Alberto Santos-Dumont / An Historic Aviator’s Museum and Archives

If you ask any Brazilian who was the world’s first true aviator, the person who invented the airplane, the name you’ll likely hear, and chances are it may be the first time you’ve heard it, is fellow Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont. There is even a city in Brazil named Santo Dumont. Interestingly enough, there’s plenty of evidence to back up all the accomplishments enjoyed by this very unique inventor and aviator.

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Alberto Santos-Dumont flying in 1909

The Santos-Dumont Archives and Artifacts

Those traveling to Brazil will want to consider stopping by a museum that’s off the beaten path.  At the museum you’ll find a lot of documentation and inventions by Santos-Dumont that may fascinate you.

The museum is located at the Casa de Santos-Dumont in the city of Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro. The home is also referred to as “Encantada“. The address is Rua do Encanto, 22 Petrópolis – RJ 25685-081

The small three story home was built on the side of a hill in 1918 and served as the summer home of Alberto Santos-Dumont and today is filled with the evidence of his stunning achievements.

Alberto Santos-Dumont

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born in Brazil to a father who owned and operated a very successful coffee plantation. The young Santos-Dumont grew fascinated with the plantation machinery as well as with the locomotives that his father owned and utilized to transport his coffee beans to market. This fascination about mechanics and transportation science in general would be the basis of  Santos-Dumont’s future experimentation.

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Santos-Durant rounding the Eiffel Tower to thousands of onlookers

When the elder Dumont was dying in the latter 1800’s, he urged his son to move to France. At that time Paris France was in many ways one of Europe’s major centers for science and technology. Santos-Dumont devoted his early years in Paris to the study of chemistry, physics, astronomy and mechanics.

The young Alberto, because of his inheritance, had the time and wherewithal to experiment with his theories of manned flight. Those theories at that time meant balloon flight. Lighter than air flight had been used and experimented with for decades and even centuries previously however there was one aspect that needed to be overcome.

Controlling Balloon Flight

Dumont had the opinion that manned flight would be as common someday as the horse and buggy was at that time. The challenge however was inventing lighter than air flight that could be controlled. At that time a balloon whether manned or not  was at the mercy of the prevailing winds. Dumont’s dream was to harness control of balloon flight where man could use it for everyday activities. Leave your home on your balloon and return later. That was the dream of Santos-Dumont and he successfully demonstrated that it could be attained.

Santo’s Dumont’s Airships

In the course of his early life, Alberto Santos-Dumont had several types of airships/balloons built by professional constructors. One of his finest accomplishments with his lighter than air balloons was essentially what you would say was a dirigible.

On October 19th,1901, Alberto Santos-Dumont rounded the Eiffel Tower in Paris France with his No. 6 hydrogen gas airship to the rousing cheers of the locals. He went on in this flight to capture the  De la Meurthe prize.  To win this prize of 50,000 francs, a pilot of any type of aircraft had to fly from the chateau at the Parc de Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in just 30 minutes or less in total time. The roundtrip route covered 6.8 miles. You could only hope to do this by having complete control of the airship.

Even though there were some mishaps, Santos-Dumont captured the prize with a flight that lasted only 29 minutes and 30 seconds. By the time this contest was won the purse which over time grew to 125,000 francs. The crowd was so large at the Eiffel Tower that people packed the bridges that crossed the Seine to get a better view.  Santos-Dumont’s No. 6 airship was similar to his No. 5 which had crashed on the roof of the Trocadero Hotel but a bit larger. The No.6, which was finished after only about a month after the crash of No. 5,  was 72 feet and 2 inches in length.

See out Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The First American Aviator and the Controversy

Some of the Finest Western Aircraft Museums

On our Western Trips site you may enjoy our article The F-15 First Responder

One of the best books you can find regarding the life and achievements of Alberto Santos-Dumont is… Wings Of Madness, Alberto Santos-Dumont And The Invention Of Flight by author Paul Hoffman. Another good book is…The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont by author Victoria Griffith.

