Pan Am: A Dream Takes Flight (Part II)

As you recall, my last post ended with the marriage of Juan and Betty Trippe. Soon after, in 1929, the couple would join Charles and Anne Lindbergh on a pioneering flight to capture the world's air routes for Pan Am. Juan Trippe's dream of a global air carrier was coming true.

While the world would soon catch up to the importance of this achievement of Trippe's, it had already embraced Charles Lindbergh. Everywhere the Lindberghs went, the press and worshipful mobs tried to follow. The world had never seen anything like the frenzied circus-like atmosphere that surrounded the couple. Always the canny entrepreneur, Trippe saw this as a perfect promotional opportunity to advertise the safety and speed of commercial flight. After all, if Anne and Betty were not afraid, then air travel must be safe!

And the press obliged. They covered this expedition as if it were a royal honeymoon, with the foursome dressed as if they were on a ship's cruise. Their official photograph is a study in contrast between Lindbergh and Trippe. Lindbergh, whom Trippe called "Slim," was tall, lanky, and blonde, and instead of wearing the customary pilot's leather jacket and breeches, he wore a conservative gray businessman's suit and carried his leather helmet rolled up in his hand. Trippe, who had a swarthy complexion despite his English ancestry and was a bit pudgy, sported a bright white Panama suit with brown-and-white saddle shoes.

The women wore dresses, brimmed hats, and delicate stockings and shoes. Despite this, Anne, who was by now used to being considered part of the "crew," brushed aside offers of help as she jumped out of the plane at every destination.

What gave more immediacy and reach to the foursomes' exploits was the first time ever use of Pan Am's newly developed technology of installing radios in airplanes. A photographer and reporters were usually aboard, and they sent comments describing the scenery every 10 minutes to newspapers and impassioned radio announcers waiting on the ground for the next report. The world held its breath when, during the last five minutes before each landing, there was radio silence. Had "Lindy" once again landed safely?

The accounts from Anne and Betty's diaries detail a head-spinning 9,000-mile, 16-nation, 14-hours-per-day, 4 to 5 stops-a-day, three-week adventure, and the personalities of the two women come alive. Betty writes that she is astonished to see the "great unwashed, shouting, wild-eyed crowds" gathered at each destination to see Lindbergh, "the hero of the world." At each stop, local officials made hyperbolic speeches, floral bouquets were presented, and the two couples were driven through streets teeming with worshipful mobs to attend parties crowded with important officials. Anne describes the endless parades as "the triumphal home-from-the-wars ride through the streets." Then they were rushed back to the airplane to take off once again.

Here were these two women, on the cutting edge of worldwide exploration, confiding to their diaries and letters to their mothers about the overwhelming beauty of the natural world unfolding before their eyes. In this writing, each woman hoped to capture the thrill of being one of the first human beings to see this pristine view of the earth from the sky. Reading their accounts makes me feel green with envy; how I would love to have been there!

The airplanes were very primitive. Betty describes the tri-motor Fokker that took off from Miami to Havana as being too noisy for conversation and having a ceiling that was too low to move around. It had narrow aisles, with 10 little wicker chairs tightly packed together for passengers. Anne writes that they were offered "cotton, chewing gum, and crackers at different intervals for ears, jaw, and mouth respectively. 'No thank you,'" replied the always-ladylike Anne. "I never chew." Despite the discomforts, everyone aboard was very excited and sensed the momentous nature of this adventure.

You could feel this, for example, in the way that Anne wrote about leaving Cuba. "It was breath-taking: the rugged green tropical mountains dropping into that deep blue violet; added to this there were big heaped-up golden clouds piled over the mountains, superbly beautiful and wild -untouched. I feel as though we had come over those peaks first of any men, and seen the sea" (Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932).

Flying out of Cuba, they went on to Haiti, Santa Domingo, and Puerto Rico, resting for the night after extremely exhausting days, made more difficult by the intense tropical heat. Remember, at this time there was no such thing as air conditioning.

From Puerto Rico on, the territory was completely uncharted. As you might imagine, the world watched breathlessly as the great Lindbergh was blazing new trails through the sky.

Radio listeners and newspaper readers also learned about various airplanes. To fly all the way through the Caribbean to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, the group switched to a Sikorsky-38, a twin-engine amphibian -- a seaplane that could land on water or land, and "carried its own airport on its bottom" -- a good thing as Pan Am had not yet developed the extensive land airfields and facilities that it needed. Not that this plane was any more comfortable than the Fokkers. Passengers entered this airplane through a hatch in the roof, and because of the very low ceilings, had to bend almost double in order to reach their wicker chairs.

But the core of this journey was about neither scenery nor aircraft. Instead, it was the beginning of a relationship between the Lindberghs and the Trippes that was to last a lifetime. They weren't just two couples; they were four distinct personalities. Pan Am, the company, began with strong and sometimes eccentric personalities, and so itself developed a personality - a "soul."

