‘Catalyst in Revolutionizing Air Travel on the West Coast’


It saddens me that a former colleague and friend who played an important part of aviation history in Los Angeles has been ignored in death.

Peter Tornqvist was the man who was a catalyst in revolutionizing air travel on the West Coast. He was the point man who played an integral role in Scandinavian Airlines Systems’ historic polar flight in 1954.

SAS transformed the Los Angeles Airport into a true international airport that we know today as LAX. Before that time, Los Angeles Airport had domestic flights, and the only international ones came from Canada and Mexico.

Tornqvist, as SAS’ regional manager, worked tirelessly for years with various U.S., Canadian and Scandinavian government agencies along with the city of Los Angeles in obtaining landing permits and spearheading the effort that resulted in that historic flight.

Aviation history was made Nov. 15, 1954, when an SAS DC-6B left Los Angeles for Copenhagen with fuel stops in Winnipeg, Canada, and Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland. The flight took 24 hours and 20 minutes, and covered 5,800 miles.

With this first direct flight from the West Coast to Europe, a new era in airline transportation was born. Celebrity passengers on that inaugural flight included then-Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson; actor Walter Pidgeon; and Norman Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

SAS was the first airline to fly the polar route, and there were many technical problems that had to be resolved before this could be achieved.

Equipment had to withstand temperatures to minus-50 degrees Celsius. Normal compasses didn’t work around the magnetic North Pole, so a precision gyro compass had to be used. This was developed by Einer Sverre Pedersen, SAS chief navigator, working closely with Sperry Rand and Bendix. Since conventional charts didn’t work in polar regions, SAS solved this with Grid North, which was plotted for polar regions with the starting point at Greenwich meridian and could be used as a reference for navigational purposes. Also, a sky compass had to be developed, which established direction of the sun by polarized light.

The economic impact on business in Los Angeles was enormous, especially within the entertainment community. With SAS linking the West Coast to Europe, this saved the arduous task of flying via New York. In those days, flying to Europe was a two-day ordeal, so this new, more direct route saved tremendous time and costs for film makers and businessmen. Practically every star who needed to fly between Hollywood and Rome traveled SAS –Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn and Walt Disney – just to mention a few. The LAX Museum at the airport has photos of these celebrities as well as the SAS Exhibit, which depicts the pioneering efforts of the airline.

With dependable daily service, commerce was vitalized. The growing markets of the Western United States were now easily accessible to European capitals. California strawberries, broccoli and other fresh produce were shipped abroad. Air travel opened up other American products to markets abroad, making this a new era of economic development.

For this and his lifelong work and accomplishments for his native Sweden, Tornqvist was bestowed the Order of the Vasa by the king of Sweden.

Tornqvist died May 28 at his home in Palm Desert. He was 96. There was little note locally of his death.

On a personal note, I headed up the West Coast news bureau for SAS for more than six years when Tornqvist was there. We worked together with other members of the sales team and were more like family than business associates. Because of airline budget costs, there is no longer a PR department for SAS anywhere in North America.

I feel deeply that we should never forget our history, and Tornqvist definitely played a significant role in making aviation history here in Los Angeles.

On a final note, you can capsulize my actions as loyalty to a wonderful company and associates who are long lost and gone. But the memory lingers. As Noel Coward said, “Those were my salad days.”

Joan Kerr is a writer and public relations professional in Los Angeles.

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