Sky King | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

(Cheryl Carlin)

Sky King

Pan Am founder Juan Trippe turned Americans into frequent fliers

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

As a boy, Juan Trippe had witnessed Wilbur Wright's 1909 flight around the Statue of Liberty; as a teenager, he learned to fly. In 1917, he left Yale to become a military pilot. He didn't see combat, but aviation continued to fascinate him after he returned to college. Trippe, who would found Pan American Airways in 1927, created a template for elegant air travel a world away from today's commercial airline system. In Trippe's office in Manhattan's Chrysler Building, an antique globe held pride of place. The artifact, dating from the 1840s, was a family heirloom, bequeathed to Trippe by his father, an investment banker.

The globe represented far more than office décor; it symbolized one man's lofty ambitions. "Trippe wasn't a dictator, but he did want to take over the world," says F. Robert van der Linden, chair of aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Indeed, Trippe consulted the globe as he conjured air routes. Today, the fabled orb has been installed at NASM as part of a new permanent exhibition, "America by Air," inaugurated this month.

Air battles and aerial bombing began in World War I, and some prescient military men saw a future for aircraft as weapons. But at the time Trippe graduated from Yale in 1921, few imagined the air as the ultimate highway for the traveling public. Trippe persuaded friends to invest in his dream; he then bought into an airmail delivery service in the Northeast, Colonial Air Transport. By 1927, he had merged three small air companies into Pan American Airways, to ferry passengers from Key West to Cuba. So began what would become the most glamorous airline ever to serve meals on real china.

The long routes that Pan Am pioneered required airplanes large enough to carry lots of fuel, but since there were few landing strips in Asia and South America long enough to handle big planes, Trippe bought Sikorsky seaplanes. In a poetic trope, he called the planes "clippers," after the fast sailing ships that had plied the oceans in the 19th century.

The comfort, speed and range of the clippers attracted movie stars and moguls, guaranteeing Pan Am press coverage and an aura of romance. In 1928, with an eye toward both practicality and publicity, Trippe hired Charles Lindbergh, one of the great heroes of the age, to help him pioneer new routes to South America, Japan and China.

In 1945, Pan Am became the first airline to introduce tourist class, cutting the New York to London fare by more than half and effectively launching the modern age of air travel. With his purchase of Boeing 707s in 1955, a risky gamble at the time, Trippe also ushered the jet age into being.

Trippe was married to Betty Stettinius; the couple had four children. He retired as chairman and CEO of Pan Am in 1968, and died in 1981, at age 81. Ten years later, his airline succumbed to a changing travel economy and rising fuel prices. When the airline's assets were sold off, Trippe's globe, says van der Linden, "became the property of the Pan Am Historical Foundation. Finally, it was agreed that the Air and Space Museum should have it."

As it turned out, the globe had one more role before it reached Washington. Director Martin Scorsese had cast Alec Baldwin in the role of Trippe for his film The Aviator, the 2004 Howard Hughes biopic. Scorsese, a stickler for accuracy, wanted Baldwin to consult Trippe's actual globe, not a facsimile. So it was that, after its cameo, the artifact was carefully packed and shipped to Washington, D.C., where it stands today alongside one of the original three-blade propellers from the China Clipper. Juan's world...delivered.

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.

Tags
About Owen Edwards
Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus