Juan Trippe and the Clipper
rise and fall of the flying boat
Soviet maritime patrol aircraft

Juan Trippe, the Yale graduate who created the Pan American empire.

Juan Trippe was born into a wealthy banking family, descended from English seafarers who settled on the Maryland coast in the 1600s. He was educated in the finest schools (though he was, at best, an average student) and was graduated from Yale in 1919 after an active collegiate and extra-collegiate career that included playing on the football team, a brief stint as a navy flier in the war, reporting for the Yale newspaper on the NC flights of 1919, and starting a flying club.

As a businessman, Trippe regarded competition as an annoyance—he either joined forces with his competitors to create an even more powerful corporation or brushed them aside. Trippe was very comfortable in the world of high finance and the government movers and shakers, yet he did not hesitate to use the Spanish flavour of his name (even though he hated the name)—given to him by his mother who had expected to give birth to a girl whom she had wanted to name after a favorite Aunt Juanita— to open doors for him in Latin America.

The Sikorsky 5-42, the 32-passenger flying boat that pioneered Pan Am’s routes to South America and the South Pacific in the 1930s.

Trippe saw himself and his company as instruments of American foreign policy in Latin America and in the Pacific. He engaged Lindbergh as a technical advisor and rubbed elbows with virtually every power broker and politico of influence to further not only the interests of Pan Am, but also of the entire American presence in the air. Some admired him and considered him a patriot; at least as many despised him and viewed him a megalomaniacal cut-throat and robber-baron. But  the entire aviation community had to acknowledge that Trippe created the largest and best-run distance airline in the world during the four decades of his stewardship.

His first effort in airline-building was a small ferry line that ran from Long Island, New York, to various mountain resorts; this airline used war surplus navy planes. He spent a great deal of time studying the history of the railroads and applied many of the techniques of the great railroad builders—fair and otherwise—to the air transport industry. In 1922 he formed Colonial Air Transport, which was awarded a CAM contract for carrying mail between New York and Boston.

In 1927 Trippe won a contract for an air mail run from Florida to Havana, even though he had no planes to fly and two other airlines already operating in the Southeast were run by respected airmen like Eddie Rickenbacker and H.H. “Hap” Arnold. Trippe accomplished this magic by convincing the Cuban dictator Garado Machad to allow only his airline to land in Havana. Industry observers thought it particularly cheeky of Trippe to adopt the name of Arnold’s operation, Pan American, when he forced that flier’s company out of 71 business and took over the company’s airplanes. Over the next decade, Trippe expanded farther out into Latin America and into the Pacific.

At each step, he cultivated a friendship with aircraft builders and encouraged them to build better, more powerful, and more luxurious aircraft. He would make large purchases, for which the manufacturers were grateful. Yet Trippe dealt with a variety of manufacturers and kept all of them guessing (along with his Board in which direction he was going to go. He viewed with alarm the inroads LuftHansa and its parent company, Condor Syndicate, were making in Latin America, and overtly made his efforts to establish commercial air dominance in the region a geopolitical matter. Many flights and activities of Pan Am during the prewar period were nothing short of espionage or diplomatic missions carried out for the State Department.

Pan Am encouraged Boeing to build large wide-body planes  for land use:  the Stratocruiser, inaugurated in 1949, made the New York—to -Paris flight in under ten  hours, establishing once and for all the viability of the wide-body air transport.

Trippe first used Fokker Trimotor F-7s, equipped with the best Wright engines, for the Key West—Havana run in 1927. In 1928 these planes were joined by Sikorsky S-38 amphibian planes with Wasp engines. When Pan Am opened routes to Mexico and Central America in 1929, it used a fleet of Fort 5-AT-B Trimotors, the most expensive and advanced commercial plane of its day, and when Pan Am acquired Ralph O’Neil’s New York—Rio de Janeiro—Buenos Aires Air Line (NYRBA, and known popularly as “Near Beer”), the new owner commandeered its fleet of fourteen Consolidated Commodore flying boats and flew them on the first Pan Am routes to South America beginning in 1930. Trippe’s “secret weapon” in all the development of air routes was his chief pilot, Edwin C. “Eddie” Musick, a veteran Navy flier who built a training, communication, and weather forecasting and reporting system that was unmatched in aviation for decades.

Musick flew ahead to stake out the best landing facilities, establish communication relays and weather stations, and plan the best routes and schedules. His contribution was acknowledged by Trippe to be the key to Pan Am’s success in South America and the Pacific. (Musick died in 1938 while on a scouting mission for Pan Am near Pago Pago in the Pacific; he was flying the Samoan Clipper, a Sikorsky S-42B aircraft.)

It was clear by then that a leap in airplane design was going to be required if commercial aviation was to be extended further. Trippe worked closely with Sikorsky in creating the S-40, the first of the “Clipper” flying boats (so named by Trippe himself). The first of the S-40s, the Caribbean Clipper, began service in 1931 (it was christened by Mrs. Herbert Hoover in a ceremony on the Potomac River) and was followed by the American Clipper.

