MADRID – On June 27, 1899, a global aviation pioneer was born. Juan Trippe was born in Sea Bright New Jersey, studied at Yale, and trained as a bomber pilot for WW1 without ever serving in the war.
Amidst the end of the war, he saw an opportunity to start an airline, starting at Colonial airlines in Long Island. There his career began as he left the company to start one of the world’s biggest, known, and innovative carrier, Pan American World Airways.
Pan Am set out as it was the first airline to change the industry forever as it was the first to Latin America, across the Pacific, and ultimately first around the world as it leads technological leaps in aircraft from the Silvorsky flying days to the B747, all within a matter of 40 years.
Today his son Edward Trippe, Chairman of the Pan Am Historical Foundation lives on today to tell the story of his father as the time has come to reveal the politics and power the airline ultimately held.
AviationSource has had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Trippe to grasp not only the secret behind his father, an icon but the relations the company held with countries all over the world, the CIA, and presidents of the United States.
Without further ado, let’s get into this adventurous interview:
What was the passion behind your fathers dream to start an airline?
“The passion for aviation was right after the 1st World War. He was an aviator that never flew in the war but he was trained in the military and flew night bombers without lights but he had this absolute love affair with aviation.
The story always goes that when he was 13 he saw the Wright Brothers in New York, Orwell Wright fly around the Statue of Liberty in his plane and became fascinated at that point.
It’s a great story, I don’t know how true it is but he certainly went and saw it. Did that ignite his interest in aviation? I don’t know. He grew up though certainly interested in aviation.
By the time he went to Yale, he was determined that that was going to be his future. He dabbled on Wall Street for a very brief period of time. He was bored stiff being there and wanted to get into aviation early on.
At that point it wasn’t even an industry, it was a barnstorming vocation for young kids trying to earn a few bucks here and there. There wasn’t a business to be made and he was convinced remarkably that there was a business and industry that was going to grow out of the barnstormers and the mail being the propellant that was going to make it commercially viable.
That passion for aviation from the very beginning was the reason he became so successful as a young entrepreneur.”
What was your father’s ultimate mission for Pan Am? Did he achieve what he set out to do?
“Yes, I think he did. When he started he was 28 years old. Had a vision of creating an international airline and over time that vision changed and got bigger. I think what was sort of in his head when he was 28 years old.
It certainly wasn’t the same vision he had when he was 40 or 50 years old. He was an ambitious man but I never saw him as the kind of individual that could have seen when he was 28 years old the vision became reality.
He was focused on starting an airline at that age and seeing how he could compete in the Caribbean, South America, Latin America and always pushing the envelope in terms of new aircraft development and that was why his vision and the mission were successful. He was always ahead of the curve on that.”
What did your father consider his biggest achievement to be during his life?
“Over 50 years those achievements were incredible. Looking back and reading the history and obviously, it was before my time but the crossing of the pacific in 1935 had to have been one of the biggest challenges that he ever undertook.
That was not many years after Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic so low and brought aviation to everybody’s radio, awareness and he suddenly six or seven years later after the idea of starting an airline came to him was finally flying the Pacific and that was just an extraordinary undertaking and just a huge risk that he undertook.
He had directors resigning from the Board over it because they thought fool-hearted. Any of the challenges out of the things he had to be remembered for should be there.
He will be of course remembered because of the Jets and in particular the 747 which I think he and Bill Alan, the president of Boeing, sort of the two of them individually were responsible for that airplane, and that changed aviation history.
I think in terms of achievements, vision and all that went into it, crossing the Pacific in 1935 had to have been just a monumental accomplishment.”
How do you think that your father was able to accomplish that as there were so many other innovators during that time that were doing the same thing as your father but what was the true difference that made him an icon in his younger years, where you could tell that he was a different man?
“I think that he had some luck with him. He decided to be an internationalist rather than go with the rest of the crowd that was trying to make aviation domestically work.
The only way it was going to work domestically was with the main routes and that was a way to make it grow internationally but there was also the competition. He started out working for Colonial as the young president at age 27.
He suddenly found very quickly that that little airline was competing against the railroad which could run day and night, good weather and bad and he couldn’t. To try and compete with the railroad carrying passengers New York to Boston wasn’t going to work.
He was lucky and had the vision that going internationally in the Caribbean where his competition was a slower moving ship was going to be easier. If he could get the airmail routes that would make it all happen and the complication always was he had to deal with multiple nations and get traffic rights from each one of them.
He became a partner with the U.S government in growing his business. That made it happen. I think his decision to go to Latin America was a very important strategic one.
The other strategic decision that was critical at the time proved to be very successful, he was always one step ahead in bringing new aircraft for planes that could fly farther and faster and carry bigger loads. “
Sikorsky became a partner in the sense of developing the aircraft and then Boeing of course became strategic to them and an extremely important partner.
When Pan Am was heading into issues mainly at the end of the 80s how did your father feel about the following as he still participated in many board meetings even after his retirement?
“He retired at 67 years old. Stayed on as honorary chairman. Shortly after that Pan Am went into a spiral. He certainly lost confidence in Najeeb Halaby (CEO of Pan Am, 1969-1972) early on as did the Board.
He remained active in terms of board decisions particularly on the success of chairmen and the CEO of the company. His involvement in decisions though of selling the Pacific routes to United.
Those were decisions I don’t think he was really brought into cancel for as I don’t think he would have agreed to it. There were things that then CEO, William Seawell felt were critical, the most important assets of the company.
The Pacific, the Pan Am building, Intercontinental Hotels Chain. Those were all things that had to be done, other than the Pacific which he was most likely on board with most of those decisions although I don’t think he was consulted on them but was only informed.
His voice at the Board meetings was heard but whether Management paid attention to him which they did out of respect but I think they made up their own mind on how they were going to run it.
Unfortunately the real tailspin he’d passed on so he never saw the company go down. He died in 1981 so he never saw the company fail. In his final years if someone told him this company was going to go under he wouldn’t have believed it.
He was very involved at the time Halaby was running the airline and was very involved in terminating Halaby. Then Bill Seawall took over. Seawell had a very good run. They even turned a profit for one year and there.
Sewall consulted with him out of courtesy but he wasn’t involved in any decisions. My older brother Charlie was at that time assistant treasurer and then planning officer at Pan Am.
My dad used to try to influence Charlie’s view of where the company would go and he really compromised my brother so he really couldn’t function as people didn’t trust him as he was used to feeding information back and the information he was getting from my father.
People didn’t want to hear it. Halaby exercised the option to buy more 747s and Charlie would have been in the middle of that analysis and whether he was pushed by dad that that was a good idea or don’t do it I had no idea.
Due to the relationship, Charlie got very compromised in terms of his own communications with the senior financial officer of the company, Jim Malone. Eventually, it was untenable where he left and went to work at Bell&L.
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It was more Halaby period than the Seawell period where he was involved. During the Halaby period, there was clear conflict. His office was in the Pan Am building but it was on the 23rd floor while the executive office was on the 46th floor.