Today is Part One of seven in the series on Panagra.
I was born on March 28th, 1947 in Lima Peru where my father, Paul Willey was based with Pan American-Grace Airways. We lived in Lima until the base was moved to Miami in 1955. During that time, we made several trips from Lima to Miami for vacations and to Maine where my father’s family lived. I remember those long intercontinental flights very well, especially the later ones in the DC-6’s and our final trip in a new DC-7B.
All of the flights to Miami in those days required a fuel stop in Panama. On one of these flights in 1955, we were forced to land in the middle of the night on a small dirt strip in Montego Bay, Jamaica because the President of Panama, José Antonio Remón Cantera, had been assassinated that day. The Panamanian government was concerned that the perpetrators might try to hijack any aircraft coming into the airport. We were delayed for several hours until we were able to take off again and continue on our way to Miami.
When my father put together the first printing of “Memories”, I read every page and enjoyed it very much, given my own interest in flying and my memories of living in Lima at the time. Somehow, after his death and our many moves, I lost my copy of the book but retained all of the electronic files in various forms. In 2008, I decided to resurrect the digital files and reprint the book. I have included some additional pictures and stories.
My father learned to fly under the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) in the late 1930’s in Waterville,Maine. Too tall for military flying, he applied for a job with Panagra that landed him in Lima, Peru. His career spanned 40 years of accident free flying in some of the most dangerous routes in the world.
In 1954 we were still living in Lima where he was based flying the South American routes. I had been pestering him for some time go flying with him on one of his training flights. He was hesitant to do that because the Chief Pilot did not like to have other people along on those rides. One night, however, he took me to Limatambo airport to practice night landings in a Panagra DC-6B. I remember having the entire cabin section to myself and standing between the seats in the cockpit as they made repeated take-off and landings. When one of the pilots bounced a landing I made some comment about the quality of the arrival and heard for the first time: “Son, any landing you walk away from is a good landing”.
In 1960 when the jets came to Panagra and the crews got cut, my dad got furloughed. He started looking for another flying job and temporarily flew Chase C-122’s and Twin Beech D-45’s in the jungles of Dutch Guyana (Surinam). Flying from the coast at Paramaribo, several hours into the jungle into 900 foot strips came easy with his Panagra training.
In 1967 he was called back to the airlines when Braniff International acquired Panagra. He went on to fly another thirteen years before retiring at the mandatory age of 60 in 1980 with over 22,000 hours of accident free airline flying logged.
In October of that year, I met him at Chicago O’Hare airport where he was piloting the last leg of his last trip in a Braniff 727-200. It was one of the most beautiful flights I have been on. I sat in the cockpit jump seat as the crew celebrated his last flight. When we arrived in San Antonio, all of the Braniff pilots who were in town met him at the gate in their uniforms and lined up along the jetway as he walked off the plane. What a way to end a career.
I went on to own and fly many aircraft of my own. I often thought about the flying that my dad and his colleagues did in South Americas in the 40’s and 50’s. Many of those memories are described in this book. My father edited and published the first version of Memories in 1997. He died in 2005 at the age of 85. I was at his side in the hospital in Waterville, Maine, the city where he grew up and learned to fly at the Waterville airport (KWVL) 65 years earlier and where I worked as a line-boy and learned to fly 22 years later.
This second version of Memories of Panagra – Pan-American-Grace Airways is my tribute to him, his colleagues, and their memories of flying some of the most difficult routes in the world.
Panagra was removed from the list of United States Flag Carriers when it was incorporated into Braniff Airlines in February 1967. It had operated in South America since its inception in 1929. Those of us who were a part of Panagra have been left with its indelible mark and the contents of this book recount some of these memories.
As of this writing, there is another book, “Flying the Andes” by W. A. Krusen, that covers in great detail the formation and operation of Panagra from the time of its formation in 1929 to its inclusion in Braniff in 1967.
“Memories of Panagra” is just that, recollections of the good, and sometimes bad, days and generally concentrating on the 1940’s and 1950’s. Some of the material is autobiographical but representative of those who participated in Panagra’s history.