Over the course of this adventure, both Anne and Betty describe their intimate and playful interactions. For example, Charles loved to tease Betty. He had a great talent for wiggling his ears. When the couples attended the endless formal banquets on their three-week trip, if "Slim" became bored with his dinner partner, he would turn slightly toward Betty without looking at her or cracking a smile, and his ears would start to move. Each time she would dissolve in giggles, helpless to hide her laughter, and struggling to carry on polite conversation.

Lindbergh also taught Betty a lot about flying. She writes, "I always leaned whenever the S-38 banked for a turn. Charles said he would 'fix me' about this." Lindbergh was true to his word. He poured a full glass of water and banked first one way, and then another. The water didn't move. "After that," Betty writes, "I felt that my help to balance the airplane was not necessary" (Pan Am's First Lady: The Diary of Betty Stettinius Trippe). She was also very relieved to discover during a flight that when an engine almost failed, a two-engine airplane can fly with just one engine. Gradually, Betty Trippe was getting the hang of flying.

In her diary, Betty describes the Lindbergs' modesty as "amazing." For example, in Cuba, Betty writes that when Charles was called out on the balcony to greet the hundreds of cheering on-lookers, "he insisted that Juan, as president of Pan American Airways, should join him to share the honors, much to Juan's reluctance." In my studies of Juan Trippe, I discovered that although he was an aggressive and ambitious businessman, he was actually quite shy and quiet.

Which is what makes me wonder how Trippe felt in Georgetown, British Guiana, when Lindbergh refused to ride in the lead car in the parade through town. Trippe found himself riding alone through the streets in a car festooned with colored lanterns. There he was, smiling feebly (in my imagination) at the wildly cheering crowds held back by torch-bearing soldiers, all of whom mistook him for Lindbergh.

"The Trippes have been such fun, and wear so well," Anne wrote at the time. "I think they're remarkable. The more I see of them, the more I think it. They both have such a wonderful sense of humor and are such a reassuring comfort in hot moments." Anne goes on to describe her impression of Juan as "a great big bumbling bear of a man, very energetic, very vigorous, very young. He seemed younger than he was. He gave a sense of great good nature" (Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932).

Trippe was very energetic indeed. At each stop, Trippe met with public officials, especially from the post office. Having spent all day in the air, he would stay up with these men half the night while Betty and the Lindberghs slept. He was a person of great physical strength, and never seemed to get tired.

Not that he enjoyed traveling. Many Pan Am employees are nomadic by nature, and ironically, Trippe, the man who opened up the world for global travel, disliked being out in the world. Anne noted that although weight had been so critical on the airplane that the women at one point had to leave their coats behind, Trippe traveled the whole distance carrying clean sheets for his own and Betty's beds for each night. Charles expected Anne to adapt to the most spartan of circumstances during their adventures. And what an adventure this was.

Leaving Georgetown, both Anne and Betty describe how they flew only a few hundred feet above the jungle -- along with the exotic birds with wing spans of four to five feet -- very close to the brightly flowering yellow and red trees. Spying a flight of brilliant red birds, Lindbergh flew as close to them as he could and cruised alongside them for some seconds. And then they noticed a beach in the distance that was a beautiful shade of pink. When they flew off course to see what it was, it turned out to be a huge flock of young flamingos completely covering the sand.

It wasn't only the scenery that was amazingly colorful and beautiful; even more so, it was the people. Of Paramaribo, a multi-racial colony in Dutch Guiana, Anne writes, "I was fascinated by the different kinds of faces: Negroes (a common term at this time) with tom-toms; slim, delicate Javanese (like the British Indian) with silk turbans and batik skirts (I love their finely chiseled features and deep-set, sad eyes). Then a balcony of Chinese faces, then a Dutch face, leaning out of a shutter-framed window. The houses were simply enchanting and so foreign and medieval to me" (Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932).

Stepping onto the pier at Paramaribo amidst the wildly cheering crowds, Betty describes how the native women of Paramaribo undid their great turban headdresses, each one a beautiful bandana, and spread them out on the ground for the two couples to walk on - a carpet of bandanas down the pier and all the way across the square to the house where they were to stay. She also notes that, "It was hard to believe that the Dutch had traded New Amsterdam (New York) with the British in exchange for Dutch Guiana in 1667."

Each new destination offered the exhilaration of discovery and an almost magical awakening of the senses. Not everything, however, about this trip was smooth, safe, and according to plan, and there were, indeed, some frightening and dangerous moments.

While attempting to land at Barranquila, Columbia, Lindbergh was prevented from touching down by the unrestrained crowds on the runway. Frustrated, he tossed several notes from the plane begging the police to disperse the people, circling only a few hundred feet above the crowd for almost an hour. But they would not move. Since the plane had no fuel gauge, he surmised that he might be actually running out of gas.

Lindbergh was getting desperate. He climbed to leave the airport area, at which point the engines - not one, but two -- suddenly went dead. There was total, absolute silence inside the airplane...

(To be continued)