PAN AMERICAN: THE CHOSEN INSTRUMENT
Once a symbol for a mighty nation, a proud airline is no more.
America’s premiere flag carrier is gone. For more than six decades, Pan Am’s transports carried the Stars and Stripes to most of the world’s major international cities.
On December 4, 1991, the once-proud airline died quietly, its famous blue-ball logo no longer to be seen anywhere but on the tails of a few hulks now being cannibalized in the Arizona desert.
The death had been slow, full of controversy amid an agonizing gradual selloff of assets until nothing was left.
Any eulogy for this departed airline must trace a life that, despite its sad demise, had made outstanding contributions to air carrier progress. Pan Am not only was part of our nation’s history, but it also made history. Its story is one of diplomatic intrigue, high finance, and technological pace-setting that advanced it to be the world’s finest international airline. Its downfall is a case study in both effective and pathetic management that will be studied for generations.
Life for Pan Am began in the fertile mind of Juan Terry Trippe, a World War I Navy pilot, who began in the airline business in 1923. With two former ex-Yale buddies, he bought nine surplus Curtiss JN-4D Jennies for $500 each, traded six off, and established Long Island Airways with himself as president, sales manager, sometimes line pilot, and mechanic. The Jennies lasted a few months until they were worn out flying local charters, joy rides at state fairs, and occasional trips to Canada and Florida.
Undaunted by this abortive entry into aviation management, Trippe saw opportunity in 1925, when Congress passed the Kelly Act, which granted the Post Office Department approval to award long-term airmail contracts over specified routes. Trippe joined a group that formed Colonial Air Transport and was named vice-president and general manager. Mail operations began in December 1925 with Fokker Universal aircraft; but Trippe foresaw that a new aircraft – the Fokker F-7 – that could carry eight passengers, in addition to the mail, had more profit potential. Why not combine mail and passengers? Colonial’s management did not share Trippe’s enthusiasm, and he left the company in 1927.
That year, the Post Office announced that bids would be accepted for a mail route between Key West Florida and Havana, Cuba. Trippe saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime – an opportunity that would provide the basis for future expansion to Central and South America. Two airlines were competing for the contract, but Trippe negotiated a link between his company – Pan American Airways – and the other two, under a holding company known as Aviation Corporation of he Americas.
Meeting the October 19, 1927 deadline for beginning the service wasn’t easy. Newly purchased Fokker F-7 trimotors did not arrive in time; but Trippe solved the crisis by persuading Cy Caldwell, pilot of a Fairchild single-engine seaplane from a Dominican Republic operator, to make the first mail trip on a charter basis for $145.50. Caldwell made the initial 90-mile flight from Key West to Havana in one hour and returned the same afternoon, enabling Pan American to clinch the mail contract.
The first revenue flight in a Pan American aircraft, made by Captain Hugh Wells, with Ed Musick as navigator, on October 28, 1927, is considered the real beginning of Pan Am’s regularly scheduled service. The first fare-paying passengers were carried in both directions on January 16, 1928.
On March 8, 1928, Congress passed the Foreign Air Mail Act, which allowed the Post Office to negotiate contracts for bids on mail routes throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Pan Am subsequently won every foreign airmail contract opened for bid, largely due to Trippe’s shrewdness in obtaining foreign landing rights in advance. With more than 13,000 miles of routes thus assured, Pan American not only became the U.S. flag carrier in that part of the world, it was a constant reminder of the American presence. As Trippe always claimed, his airline was considered the country’s “chosen instrument” in international skies.
Charles A. Lindbergh became an advisor to Pan Am and made a two-month survey trip around Central America and the islands of the Caribbean after his famous transatlantic flight in 1927. Because the area did not have enough airports but did have plenty of harbors, Pan Am decided to serve the area with Sikorsky S-38 amphibians. Between 1927 and the fall of 1929, Pan Am opened five airmail segments using these eight-passenger seaplanes.
The first of Pan Am’s many airline acquisitions began with West Indian Aerial Express in October 1928.
In 1930, Pan Am bought the major stock interests of the New York, Rio, and Buenos Aires Airline (NYRBA), an aggressive company operating on the east coast of South America, through the Caribbean, to Miami.
