The Pan Am Series – Part VI: Latin America and Flight 201
21 September 2013 2 Comments
Pan Am, from the beginning has been identified with Latin America. Perhaps it is the name, “Pan American Airways”, which founder Juan Trippe finally settled on when told that “pan” meant all and that is what the airline was: it served all the Americas.
The airline’s first scheduled mail (28 October 1927) and passenger (16 January 1928) flights were from Key West to Havana, and on 29 October 1928, Miami was added to the route system. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s Pan Am’s network extended through all of Central and South America. Pan Am also purchased a number of ailing or defunct airlines in Central and South America and negotiated with postal officials to win most of the US government’s airmail contracts to the region. In September 1929 Trippe toured Latin America with Charles Lindbergh to negotiate landing rights in a number of countries, including SCADTA’s home turf in Colombia, and Venezuela. By the end of the year, Pan Am offered flights along the west coast of South America to Peru. The following year, Pan Am purchased the New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Line (NYRBA), giving it a seaplane route along the east coast of South America to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and westbound to Santiago, Chile. Pan Am also partnered with W. R. Grace & Company in 1929 to form Pan American-Grace Airways (Panagra).
The Sikorsky S-38 was the workhorse of the period and was used in survey flights and scheduled service as Pan Am extended its route system in the Caribbean. On 6 February 1929, this aircraft made the first airmail flight to the Canal Zone with Charles Lindbergh in command and John A. Hambleton, one of the airline’s co-founders, as co-pilot.
Captain John Marshall piloted Pan Am’s Latin America routes for years on many of the airline’s aircraft. He wrote about Pan Am in Latin America along with memories about his first flight to Rio in a piece that appeared in Airways Magazine. Here are excerpts from his article, “Flying to Rio”:
“Pan American Airways (the ’World’ did not come until after the war, when the airline really did fly all over the world) from the beginning had a Latin flavor. Its very first flight was from Key West to Havana, and the early days were marked by exploration and new service to the Caribbean, Central America, and down to the huge southern half of the hemisphere. One of founder Juan Trippe’s early moves was the purchase of the New York, Rio, and Buenos Aires Line (NYRBA). The routes from this purchase formed the backbone of the South American route system that would be a mainstay of the company until its very last days. Included in the deal was a fleet of Consolidated Commodores.”
“Much of the early route exploration done during 1929 was accomplished with the Sikorsky S-38 seaplane with Charles Lindbergh at the controls, along with wife Anne and the Trippes, Juan and his wife Betty. Together they pioneered these first routes that connected Miami with Cuba and Central America. Later on that year they explored another air mail route that took them through Puerto Rico and as far south as Paramaribo in Dutch Guiana (now Surinam).
“The fledgling airline’s fleet of Consolidated Commodore and the venerable S-38 formed the backbone of Pan Am’s South American operation until the arrival of the four-engine Sikorsky S-42.
“The Commodore could cover the journey from Miami to Rio in an astounding five days. It could fly nearly 900 miles without refueling, and carry a load of 32 passengers, plus cargo – a truly staggering achievement! Crossing the equator vested one with a rare and unique badge of honor, and properly engraved certificates were solemnly presented to each passenger. When the ‘Line’ was crossed, the captain pulled back on the yoke and then pushed abruptly forward, performing a swooping, stomach-dropping maneuver that was proof that the flight had indeed crossed the Equator and entered the southern hemisphere.
“It was about this time that Pan Am began building a series of guest houses along the long route to South America in order to provide suitable accommodations for over-night passengers. These guest houses would remain in use until well after the war.
Pan Am’s flight 201 could be considered a Pan Am “signature” flight that operated on its prestige routes. It originally operated between Miami and Buenos Aires and eventually between New York and Buenos Aires. The flight also included a stop in Rio de Janeiro. Just when the flight was designated “201” is difficult to determine. The flight number appears in the December 1939 timetable but does not in the April 1939 timetable. Timetables from earlier years had no flight numbers.
In 1939, flight 201 operated six days a week with an S-42, and the journey took 6 days. Below is the schedule of flight 201 from the December 1939 timetable. Note the overnight stops.
In 1940 the flight was operated with a Boeing 307 “Strato Clipper” and in 1943, a DC-3 was operated on the route. Presumably this continued during the war wartime restrictions prevented publication of public timetables.
As the war was winding down, Pan Am began transition from wartime to peacetime operations and the focus was on Latin America. The October 1945 time table advertised a 21 hour trip between New York and Buenos Aires with “huge new 100 and 200-passenger Clippers”. However, until the these new Clippers were available, the route to Buenos Aires continued to be operated with a DC-3 from Miami with overnight stops in Port of Spain, Belem and Rio de Janeiro.