The First Flight of a Heavier than Air Aircraft

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Alberto Santos-Dumont’s first balloon

Dumonts aircraftt was called the 14-bis, also known as the Oiseau de Proie. On October 23rd, 1906 Alberto Santos-Dumont made history. This witnessed and documented flight was the first successful “unaided take-off”  heavier than air flight.

Obviously there is some controversy if we compare this flight to that of the Wright brothers in 1903, three years before Santos-Dumont’s European feat.

The European group formed in 1905 that was to list aviation records and activities at that time stipulated that the aircraft that would achieve this first flight distinction would have to be able to take off unaided. In other words the aircraft would have to take off by it’s own power. The Wrights contended that their 1903 Flyer had unassisted take offs and had sustained flights three years before Santos-Dumont.

The aeronautical group, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, suggested that both flights, the 1903 Wright Flyer and the 1906 Santos-Dumont 14-bis were both unaided flights however the Wright brothers performed theirs three years prior to Santos-Dumont.

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Artwork about the aviation experiments of Alberto Santos-Dumont

Regardless of the decision of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, most Brazilians will tell you that the first successful heavier than air flight was performed by their countryman Alberto Santos-Dumont.

There is no question that Santos-Dumont was an extraordinary individual who was responsible for some of the significant feats in early aeronautics.

Although you may never have heard of Albert Santos-Dumont, if your travels take you to Brazil, and in particular the city of Petropolis, a stop at Santos-Dumont’s former summer home, Casa de Santos-Dumont, would be well worth your while.

(Article copyright 2014 Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)

Early Air Travel / Planes Trains and Automobiles


Early air travel in the U.S., especially the transcontinental variety, was a unique adventure to say the least.

One of the most ambitious forays into this field was quite imaginative. It involved cooperation between the new airline industry and the well entrenched passenger railroad industry.

transcontinental air transport ford tri motor aircraft

Transcontinental Air Transport Ford Tri-Motor Aircraft

Two people who had a vision of transcontinental travel that included both airplanes and trains were the creators of Transcontinental Air Transport which incorporated in May 1928. They were a businessman named Clement M. Keys, at the time president of Curtiss Aeroplane and Motors Company and Charles Lindbergh. The vision was to transport people across the nation from New York City to Los Angeles California in just 48 hours. This was quite a novel idea in 1928. From the Atlantic to the Pacific in 48 hours was an aggressive plan. A connection to San Francisco was also available to passengers.

The idea, while novel, was not that complicated. Travelers would ride on Pullman rail cars by night and fly on the airline’s Ford Tr-Motor airplanes by day. The theory of course was by mixing in air travel with rail travel you’d greatly reduce travel time.

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Transcontinental Air Transport advertisement poster

Small Towns Help to Connect Transcontinental Air Travel

An interesting aspect of this endeavor was how elevated several small towns to national prominence. Among these towns were Winslow Arizona in the north Arizona desert, Waynoka Oklahoma about 75 miles northwest of Oklahoma City and Clovis New Mexico on the Texas border. Waynoka Oklahoma’s selection was in part because it had a new Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway railroad yard which ended up being the largest in Oklahoma.

The Route

TAT began operations on July 7, 1929. Of special note is that Charles Lindbergh piloted the first eastbound leg between Los Angeles and Winslow Arizona.

If you were traveling from New York to Los Angeles, yor first leg was the overnight Pennsylvania Railroad train to Columbus Ohio. In Columbus you would be put on a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. at the Columbus Airport. Heading southwestward you would have four intermediate stops on you way to Waynoka Oklahoma’s newly constructed airport. In Waynoka, passengers would then board an AT &maddux airlines,mt taylor new mexico, SF Railroad overnight train to Clovis New Mexico. In Clovis you would again board the airline’s Ford Tri-Motor with stops including Albuquerque, Winslow Arizona on the way west to Los Angeles.

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TWA transcontinental air/train route advertisement

There were several firsts with this new travel plan. Transcontinental Air Transport offered some of the first airborne meals as well as the first time the Ford Tri-Motors were used for passenger service. Most of the aircraft at that time were designed for mail service rather than passenger service.


