They were the pioneers of commercial aviation; the buccaneers of business and engineering who challenged the status quo to send the first airplanes streaking across the skies. The companies they created in the early 20th century are now household names: Delta, American, United, and their forward-thinking descendants JetBlue and Southwest. There’s also the lingering legacy of the legendary Pan Am.
It takes a person of uncommon imagination and zeal to enter a field so new, and one such person was Pan Am founder Juan Trippe. Descendant of a sea captain whose surname seemed to portend a quest for new realms, Trippe had been an aviation buff from childhood when he watched the barnstorming of Wilber Wright, and took a leave from Yale to train as an aviator during World War I. Trippe’s passion for flying ran so deep that a career on Wall Street, even in the frenzied Roaring Twenties, couldn’t contain his ambitions.
In 1923, Trippe snapped up seven Navy surplus planes, and with a few buddies from the Yale Flying Club created Long Island Airways, which flew sightseeing jaunts and filmed aerials for another new industry: motion pictures. When that venture failed a year later, Trippe formed the Colonial Air Transport Company with a group of bankers, snaring the first U.S. airmail route from New York to Boston. By this time, Trippe had his eye on the international arena, and in 1927, Trippe and a few partners, including Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, won the first crucial international airmail contract to Havana, Cuba, then a magnet for American investors and a playground for high rollers fleeing Prohibition. He dealt with a rival, the Pan American Airways Corporation, in a decidedly modern fashion; by merging and taking their name. Soon the fledgling Pan Am was flying both mail and passengers to Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal Zone, and points south in Latin America.
Trippe’s success was not simply due to his prescience about travel; he also forged new paths in public relations and technology. Trippe engaged American hero Charles Lindbergh as an advisor, ensuring maximum press coverage for every accomplishment, and encouraged engineers to press the boundaries of aviation, expanding Pan Am’s routes with each development in aeronautics.
INSPIRED BY THE CLIPPER SHIPS
Runways on land were a rarity in the 1920s, so Trippe began building his empire around water ports. He backed development of the revolutionary Flying Boats, which shortened the journey between the U.S. West Coast and Asia from three weeks to six days. The décor of these lavish long haul seaplanes, which he christened Clippers after the 19th-century sailing ships, was plush Art Deco, featuring polished mahogany inlay on the walls, sleeping berths akin to Pullman cars with separate dressing rooms for women and men, a dining salon that could convert to a swank bridal suite, and such niceties as mounds of Beluga caviar and multi-course meals prepared by chefs from luxury hotels.
AN ENDURING ICON
Pan Am remains a cultural icon and will for decades. Pat O’Brien played a likeness of Trippe in the 1936 film The China Clipper, and the spacecraft in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey bore the Pan Am logo. Trippe was honored lavishly for his contributions to world commerce, from the 1937 Robert Collier Trophy, to symbolic university degrees, to the Medal of Freedom conferred posthumously in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the man who expanded a company from a few fragile airmail routes to a behemoth reaching 85 countries was well aware of the changes he had wrought. On launching the Boeing 707 in 1958, commercial aviation’s first viable jet that he helped to create, Trippe observed: “This is the most important aviation development since Lindbergh’s flight. In one fell swoop, we have shrunken the earth.”
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN...
Working for a prestige airline like Pan Am was a glamour job, which made pilots and flight attendants the rock stars of their day. The industry had such powerful charisma that all a 16-year-old con artist like Frank Abagnale needed was a Pan Am pilot’s uniform to cash forged checks, stay in luxury hotels on Pan Am’s nickel, and hitch rides in the cockpit of just about any other airline, masquerading as a deadheading crewman.
With it’s network of global routes, Pan Am was the de facto U.S. flag carrier. Every facet of the company’s identity signified a strong, proud America: Inspirational campaigns used Norman Rockwell graphics, and the still iconic headquarters building in Manhattan was topped by a heliport creating an image of patriotism and euphoria to match that era’s sense of limitless possibilities.
