He Gave Us Wings

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

For Pan American World Airways, the shadow was that of Juan Trippe. He, more than anybody else, invented not only Pan American but the airline industry of which it was a part. 

Juan Trippe on the cover of Time magazine, July 1933. Public Domain.

Despite his Latin-sounding name, Juan Terry Trippe was strictly Anglo. Scion of an old, well-to-do family, he was a great-great-grandson of naval hero John Trippe, who had fought France and the Barbary Pirates around 1800.

Juan was born on the eve of the twentieth century. He enrolled at Yale in 1917 but left to join the Navy, with many of his classmates, when the United States entered World War I. After training, he was commissioned an ensign and designated a Naval Aviator. The war ended before Trippe could get into action. But in his brief naval service, the aviation bug had bitten him.

He returned to college, organized the Yale Flying Club, entered and won an Ivy League intercollegiate air race. On graduation, he sidestepped the family’s traditional business of banking. Instead, he sold stock to his Yale classmates and started an air-taxi service called Long Island Airways. 

The tiny airline soon folded, but Trippe had gained valuable experience and expanded his vision. He arranged to fly the United Fruit Company’s shipping documents over rugged mountains in Honduras, from the port of Tela to the capital at Tegucigalpa—a 90-minute flight that eliminated an overland trek of three days. 

Tycoon in the Making

In the 1920s, Juan Trippe organized or purchased a string of small airlines: Alaskan Air Transport, Buffalo Airlines, Eastern Air Transport, Colonial Air Transport, and others. He applied himself to buying new and more capable aircraft, securing landing rights and airmail contracts with U.S. and foreign governments, and recruiting a corps of able associates. In 1927, just six years out of college, Trippe formed the Aviation Corporation of America on $300,000 raised from thirteen of his wealthy Yale friends. Almost immediately, the company managed to acquire a newly-organized airline called Pan American Airways, Inc. That October, Pan American made its first regular flight, a mail run from Key West to Havana.

Though a qualified aviator, Trippe resisted the urge to be a swashbuckling pilot-entrepreneur. Instead, he majored in running the business. He became an ace negotiator, driving shrewd bargains with a mix of stubbornness and patience. He had a sure vision for where the airline business would be two to five years in the future. He ordered planes and developed routes accordingly.

The young airline mogul also was a genius at what today we call branding. As Pan Am’s routes expanded around the hemisphere, to many cities which had no airports but did have decent fresh or salt water harbors, Trippe came to rely on seaplanes. He bought ever-larger flying boats from builders Igor Sikorsky, Glenn Martin, and William Boeing. 

“The walls of the den of his Long Island weekend home bore prints of the American clipper ships that had once crossed the oceans at the fastest speeds of the day. Trippe determined that henceforth all Pan Am airliners would be called Clippers . . . . Aboard, all would be as nautical as Trippe’s men could make it. The pilot henceforth would be called captain, and the copilot would be called first officer. Speed would be reckoned in knots, and time according to bells. . . . As aboard any ship, life rings would hang from the walls of the lounge.”

Daley, Robert, An American Saga—Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire. Riviera Productions Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Trippe was targeting well-heeled travelers who regularly cruised the oceans on sumptuous White Star and Cunard ships. He wanted Pan Am to provide a familiar experience.

Sikorsky S-42, the Brazilian Clipper, 1934. Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Public Domain.

His S-40 Clippers from Sikorsky pioneered air service over a large Caribbean and Latin American route system. They were soon supplanted by the larger S-42s, by Martin M-130s and finally, by Boeing B-314s, the most formidable of the flying boats. Trippe’s endless appetite for bigger and longer-range planes set the industry’s course through the 1930s.

Trippe started planning transoceanic service before ocean-capable aircraft existed. Manufacturers scrambled to meet his needs. When Sikorsky’s S-42 opened the possibility of crossing the Atlantic, Trippe found the way barred by legalities. The British, still developing their own long-range flying boats, would not grant landing rights in their domains until they were in a position to run a competing or at least complementary service. But Trippe already had S-42s and Martin M-130s arriving in his fleet. He needed an ocean to cross, pronto.