Meanwhile, through agreements with two South American airlines, Trippe won a turf battle with W.R. Grace Company, a U.S. shipping giant, for the west coast route of South America, and the Aviation Corporation of the Americas formed Pan American-Grace Airways (PANAGRA) in 1929.
Between making this arrangement, acquiring NYRBA, and filling the gaps by purchasing controlling stock in several Latin American airline companies, Pan Am’s network now connected all the important cities of the southern continent and the Caribbean.
THE FIRST CLIPPER
One of Trippe’s major benefits from the purchase of NYRBA was acquiring 14 Consolidated Commodore flying boats. These enabled Pan Am to enter its glamorous flying boat era in great strength. Pan Am later acquired new twin-boomed 38-passenger S-40s, the first to be christened Clipper. For the first five years of flying boat operations, Pan Am used the Caribbean routes as a “laboratory” as pilots gained overwater experience. Thus, they prepared for the future that Trippe had in mind. Sometime during the era, pilots adopted the radio call sign “Clipper” after the famous Yankee clipper ships that plied the oceans during the years of the great sailing ships.
Pan Am bought new land-based aircraft like the DC-2 and the DC-3, as Trippe solidified routes through Central America to the U.S. border. By the end of 1934, Pan Am served 103 land airports and 56 marine base throughout Latin America. The main stateside marine terminal for passenger service was at Dinner Key in Miami.
Pan Am pioneered a number of aviation advances as the airline gained experience in long-distance flying. Tropical forecasts and weather observing and reporting were improved. The company pioneered and patented long-range, high-frequency-radio direction-finding equipment. By the end of 1934, the company maintained 69 ground radio stations throughout the southern continent and the Caribbean.
The success of those first years had been the beginning of a master plan that Trippe envisioned would take place eventually.
As early as 1928, he had begun investigating the possibility of linking the United States with Europe by air through Bermuda and the Azores. He also paid for two exploratory expeditions to Greenland to study a possible northern route. Trippe negotiated a joint enterprise with Imperial Airways, a British firm, for the Bermuda/Azores route and filed a letter of intent for transatlantic services in 1936. The airline encountered all kinds of red tape delays as various other interests put forth their own agendas. Pan Am finally signed a 15-year agreement to serve the United Kingdom in 1936.
Trippe had not put all of his eggs in the Atlantic basket, although he considered it his first priority. The Pacific also had to be conquered. In 1931, he asked Lindbergh to make a survey flight for Pan Am along a Great Circle route from New York to China. Lindbergh flew the route with his wife, Anne, as radio operator. This route did not come into being because the USSR would not permit any landings in its territory. To prepare for this possibility, however, the holding company bought two Alaskan carriers to form Pacific Alaska Airways.
When Trippe realized that he had to look for a southern route as an alternative, he began first to work on the Far East destinations by acquiring an interest in an airline serving Chinese cities. Meanwhile, Pan Am established a base at Alameda in San Francisco Bay, and the company improved existing docking facilities at Manila and Honolulu.
The islands between the States and China posed the greatest challenge because they had to be made into aerial stepping stones, a formidable construction task. Trippe obtained permits from the Navy for access to Midway, Wake, and Guam. In March 1935, a ship sailed from San Francisco for Midway and Wake loaded with enough material for two housing areas and maintenance/docking facilities, 250,000 gallons of fuel, and 119 construction and airline workers.
While construction progressed on maintenance facilities, navigation aids and hotels at each island base, the airline flew survey flights over the various sectors along the route to Manila and Hong Kong.
When Pan Am issued specifications for a long-range flying boat in 1931, the 41-seat Martin M-130 met them; and the saga of the Pan Am Clippers’ conquest of the Pacific began in earnest when those aircraft came off the production line. The China Clipper, an M-130 piloted by Captain Ed Musick, made the first transpacific flight on November 22, 1935, and covered the distance from San Francisco to Manila in 59 hours 48 minutes elapsed time. No passengers were onboard – only a crew of five pilots, three aeronautical engineers, three radio operators, and two master mariners. The China Clipper carried more than 110,000 letters outbound and 98,000 on the return trip.