Volumes of history have been written of Aviation’s Golden Age, but these vignettes from PT readers who experienced it firsthand are far more revealing. This is part of what makes Premier Traveler more than just another magazine, but one that shares a personal connection with you.
Some readers flew aircraft we never knew existed.
I was three or four, flying a European airline from Leeds-Bradford airport to Germany on a plane where the upper deck had seating and the lower deck took cars: Nose opened, drive in, fly, drive off!
Stephen Holderness - Union, KY
I flew Pan Am throughout my childhood as my family moved from country to country. It was part of my life as far back as I can remember. Later, I became a Pan Am flight attendant and had the honor of being among the first to work on the 747 when it was introduced in 1970. It was such a different, magical world and we were so excited to be a part of it. I feel like I was a part of history and I cherish the camaraderie we all shared.
Michelle da Silva Richmond, Travel Writer - Cromwell CT
Dr. Stanley Bodner has flown everything from DC-3s to the Concord.
“My earliest flights were during my teen years in the 1950-60 era, commuting to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, from my family home in Newark, New Jersey via Mohawk Airlines DC-3. I remember boarding with a stair step device at the rear and climbing ‘uphill’ to reach my seat.
Years later flying the Concord, I remember that at Mach 2 the inside wall of the plane was palpably warm from heat from the friction of the plane’s fuselage. I was amazed at the visible curve of the earth’s horizon at that altitude and the speed with which daylight changed to dusk and then total darkness in a brief 20 minutes. By comparison the DC3s flew at much lower altitudes through VERY turbulent air: Truly ‘Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,’ as Bette Davis’ said in All About Eve.”
Flying Air France at two years old, I remember the airplane had beds on the overhead compartments.
Some recall the meals. During the “Golden Age”—for me 1955 - 1975 —in First Class on an Air France flight from Montreal to Chicago (a Fifth Freedom flight) passengers were presented with fluffy triangular pillows for one’s feet and the menu featured Duck Montmorency. In the 70s on a Pan Am 747 from Panama to Washington, DC, my mother and I were the only First Class passengers. The steward invited us upstairs where we were presented with an entire lemon cheesecake and an assortment of drinks.
Kenneth Burke - Whitefish, MT
One thing that always sticks in my mind was a stewardess asking me how I would like my eggs prepared as I boarded an early morning flight out of Teheran.
Bill Doherty - HI, retired Senior Executive
For others it was no party at all.
I was nine years old in 1958 on an Eastern Airlines prop flight from Newark to St. Petersburg, FL. The plane made four or five stops, and the trip took all day. The only food available was a ham sandwich on white bread with a lot of mayonnaise. The cabin was not well pressurized, and I got an intense headache every time we took off.
There was always some kind of celebrity onboard American Airlines early 747s flying JFK to LA. Often we had bands in First class and would play poker or craps, getting crazy all the way to LA.
Victor Pedraz - Hendersonville, NC
Jan 20,1970: The day before the first 747 commercial service to London. My college buddy and I went to the Pan Am Hanger at JFK in hopes of getting our first glimpse of the Jumbo. We met a mechanic, starting asking questions about the plane, and he invited us into the hanger to see it. It was a different world back then. We wandered under it, around it, and then climbed mechanic’s stairs and he walked us through this beautiful beast! The carpets were covered by endless paper runners. That new plane smell coupled with being onboard the most fantastic commercial airplane ever, before even the first paying customer; it was glorious and I will always treasure that experience!
I was five flying on Delta with my mother to Dallas to be with my Godmother after my Daddy passed away. It is reported that I asked, “Now that we’re up here how are we going to get down?” It was an exciting, albeit sad trip for our family.
Mary Leach, Speech Pathologist
Seeing the cockpit I thought I was on a spaceship.
Sophocles - Tsouros, NY
I was 12 years old flying Delta Airlines with my family from Grand Rapids, Michigan to West Palm Beach, Florida. Going from the cold of a Michigan winter to the warmth of Florida in three hours was quite amazing to me.
Scott Applebee - Travelpro Luggage VP
At 18 years old flying Eastern airlines from New York to Florida, the strongest memory is the AWE of looking out the window and seeing the entire world opening before my eyes; seeing the options created by air travel.
