A Legacy Aloft

A Legacy Aloft

The legacy of Pan American World Airways is arguably unmatched by any other commercial airline in the history of U.S. aviation. Founded in 1927 by Juan T. Trippe, Pan Am mapped new aerial routes around the world, building a global transportation network and influencing revolutionary developments in aviation technology. With its innovative advertising campaigns, Pan Am also captured the imagination of generations of travelers, imbuing the concept of international air travel with a romantic and exotic allure.

The evolution of Pan Am's Flying Clippers
The evolution of Pan Am's Flying Clippers

Clipper Chronicles

Cover of New Horizons magazine depicting the iconic painting by Gordon Grant entitled "Yankee Clippers Sail Again"
Cover of New Horizons magazine depicting the iconic painting by Gordon Grant entitled "Yankee Clippers Sail Again"

The term “Clipper” evokes images of Pan Am’s iconic aircraft. But how did they derive their famous moniker? Founder Juan Trippe came from a family that made its fortune from the clipper sailing ships of the nineteenth century, and he noticed many parallels between the sailing steamships of olden days and the modern flying boats of the 1930s. In his mind, the flying boats were essentially modern versions of fast sailing ships, a notion portrayed in Pan Am artwork over the years.


Just as every steamship had a name, so too would Pan Am’s planes. Trippe believed it would encourage people to fly aboard his aircraft and he used this as a marketing ploy. Beginning with the American Clipper in 1931, all Pan Am aircraft would subsequently bear the Clipper name, ultimately leading the company to trademark its use. Many of the early aircraft had names associated with exotic destinations, such as the Honolulu Clipper. Eventually, Pan Am’s fleet became so large and diverse that it devised naming themes according to aircraft type. For example, all Boeing 747s were named after seas or oceans, while the Boeing 747SPs had patriotic names, such as Clipper Constitution.

The Fearless Flying Boats

Artistic sketch of a Martin M-130 flying boat flown by Pan American Airways
Artistic sketch of a Martin M-130 flying boat flown by Pan American Airways

Few aircraft have occupied the imagination of the American public more than Pan Am’s early Clippers. Even today, these flying boats continue to evoke a sense of romance and mystery. Pan Am’s long-range seaplanes made transoceanic commercial aviation possible, and due to their pioneering achievements and exotic allure, they were a constant source of public discourse and media fanfare.


The sketch at right depicts a Martin M-130, of which Pan Am owned three: the China Clipper, the Philippine Clipper, and the Hawaiian Clipper. In November 1935, the China Clipper flew the first transpacific airmail route. The Hawaiian Clipper followed with the first transpacific passenger flight in October 1936, flying from San Francisco to Manila, with stops in Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam.  Pan Am also used Sikorsky S-38 and S-42 flying boats primarily on its Latin American routes.

The Bold Boeing B-314

The Golden Age

The Jet Age

Artistic illustration of the Boeing 747 flown by Pan American Airways
Artistic illustration of the Boeing 747 flown by Pan American Airways

The 747 Superjet - Ushering in the Global Era


By the late 1960s, airports grew increasingly congested as air travel became more accessible. Always one to stay ahead of the curve, Juan Trippe approached Boeing about building even bigger aircraft, which he believed would alleviate congestion and allow Pan Am to retain a competitive edge. The result was the iconic Boeing 747, the world’s first “jumbo jet,” which was a milestone in aviation history. Pan Am’s first 747 went into service in 1970 and newer variants are still in production today.

Although the 747 gave Pan Am's fleet a distinct edge over its competitors for a time, it was not enough to save a company deep in debt, and the company ultimately folded in 1991. Pan Am's last flight was a 747 flown from Miami International Airport, a final departure that left behind an enduring legacy – a "shrunken" world connected by commercial aviaton.  Time and distance, once formidable barriers of travel, had been conquered. The world had landed squarely in the Global Era.


The System of the Flying Clippers

Cover of brochure entitled "Wealth of the Other Americas"
Cover of brochure entitled "Wealth of the Other Americas"

Given its geographic location, Miami quickly became the "Gateway to the Americas" for Pan Am, serving as the launch point for its operations and many of its early flights to the Caribbean and Latin America. The region was a hotbed of commercial aviation during the 1930s as Germany, France, the United States, and others sought to expand their political and economic influence in the region. From there, Pan Am began to branch out, establishing a network of routes that eventually spanned the globe.


In addition to Miami, three other U.S. cities served as Pan Am’s primary gateways to the world: New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. Even today, the company’s lasting legacy can be felt in these locations and others throughout the world.


Click on these locations on the map below to study how Pan Am left its mark on the world.


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2. Taylor, B. Pan American’s ocean clippers. Blue Ride Summit, PA: Aero, 1991.

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4. Allen, O. The Airline Builders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1981.

5. Lombardi, M. "Seventh Heaven: 50 years ago, Boeing and Pan Am revolutionized travel with the 707", Boeing Frontiers (July 2007).

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7. Wikipedia (2018). Boeing 314 Clipper. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_314_Clipper

8. "The name Clipper", New Horizons, v. 11, no. 5, Feb. 1941, pp. 31-32.

9. "The Yankee Clippers sail again", Pan American Air Ways Supplement, March 1939.