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.
He didn’t run across people on a daily basis. There were a lot of old managers there who would stop by and talk to him. That was sort of out of respect for him.”
What values did your father have that he placed on you and the likes of Pan Am that made it the company that it was?
“There were a couple of values that were signature to him. His tenaciousness was well known.
He would get an idea and use every means to achieve it. He used to have an expression saying “Don’t you see” and that would be assuming someone would disagree with his argument and he would just relentlessly over days or how long it took to force a decision through to make people, whether people in the company, board members or politicians.
He would be relentless in his doggedness for getting someone to agree with him and that’s fallen through in terms of decisions on aircraft. He was always a leader than pushing the envelope.
It was getting the right specifications so the plane could fly farther, carry a bigger load, fly higher, fly faster. He was so tenacious in pushing his vision and so persuasive in making people come along with his vision that he was successful.
There were obviously things that didn’t work out for him, his vision for the chosen instrument or the single international airline was never fulfilled. Probably sometime in the 50s that was never going to happen.
I was listening to a Kennedy speech the other day. Kennedy’s going on about how dad’s come out with a press announcement that he was ordering the Concorde. Kennedy had planned to make an announcement the next day that the U.S was backing the SST.
Kennedy felt that Pan Am’s position to announce they were placing an order for 8 Concordes was undermining his position and what he was trying to accomplish. Kennedy was accusing dad of being unpatriotic in terms of the balance of payments, undermining the success of the SST program, and threatening in the conversation that he’s going to undermine dad’s single airline.
That vision for one single airline, he had given up on that because politically after the war it was never going to be a reality. Too many political players and too many domestic carriers, carrying political influence who were going to undermine that vision to ever happen.
That was one of the few visions he was unsuccessful in accomplishing. His vision for the success of aircraft was there.
The jets, that whole decision, the process to get Douglas and Boeing to compete with one another to build a transoceanic jet ahead of its time was just an example of his dogged tenaciousness that was just uncompromising. In terms of his values that is the one that in a business sense stands out.
One of the personal ones that he took great pride in was integrity. He felt that a person’s integrity in business and life was one of the most important benchmarks of an individual’s success.
He valued his integrity tremendously and he used to tell a story in the early days of China when Pan Am was negotiating acquiring interest in CNAC which it eventually did but the Chinese in that negotiation and subsequently were always looking for the bribes where you would pay them as it was an accepted practice in China.
The Chinese government then appoints them as their purchasing agent as they realize that Pan Am was honest and was never going to put their own interests ahead of China’s. In terms of Family, that value was certainly one he brought up in all of us to be one of the most important parts of your character.
He was very fond of Kipling and Kipling’s poem “Walk with kings, keep the common touch”. That was another virtue he thought was important. No matter who you meet in life, never lose touch with the rally of who you are.
You are just another individual and don’t take yourself too important. He was very self-effacing. He was not a man with an ego which is sort of surprising given the stature of what he created in the industry. He had great pride but had no sense of great ego who was or what he had done.”
What experience in his life caused him to bring such values to you and the company?
“It was part of his character. I would read letters home from his school days at the Hill School and his tenaciousness in debates at school.
He was a highly competitive individual in a very understated way. That became so ingrained in his character which is why he became such a leader.”
Tell us how your father was what people consider to be the Elon Musk of today. Ultimately what was his psychology that caused him to be the entrepreneur of the time that he was?
“I think the reason he was so successful as an entrepreneur as he had his vision of the future beyond what most people he dealt with. Who would have conceived that crossing the Pacific in 1935 would be a critical step in the development of an airline?
The growth all through Latin America was ahead of its time. His relationship with the U.S government. Getting the government to share in that vision. During the war years, his vision of an air bridge across the South Atlantic to Africa probably saved Montgomery’s troops.
It was just a vision that was ahead of its time. The fact that he had it and could communicate it in this dogged sort of unwavering uncompromising trait in his character. He had this vision that was stronger and clearer than others in the industry and he was doggedly going to make sure it happened.
That is why he would be today and would be considered today to be such a successful entrepreneur. He was so goal-oriented and so stubborn in his focus on achieving those goals.
Whatever it was. Getting a route across to China or developing another generation of aircraft. It was that vision and his determination to make that vision happen that set him apart.”
What was the biggest lesson that your father taught you in life?