I am responsible for the collating and editing of “Memories” and thoroughly enjoyed putting this collection together. Some of the material, which I read as many as four times, provided me with a belly laugh each time.
Thanks to all of those who helped with this project. This includes my wife, Marie, Captain W. S. “Bill” Reid and all of the other contributors who have their names at the header of the pages they wrote.
Punta Gorda, Florida
The Germans with the help of an Austrian, named Von Bauer, formed Sociedad Colombo-Alemana De Transportes Aereos, SCADTA. This was the spearhead, of the German airline penetration into South America. SCADTA began flying from Barranquilla up the Magdalena to Barranco.
By 1926 the Germans had started to fly into almost every South American Country. There was a real concern that they would operate through the Canal Zone and pose even a greater threat to U.S. National Security. The U.S. Government let it be known that they were ready to award mail routes to anyone that could fly Central American and South American routes. NYRBA, New York Rio Buenos Aires, purchased four flying boats and had them in RIO, ready to initiate a service on the East Coast of South America. Richard Hoyt, Juan Trippe and their attorney, “Wild Bill” Donovan were scrambling around trying to get together a consortium to fly these routes ,with a bunch of Yale men that were world war one pilots.
The route bids went out. Trippe had no aircraft, no crews and bid $2.35/mile. NYRBA had aircraft and crews, but when they went to negotiate landing rights, they ran into trouble with the local governments. Yes, the Secretary of State was a Yale man, as was the Post Master General who awarded the routes to Pan Am.
The first flight deadline, Key West to Havana, was met with a chartered airplane and pilot. Many felt that the urgency of the German threat justified the means. Shortly after the first Pan Am flight was completed, Harold Harris, Army Test Pilot on leave, went to Richard Hoyt with the idea of starting an airline. He and Huff Daland, who developed a small aircraft for dusting, along with C. E. Woolman, an etymologist who developed a chemical to eradicate the boll weevil, had dusted vegetable crops in Mexico and then moved onto Peru.
Harris showed Hoyt a map of an air route he had drawn from Texas through Central America and down the west coast of South America. Except for the sector between Ecuador and Panama., there were numerous landing fields on the Pacific side. The only formidable mountain barrier was from Santiago to Mendoza. The bonus was that it was almost on a straight line from New York to Buenos Aires. The legs were within the useful payload range of the current aircraft , 600 miles. Woolman and Harris went to Peru and formed Aerovias Peruanos with Harris as Chief Pilot, General Manager and Vice President. Woolman had done most of the negotiating and returned to the U.S. to start Delta Airlines.
W.R. Grace Co. controlled the west coast of South America, through their steamship routes and was not about to let some outsider into their lucrative territory. They especially were not happy with the prospect of airlines competing with Grace Lines’ steamships. Everyone knew, that unless they got Grace on board, there would be no landing rights on the west coast. Trippe finally started negotiations with Grace. The negotiations culminated in the formation of Pan American-Grace Airways, Panagra, 50% owned by Grace, 50% owned by Pan American. The board of directors was made up of three members from each company. They were pledged not to exert influence when conflicts arose. When a conflict did arise they would meet to form a quorum but not vote. Grace was to attend to the business on the West Coast and Pan Am would run the Operations, no President.
To head up operations they brought Douglas Campbell, Thomas Kirkland and John T. Shannon to Peru. Campbell was a WWI pilot and the first aviator in any American Squadron to shoot down a German plane. Thomas Kirkland was a United States Naval Academy graduate and John Shannon had been in the Army Air Corps. They were very fortunate selections. All three knew how to pick the right people for the right jobs.
Thomas F. Jardine, Air Corps, signed on in 1930 and was number one on the seniority list until he retired in 1966. He served for several years as Chief Pilot. (Pop) Colliver signed on the same year. Walter F. Kimball , Marine Aviator was signed on in 1930 and left for TWA, two years later. There is a 900 foot hill off the end of the runway at Tontuta, New Caledonia, named Kimball Hill. During WWII Kimball lost an engine in a grossly overloaded Marine Corps R4D and crashed into a hill off the end of the runway.
