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Stockholm - Tokyo Haneda International was SAS's longest route in the early 1950s.
Stockholm - Tokyo Haneda International was SAS's longest route in the early 1950s.

Aviation

1950s: Go east, young airline

This April marks the 68th anniversary of SAS’s first regular flight to Japan. It was the first European airline to connect Japan to Scandinavia.

When SAS opened its new Tokyo route in 1951, you could have lunch in Tokyo and dinner in Stockholm. Lunch on a Saturday and dinner on a Monday, for sure, but it was still a major step forward.

As soon as SAS had got its successful New York route going, plans were launched to reach out as far to the east as possible. There had been the “grasshopper route” from Copenhagen to Bangkok, with stopovers in Zurich, Rome, Damascus, Basra (Iraq), and Kolkata (then Calcutta).

The route became a success and showed the potential an eastern line could have, even if it couldn’t support itself on traveling Scandinavians alone. According to Svenska Dagbladet, only three Swedes lived in Hong Kong and only one in Singapore (even if there were rumors of her having become engaged to a fellow Swede). 

There were more Norwegians and Danes in the Chinese city of Hong Kong, but even that wouldn’t be enough. Still, that didn’t mean there wasn’t a market, if you thought a little bigger. The Brits and the French might be interested, and the big potential was seen to be in Asia, where a Scandinavian airline was free of all colonial associations. 

“SAS’s new route to Asia opens a window to a new world, no doubt about it,” Svenska Dagbladet wrote. 

A year later, almost to the day, Aftonbladet ran a full-page piece on a “Swedish giant flying over Japan’s holy snow-covered mountains.”

SAS had extended its Bangkok line to cover Tokyo as well, and Thailand’s Don Muang airport became the hub for all Asian operations.

It had taken more than 50 test flights over the Pacific, and three chartered Red Cross flights, but in April 1951 everything was ready for takeoff, complete with passengers. 

The new line from Stockholm to Tokyo, via Bangkok, at 16,550 kilometers, was the longest in the company’s history, beating Stockholm–Santiago de Chile by 2,000 kilometers. It cut down the travel time to Tokyo considerably, especially on the way back to Scandinavia.

The success was built on things that still seem familiar: service, speed, and punctuality, not to downplay the importance of food and drink. As the paper wrote, “Maybe we’ll see a time when an airline can say that their passengers get a meal straight from Paris.” 

(Oh, the dreams we used to have).

But, of course, planning a long route in (almost literally) uncharted territories takes more than good food. After all, an airline’s No. 1 task is to get the passengers there safe and sound, on time. 

One thing that necessitated careful planning was the weather, which is unlike that of Scandinavia. There were the monsoon seasons, for example: the “white tiger” from China, with its storms, and the “turquoise dragon’s wind” monsoons from southwest of Bangkok, with their heavy rains. 

The head pilot, Hjalmar Bosson, was a 20-year veteran who spent months in training, rehearsing different route options over the sea, prepared to make changes, such as when fog made it impossible to land in Hong Kong. Usually the flight would take off at 7:45am on a Friday and land in Tokyo at 11pm, with a stopover in Hong Kong. 

“That means that passengers get a chance to see the holy Mount Fuji and its snow-covered top in the moonlight,” Aftonbladet wrote. 

In 1951, the eastern route was portrayed as something very exotic, with SAS carrying cargo such as snakes and two tigers to Europe. But it was also a big hit.

And it was a window to a whole new world.

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Last edited: April 24, 2019

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