“Work hard. Set your goals high. Don’t compromise. Value your integrity. Once you lose your integrity, you can’t get it back. Don’t yield, don’t give up. Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you are successful don’t get an ego.
He was remarkably laid back in the sense that he would not let his self-importance get in the way of being a normal person. The guy was adored and cherished as a god-like as all the stewardesses and pilots had this huge respect for him and am constantly amazed how he is put on this pedestal.
At the end of the day, he made mistakes in various ventures in life such as real estate ventures so he was human. I am constantly amazed at people who hold him to a higher standard which he didn’t hold to himself.
He was just a guy who had a vision that was unique and was stubbornly going to achieve that vision. Had Elon Musk been around he would have thought they would have been much smarter than he is.
The world of business in the 40s, 50s, and 60s was small. The business council would all get together, have meetings, and talk about what was good for the country and for business.
There were a handful of important guys and they were all friends with one another. That has changed today. It is much harsher and people don’t have respect for one another.
Eisenhower was a very good friend of theirs. The presidents, he knew them all. They were also normal people in his view.”
What do you say to your father ‘s enemies such as Ralph O’Neill (of NYRBA), John F. Kennedy (Concorde order), President Nixon (Marriott Contract) and others who all had difficulties with your father at a certain point in time (the list growing larger after the war)? Was it jealousy for Pan Am’s success?
“I don’t think so. Kennedy, he did not get along with. He used to tell a story of how he didn’t get along with Jack Kennedy’s father as he tried to make the airline industry subsidiaries of shipping companies.
Juan was 28 years old then, flew up to Hyannis port and sat on a porch talking to Joe Kennedy about the future of aviation. Kennedy was so adamant that Juan will do what I tell him to do and let the shipping companies, particularly his shipping company get control of aviation and Latin America.
My father wouldn’t budge. His stubbornness and tenaciousness disagreed with Kennedy. He had been asked to stay the night at Hyannis Port. When he was agreeing with what Joe Kennedy wanted he was essentially dismissed.
He went back down on the beach and the tide was high. He couldn’t get his seaplane back into the water. He remembered Teddy Kennedy being too young to really help, Jack and Bobby being no help at all, and the older brother Joe being a very fine man helping him get his plane back in the water.
It was very unfair but it was an image of Jack and Bobby being more aligned with their father’s personality. I don’t know why he ever got along with Jack nor anything to do with Bobby, they didn’t cross paths but Lydon Johnson and Magdemere were part of the Kennedy dynasty and got along very very well with my father.
There’s a wonderful story dad used to tell about when they were just putting the order in for the 747 and Boeing was trying to get enough orders (they had enough orders with Pan Am) as they were just about to launch it and President Johnson at the time extremely concerned about hyperinflation telling American industries that they had to put off some major projects and the 747 was considered one which was going to be highly inflationary.
That message got back to Bill Allen and Bill Allen called dad. Dad went down to see Johnson. Johnson said go see Magdemere. “He really knows more about this than I do. Try and convince him”.
He goes over to Magdemere, they spend an hour going through the economics of the 747, its importance in terms of air defense, the balance of payments implications, and a lot of technical airworthiness.
Facts that he presented in this meeting with Magdemere. Magdemere said to dad that he was totally convinced. He went to pull out a letter and wrote something, which dad didn’t see what it was.
Magdemere said let’s go see Johnson. They went back to the White House and Magdemere said to Johnson that “Trippe has made a compelling case and by the way, I was wrong on the aircraft Lockheed ordered instead of the 747.
I should have gone with the Boeing 747 for the Defense Department. The plane has to be built. I feel so strongly about it, here is my resignation.” Magdemere had resigned because he felt he had made a strategic mistake.
It wasn’t intended but was meant to be a statement. Johnson gives dad Magdemeres resignation letter so his relationship with Washington was pretty darn good most of the time.
A lot of the political image that dad had a lot of political enemies following the 50s and 60s comes from Hollywood. The Aviator (Film) about Howard Hughes was shown to be a nutcase at the end but it portrayed dad as having a few political friends in Washington but an arrogance that frankly didn’t exist.
There may have been a Pan Am arrogance of who they were but certainly, dad was not arrogant. It was so big and so powerful in the 40s and 50s that it was easy to take shots at the big ones and before deregulation, routes were handed out as political support.