It wasn’t long before TAT merged with Maddux Air Lines in California. The merger took place in late 1929 and added more Tri-Motors to the airline’s fleet. Maddux, a Los Angeles car dealer, owned a good sized fleet of Ford aircraft and had air operations ongoing in the west.

A String of Air Crashes

Transcontinental Air Transport suffered their first air crash during September 1929, just a few moths after it’s service began. The crash occurred on New Mexico’s Mt. Taylor west of Albuquerque. Mt. Taylor is one of the highest peaks in New Mexico. The press described the accident as the first commercial passenger airline crash. The TAT crashed flight was not found until six days after the crash occurred.Eight people died in the air crash. Five were passengers and three were crew members. One passenger had been a prominent Albuquerque and Gallup New Mexico businessman.

This crash on Mount Taylor was just the first of three crashes during the airline’s first eight months of operation. To say the least, the air crashes and the fatalities put a damper on the traveling public’s enthusiasm.


old newspaper stories of winslow arizona

Winslow Arizona newspaper stories concernin TAT airlines and Amelia Earhart visit

The Merger Creating TWA

Although Transcontinental Air Transport carried about 40,000 passengers during it’s first eighteen months of operation, it was losing a great deal of money. In November of 1930, TAT was forced to acquire Western Air Express.

Western Air Express was a mail carrier in California with federal airmail contracts. WAE found itself a victim to a newly organized air route system for the mails created by the Postmaster General. Esssentially, the Postmaster General at the time felt that no more than one airline company should service a particular air mail route.

This new merger was the creation of TWA. TWA received it;s first government mail contract in August of 1930. It’s coast to coast mail service began in October of that year and was an all airmail route, not a plane and train combination.

The New TWA

The new TWA concern, although eventually growing to be one of the largest of U.S. air carriers, was not a sure bet for success at it’s beginning. The main reason for this was the Great Depression which would get a lot tougher during the 1930’s before it would get better. During this period government mail contracts were the life blood of financial survival.

Following are two links on our Western Trips site that you’ll find interesting.

The F-15 First Responder on display at the Pacific Coast Air Museum.

The Beech 18 on display at the Western Aeroplane and Antique Car Museum.

On our Trips Into History site see the photo article on the Pullman Railroad Cars.

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Knute Rockne in gum advertisement

The Kansas Air Crash

TWA, struggling financially from the start, suffered a terrible setback with a crash in a Kansas wheat field in March 1931. This was merely five months after the new company’s start. The Kansas crash received enormous press coverage since one of the passengers killed in the crash was Notre Dame’s popular football coach Knute Rockne. Seven others aboard were also killed. The aircraft in the Kansas air crash was a Fokker Tri-Motor.

Sites to Visit to Learn More About TAT and TWA

If your travels take you to northern Arizona you’ll want to visit the Old Trails Museum in Winslow Arizona. Here you’ll view a lot of artifacts and posters relating to the first transcontinental air/train route.

In Waynoka Oklahoma you’ll want to stop by the Waynoka Air-Rail Museum. Lots of history on display there regarding the Waynoka connection on the transcontinental route. Waynoka was a stop where air passengers transferred to an overnight train to Clovis New Mexico.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. also has information regarding Transcontinental Air Transport in addition to a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft on display.

For those wishing to learn much more detail regarding this 1929 aviation/railroad venture, look for the book Steel Rails and Silver Wings:The Lindbergh Line to the Birth of TWA by authors Robert J. Serling and George H. Foster. You may also be interested in the book Howard Hughes Airline: An Informal History of TWA by author Robert J. Serling.

(Ford Tri-Motor, Winslow Newspaper stories and Knute Rockne photos and images from the public domain. Remainder of photos from author’s collection)

First In Flight / The First American Aviator


There are many fine aviation museums in the United States which make great additions to vacation planners and short weekend trips. We’ve listed several of our favorites near the end of this article. Each one is unique and makes an excellent fun stop.

