Pan Am: A Dream Takes Flight (Part III)

07/13/2011 03:50 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

When last we met on The Huffington Post, two young couples -- the Lindberghs and the Trippes -- were in a crisis. A life and death crisis.

There they all were in the Sikorsky-38, an amphibian, attempting to land in Barranquila, Columbia in 1929. The problem was, hordes of Lindbergh's worshipful fans refused to clear the runway so that the airplane could land. Lindbergh, unsure of how much gas he had left, was climbing to leave the airport area when suddenly both engines went dead. There was total, terrifying silence in the airplane.

According to their own accounts, the two couples surrendered to the feeling of absolute calm that attends moments of great crisis. As Anne writes, "Everyone in the plane was up straight. We could not make the river." But Lindbergh, cool as a cucumber, turned around with a reassuring grin, saying "I think we'll make it, but hang on tight."* Luckily, he had spotted a lagoon about two miles away while everyone else in the plane was mesmerized by the crowds.

Lindbergh put the wide-winged amphibian into a shallow glide. They were coming down on what looked like a marsh with stumps in it, making it potentially very dangerous. The lagoon, as it came into view, was not straight, but had a sharp bend in it. In total silence Lindbergh glided toward the water. He just made it - barely. The plane surged to a stop and began to rock gently in the water.

The passengers had displayed grace under pressure. Anne writes, "We all stuck our heads out and laughed. The radioman lit a cigarette. [Charles] reached for a tin of nuts. Betty and I giggled helplessly. 'Thank you very much!' She bowed to [Charles]."* And then silence descended upon them once again, the passengers rocking in the airplane in the gathering darkness. Surrounded by dense jungle, they wondered how long it would be before somebody found them.

After what felt like an eternity, two Indians wearing G-strings arrived in dug-out canoes, filled with naked children. The children were put in one canoe, and the Indians signaled to the hapless travelers to clamber down into the other boat.

"'But these men have nothing on,' said Trippe. 'What about the girls?' The girls had just survived a traumatic forced landing but the straightlaced Trippe was worrying about their modesty."**

Despite this concern, the passengers had no choice but to do as the Indians suggested. Lindbergh had brought a revolver with him and Trippe carried snakebite anti-toxin from the emergency supplies. The two men, probably in an attempt to mask their own anxiety, began to tease Anne and Betty about being abducted by Indians, and about imaginary alligators waiting to devour them. Passing a kiln where bricks were made, the "boys" teased the "girls" that it was a place where bodies were roasted. Finally, they were paddled to the far end of the lagoon, where they flagged down a car.

I'll let Betty pick up the story. As she writes, "Sitting on laps, we were driven over a rough, muddy trail through the jungle and transferred to a large open car in which we rode in state to the gates of the city. There was a wild, cheering crowd and an illuminated 'Welcome Lindy' sign strung overhead across the street."***

Meanwhile, in her own diary, Anne observes that "in Barranquilla, all anyone said when we arrived was a casual 'Oh, you landed in the laguna, did you? We thought so,' and reproachfully, 'You missed the tea that we planned for you.'"*

The emergency landing in Barranquila was not the only situation that astonished Betty Trippe on this journey. Although both young men were pilots, Lindbergh was a different sort. Inside him beat the heart of a daredevil barnstormer, who in 1922 had walked on the wings of an airplane as it looped through the air in the Midwest, secured by invisible wire cables. Every now and then, that daredevil part of him asserted itself, and -- lucky for him -- his wife had nerves of steel. Betty Trippe did not.

She writes about one such incident in her diary. Surveying the route from Trinidad to Caracas, Lindbergh decided to experiment with his aerial camera. Betty writes, "He climbed down into the nose of the airplane, unfastened the opening and stood up, his clothes almost blowing off. Then, to our horror, he climbed out onto the nose itself. He wanted to see if it would be possible to take pictures from the plane in the air!" And, of course, there was no parachute. Betty speculates, "Just suppose he had fallen off into the sea a thousand feet below."*** As you can imagine, Betty was incredibly relieved when Lindbergh, on his hands and knees, finally crawled back into the plane. Tellingly, Anne didn't even bother to mention the incident in her diary.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, the world's media was following this historic journey every step of the way. Neither Lindbergh nor Trippe relished the kind of limelight that was being thrust upon them. Because Trippe was the president of Pan American Airways, Lindbergh often tried to maneuver him to the forefront, and was not above using whatever methods it took. In Panama, for example, Lindbergh stuck a pin through the eraser of a pencil, and proceeded to jab Trippe in the behind at every doorway, making him jump forward ahead of him. This brought out a streak of uncharacteristic playfulness in Trippe, who soon armed himself with his own pin and eraser. War was declared.

The battle continued in Nicaragua, when the couples were assigned connecting rooms. The Lindberghs wanted the Trippes to take the big room, and they refused. So a pillow fight broke out between the two men, and they bashed each other until everybody was giggling hysterically. The two women give different accounts of what finally happened. According to Anne, the Trippes got the big room because Lindbergh had won the pillow fight. But Betty writes that they got the big room because Lindbergh began undressing in the smaller one. Picturing these two young men who were only at the beginning of their amazing careers humanizes them, and makes me feel that I knew them. In those moments, the two main pioneers of aviation were, as Anne Lindbergh thought, two boys having fun.

As their highly successful expedition came to an end, the Trippes and the Lindberghs took their leave of each other. The journey was the beginning of Pan Am's extraordinary role in bringing America to world domination in the twentieth century.

These early stories are painted with a particularly nostalgic glow. These were the years before the Lindbergh's first-born child was kidnapped and murdered, once again putting the couple under intense and frightening media scrutiny. It was also before Lindbergh's unpopular isolationist stance at the beginning of World War II, amidst angry accusations that he was a Nazi sympathizer. The Lindberghs remained married, although in later years, they seemed to go their separate ways.

The Trippes, on the other hand were devoted to each other. Married 54 years, Juan often referred to Betty as his "bride." There was never even a hint of scandal -- of philandering -- and it is said that Juan Trippe never had eyes for any other woman but his "Bets," his lifetime companion and confidant. Betty was never overheard to complain about her husband's work schedule, even though it meant rare vacations and little social life. Having adored her father, whom she felt worked himself to death, Betty was familiar with this level of ambition and drive to succeed.

Over the years, it became more evident that Trippe was in total control of Pan Am. In the beginning, his political maneuvering outside of the United States was seen to be in the best interest of the State Department. "Along the way, his autocratic manner managed to alienate many, from Presidents to bureaucrats, but he felt their influence would be temporary, due to the constantly changing political climate."**** Later, his inaccessibility and secretiveness created enemies, and Pan Am was left with few friends in Washington.

In Part IV, I will explore the feelings that all former Pan Am employees share -- a sense of family, loyalty, pride, and ownership of "our" world -- even today. The story of this first journey is symbolic of aviation's bright future that lay ahead and the significant role Pan Am played in its development. The Trippes and the Lindberghs observed the earth, pristine and undeveloped. They saw from the sky and encountered on the ground a world that no longer exists, but one that can still be brought to life through the magic of Betty and Anne's written words.

(To be continued)

* Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne
Morrow Lindbergh

** An American Saga, Robert Daley
*** The First Lady of Pan Am: The Diary of Betty Stettinius

**** Rapid Descent, Peterson & Glab