The Pan Am seaplanes (here, the Boeing Atlantic Clipper) were virtually flying luxury hotels, with spacious accommodations for fifty to seventy-five passengers

These aircraft carried forty passengers and were equipped with four Pratt & Whitney Hornet engines that churned out 575 horsepower each and kept the seven- teen-ton (15.5t) mammoth flying at a cruising speed of 117 miles per hour (l88kph)—not very fast for so much horsepower, but the planes were built for luxury and safety, not speed. The plane looked like something assembled from different aircraft—the wing, the empennage (tail assembly), the engines, and the fuselage were held together by struts and wires—but it flew reliably and efficiently.

In 1934 Sikorsky stunned the aviation world by building an even better and more luxurious clipper: the S- 42. This time, the nacelles (the engine and propeller housings) were built into the wing so that  the wing could be mounted just over the fuselage. The craft still relied on pontoons extending down from each wing for balance in the water, but the entire aircraft was sleeker, which accounted for its cruising speed’s going up to 140 miles per hour (225kph). Meanwhile Trippe had joined forces with the W.R. Grace Company, which had formerly been a bitter rival, to form a subsidiary airline, Panagra, that would service the west coasts of North and South America.

Eyeing the  Japanese expansion into the Pacific as yet another threat to the United States, he expanded Pan Am into the Pacific in 1935. For this, he needed yet another new Clipper: the M- 130, built by Glenn Martin (who took Sikorsky’s S-42 as his starting point). This aircraft was even larger than the S-42 and was more luxuriously appointed. Its main advantage, however, was that it more than doubled the nonstop range of the S-42—three thousand miles (4,827km) com- pared with twelve hundred miles (1,931km). It was an M-130, the China Clipper, that became the most famous of the Pan Am flying boats in the 1930s. Pan Am ordered several smaller Clipper aircraft— some from Sikorsky, who manufactured the twin-engine “baby clippers,” and others from Donald Douglas, who built the Dolphin, an eight-passenger flying boat that saw a great deal of service in the routes from the United States to China.

The grandest Clipper was still to come in 1939, in the form of the Boeing B-3 14, the largest and most powerful of the Clipper aircraft, and the one that proved most profitable, with a passenger capacity of more than seventy (plus a crew of up to sixteen). The B-3 14, of which only a dozen were built, represented the pinnacle of flying luxury. It contained sleeping quarters, fine dining rooms and bar lounges, deluxe suites and powder rooms, and a walkway inside the wings that allowed engineers to make in-flight repairs.

Another famous Pan Am aircraft, the Yankee Clipper, was a B-3 14. The Europeans were hard pressed to keep up with Pan Am’s aircraft builders. England’s Short Company built the Empire, a clipperlike aircraft and a flying-boat—mail- carrying-seaplane combination that was intended to carry both mail and passengers across the Atlantic; it saw limited service in Europe and in the Atlantic before the late 193Os, when Pan  Am finally turned its attention there.

The Germans built ever larger flying boats, beginning with the Dornier Wals flying boats of the early 192Os and culminating in the gigantic Dornier Do X, an aircraft that dwarfed anything else then in the air. This plane had  twelve engines mounted in six pairs atop a 157-foot (48m) wing. It carried 169 passengers in unparalleled luxury. The maiden voyage of the Do X in the spring of 1931 took so long and was plagued by so many problems that support for the plane among investors dried up amid jokes the media made of the plane. Claude Dornier, builder-designer of the Do X, was forced to donate the plane to a museum.

The Dornier Do X over Lake Constance in 1930. Like the airships that flew from the same lake, the Do X teas designed and operated more like an ocean liner than an airplane—the plush furniture, for example,  was not attached to the floor. After a  promotional tour of Europe and South  America, the aircraft never flew commercially and was retired to a museum in Berlin where it was destroyed by bombing during the War.

The Do X was not the biggest of the 1930s aircraft to fly: that distinction goes to a Russian land-based aircraft, the Tupolev ANT-20, only one of which was built, the Maxim Gorky. Dubbed by Western journalists the “propaganda plane” (and called by some the Maximum Gawky), the ANT-20 was an immense needle of an airplane with a wingspan of 210 feet and powered by eight engines: six designed into the wing and a pair mounted above the fuselage. In flight, the Maxim Gorky was magnificent; it was also used effectively by the Soviets in many military parades. The Maxim Gorky crashed in May 1935 during a ceremonial flight, when an escort airplane crashed into its wing. The plane came apart in the air and none of the forty people aboard survived. The incident finally caused the aviation community to question the wisdom of building larger and larger aircraft.

The Russians produced the giant ANT-20, the Maxim Gorky (with money raised by the Soviet writers union), an eight-engine aircraft that seemed to have had only propaganda value. It was destroyed when an escort plane (piloted by a flier showing oft) crashed into it.