Connecticut Mulls Change

The story below addresses a controversy in Connecticut which may indeed result in a new law being passed in that state which in essence declares that the Wright Brothers were not the first in flight.

A Connecticut House Bill which is being prepared for the governors approval states…“The Governor shall proclaim a date certain in each year as Powered Flight Day to honor the first powered flight by [the Wright brothers] Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry,” Republican state Sen. Mike McLachlan made the statement…”There’s no question that the Wright brothers will retain their place in aviation history and rightfully so. They just weren’t first.”

The following story addresses the subject of who exactly can claim the phrase “First in flight.” Who really could claim that they were the first to successfully fly an aircraft?

The Controversy

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Wright Flyer I in 1903

One of the biggest controversies concerning early aviation revolves around the questions of...Who was the first in flight in the United States? Were the Wright brothers the first to succeed with a controlled flight within the borders of the U.S.? While the common wisdom has always been that indeed it certainly was the Wright brothers and the flight took place in 1903, the naysayers to this claim say it is untrue. Thus the continued controversy, at least with some doubters.

The “First in Flight” Controversy

The Smithsonian Museum displays the Wright Brothers 1903 Wright Flyer,  described as the world’s first successful airplane. The exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. also displays historic photographs and cultural artifacts, along with instruments and personal items associated with the Wright Brothers.

There have been some historians who contended that an earlier powered flight took place aside from the hot air balloons of the 1800’s. In other words, some have stated that a powered airplane or aeroplane flight took place in St. Joseph Michigan in 1898.

A man named Augustus Moore Herring who had some background with gliders had carried out a several gliding experiments.  Herring found financial backing and constructed a biplane hang glider in 1898. The glider was equipped with a small compressed air engine. Newspapers reported that Herring flew this powered, heavier-than-air craft 50 feet on October 10, 1898  over the lakeside sand dunes of St. Joseph, Michigan.

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Drawing of Whitehead’s 1901 flight that appeared in newspaper

The Case For Gustav Whitehead

Another story involves a man named Gustav Whitehead and this is the claim now accepted by Connecticut lawmakers. . Whitehead increased his knowledge step by step and evolved a series of both gliders and airplanes, each one a modification of its predecessor.

It was reported that Whitehead flew several times in his own powered aircraft (high wing monoplane) design in both 1901 and 1902. The 1901 flight, which is the event most discussed, apparently took place in Fairfield Connecticut in August of that year. A newspaper story at the time, which seemed to lack an author, reported that Whitehead’s heavier than air craft flew about one-half mile and reached up to 50 feet in height.

To this day there are historians who do credit Gustav Whitehead with this flight experiment. Conversely there are those who do not. The doubters point to the lack of concrete evidence that the event actually took place. In other words, an absence of solid documentation. Although, in addition to local coverage, it’s been reported that the Evening World newspaper in New York reported on the event. There were also stories about Whitehead’s achievements in a 1903 Scientific American. There were additional reports as well. Supposedly Whitehead’s unsheltered craft was destroyed during a storm and hence there wasn’t a craft to display to the public as the Wrights were able to do.

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Wright Flyer II in 1904

The Whitehead doubters also point out that Whitehead’s control of the craft was by shifting body weight which they claim would not be sufficient to control an aircraft. In addition, it’s quite questionable that a charcoal fueled steam engine, which was reportedly used, could provide enough power to lift itself off the ground.

In Whitehead’s favor however is the fact that today’s light aircraft have many similarities to the high wing monoplane design of his 1901 flight.

Whitehead Ignored?

The real story about Gustav Whitehead’s achievements faded from the public eye until the mid 1930’s. At that time Popular Aviation magazine published articles where the author obtained affidavits from people insisting they witnessed Gustav Whitehead’s flights. The witnesses had several different recollections of what they saw in regards to height and distance. A year after the Popular Aviation story, a Harvard professor disputed the claim in an article and then, after further investigation and speaking with witnesses, wrote another article supporting Whitehead’s claims.