Philip Katcher - Palm Springs, CA
I was 20 years old when I first flew on a commercial airline. I had flown with my father in private airplanes on several occasions but my first commercial flight was a real thrill. I wore my (only) suit flying from Detroit to Cleveland for a job interview with Olson Electronics. Not only was I interviewing for a new job, I was a passenger on the same type of airplane my father flew over the Hump in World War II. Of course I was on a DC-3 and my father flew a C-47 but they are basically the same aircraft. I will never forget the magnificent sound and vibration of those venerable radial Pratt and Whitney engines. I still get chills when I hear one.
Renaldo DiAngelo - Wateford, MI
I was 16 going from Oslo to summer school in England on a Scandinavian Airlines flight. Not only was it my first flight, it was a Caravelle jet. Even today I recall the excitement I felt at take off: The sound, the feeling of being pushed back into your seat, then liftoff and the relative quiet that followed. I experienced that flight as comfortable and spacious, but many years later on a business trip to West Africa when I took a domestic flight in a Caravelle, I realized how small and relatively cramped the plane really was.
I was ten years old, flying alone, dressed in a purple skirt, a purple top and purple knee-highs. I got a stomachache from the excitement before I boarded the plane.
Lynda Cypher - Litchfield Park, AZ
It was 1968 and I was 11 years old at the Southend Airport in England. It was during an airshow and British Air Ferries was offering half hour pleasure flights in a Vickers Viscount. What struck me most on the flight was the colors: The green fields, the blue Thames estuary (which always looked grey from the shore) and whitecaps on the waves. It looked so much more vivid than maps or photographs.
Andy Laderman - San Diego, CA
I would get tingly and wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before a flight, as the anticipation and excitement would wrap over me. To this very day the anticipation of air travel still gets me excited.
Gerald Erasme - New York, NY
I was ten years old on a Zambia Airways flight from Lusaka to London. The plane started taxing on the runway at enormous speed; then lifted off. As the plane was climbing my ears started popping. I had a seat by the window and as the plane was ascending I noticed how the buildings below started looking smaller and smaller. Then we were surrounded by clouds.
It was the early spring of 1967 and I was asked to fly from Bradley Field outside Hartford, Connecticut to Washington D.C. to meet with the director of the Peace Corps. He was to be the commencement speaker at the University of Connecticut and I was the class president. I remember being a bit confused as to what should happen once I got to the airport: There was no security, no jet ways, just a room with windows that opened out to the tarmac. A gentleman took my ticket and I followed the crowd across the tarmac and up the stairs of the waiting DC 6, a four-engine prop.
Everything about it was magical: The takeoff was exhilarating, I knew I had never gone that fast in my life, and the transition to flight simply took my breath away. Just like that, we were in the air and the world took on a new perspective that would change everything I did from that day forward. I think the stewardess—yes they were "stewardesses" then—had to pry my face from the window to offer me something to drink. I was so surprised that they came by with beverages, alcoholic and soft, and I demurred since I didn’t want to ask what they cost and I didn’t have much spending money. I suppose my face told the whole story because she gently said that everything was complementary, so I had a ginger ale and felt rather important. After lunch they came by with coffee and little packets of cigarettes and matches.
William Byxbee - Wst Virginia
I was 17 years old and the airline was TWA. I wore a white leather coat with red shoes and a handbag. The stewardess was so amazing that at that moment I decided I wanted to be a stewardess. When I got to New York City I went to Grace Downs Airline School to enroll in their program, but didn’t qualify because I was too young. I still regret that I never got to be a stewardess.
Stephanie Levin - Tucson, AZ
Flying was considered a notch above dressing for the country club in those days. Classy. Top drawer. What movie stars did. I put on a new pillbox hat, a linen suit with fitted peplum jacket, kitten heels in soft nude leather and spotless white gloves. I was 18, dying to be as sophisticated as Audrey Hepburn, and thought I had hit the stuff of dreams when I climbed the metal stairs for my first ever flight from Glens Falls, New York, to LaGuardia. You dressed because flying was special. You were also treated that way by the crew. The sheer miracle of flight deserves more respect from its travelers. It is far, far more than traveling from point A to point B.
