The Pan Am Series – Part V: The “Nautical Airline”

An American Clipper Ship circa 1870

An American Clipper Ship circa 1870

Pan American World Airways has always been associated with the sea and things nautical.  Its aircraft were called “Clippers” and many of the Clipper names had references to the sea, particularly with the Boeing 747 aircraft, which were given names such as Pride of the Sea, Champion of the Seas, Spark of the Ocean, Belle of the Sea, Crest of the Wave and Sovereign of the Seas, to name a few.

How Pan Am became the “Nautical Airline” is centered on Pan Am’s founder, Juan Trippe who dreamed of this idea from the beginning of his venture in establishing an airline. How Pan Am was formed is a story of wheeling and dealing, mergers and acquisitions and financial and political maneuvering that is well documented in the Pan Am literature, including Robert Daley’s An American Saga – Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire, Marylin Bender and Selig Alyschul’s The Chosen Instrument and R.E.G. Davies’ Pan Am, An Airline and Its Aircraft.

Suffice to say, however, it is useful to have a little background.  In the beginning there were four interested groups, as identified by R.E.G. Davies in Pan Am, An Airline and Its Aircraft. The first group, the Montgomery Group, formed Pan American Airways, Inc. (PAA).  It was founded on 14 March 1927 by Air Force Majors “Hap” Arnold, Carl Spaatz and John H. Jouett, later joined by John K. Montgomery and Richard B. Bevier, as a counterbalance to German-owned carrier “SCADTA” (Colombo-German Aerial Transport Co) that had been operating in Colombia since 1920. SCADTA was viewed as a possible German aerial threat to the Panama Canal.  Eventually Montgomery petitioned the US government to call for bids on an U.S. airmail contract between Key West and Havana (FAM 4) and won the contract.  However, PAA lacked any aircraft to perform the job and did not have landing rights in Cuba.  Under the terms of the contract, PAA had to be flying by 19 October 1927.

On 2 June 1927, Juan Trippe formed the Aviation Corporation of America (ACA) (the Trippe Group) with financially powerful and politically well-connected backing, and raised $300,000.  On 1 July Reed Chambers and financier Richard Hoyt (the Chambers-Hoyt Group) formed Southeastern Airlines.   On 8 July Trippe formed Southern Airlines and on 11 October Southeastern was reincorporated as Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean Airways.  Trippe then proposed a merger between these three groups and in doing so played a trump card:  He and John A. Hambleton, one of his backers, traveled to Cuba and persuaded the Cuban president to grant landing rights to the Aviation Corporation, making Montgomery’s mail contract useless as a bargaining chip.  After much wrangling between the groups, including a meeting on Hoyt’s yacht during which Assistant Postmaster General Irving Grover threatened that if there was no deal he would not be awarding any contract to anyone, the Aviation Corporation of the Americas was formed, operating as Pan American Airways, headed by Juan Trippe.  Later the corporation’s name was changed to Pan American Airways.

The deadline of 19 October still loomed, however. A Fokker F-VII aircraft was selected for the operation, but could not be used because Meacham’s Field in Key West was not completed and could not accommodate the aircraft. What transpired was an eleventh hour miracle. Pan American’s representative in Miami learned that a Fairchild FC-2 monoplane was in Key West, sitting out a hurricane threat.  The aircraft was owned by West Indian Aerial Express (the Fairchild Group) and a deal was made to charter the aircraft.  The pilot was offered $145.50 to carry mail to Havana that had just arrived on the Florida East Coast-Atlantic Coast Line railroads.  The hurricane threat disappeared and the trip was made.  The rest is history.

On 28 October 1927, the Fokker left Key West on Pan American’s inaugural international flight, carrying 772 lb of mail. On 16 January 1928, the first passenger flight was completed on the same route.  And on 28 October 1928, Pan American established its Miami base at Dinner Key.