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Heath Super Parasol

There were articles written decades after that criticizing the Smithsonian in particular with giving scant attention to the achievements of Gustav Whitehead.

It does appear that Whitehead’s flights received much more credit in publications and articles other  than from anything the Smithsonian put forward.

As it turned out, in 1968 the state of Connecticut honored Gustav Whitehead with the recognition of “Father of Connecticut Aviation“.

The Historic Significance of the Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers had the advantage of keeping extremely detailed records of both the construction of their aircraft as well as the flights afterward not to mention a surviving model. In some respects you could say that the Wright Brothers were quite successful in touting their accomplishment. In regards to the achievements of Gustav Whitehead, I believe that there is certainly ample evidence that he did experiment with powered flight. He may very well have done this prior to the Wright Brothers four successful flights at Kitty Hawk.

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Gustav Whitehead in one of his gliders

In a way, there is also somewhat of a similarity to the achievements of Henry Ford. There was much experimentation with automobiles in the very late 1800’s. Several people put together motorized buggies with a variety of steering mechanisms and power plants. In fact, some of these were former horse buggy builders. Henry Ford however was recognized as an automobile industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company. While Henry Ford did not invent the concept of the automobile, he developed and manufactured the first automobile that many middle class Americans could afford to buy. He achieved this by creating the assembly line which turned out more cars for less money. There is no better example of Ford’s achievement than the famous Model T.

While there have been questions raised as to who exactly invented the airplane (I’m not sure there will ever be a consensus on that issue), a big factor in favor of the Wright Brothers achievement is the fact that they had controlled flight without using body weight as a primary instrument.

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1916 Curtiss Model N

According to the Smithsonian, the instruments the Wright’s employed were arranged so all could be turned off, along with the engine, the instant the flight was over by a single movement of a wooden lever mounted on the lower wing. Instruments the Wright Brothers used included a Richard anemometer and a stopwatch that were mounted on the front strut to the pilot’s right. These recorded distance through the air in meters and the duration of the flight. From these of course airspeed could be calculated. In addition, a Veedor revolution counter was mounted at the base of the engine to record engine revolution.

The Wright Brothers achievement at Kitty Hawk and the design they utilized is said by many to be the model from which aviation grew from. Therefore, the motto “First in Flight”. One might also argue that their Kitty Hawk flights were much more documented. There’s more to the story explaining why the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk accomplishment is presented today the way it is…..

After his brother Wilbur passed away, Orville Wright was determined to defend the fact that the brothers be considered the inventors of the airplane. In fact, the Wright Flyer was actually moved to a London museum during a period of disagreement with how the Smithsonian was presenting the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk achievement. This finally seemed to be settled once and for all in 1948.

An Agreement With The Smithsonian

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A Beechcraft 18

Not to be understated, and certainly in response to the controversy regarding Gustav Whitehead’s 1901 flight, is an agreement entered into between the Wright heirs and the Smithsonian in 1948.

The agreement reads as such...” Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered by the United States of America, by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight”.

It’s an interesting controversy and one that probably will always be with us for a long time. I think it’s viable that many, including Whitehead, did experiment with powered flight design  at about the same time the Wright Brothers were working on their designs. The question than is...Who of all the inventors or experimenters contributed the most to what today we call the aviation industry? Another way of saying it is...Was there any one early aviation development that stood out from all the others?

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Curtiss Jenny in 1918

According to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., it is that of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Smithsonian contends that the Wright Brothers were the  “First in Flight”.

Two links on our Western Trips site you’ll be interested in is to a photo article about the Beechcraft Model 18 and the F-15 First Responder.

Also, on Trips Into History see our article on the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph Missouri. This is one of the 50 most unusual museums in the country.