Mary Martin - Professor
I was 12 years old on a long hot summer’s day on American Airlines, puddle jumping across the U.S. with all the turbulence that a DC-3 could handle. I was ensconced in the luxury of the single seat side on the aisle, but will never forget that the women aboard wore suits, gloves and hats, and I recall the absolutely sensual sound of nylons sliding together.
Tom Oliver - Waco, TX
In the 70s and 80s everyone who flew, flew in style, not just the five percent of passengers in First Class. You always dressed up to fly and the journey itself was as much a part of the trip as the destination. We didn’t have lie flat seats and private suites but the convivial atmosphere of a transatlantic flight in those days was much more enjoyable.
Andy Laderman - San Diego, CA
Flying offered much more of a sense of adventure and was much less stressful than today. The planes may be better designed today, but the experience of flying was much more intoxicating back then.
Even the worst of today’s “Economy” class beats the hell out of the best of “Golden Age” low altitude piston engine travel. Sure, the service was better and more personal ‘back then,’ but don’t kid yourself; the crowded semi-comfort of today beats yesteryear’s thrills.
Tom Oliver - Waco, TX
The Golden Age wasn’t so golden when you lived through it. Certainly in international First, caviar followed by goose liver pate and Beef Wellington off the trolley made for stylish dinners. But then international First seats were not much better than today’s domestic First Class, and after three hours of eating and drinking, sleep was fitful at best. Coach was more dignified than it is today; planes were rarely full and sleeping “three across” was the rule rather than the exception. But then we have to remember that the price of a coach ticket in the sixties and seventies, adjusted for inflation, would get you easily into today’s flat bed business class. And the gripes then weren’t all that different from today: Yes, there was food in coach but it was often pretty ghastly. Flights were late. Terminals got crowded. And before the lounge networks expanded, unless you were a member of Pan American’s very exclusive invitation only Clipper Club, there was nowhere to escape.
Richard Winger, Management Consultant
I remember one Pan Am flight where the tank wasn’t filled enough to go all the way from Europe to US and we had to land somewhere on a small Canadian island. Pan Am told us it was due to the strong winds, but later we found out they didn’t have enough cash flow to pay for fuel, and that this wasn’t the first time.
Rudi - Norcross, GA
The so-called Golden Age was affordable to very few people. Today it is possible to travel worldwide at a price that is within most middle class means. While the food is poor and the seats are cramped, the fact remains that we are able to see the entire world if we choose.
The planes are safer today but if you have to fly in coach, the seats are closer together now than they were in the late 70s. Either that or I’ve gotten a lot bigger. Food and beverages were included many years ago but I’m not sure the quality was any better. If you compare the cost and standard of living between today and the Golden Age, I think you’ll find you are getting a better deal today.
Phil Chandler - Oconomowoc, WI
Around 1960, when I was six years old, we lived in Vienna and my mother, my little brother and I went to spend the summer with my father in Colombia. This involved a trip on Austrian Airline’s Viscount turbo prop to Paris and then a switch to an Air France 707 which went by way of Lisbon, the French Caribbean and Caracas to Bogota and then on down the west coast of Latin America. Unfortunately, de Gaulle was about to visit Colombia and many important French officials had to go to Bogota to prepare, so they bumped us in Paris and put us up at the deluxe Crillon for two nights. Our room was palatial but Paris was in the middle of a July heat wave and air conditioning hadn’t yet arrived in France, so it was very hot. I spent most of our layover in a cold bath.
Richrd Winger - New York, NY
We flew from Rome to Lod/Tel Aviv in August 1958, and part of the way our commercial DC-6 aircraft was escorted by British military jets on either side, “for security reasons” we were told.