From Captain Marshall:
“In July, 1948, just three years after the end of the war, Pan Am advertised daily single plane service between New York and Rio. The flight number was 201, as it would remain until the last day of the airline, and it left every night for Brazil. The aircraft was a Douglas DC-4 the unpressurized successor to the C-54, the military workhorse whose fame extended to the Berlin Airlift in the same year. Flight 201 left New York La Guardia (New York Idlewild, later JFK, would not come into general use until years later) at 2315 hours, according to the timetable, which was 11:15 p.m. to the civilian populace. Ten hours later it landed at San Juan, where it spent an hour’s layover before departing on the next leg, to Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad, touching down three and a half hours later. Passengers had the option of breaking their journey at Pan Am’s Piarco Guest House in Port of Spain and continuing on the same flight the next day or waiting to take flight 203, another DC-4 that operated on Wednesdays and Saturdays to Georgetown, British Guinea, Paramaribo, Surinam, and Cayenne, French Guinea. That flight departed Port of Spain at 2:00 a.m. and passengers spent the rest of the long night boring through the South American skies to those exotic ports of call. Those continuing on flight 201 departed for Belem, Brazil at 1415 hours, 2:15 p.m.
“Belem is Brazil’s northeastern-most seaport, on the bulge of the continent just north of the mouth of the Amazon, where the continent juts out into the Atlantic. It is eight gut-throbbing hours before we land in Belem; nearly midnight. Never despair, however, because the end is finally in sight. On the ground a scarce sixty minutes, at 22315 hours, 11:15 p.m., flight 201 lifts off for the final time. Next stop Rio! The DC-4 flies through the endless night until finally the sun pushes its way into the windows on the port side of the aircraft. For sightseeing, the passengers missed nothing; the flight from Belem is over nothing but solid, endless, green; the never-ending Brazilian rain forest. Villages and settlements are mere specks of light in the endless darkness, there is nothing to see. The new capital city of Brasilia is not yet a gleam of an idea in a politician‘s mind. Finally the airplane begins its descent, and right on schedule, at 0715 hours, 7:15 a.m., the DC-4 touches down at Rio’s Galeao Airport. What a journey!”
The June 1948 timetable below shows the journey of flight 201 on the “Latin America Services” page. A map illustrating Pan Am’s route system is also shown. Note the extent of services in Latin America.
Pan Am’s large presence in Latin America continued after the war and into the 50s and 60s but with the sale of Panagra to Braniff in 1967 and the sales of its subsidiaries, its presence, particularly in South America, became gradually less dominant. Timetable maps illustrate the changes.
Flight 201, however, continued operation as illustrated in the selected timetable pages below. In 1952, a Boeing 377 Strato Clipper was used and offered “El Presidente Especial” service that included a lower deck club lounge and extra food and bar service. In 1956, a DC-6B (Super 6 Clipper) was employed in an all-First Class service, featuring the “President Special” twice a week. This service, according to the timetable “provides the ultimate in luxury service including Sleeperette chairs for bed length sleeping comfort. Special food service and extra cabin attendants.” The flight stopped in Caracas, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, terminating in Montevideo. In 1959, the service was operated with a DC-7B, with “President Special” offerings on Tuesday and Friday. The flight also stopped in Sao Paulo. In 1969, the flight operated with a Boeing 707 and added Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil, as an intermediate point. And in 1978, the flight was operated nonstop between New York and Rio de Janeiro with Boeing 747 on Friday and Saturday and a 707 the rest of the week.
Captain Marshall’s first trip on flight 201 was in the late 1970s when he piloted a Boeing 707 from New York to Rio. Below are his memories from the trip.
From Captain Marshall:
“Came the jets, and not much had really changed, except the guest houses were left for the flight crews. The first time I flew flight 201 was in the late ‘70s, and my chariot was a 707. Departure from Kennedy Airport was at 2200, and it was the nightly non-stop to Rio. The airplane was at nearly maximum gross weight for the long flight; it was a common occurrence to “ring the bell” at a noise monitoring site near the airport, and we did just that.
“The first hours were spent flying south down the familiar airways into the Caribbean — dozens of flights to San Juan and Jamaica and yes, Piarco, had made these airways like old friends. South of Port-of-Spain, however, the airways and place names became decidedly more exotic. Georgetown and Paramaribo passed silently beneath in the darkness, and then we crossed the border into Brazil. The immensity of the country struck me when I realized that we were barely half way — all the rest of the way would be through Brazilian airspace, but it would consume mere hours, instead of days just a few years before.