The First Clipper

In 1931, Pan Am acquired the Sikorsky S-40, the first aircraft that would be designated “Clipper”.  This designation came about as a result of Trippe’s fascination with ships and the sea.  As a child he had traveled to Europe on Cunard Line ships and this fascination transcended to the idea that Pan Am should be a kind of nautical airline.

RMS Mauretania, a Cunard ship that Juan Trippe might have traveled on to Europe

RMS Mauretania, a Cunard liner that Juan Trippe might have traveled on to Europe.

Along these lines, a maritime culture emerged.  Andre Priester, who Trippe had previously hired as chief engineer, dressed the pilots as naval officers with gold wings pinned to their breast pockets.  Gold stripes were on the jacket sleeves to show rank.  The pilots also wore peaked hats with white covers and a gold strap.  And, according to Robert Daley in An American Saga, Priester “forbade [the pilots] to stuff or twist these caps into the dashing, high-peaked shapes so dear to most aviators’ hearts.”  These naval trappings according to Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul in The Chosen Instrument “served to set distance between the airline and aviation’s all too proximate history symbolized by the khaki breeches, leather puttees, jacket and helmet of the daredevil flyer.  [Pan Am’s] pilots were invested as engineers to whom flying was a scientific business rather than a  thrilling escapade.”  Pilots underwent a stringent and comprehensive training program and, according to former flying boat and retired captain Bill Nash, were required to have college degrees prior to hiring and to demonstrate proven proficiency prior to promotion in the flight deck.  Nash started as a Fourth Officer before rising to Captain.

Sikorsky S-40 - "Southern Clipper" - the first Clipper Ship

Sikorsky S-40 – Pictured is the Southern Clipper

When the S-40 made its debut, it was the largest airplane built in the United States.  Its maiden voyage on 19 November 1931 was from Miami to the Canal Zone carrying 32 passengers with Charles Lindbergh at the controls and Basil Rowe (formerly with the West Indian Aerial Express) as co-pilot.  Igor Sikorsky, who Trippe had earlier brought on board to design an aircraft to Pan Am’s own specifications (the predecessor to the S-40, the S-38) also had some time at the controls.

Trippe named the aircraft the American Clipper.  Perhaps inspired by prints of American clipper ships hanging in his home or reaching back to his Maryland ancestry from where these swift sailing ships originated in the shipyards of Baltimore, it was, according to Bender and Altschul “appropriate then, to call the first transport ship designed for international air commerce after those magnificent vessels.”  Thereafter, all Pan Am aircraft were to be designated Clippers.

Clipper Pride of the Ocean at London Heathrow

Clipper Pride of the Ocean at London Heathrow Airport

Clipper Dashing Wave at Buenos Aires Ezeiza Airport

Clipper Dashing Wave at Buenos Aires Ezeiza Airport

The operation would be in keeping with maritime lore and custom.  The pilot was called “captain” and the co-pilot “first officer”.  The title “captain” implied master of the ship or chief executive of the flying boat.  Speed was calculated in knots (nautical miles per hour), time in bells, and a crew’s tour of duty was a “watch”.  In the cabin, according to Daley, “walls and ceilings would be finished in walnut painted in a dark stain, and the fifty passengers would sit in Queen Anne chairs upholstered in blue and orange. The carpet would be blue, and the windows equipped with rope blinds.  As aboard any ship, life rings would hang from the walls of the lounge.”  The stewards, according to Bender and Altschul, “were modeled in function and appearance after the personnel of luxury ocean liners.  Their uniforms were black trousers and white waist-length jackets over white shirts and black neckties. Stewards distributed remedies for airsickness, served refreshments (and in the S-40, prepared hot meals in the galley of the aircraft), pointed out scenic attractions from the windows of the plane and assisted with the red tape of Customs and landing procedures.”

This nautical approach seemed to carry on through the entire existence of Pan Am.  The flight deck – bridge – was always on the top deck, as on an ocean liner.  This was evident in the flying boats, including the Martin M-130, the China Clipper, the Boeing 314, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser and the Boeing 747, with its flight deck on the upper deck of the aircraft.