Some Great Places to Visit

If you’re traveling in the Tucson Arizona area you’ll want to make a stop at the massive Pima Air and Space Museum. The museum is located just off Interstate 10 east of Tucson and covers 80 acres. The museum is open seven days per week and exhibits over 300 aircraft and spacecraft.

pacific coast air museumA much smaller but very unique museum is the Pacific Coast Air Museum located just a few miles north of Santa Rosa California and about 65 miles north of San Francisco. One of their very special displays is of the F-15 First Responder. This is one of the actual aircraft that scrambled during the attacks on September 11th 2001. Many other military aircraft are displayed as well.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque New Mexico is a real treat to visit. Aircraft among their outdoor display include a B-52 Stratofortress and a B-29 Superfortress from 1945. Also many displays of rockets as well as a conning tower fin from a retired nuclear submarine.

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B 52 Stratofortress tail close up

While traveling in the state of Oregon make a note to visit Hood River. Here you can explore a fascinating aircraft and vintage automobile museum. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) displays one of the largest collections of historic propeller driven airplanes in the United States, with each and every plane in flying condition. Every plane has been beautifully restored and represents the growth of aviation. Among the many aircraft on display is a 1917 Curtiss JN-4D, a 1928 Boeing 40 C, a 1929 Curtiss Robin and a 1929 Heath Parasol. There are many more. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum is located just a few miles south of Hood River. The museum also hold a fly-in each year the weekend after Labor Day. Offered are food, fun, exhibits and plane rides.

(Photos of Beechcraft 18, Heath Parasol, Pacific Coast Air Museum, B 52 tail photo from authors collection. Remainder photos and images from the public domain)


Pan Am China Clipper / The Air Route to the Orient

Flying The Pacific Route From San Francisco to the Orient

One of the most remarkable achievements and a colorful period in early passenger plane history was the highly successful and many would say glamorous trans-Pacific route of the fabled Pan Am China Clipper. The story of the China Clipper brings back memories of a time when air travel across the Pacific was an adventure. There had never been anything like it before. At the time, it was a trip taken by the very adventurous and/or the very rich. The Pan Am China Clipper demonstrated that long distance air travel over the world’s largest ocean was indeed possible.

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Stamp denoting first China Clipper flight over the Pacific

The China Clipper took off from San Francisco Bay near the old Alameda Naval Air Station site in the east bay area and flew across the Pacific to Hong Kong. This was not only a great achievement but it also opened the Pacific region to much more travel.

If you think airfare is high today, a ticket on the China Clipper was in today’s dollars about $10,000.

To offer you some perspective, the price of a new home in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, averaged about $3,400. The average price for a new car was $625. Obviously this priced out most people. Among the very rich who could afford the airfare there were also both government travelers (not sure how this fit the national budget) and of course celebrities. Some celebrities could afford the fare but I’m sure in some cases their studio employer ended up footing the bill. This was also before the era of earning free flights with points saved up.

The Beginnings of Pan AM

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Pan Ams China Clipper over the San Francisco Bay area

The beginning of Pan Am itself was in many ways an answer to international competition in aviation. If you’ve seen the movie “The Aviator“, there is a glimpse of the Pan Am story however in the movie the plot line is really about the competition between Howard Hughes‘ Trans World Airlines and Juan Trippe‘s Pan Am. The movie is largely about the life of Howard Hughes.

International Air Route Competition

Back in the 1920’s, Germany had made headway with routes into South America. In fact, history tells us that Germany had quite a bit of interest in general with the South American continent. In 1927’s a couple of ex Army Air Corp majors got together and established an airline mostly in response to the German presence. Eventually eastern financiers entered the picture and a Yale graduate named Juan Terry Trippe in 1927 put together a holding company called the Aviation Corporation of the Americas. Between 1926 and 1930 there were many mergers and acquisitions mainly between three different investment groups. The end result was that by 1930 Juan Trippe was managing the America’s largest aviation transport company. Pan Am was a subsidiary of his parent Aviation Corp. The goal for a start up was to obtain mail contracts from the government. The other goal of course was to get landing rights.

The First Routes

juan trippe

Also, the presence of concrete runways in the 20’s and 30’s were hard to find. Trippe’s new company obtained rights for a mail rout between Key West Florida and Havana Cuba in 1928 and began service with a rented single engine float plane.