Whether it was Braniff or Northwest, each regional carrier had a political base to help them. Pan Am was seen as too big and too powerful. It was never going to be the chosen instrument as it was too big.
Deregulation comes in and it’s too late for Pan Am to recapture its position in the marketplace. They lost too much ground to the domestics and to the foreign carriers who were also flying directly into each one of these cities.
There was an element of hostility in some quarters of Washington. It was not conversation about the SST that Kennedy had decided to make Pan Am an enemy. There were lots of things Pan Am did that were very important and continued into the 60s to be very important in Washington.
I have a friend who is planning to go to India sometime next year and they were remarking that the new American ambassador to India’s parents lived in Los Angeles and they both worked for Pan Am.
For some reason I don’t understand, he got some award a year ago in Berlin at the Pan Am club, out near the Intercontinental there. He was given keys to the city in Berlin by the mayor in the Pan Am club.
There is some kind of relationship but this friend of mine planning to go to India said “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we could get Pan Am crews to have a tour of the embassy”. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Pan Am was more important in India than the state department.
When Jackie Kennedy visited India in the 60s, she stayed with Jerry Gerlad, the director for Pan Am in India. If you were doing business in India you went to the Pan Am office and the Pan Am director for introductions to the Indian business community.
They were in many respects not just in India but across the globe, they had more prestige and influence than the State Department or the ambassador. The relationship with Pan Am was pretty solid across all that period.
In almost every country there is an example of it. Dad had retired but he was going to Afghanistan and he was staying at the Intercontinental hotel. He was an avid golfer, he used to think a golf course was important to a country’s tourism.
He looked outside the window at this park with an attractive-looking building and said “That would be a great clubhouse and we could put a golf course right through that park”. Well, it was the palace.
The Pan Am manager in Afghanistan knew the palace, had the relationship. Pan Am didn’t fly into Afghanistan at that point but it had a technical assistance program with the local airline, Ariana. It had so much influence in Burma, Pakistan, Indonesia. Sukarno (1st president of Indonesia), didn’t have his own plane so he used to charter Pan Am planes.
There was a story of one of the pursers on a B707 that Sukarno had chartered and the purser was recruited by the CIA to keep track of him. It had so many connections over such a long period of time where it had established itself. All over Africa, all over the Middle East, all over Asia.
The managers and directors of the countries were real Pan Am employees who had been in these stations for years. Local ambassadors would come in and seek the director’s advice on all sorts of things.
The relationship with the State Department was always very strong. Lots of stories on how Pan Am was involved with the CIA and lots of them were true.
Warren Pine was Station manager for Pan Am in Cuba and was working for the CIA in the 50s when everything was confiscated. I spent a year working for Pan Am in Saigon and was recruited by the CIA.
My boss in Saigon said “Be careful with how much you get involved. I did it for years in Venezuela before I was moved to Saigon and they just take over your life).
Pan Am in Saigon was the second busiest airport for Pan Am outside of JFK. They had all the R&R flights. My job was as a military traffic manager there. The local coordinator if things went wrong who they could call on.
The R&R flights, Troop passenger flights, and 2-3 commercial flights a week. We also had a 727 leased to Air Vietnam.”
Do you feel they destroyed his dream over time (mainly in the 70’s)?
“The 747 order with the recession crippled the airline. The fact that they were flying 747s into American Samoa, the route structure was trying to protect themselves. The Pacific route case was another example of a route case that went against Pan Am because Continental had more political influence.
It wasn’t that Pan Am had enemies, Robert Six (CO CEO 36-80) had the greater political pull in Texas with Johnson at the time.
Pan Am would have served the Central Pacific and all the Islands of the Central Pacific all more efficiently. Continental was going without any base to draw on. Pan Am had a big operation in Guam and obviously a huge operation in Hawaii to put together the regional air service to support it.
At that point, I was working with Intercontinental Hotels and we were being asked to put together a chain of hotels called “Intercontinental Island Inn’s” in support of the Pacific route case. In the end, we still lost it. That wasn’t because Pan Am had enemies.
Continental had just more political strength. Pan Am was viewed as just being too big in Asia although Northwest and TWA were in Asia making it no means of a Pan Am monopoly. It was not because of antagonism but just because of the raw politics. Other airlines were given the right to come in and share these routes.”