“A three-quarter moon had risen over my left shoulder, providing just enough illumination to enable me to pick out rivers below. I craned my neck to peer forward into the night, searching for the mighty Amazon, which we would cross just east of Santarem. Suddenly there it was, stretched out before us in the moonlight, that most immense of rivers. As we lined it up with the moon, I could see far to the east, where it opened up to a vast oceanic estuary, a hundred miles across at its mouth. In a moment we would cross the equator, and I felt myself anxiously waiting for the bump. In later years I always thought it would be an amusing exercise to have someone flush the lav just as we crossed the Line, and see if the swirl stopped going clockwise and began rotating in the other direction. (Or is it the other way around?)
“Communications are a little different down here. Routine position reports are passed to Belem on HF (high frequency) radio, which was proving to be a difficult exercise. Both Belem and Brazilia radio seem to be at the bottom of a deep echoing well, and require patient persistence to make ourselves heard. I was reminded of my first flights to India and South Asia. One of the caveats concerning flight into South America niggled at my brain. “They’ll give you anything you ask for, so you are essentially your own air traffic control.” I tested this a moment later when, after finally reaching Belem, we asked for the next higher flight level. The answer came instantly winging back, without a pause. “Roger, Clipper, cleared to climb to flight level three five zero.” Now is when the do-it-yourself kicks in. We dialed up the air-to-air VHF frequency, 126.9, and made the required broadcast in the blind. “Clipper 201, on one twenty-six nine, in the blind, southbound on Amber 4, fifty south of Santarem, climbing out of three three zero for three fife zero.” I reached up and flipped on the landing lights, two stabbing beams of light piercing the night. Silence. Not a lot of traffic abroad in northern Brazil at two in the morning.
“Above, the night was punctuated by a dazzling display of stars, uncompromised by any lights on the ground; below an endless stretch of black, broken only every hundred miles or so by the lights of a tiny village on the banks of a river. The air was smooth; we were suspended in the night. I wandered aft to stretch my legs in the darkened cabin, virtually the entire airplane was asleep. A lone flight attendant sat on a plastic crate in the galley, reading a book. She smiled at me as I reentered the cockpit.
“Finally the eastern sky grays, then pinks and blues, and the sun burst upon us. In three hours we will begin our descent into Rio’s Galaeo Airport, but we couldn’t relax our vigilance even for a moment. Hot air balloons and hang gliders drift blithely across the long descent path from Pirai, unseen and unheeded by Rio Approach Control, who at this point have yet to see their first radar scope. All hands were on the flight deck, eyes searching the haze ahead. (Later on in my career, taking off from Galaeo for New York on a miserable rainy midnight in a fully loaded 747, we had a very near miss with a brightly lit hot air balloon drifting among the broken clouds, right smack in the middle of the departure path. It appeared suddenly in the glare of the landing lights, startling us all nearly out of our wits, and was quickly gone. We missed it by less than a hundred feet, by my estimate, and I wondered later if its occupants were as surprised and frightened as we were, and whether they were caught in our jet wash.)
“Finally the airport appeared in the windscreen, and on the horizon we could see Corcovado Mountain, with the giant figure of Christ, arms outstretched, the symbol of Rio. With a healthy crunch the wheels bit the concrete, and we arrived.”
Pan Am’s flight 201 continued serving Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Montevideo with a Boeing 747 throughout the 1980’s and until the airline ceased operations in 1991. The aircraft was configured in a “Latin America” seating arrangement that provided additional First Class space for a market that historically demanded it. The flight operated four days a week non-stop to Rio de Janeiro and continued twice weekly to Buenos Aires and Montevideo. This is illustrated in Pan Am’s last timetable, below, issued about six weeks before Pan Am ceased operations. Note the very few cities served in South America compared to the early days. There was, however, an extensive presence in the Caribbean and Central America, the original area of operation for the fledgling airline in the 1920’s and 30’s.
In 1927 Pan Am came into being as an airline that served the Americas. Sixty years later, after serving the globe, Pan Am returned to its roots. It was from there that Pan American World Airways became a fond memory to all those who kept the once mighty airline in the skies.
There has been a wealth of literature written about Pan Am. John Marshall, a long-time Pan Am captain, featured in this story, wrote a number of articles that appeared in Airways Magazine. They will be featured in future editions of this series. He also contributed a story about his experiences flying Pan Am planes in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm to Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of Its People, published by BlueWater Press.
Please follow this link for further details and purchasing information about this book: http://www.bluewaterpress.com/Catalog/book_pan_am2.html
For more information about Pan American World Airways history visit the website of the Pan Am Historical Foundation at http://panam.org/