the world’s first nonstop scheduled flight between Chicago and Miami on November 1, 1946
It’s 1953 and time to say hello to the pressurized cabin, thanks to the Lockheed Constellation, which had, Delta says, ‘nonstop transcontinental capability’. It operated between 1953 and 1958, could hit 327mph and had a range of 1,800 miles. It flew domestic and Caribbean routes
Don’t they look happy? And no wonder. They’re on a 1954 Douglas DC-7, promoted by Delta as ‘America’s Fastest and Finest Airliner’. Hype? Not really. It had a range of 2,760 miles, a top speed of 360mph and developed 3,250 horse power. The cabin features were quite something for the time – gold window curtains, typewriters for those who wanted to work, complimentary Champagne, entrees at mealtime and canapes and cocktails on afternoon flights
A 1956 Convair 440, which had a range of 580 miles and a top speed of 284mph. Delta’s last Convair 440 retired in 1970, when its fleet became 100 per cent jet-engined
By now – 1957 – Delta had a sizeable cargo service. It launched in 1947 with Douglas C-47 freighters and had grown by 724 per cent by 1956. In 1957 new Curtiss C-46 aircraft (pictured) were delivered. Delta boasted that they were big enough to load a Cadillac automobile without scratching the paint job. The Curtiss C-46 remained in service until 1966
Pictured is a 1959 Douglas DC-8 jetliner, an aircraft type that would serve Delta until May 1, 1989 (obviously with a few upgrades along the way). On delivery day, July 22, 1959, Ship 801 flew the 2,497 mile route from the Douglas plant in Long Beach, California, to Miami in 4 hours and 43 minutes. The previous record on the route had been 5 hours and 50 minutes set by a Douglas DC-7. The DC-8 produced a hefty 13,500 horse power and could reach 590mph
Delta launched the world’s first Convair 880 (pictured) service on May 15, 1960, between Houston and New York City. Two years later a Convair 880 set a new Delta speed record – hitting 715mph on a flight from Chicago to Miami and taking just one hour, 50 minutes and 55 seconds to complete the 1,258-mile flight
Cabin crew on board a DC-9, which entered service in 1965 – and flew until 1993 (the uniforms date to 1969). After almost a 16-year absence, the DC-9 rejoined Delta’s fleet during the Northwest merger in 2008, and flew until January 2014. Delta was the first and the last U.S. airline to fly scheduled DC-9 commercial flights. They had a top speed of 575mph and a range of just over 2,000 miles
In 1966 Delta upgraded its cargo service with the turboprop Lockheed L-100, which mainly transported goods between California and the Southeast. Its top speed was 361mph
It’s 1970 and the Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747, is on the scene. Pictured is the first type, the 747-100. At the time, Delta Senior Vice President of Marketing, T M Miller, said: ‘The 747 is totally unlike any other aircraft, piston or jet. A triumph of American technology, the 747 will bring to our passengers a standard of comfort and convenience no longer limited by the size of an aircraft cabin.’ Delta’s first 747 (N9896, Ship 101) was delivered on October 2, 1970, piloted by Capt. T. P. “Pre” Ball, Delta vice president – flight operations. Four more 747s were delivered to Delta by November 1971. Delta 747s offered the ‘world’s first flying penthouse apartment’, located above the First Class cabin and adjacent to the First Class lounge. It had seats for six passengers and was sold as a unit. It had its very own flight attendant. The 747 has a range of 6,000 miles and a top speed of 625mph
Delta began flying Boeing 727s in 1972. They were retired in 2003. Delta Vice President, Engineering, Julian May, said in 1981 that the aircraft was popular with passengers and its fuel-efficient engines enabled the carrier to keep ticket prices down. They could cruise at 566mph and had a range of 1,950 miles
The Lockheed L-1011 was used by Delta between 1973 and 2001. They had capacity for 250 passengers, could cruise at 552mph and in-flight entertainment included ‘seven mood-matching channels of Deltasonic stereo words and music programs’. Delta’s first movies were shown on its transatlantic L-1011s in 1978
This is a 1982 Boeing 767 – and it’s an aircraft type that Delta still flies. The carrier has operated all Boeing 767 models, the 200, 300/300ER and 400ER. It currently flies the world’s largest 767 fleet, the Delta Museum website claims. The 727-232 had a top speed of 530mph and a range of 2,150 miles. Delta says the 767-200’s technical advances included a new advanced wing design that allowed for more efficient lift for a quicker climb to cruising altitude, a digital “glass cockpit” with 40 computers and engines that were 30 per cent more fuel efficient’
First delivered in 1984, the Boeing 757 is still flying services for Delta. The first model, the 757-200, was 45 per cent more fuel efficient than the Boeing 727 it replaced. In 1992, Delta received the 500th 757 made by Boeing and since 2007 has operated the largest 757 fleet in the world
In 1987 the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (pictured) entered service. Developed from the original Douglas DC-9, it has twice the passenger capacity of the first version, and modernized engines and avionics. The final MD-88 was delivered in December 1993. They are still in service today. It has a top cruising speed of 574mph and capacity for 142 passengers
The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 flew services for Delta between 1991 and 2005. ‘[The MD-11] brings new standards of convenience and comfort to the international traveler,’ Ronald W. Allen, Delta’s chairman, president and CEO, said in February 1991. It had a cruise speed of 543mph, a huge range of 8,460 miles and aerodynamic enhancements, including winglets
This is the economy cabin of a 1999 Boeing 777. Delta says that the customer service at the time was ‘industry leading’. Even in economy, passengers had personal in-seat videos, adjustable footrests, headrests and lumbar support. And the pilots were in another world, too. They had satellite communications, GPS, predictive windshear and collision avoidance systems and enhanced ground proximity warning systems. The 777 is still going strong today
It’s 2017 and time to meet the Airbus A350 and its business class suite – which has a lie-flat seat, a sliding privacy door and an 18-inch entertainment screen. The cabin, meanwhile, has optimized pressure, temperature and humidity
The A350 is a technical tour-de-force. It has a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic fuselage with increased resistance to corrosion and the pilots have all sorts of gadgets at their finger tips. For example, ‘brake to vacate’, which applies the correct amount of braking automatically to bring the aircraft to taxiing speed at the desired runway exit, graphics of the ‘wing shape’ and screens that display everything from fuel levels to runway layouts