“When we got up, a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put up the signal for the men at the station.” Orville Wright’s Diary, December 17, 1903
That was the day of the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk. I was born the same day (December 17) thirty-four years later, and in 1960 the Chance-Vought Aerospace Company gave me a pin for flying one of their F8 Crusaders 1000 mph. It seems impossible that time could collapse so dramatically in 57 years.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am, at the remarkable coincidences that miraculously come together to connect the pieces of our lives as we drift toward our final destination. I had another one of those experiences last week.
Following WWI, 27-year-old Juan Trippe a Yale graduate and global visionary, who had trained as a Naval Aviator but never saw combat, founded what would become the world’s greatest and most important airline. It was never part of my grand design, but fortune smiled on me as I was trying to escape life in a big Los Angeles law firm. Pan Am offered me a way out and I latched on. I stayed for 20 years.
Sadly, poor management government animosity and predatory competition drove Pan Am into bankruptcy in 1991. The Pan Am Historical Foundation is the last vestige of its remarkable legacy. Now, thanks to the generosity of its members and a number of generous donors the Pan Am story has been dramatized and is currently showing on PBS in a three-part mini-series called Across the Pacific.
Basically, I’m an introvert. I don’t like crowds, cocktail parties or reunions. I love my friends – grade school, high school, college, law school, military Pan Am – and work hard at keeping up with them. We correspond regulary by email, text, Instagram, and Facebook. I know what they’re up to, and they know follow me by reading the blog, But, my Pan Am friends have a special place in the heirarchy for several reasons. It was a special time in our lives; we were young, mostly single, and shared adventures in some of the most exciting and exotic places on the face of the planet. A special group of people at a special time in our lives.
One personal story… While we were watching Episode 3 of Across the Pacific the other night, the story focused on Wake Island –the missing piece in Juan Trippe’s Trans-Pacific puzzle. No airline had figured out how to cross the Pacific. None of the aircraft in production, not even Pan Am’s Clipper Flying Boats, had range enough to do the job. The key was to find a spot to land and refuel in the mid-Pacific. Wake Island is tiny coral atoll midway between Hawaii and Guam just big enough to support a small maintenance base with an interior lagoon to that had to be cleared of coral heads in order to land a Flying Boat. It’s a great story.
My story isn’t that big, but it includes Wake Island. Because of the winds (prevailing westerlies) and lack of navigation aids I was sometimes assigned as a navigator on the 707 flying between Hawaii and Tokyo that stopped for refueling at Wake. Because they didn’t need me on the leg to Tokyo, I got off at Wake Island and stayed until the return flight 24 or 48 hours later. Wake was an important staging area for the B29 raids on Tokyo in WWII, but there was nothing but a weather station, runway and a couple of Quonset huts by the time I got there. There are no beaches. It’s all rough coral although the water is crystal clear. I walked around the island, swam in the lagoon and ate in the Navy mess hall, but I found something there that still has a place in our bookcase. M didn’t know the story but midway as we were watching I told her the story.
In one of the rocky coves on the island I discovered this remarkable example of nature’s ingenuity. It’s a tiny conch shell encased in a pyramid of coral. The shell is very fragile now. It was more intact when I found it, but it’s still a miracle that millions of tiny organisms could, over time construct this perfect artwork.
I’ve loved all the jobs and phases of my life, but the Pan Am years were particularly rich – so many interesting people, places, and adventures. Wilbur Wright wrote the eulogy for a friend and aviation pioneer named Octave Chanute, which David McCullough quotes in his Wright Brothers biography. It might equally apply to Juan Trippe who deserves much more space than I’ve given him here.
“His writings were so lucid as to provide an intelligent understanding of the nature of the problems of flight to a vast number of persons who would probably never have given the matter study otherwise… In patience and goodness of heart he has rarely been surpassed. Few men were more universally respected.”