|By Jim Trautman
Ninety years ago; Pan American Airways was born although the airline almost didn’t make it off the ground.
Although Juan Trippe became synonymous with Pan American Airways, he was not the original founder of the company. Pan American Airways Incorporated was officially founded on March 14, 1927 by Captain J.K. Montgomery and incorporated in the State of New York. The company’s plan was to develop a base of operations in Florida and eventually to become a worldwide commercial airline.
Trippe bought out Montgomery’s shares and became the sole owner of Pan American Airways. The contract was awarded in March, but there was a time gap to establish the start of a network and it took Trippe a few months to secure the funds to buy Montgomery out. The contract stated that the first mail flight had to take place by the third week in October 1927.
Pan American Airways needed to deliver 30,000 pieces of mail from Key West to Havana, Cuba. The mailbags arrived on the Florida East Coast Railroad. There was one problem Juan Trippe did not have an airplane or a pilot to deliver the mail. At the very last minute, a small Fairchild FC-2 owned by West Indian Aerial came to the rescue. The pilot, Canadian Cy Caldwell, had been approached and offered the princely sum of $145.50 to fly the mail and secure the mail route for Pan American Airways.
The mail was loaded aboard the Fairchild FC-2; but the weight was so great that the weight restrictions required the mechanic to be left behind. The plane took off at 8:04 a.m. on Oct. 19 and Pan American Airways was born.
Cy Caldwell landed the FC-2, La Nina an hour and two minutes later in Havana. Calvin Rouse, the mechanic had to take the steamer and meet the aircraft in Havana.
The Florida East Coast Railroad would play an essential part in the development of Pan American Airways in those early days. Besides carrying the mail each day, the Florida trains were one of Pan American Airways first advertising tools. Ads were placed in their regularly scheduled trains departing New York City to Florida. This would pave the way for the first passenger flights from Key West to Havana. The first passenger service started on Jan. 16, 1928, and in that first month, Pan American Airways carried 71 passengers, 23,292 pounds of mail, 1,572 pounds of cargo, 631 pounds of baggage and 1,683 pounds of Cuban mail on the return trips. A one-way passenger ticket cost $50, and in the first year 1,100 tickets were sold. With the Florida boom, Trippe began to slowly expand Pan American Airways into the Caribbean and Latin America and eventually around the world.
Trippe used print advertising from the beginning as the major medium to bring in passengers. The early advertising on the Latin American route focused on the Lindbergh route, with the image of the famous flier appearing on pamphlets in his Spirit of St. Louis leather helmet and goggles. Charles Lindbergh and his flier wife Anne Morrow would play a major role in the early days of Pan American Airways.
The 1930s color travel posters painted by Paul George Lawler are sought after by collectors. The colors and images evoke a snapshot of the Golden Age of Aviation. Two of Paul Lawler’s most sought after posters are “Flying Down to Rio - It’s a Small World by Pan American World Airways - The System of the Flying Clippers.” The second is of a Clipper aircraft landing at a lush Pacific island with a grass hut and Polynesian women reclining on a hill. Pan American Airways was selling a lifestyle vacation.
The Pan American advertising and posters screamed of happy travelers, warm and sunny climates and good times. The Pan American terminals were designed in the Art Deco style of the 1930s. The giant aircraft were named for destination places, Hawaii, Hong Kong, China and other far away spots. Trippe’s family had amassed its fortune mid 1800s with the giant Clipper sailing ships and he named his aircraft in the same tradition. Each aircraft was christened not with a bottle of champagne, but a bottle of salt water gathered from the seven oceans of the world. The front cover of one Life magazine features Mrs. Roosevelt on March 9, 1939, christening the Yankee Clipper at the Anacosta Naval Air Station near Washington D.C. The sister aircraft would be named the Dixie Clipper.
The first Hollywood movie to feature a Pan American Clipper was RKO’s Flying Down to Rio. It was made and released in 1933. The movie featured the first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It is remembered for the scene of scantily dressed showgirls dancing on the wing of a Pan American aircraft. Two versions of the movie poster had been printed. The first version ran afoul of the decency rules of the movie industry in the 1930s and had to be pulled back from distribution. The banned poster sells in the $30,000 range while the second version can fetch $10,000.
Other movies through the years have employed the image of Pan American Airways in exotic locales. Charlie Chan of the 1930s detective film series always traveled from San Franciscoto Honolulu and back again. The most famous, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island , was made in 1939 to commemorate the opening of the Golden Gate International Exposition. The film opens with Detective Charlie Chan and his son Jimmy flying into San Francisco on the Pan American China Clipper. The plane passes over Treasure Island before landing in Clipper Cove. A murder is committed, and the passengers eventually disembark at the Pan American Terminal on Treasure Island. The Pan American Terminal and Clipper Cove still exist on Treasure Island in San Francisco. The 1942 Universal B movie Bombay Clipper starred William Gargan, Irene Henry and Charles Lang. The plot involved a thief with $4 million worth of diamonds as a passenger on the Clipper. The movie ran for 59 minutes. It should be noted the Pan American Clippers never flew to Bombay, but after all it was a B movie.
A 1943 full page Camel cigarette ad features Captain Joseph H. Hart. In the background is a giant Pan American Clipper aircraft with a American flag painted on the side. During World War II Pan American Airways became a major contributor to the war effort. Their aircraft flew FDR to his meeting with Winston Churchill at Casablanca.
Pan American Airways is gone, but the amount of collectible material is unlimited. Posters, advertising, aircraft schedules, menus, postcards, magazines, books, Tshirts, hats and dishes all carry the Pan Am logo. The only physical items that remain are the terminals at Treasure Island, San Francisco, Dinner Key, Miami, which is now the Miami City Hall, The Marine Air Terminal, New York City, Botwood, Newfoundland, and Foynes, Ireland. It was at the Foynes Terminal in 1943, that the famous drink Irish Coffee was invented.
The official Pan American archives are stored at the Richter Library located at the University of Miami. If traveling in the New England states or the Canadian Maritimes look out for deep blue box cars with the Pan American globe logo. The Pan American brand was purchased by a small railroad company.
Jim Trautman has written the Pan American Clippers - the Golden Age of Flying Boats published by Boston Mills Press/Firefly. Into its third printing it can be purchased from the author email@example.com for $49.99 plus postage. The book contains over 300 vintage photographs.