Aviation’s Golden Era That Began in Key West
When you hear Pan American Airlines or Pan Am what comes to your mind? Perhaps the new television show, perhaps the ugly side of humanity with the Lockerbie bombing, or maybe the bankruptcy of an American corporate giant. Perchance visions of palm trees, wide expanses of ocean, first class service, and flying boats called ‘Clippers’ dance across your mind.
As a pilot and former naval aviator, I am drawn to the golden era of flying boats and romance of flying over the ocean. Gigantic by early 20th century standards, aircraft like the Sikorsky S-38 and S-40 and the Boeing 314 created long distance international travel. The crews that operated these airplanes in the early 1930’s were as much merchant seamen as aviators.
Pan Am’s first office was based in Key West, Florida. On the corner of Whitehead and Caroline Street. Today it is the site of Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill. Quite fittingly, as ‘Kelly’ refers to Kelly McGinnis, the actress, of the movie Top Gun. There is a sign outside to commemorate the historical significance.
The airlines first route was from Key West to Havana, delivering mail and then passengers. Reinforcing the continued trade and economic relationship between these two cities. The airline grew very quickly and soon moved north to Miami and then on to New York’s JFK airport in later years leaving Key West far behind.
Pan Am was created by the General ‘Hap’ Arnold, the General of the U.S. Air Force and his former Air Force Chief of Staff, General Spaatz as a shell company that was meant to counter the German owned Colombian based airline SCADTA. The fear was that the German’s were scouting routes with which to bomb the United States. The generals were able to raise money from Wall St. and get their fledgling airline in the air delivering mail by October 19, 1927. At that time they were leasing a tiny airplane that was incapable of commercial passenger service. Although within three years the first of the ‘Clippers’ began to arrive.
Operating over the ocean, relying on water landings, and moving both mail and passengers faster than had ever been accomplished in history harkened back to the era of the great Clipper sailing ships of the 1840’s and 50’s. Every Pan Am aircraft carried a unique ‘Clipper’ name on their nose. Flight crews began to wear Naval style uniforms instead of older leather jackers and scarves. Stewardesses were trained first as nurses and aircraft were set up for what still took days per journey. Bedrooms, dining rooms and lounges were the norm with prices to destinations like Manila costing almost $15,000, in today’s dollars, one way per passenger in the early days. What it must have been like to travel in such luxury and comfort.
The more advanced and most commonly thought of representation of the flying boat were the Boeing 314’s. The normally flew the very long Pacific legs. Marketing images of these large planes with hula girls and palm trees in the back ground is exactly what comes to me when I think of this era. I can even hear the ukelele’s as the sound track as the four mighty engines roar to life and lift the albatross aloft as she heads to the next Polynesian destination. Such is how the flying boat era and passenger travel came to a close in the late 30’s as the world went to war.
The mighty Boeing 314 was so advanced that they were all commandeered by the U.S. Government and pressed into military service. They served their roll well but the war effort greatly increased the evolution of aircraft, creating new pressurized planes and then jet power that relegated the flying boat to a bygone era.
Pan Am grew to become one of the largest U.S. corporations and the de facto U.S. flagged international airline for many years. Then a combination of the 70’s oil crisis, corporate mismanagement, airline deregulation and ultimately international terrorism bankrupted the company.
When I walk down the sidewalk past Ernest Hemingway’s house I tend to keep going to Caroline Street, just so I can turn the corner and look up at the old sign denoting Pan Am’s office. I think of those big Pan Am Clippers, their well trained flight crews, exotic island destinations and all the rum that must have been enjoyed in their luxurious cabins all those years ago and I have to smile. Then I walk another block to Captain Tony’s, grab a beer and get out of the heat. Sounds sort of like a song I once heard. Another great day in Key West.