M-130 - China Clipper

M-130 – China Clipper

Boeing 314

Boeing 314

Boeing 377

Boeing 377

The flight deck of the Boeing 314 had the appearance of the bridge of a merchant ship:

The "Bridge" of the Boeing 314

The “Bridge” of the Boeing 314

Note the Clipper ship on the forward bulkhead of the Boeing 707:

Interior of Boeing 707 in All-Economy Charter Configuration.

Interior of Boeing 707 in All-Economy Charter Configuration.

Below, the SS United States and the bridge of a large merchant ship:

SS United States  (photo credit Charles Anderson)

SS United States
(photo credit Charles Anderson)

Bridge of a Roll On/Roll Off merchant ship.

Bridge of a Roll On/Roll Off merchant ship.

The “nautical” feel was also prevalent at Clipper departures, particularly from Dinner Key in Miami during the early years and Pan Am’s Worldport at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in the later years.  There was an atmosphere similar to the departure of an ocean liner, with festivity, sense of adventure and anticipation of a voyage to a distant place.  The setting at the Worldport, particularly with the evening departures to distant destinations, included passengers and well-wishers gathered at the gate in sight of the Clipper being readied for the long voyage ahead.  There was a sense of drama; the type of drama that Juan Trippe probably envisaged for each Clipper departure.  The romance of traveling to faraway places was part and parcel of the Pan Am experience.

The nautical element was also featured in many of Pan Am’s printed brochures and posters, as well as on the cover of an annual report.

1958 Annual Report

1958 Annual Report

However, as the years passed, the romance of the “nautical airline” began to wear out.  Perhaps Pan Am tried to preserve it with the Boeing 747, but times had changed.  The grand ocean liners were soon replaced by cruise ships where passengers were more interested in the on-board entertainment rather than the peaceful environment of the sea (although that can still be experienced on cargo ships).  Airline passengers became more interested in getting from A to B at the lowest fare, rather than experiencing the ambiance of a flying ocean liner.  Airplanes became more like buses, with the exception of the premium cabins, rather than airships commanding the airways. And the bridge, both on many cruise ships and on the largest passenger aircraft in the world, would no longer be on the topmost deck. The sense of command of the airways and the sea has seemed to disappear, and the bridge, “formerly sacrosanct navigational preserves”, as eloquently described by John Maxtone-Graham in Liners to the Sun,  is now simply a functionary in the process of getting passengers from A to B, or in the case of a cruise ship, from A to A via port visits.

On the A-380, the flight deck is located between the main and upper decks:

A-380 - Note location flight deck compared to Boeing 747

A-380 – Note location of the flight deck compared to Boeing 747, pictured above.

And on the newer cruise liners, the bridge is not on the highest deck, as shown here on the Holland America Line’s Eurodam.

MS Eurodam - Note the location of the bridge four decks below the top deck.

MS Eurodam – Note the location of the bridge four decks below the top deck.

Perhaps Pan Am the Nautical Airline was overcome by its own success.  One cannot, however, deny that the idea of a nautical airline was a necessary step in the process of shrinking the globe.  Now, with today’s technology, it probably is no longer needed.  Happily, one tradition of the nautical airline continues:  the Pilot-in-Command of an airliner is still the “Captain”.

For anyone interested in the history of Pan Am, the books referenced above are excellent sources of in-depth analysis of the airline’s story.  Another excellent book, a time-line of historic Pan Am firsts and major events, with illustrations, is Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline, by James Patrick Baldwin and published by BlueWaterPress.  The contents can be viewed at this link: https://jpbtransconsulting.com/pan-am-book-images/, and can be purchased directly from the publisher at this link: http://www.bluewaterpress.com/Catalog/book_pan_am.html

It is also available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Pan-American-World-Airways-Airline/dp/1604520469/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1381237003&sr=8-1&keywords=pan+american+world+airways+-+images+of+a+great+airline

Further information about Pan Am history can also be found on the website of the Pan Am Historical Foundation,  http://panam.org/