It was from those very humble and uncertain beginnings that Pan Am was eventually launched. Government mail contracts were the key to financing new routes. The mail contract along with landing rights put you in business.

If anything, Juan Trippe was very aggressive and lobbied for more government mail contracts. With passenger demand questionable, a mail contract was the way to have a steady predictable cash flow. Two challenges were to find air routes in which you could operate and service aircraft with suitable runways. The other was to obtain the proper aircraft.

Trippe’s spent much time trying to convince aircraft manufacturers to build larger, more powerful and longer range aircraft. Pan Am had it’s sights on service to all of the South American continent which it did accomplish. Eyes were then turned to both Europe and the Pacific region. In the early 1930’s, years before the first trans Pacific flight, Juan Trippe employed Charles Lindbergh to find a route to the Orient. Lindbergh looked at a route via Alaska and and the Aleutian Islands but this proved impossible because of the growing conflicts in China, Japan and Korea. The question then was how to build an aircraft that could travel very long distances non stop.

Two additional photo articles you’ll find interesting are the Twin Beechcraft Model 18 and the story of the Heath Parasol Homebuilt Airplane of 1929.

Speed and Comfort Island Hopping Across the Pacific Ocean

Pan Am’s answer was the Clipper fleet which eventually comprised some 28 aircraft made by three different aircraft builders. They were Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing. The Clipper that made the inaugural flight out of San Francisco bay on November 22, 1935 was a Martin M-130. This was a four engine flying boat that went on a route to Manila Bay Philippines via Pearl Harbor, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam.

pan american china clipper schedule

Pan Am’s China Clipper schedule

The trip took six days and a total of 60 flight hours with an average speed of 130 MPH. That first flight from San Francisco carried upwards of 100,000 mail pieces. Later, Hong Kong and New Zealand were added to the route.

The first flights carried mail only but passenger service was begun in 1936 with a one way fare of about $10,000 in today’s dollars.  The Clippers could take only twelve passengers which was one reason for the high ticket price. The plane itself was appointed with a lounge which made it the most luxurious way to travel by air anyplace. Juan Trippe’s vision was to provide the same type of first class amenities one might experience on a sea voyage. Pan Am built a reputation for this kind of service.

In 1942, due to World War Two, the U.S. Government took control of the Clippers and operated mostly southeast down to Australia via Pearl Harbor and the Fiji Islands. The planes however were still crewed by Pan Am employees and were very valuable to the Pacific War effort.

In Came the Concrete Runways

The end of the Clipper airliners occurred with the build out of concrete runways throughout the world. No longer was the ability to take off and land on any large body of water a big advantage. Likewise, the aircraft manufacturers built planes for land based airports.

There is no question that the rapid rise of Pan Am was the result of obtaining large government contracts including route rights, especially in Europe, South America and the Orient. Nevertheless, the Pan Am China Clipper story is an  amazing piece of history. Juan Trippe’s vision and achievement ranks at the very top of aviation history.

More Information About the History of Pan Am

A few interesting venues where you can learn about the legendary Pan American World Airways and about the Pan Am Clipper aircraft include the Museum of HistoryMiami located at 101 West Flagler Street in Miami Florida.

Another good site is the Aviation Museum at the San Francisco International Airport. Lots of good artifacts from early aviation on display there. Also in the San Francisco Bay area is the Pan Am Clipper Exhibit Hall at the Alameda Naval Air Museum in Alameda California. Make it a point to see their Clipper Aircraft flying model on display. It’s a one of a kind exhibit.

One more San Francisco Bay area venue you’ll find interesting is the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. The museum is on the grounds of the San Carlos Airport. Founded in 1998, the Hiller Aviation Museum has a memorial plaque at it’s entrance pertaining to the 1943 crash of the Philippine Clipper while approaching the San Francisco area in fog and rain. A nine man Pan Am crew in addition to ten Naval officers were killed in the crash. Among them was the commander of the Pacific Submarine Fleet.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)