Three recent posts have explored the early history of Pan American World Airways, a great airline, which employed my uncle as a pilot from the 1930s into the modern era.
Content for these posts came from old family stories, from photos and reminiscences provided by my cousin Steven Sommers, and from information easily available on the Web. However, two good books also provided a wealth of information. Each of these two books is a little treasure in its own right. One or both may interest you as a reader.
An American Saga
One book is An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, by Robert Daley (Random House 1980, 529 pages). This book is available in hardback from Amazon for $54.30. Fortunately, a Kindle version is also available for $7.99. It is highly readable, though the Kindle edition has a few typos. It tells the story of Pan Am from Juan Trippe’s youth through the founding and early years of Pan Am, the glory days of the China Clipper era, the global success of the postwar years, and the airline’s ultimate demise in 1991. Encapsulated in the overall story are many tales of dogged persistence and even heroism. Looming above all is the enigmatic figure of Trippe—a legendary entrepreneur who was modest, collaborative, visionary, and inspiring; while also being secretive, cold-blooded, manipulative, and ruthless. In the process of building Pan Am, Trippe became midwife to the worldwide aviation industry. Daley has boiled down an enormous mass of information into a readable and compelling narrative. If you’re interested in the details of Pan Am’s fascinating history, this is where you’ll find them.
Of equal interest is Robert L. Gandt’s China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats (Naval Institute Press 1991, 214 pages). This one is available in hardcover for $17.50, or in a Kindle edition for $14.49. While Daley’s book chronicles the swashbuckling upstart company that became the world’s most successful airline, Gandt’s volume tells the story of the airplanes themselves—most specifically the seaplanes designated “flying boats” that dominated international aviation in the 1930s and 1940s. Best known are the Sikorsky S-40 and S-42, the Martin M-130, and Boeing’s B-314—all airframes that Juan Trippe purchased for Pan American, and simply by placing his orders, caused their development. What you may not know is that British, French, and German designers developed other flying boats of varying size, range, and carrying capacity. Gandt, himself a former Pan American captain, lovingly traces the development of all these designs. He includes enough cultural and economic context to give the reader a sense why each plane did or did not succeed in the marketplace. Along with his illuminating text, he provides a large gallery of photos, so the reader can see the obvious differences among these planes, and a full set of line drawings by J. P. Wood at 1:300 scale. Read in tandem with Daley’s book on Trippe and Pan American, this book gives a very full picture of the Golden Age of the great flying boats.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Clipper, Phillipines 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.
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.”
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.