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About James Patrick ("Jamie") Baldwin
James Patrick ("Jamie") Baldwin is an author, blogger, lecturer and consultant in air transportation, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster (London) and a Visiting Lecturer at Emirates Aviation University (Dubai). He is also a Contributing Editor to Airways Magazine. Previously at ERAU’s College of Business he taught Business Law, Business Law for Airline Managers, and Airline Management. He was also faculty advisor to Sigma Alpha Epsilon. As a lecturer he coordinates Aviation Law workshops for Aeropodium, a UK-based aviation-related events company and organizes Aviation Law Conferences at his law school, American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL). As a consultant he specializes in start-up airline strategies, airline marketing, regulatory compliance, licensing, aircraft sourcing, strategic planning, contracts, agency agreements and preparing business plans. An avid golfer, Mr Baldwin periodically writes a golf column for the Dorchester Banner. Previously Mr Baldwin served as Deputy General Manager for Legal and Regulatory Affairs of Star Airways, a small Turkish cargo airline of which he was a founder, and prior to that, the US Representative of Tajik Air, the international airline of the Republic of Tajikistan. In the latter capacity, he represented the airline’s interests before the US government, multilateral development banks and private US and international business interests. He also coordinated and prepared on behalf of the government of Tajikistan a request for a grant from the US Trade and Development Agency for a feasibility study on its air transport sector. Mr Baldwin also served as an officer in the US Navy (1974-1978) and the active US Naval Reserve (1978-1994). His latest assignments included service as a Naval Liaison Officer on tanker convoys during the Iran/Iraq War, Officer in Charge of military officers boarding, inspecting and briefing masters of merchant ships delivering military cargo during the first Gulf War and Commanding Officer of a US Naval Reserve unit. He is now retired with the rank of Commander. Mr Baldwin is the author of Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline (BluewaterPress, 2011). He also co-edited, with Jeff Kriendler, former Vice President, Corporate Communications at Pan Am, Pan American World Airways – Aviation History through the Words of its People (BluewaterPress, 2011). He, along with Mr Kriendler, recently published Pan Am - Personal Tributes to a Global Aviation Pioneer. Mr Baldwin obtained an A.B. (Bachelor’s) Degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California (Los Angeles) and a J.D. (Juris Doctor) Degree from the AUWCL (Washington DC). He is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute, the U. S. Golf Association, Cambridge Multi Sport (CMS) and Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He has traveled widely and includes among his interests distance running, golf, hill walking, sailing, model railroading, spectator sports, classical music and writing. He is married and resides in Maryland.

3 Responses to The Pan Am Series – Part V: The “Nautical Airline”

  1. Doug Miller says:

    A great story as always!

    One interesting note: it took the U.S. Post Office in the form of Assistant Postmaster General Irving Glover to seal the deal between the competing groups who wanted to start an airline to Cuba.

    Richard Hoyt hosted a meeting on his yacht with the competing would-be airline entrepreneurs and Glover, who laid down the law: you guys had better come to a deal or we won’t be awarding any mail contract to anybody!

    They got the point – and the deal that made it possible to create the airline that would become Pan Am was sealed. It was the beginning of Pan American Airways as America’s “Chosen Instrument.” Interesting too that Pan Am grew and prospered with the assistance of a powerful silent partner – the U.S. government, from which the all-important mail contracts flowed and guaranteed income for the U.S.’s only international airline.

  2. Thank you Doug, for that very interesting insight to the story. Your comment about the USG’s silent partnership with Pan Am brought to mind a completely different attitude expressed about Pan Am by Alfred Kahn during the time of deregulation……Another interesting observation was that prior to the Chicago Conference, was it not Juan Trippe who negotiated traffic rights for PAA (and in essence, the US)? I think it was in Daley’s book that the comment was made that people overseas could get more information from the PAA office than from the embassy! Thanks again!

  3. BC says:

    My understanding is that Juan Trippe was a naval aviator, and his family had a long history in the US Navy.

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