Dinty Moore, the second enlisted man to receive Navy Wings as an NAP signed on in 1931. He was also in the crew of one of the planes that accompanied Admiral Reed on the 1919 NC-4 Flight across the Atlantic. He was not one of those who made the entire crossing. Dinty started flying for Isthmus Airways in Panama in 1922. John Henry Miller and Warren B. Smith signed on in 1931. Warren Smith was to become a legend in Santiago where he was based for 15 years and was known as `The King of the Andes”. C.R. Disher came in 1932 and later served a long stint as Operations Manager. He was a good administrator, and understood pilots.
Fritz Sterling, U.S. Air Corps, Lawyer, Pilot, Chief Pilot during WWII, became Chairman of the Airline Pilots Association Panagra Local. and was a key in keeping the operation safe and the relationship between the company and the pilots on an even keel. He later became Vice President of lFALPA and worked with both ICAO and IATA. J.R. McCleskey, Frank J. Havelick, and Floyd E. Nelson came in 1932. They were all Air Corps products who had signed up with Pan American’s Chinese subsidiary China National Airways (CNAC), later CAT, and then Air America in 1931.
This was really a talented group that established a tradition of excellence. From December of 1943 when a Panagra DC-3 crashed near Conception Hill in Peru, enroute from Arequipa to Lima, killing all but one passenger, until May 12, 1983, when Braniff went bankrupt, not one Panagra pilot was involved in a fatal accident. Forty years of flying some of the most challenging terrain in the world without a fatality is truly a remarkable record.
On May 14th 1929 Dinty Moore picked up the mail flown into Panama by Charles E. Lindbergh, flying a plane chartered by Pan Am. Dinty flew his chartered Sikorsky 38 to Talara Peru, via Rey Island, Buenaventura, Tumaco, Salinas, Guayaquil. In Talara the mail was transferred to a single engine Fairchild F2C and was flown by Pop Colliver to Mollendo, Peru. The Fairchild was chosen because of its ability to perform at relatively high altitudes in aerial photographic flights in the United States. Panagra P-1 is appropriately hung in the National Aerospace Museum in the same room with the Eastern Airlines DC-3.
July 31, 1929, service was expanded to Santiago Chile, again using the F2C. In August of 1929, eight Ford Tri-Motors were acquired and in January of 1930 service was started across the Cordillera from Santiago to Mendoza and Buenos Aires, an eight and a half hour flight. Before it had taken 2 days by railroad or a months sail around the horn. In 1934 the first DC-2 went into service between Lima and Panama. The DC-2 gave Panagra an aircraft that could finally outperform the Germans JU-52. By 1938 the Germans had Deutche Surcursal in Peru, Lineo Aero Boliviano in Bolivia, Syndicato Condor in Brazil, SEDTA in Ecuador, and of course SCATA in Colombia The Germans were tying this all into one big transportation web across the South American Continent.
It just so happened that my father, who got his Masters In Forestry at Yale and had been in Montevideo and Buenos Aires in 1914-15 with the Office of Naval Intelligence, was sent to Rio in 1938 to help confirm that this web was really the nucleus of the German Abehwer ( Intelligence) in South America. The United States put so much pressure on the local governments that by 1938, 40%. of Aero Boliviano was purchased by Panagra. Deutshe Surursal was shut down. Aeronaves Peruanos was sold to Fawcett, Panagra holding a 20% share. Finally, the Ecuadorian government gave in when the U.S. threatened to cut off their fuel supplies and Panagra took over SEDTAS Ecuadorian routes. SCATA became Avianca, a Pan American subsidiary. Syndicato Condor became Pan Air do Brasil, a Pan American subsidiary.
Panagra had done its job. It had created the infrastructure and routes that had displaced the German influence in South America and built a passenger airline that was affectionately called the Worlds Friendliest Airline.
Take care, enjoy the day, and join me tomorrow when we continue our series on Panagra.
August 13, 2021