In desperation he looked westward. But the Pacific was wider than the Atlantic. The S-42 might, with some difficulty, be made to fly 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After refueling, it could cross 1,300 miles of ocean to the tiny Midway Atoll. But then came a 2,600-mile stretch from Midway to Guam—an unbridgeable gap. In the New York Public Library, Trippe pored over navigation logs of 19th-century clipper ships and found his answer: Wake, an uninhabited coral atoll even smaller than Midway but perfectly located, almost halfway from Midway to Guam. If Wake became a port for flying boats, Pan American could fly from California to the Philippines and on to China.

Aerial view of Wake Island August 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo. Public Domain.

Trippe chartered a freighter, S.S. North Haven, filled it with equipment, supplies, and college men eager for adventure, and sent it to Wake with instructions to make a harbor. He had passenger seats stripped out of a Sikorsky S-42 and replaced with extra fuel tanks. The plane, commanded by Captain Edwin C. Musick, began trial runs for long-range flying out of Alameda on San Francisco Bay. 

Meanwhile Trippe induced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to place Wake and Midway under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy, with which Trippe was on good terms. From its beginnings, Pan American had been treated well by the United States government, which found it a useful cat’s paw in the ambiguous realm of international affairs. Pan Am had been formed by Army aviators, including Henry (“Hap”) Arnold and Carl (“Tooey”) Spaatz, mainly for the patriotic purpose of countering the growth of German influence in the Caribbean and Central America. 

America’s Airline

Unlike other nations, the U.S. had no state-sponsored airline. Thus, Pan Am—as America’s unofficial, that is, quasi-official, state airline—was ideally suited to project a private U.S. presence in the face of Japan’s quest for hegemony in the Pacific. So FDR willingly gave Trippe all the support needed to knit a web of passenger service over what was becoming, arguably, an American pond.

In April 1935, Musick and a crew including crack navigator Fred Noonan took an S-42 from Alameda to Pearl Harbor. A few days later, they flew back, nearly running out of fuel because of stiff and prolonged headwinds. Nevertheless, the era of transpacific air service had begun. 

Pan American Airways (PAA) construction workers lighter building materials from the SS North Haven to the dock at Wilkes Island, Wake Atoll, 23 May 1935. National Air and Space Museum Archives. Public Domain.

In a dizzing succession of events, Pan Am cleared a deep enough channel inside the reef at Wake to make flying boat landings practical; the Martin Company delivered the first three M-130 flying boats, which were christened China ClipperPhillipines Clipper, and Hawaii Clipper, respectively; Trippe caused hotels with Simmons beds, private baths, and hot showers to be constructed on both Midway and Wake; the U.S. government awarded Pan Am the U.S.-China mail contract; and Trippe skilfully maneuvered the British government into granting landing rights at Hong Kong.

Martin M-130, the China Clipper, 22 November 1935. San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. Public Domain.

Pan Am Clippers had been delivering the mail from San Francisco to Manila for eleven months. At last, on October 21, 1936, full Clipper service was initiated for both mail and passengers all the way to Hong Kong. Technically, China Clipper was only the name of the first M-130 airplane delivered to Pan American. Because the China Clipper received great fanfare in the press, with thousands of people attending its inaugural takeoffs and landings; and because the full extent of the service was from the United States to China; that service itself became identified with the China Clipper, and the great heyday of transpacific flying boats—which would last only about five years, until the outbreak of war in the Pacific—has come down to us as the “Era of the China Clipper.”

“Orient Express” by Pauline Darley is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

The China Clipper—the plane itself, as well as the service—was both romantic and historic. Think of it as America’s westbound answer to the Orient Express. It was expensive and luxurious. The world’s movers and shakers rode it. It became, inevitably, a setting for exotic intrigues in the international power games. 

Elsewhere I have mentioned my late uncle, Pan American Captain Edward F. Sommers. What I did not say was that, in his early years as a pilot, he flew the giant flying boats, first in South America and then in the Pacific. One of his interesting experiences was flying the Anzac Clipper, inbound for Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Tune in here next Tuesday, and I’ll tell you more.

Next Tuesday: Day of Infamy.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

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