When President Bush set out to save Pan Am for the last time in the late 80’s did you feel it was out of respect for your father?
“George Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush was one of my dad’s closest friends. George Bush 41 was his godson. There was a relationship. I don’t think George Bush ever did very much to save Pan Am at that stage.
I’m not sure it was salvageable. Certainly, Lockerbie was the end of it. It was even before Lockerbie. It was pretty far down financially. I’m not sure what he could have done at that point.
There was a personal relationship with the Bush family. That is without question but I’m not sure in terms of brokering a deal to make Delta. Lockerbie was the end of it. There was no salvaging it after that but even before that I’m not sure Delta restructuring a Pan American Airways in Latin America would have kept the name alive for a bit but Delta wasn’t going to create a competitive airline for themselves.
They were wedded to the Delta brand. The political problems Pan Am had been on an administrative level. The CAB was very antagonistic but it was more Northwest, Delta. Every airline had its own political faction and strength.
Pan Am really was an international airline without a home where they could count on for political support. New York was their headquarters but New York didn’t view Pan Am in the way Jetblue is felt today to be part of New York.
Pan Am was in New York, Miami, California. It touched every state in some way as an international carrier. It was homeless in terms of a political base that would be supportive.
I hope that he could have done more though. It did fall under his watch. Dad was gone by then but I’m sure Bush was a sympathetic president to Pan Am’s interest but there wasn’t much he could do to save it.
What was your father doing to make the moon mission possible?
“He didn’t do anything. That was purely public relations that somebody in the public just began to talk about a Moon flight and took it upon themselves to make it a story and take reservations. I don’t believe dad even knew about it until suddenly it became a public relations story.
The SST was something he would have like to have seen happen. I’m not sure he thought it would have happened in his lifetime. Lindbergh was adamantly opposed to it and they continued to have a very close relationship.”
What other projects and dreams did your father have for Pan Am that are not very well known to date?
“He was focused on the SST. He also saw a great future in Executive Aviation and had great hopes for the joint-venture with Falcon. In terms of another generation of aircraft, the 747 was really the last one he had any significant involvement with.
The SST they discussed it, debated it. They really didn’t like the Concorde at all. They did not see a way that the SST was ever going to make with the environmental problems, engineering issues.
He was still more for mass air transport and getting the market to grow with the widebody and tourist-class. He was much more interested in seeing that happen rather than an SST for the business travel.
If someone was going to build an SST, certainly Pan Am was going to be operating one if there was any sense at all. They weren’t going to lose that competitive edge but he didn’t believe it was going to happen.
The 747 was his and Bill Allens Swanson.”
What relationship do you hold with former Pan Amer’s today?
“A great relationship. I only worked for Pan Am for one year. So much of the relationship today is among the flight attendants. They are by and large younger, have a great organization and immersive commodity.
Pan Am historical foundation was one of the things I started out with we did tours to Cuba four 4 years ago, then we went to Iran, South East Asia, Morroco, and 2 years ago before COVID closed us down we went to Egypt.
Now there’s talk we’ll go to India, but these Pan Am tours are fun. One of our last big projects it to get control of the Pan Am film archive, digitize the film, save them and create a digital museum.”
Is there any other point that we have forgotten that you feel is important to cover?
“I grew up the youngest son and it was so well established. By the time I was 15 years old, aware of the airline and traveling on the airline it’s only really been since the chairman of the foundation that I’ve read into the history of the airline.
My relationship with dad as the youngest son was a unique relationship. He was an incredibly available father, a great role model, great values. I should also say that my mother was an invaluable partner.
I’m not sure he would have been anywhere near successful if she hadn’t been there to understand him, talk him through things. He had a hopeless memory for names and she had a photographic memory for names so they were an incredibly good team.
She came from a privileged background and he did not come from a privileged background although he went to Yale and had a lot of young successful friends who were sons of wealthy parents. Her brother being Secretary of State, it was a much smaller and simpler world in those days.”
AviationSource and the author wish to thank Mr. Trippe for this opportunity.
Ultimately some questions behind Pan Am’s story have been answered putting to rest the secret behind not only Juan Trippe’s connection with presidents of the U.S and leaders of the world but the ultimate secret of what led to the demise of the carrier in 1991. A loss of political power.