This ambitious visionary believed in the possibilities of a commercial aviation industry -- and flew the world into the jet age.
Love of Flying
Juan Terry Trippe was born in 1899, the son of a Wall Street banker and a real estate speculator. As a young boy, he witnessed Wilbur Wright's awe-inspiring 1909 flight around the Statue of Liberty. In 1917, he took flying classes in Florida, hoping to become a pilot for the U.S. Navy in World War I. Bad eyesight kept him out of the war; instead, he attended Yale University and founded its flying club. After graduating, he drew on wealthy connections in New York to help fund an aviation company, buying junked seaplanes at a discount from the Navy.
New Air Routes
Trippe's company started out giving rides at Coney Island, running an air taxi service to coastal resorts, and doing stunts for the movies. It was the Jazz Age -- the Roaring Twenties -- and Trippe had big plans. A persuasive salesman, he won a U.S. government contract and, in 1926, began carrying U.S. mail by air between Boston and New York. By 1930, Trippe's company, now called Pan American Airways, was the world's largest airline. It established air service -- and radio and weather stations -- throughout North, Central, and South America.
Pan Am Clippers
Test-flying the routes through unknown weather patterns, over unknown terrain, required bravery and fortitude; the trip from Miami to Buenos Aires, for example, took eight days. To plot his international travel ventures, Trippe went to the New York Public Library to research the voyages of the 19th-century clipper ships. He conceived a network of strategic stopping points, and spurred the development of long-range aircraft that could fly up to 3,000 miles. Pan Am's Clippers would come to epitomize the glamour of international air travel.
Trippe next set out to find a way to fly across the Pacific -- 8,700 miles of stormy ocean and uncharted winds. Although President Franklin Roosevelt called Trippe a "gangster" for padding his invoices to the government, his administration gave Pan Am a Pacific airmail contract with the understanding that Pan Am's network could help serve the national interest, in the event of war with Japan. In just a few months, Pan Am workers built air bases on Wake and Midway Islands and in Guam, and refitted ones at Honolulu and Manila. The inaugural China Clipper, a Martin 130 flying boat loaded with 111,000 letters, took off from San Francisco in November 1935, cheered by a crowd of 150,000 people. Trippe's gleaming machines bound for exotic locales appealed to the imaginations of Depression-bound Americans; soon the Clippers were starring in newsreels and magazine articles.
During World War II, Pan Am flew troops to the front and back; after the war, Trippe continued to look forward. He founded the Intercontinental hotel chain in 1946 to serve airline travelers; introduced round-the-world service in 1947, and, over the objections of the rest of the industry, announced a "tourist class" of air travel offering low fares to ordinary people. His next project was to build passenger aircraft using the new jet engines that had been developed during the war. Jets could cut travel times in half and carry twice as many passengers. In 1956, Pan Am inaugurated the commercial jet age with a nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Trippe's next project, the 747 Jumbo jet, would likewise be a success. Trippe retired in 1968, and died in 1981. By that point, air travel was a democratic conveyance, affordable transport that had truly made the world smaller.