Stanley Bodner, MD
I flew Pan Am from LA to London in the 80s in business class, and I remember them cooking my steak in the aisle next to my seat! I was a young professional and dazzled by the service, the food and the entire experience. On the down side, the smokers: I certainly don’t miss them. The entire plane, even the non-smoking area, had a cloud over it.
Kim Day - Denver, CO
I was on the first TWA flight with a full cockpit crew of females and a cabin crew of males flying from Washington DC to Columbus, OH.
Keneth Kok - Richland, WA
It was in 1956, when I was 15 years old. The airline was United and the plane was a DC-6. Our family was on its way to Denver and our flight, which departed from LaGuardia, had to land at Midway Airport in Chicago to refuel. O’Hare didn’t exist in 1956. The land it now occupies was used as a general aviation airport by the name of Orchard, which is where O’Hare gets its ORD designation.
Robert Hanson - AZ
I was 14 on a trip to Berlin to meet my sister who was teaching at Humboldt University. This was my first time ever getting slightly tipsy due to sneaking my sisters’ drinks, and as a result I have a memory of graffiti in the U-Bahn and being totally overwhelmed by the ‘urban’ feel. We crossed over into the East the next day and it was like being in two different cities. Even at that age I was questioning how one half of the city could be perfect and the other half not even repaired properly from decades of conflict and neglect.
Tom Dodds, Oxford
I was five years old flying Western Airlines to visit Disneyland for the first time. We sat in the smoking section where the air was a thick pea soup of cigarette smoke. I do recall getting a set of wings and a pack of playing cards, but nothing tops coughing for the entire five-hour flight.
Kevin Yim - Honolulu, HI
On the French Concorde to Paris from Dulles I enjoyed sharing a marijuana cigarette with the passenger next to me, getting even “higher” than the 60,000 feet at Mach 2. The marijuana odor was concealed by the Gitanes and Gauloise cigarettes.
Stanley Bodner - Hermitage, TN
I was 12 years old and my dad was an air traffic controller with the FAA. I was flying alone to visit my aunt and totally unbeknownst to me my father was scheduled to work at the Boston center that day. Of course, I told (the flight attendants) about my dad. Later in the flight, the TWA airline hostesses brought me up to the cockpit where the pilot told me my Dad sent his love and wished me a wonderful trip. I said, ‘Oh, I love my Daddy so much; please thank him for me if you ever get him again.’ Then, my biggest thrill ever occurred as the pilot said, ‘Here, tell him yourself,’ and opened up the microphone. My Dad had arranged it with the center and the pilots ahead of time and I just burst into tears of wonder, amazement and even more love for my Daddy. My Dad is no longer with me but I talk to him in my heart every day and as I was telling this story to friends last weekend, tears of joy ran down my face.
UAL deployed planes on NYC-ORD, DCA-ORD and DCA-MKE routes configured in an all First Class arrangement, and one of the flights from LGA to ORD was Men Only, featuring cigars and brandy!!
Kenneth M. Burke - Whitefish, MT
It was on Pan Am in 1959 and I was three. My family had spent the year in England for my Dad’s work. I have few memories of the time in England, but I sure remember the flight home, because greeting us on the tarmac at Idlewild Airport in New York were my grandparents, each carrying a shopping bag full of toys and candy.
Fran Golden - Cleveland, OH
The best thing about Eastern was their Shuttle between La Guardia and Boston and D.C. It was well priced, reliable and incredibly easy. So easy, in fact, that once, on a morning trip to Boston, I woke up briefly and wondered why the ocean was on the wrong side. Only after we landed did I figure out that I had accidentally flown to Washington.
Tom Oliver - Waco, TX
In the early days of Southwest Airlines, the hot pants days, the airline made flying fun. On my fifth wedding anniversary, Southwest was starting flights into New Orleans and offered flights for 35 cents each way to the first 105 (three plane loads) people who showed up that morning. We got up at 4 am, drove to the airport and got tickets for a great cheap anniversary weekend. The one disappointment was the Wright Amendment, which didn’t allow us to fly directly from Dallas to beyond our neighboring states. That little annoying piece of legislation finally ended last year!
Kathryn Straach - Houston, TX