The Early Days of Caribbean Aviation

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By Steven Keats
CJ Contributor

Many people recognize the name of the founder of Pan American Airways, Juan Trippe.

But another name, Basel (BL) Rowe is known by very few — yet he is responsible for providing the germinating seed for the Pan American empire and created a surviving history of the genesis of aviation through the promotion of philately, or the study of stamps.

First Flight and Commemorative envelopes issued by Post Offices, known as “covers,” were used to promote new routes and created a market for collectors.  International airmail lanes were called FAM- (XX) designating the contract route.

If you’ve been to Dinner Key Marina in Miami, you’ll notice the low slung building with winged friezes. It’s the Miami City Hall. The building was actually purposed as Pan Am’s seaplane base serving the Caribbean and South America with many aircraft including Sikorski and Commodore amphibians.

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We are going on a journey using First Day Flight Covers to experience the glamorous and glory days of the 1920’s and 30’s. Fledgling air lines in America and abroad expanded their tentacle routes to almost any bay to have flat water or a semi-smooth landing strip.

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The development of the early airlines depended on mail contracts to provide the base cargo revenue.

Many routes received additional government subsidy. Air route expansion became a matter of national interest as the Second World War approached. American dominance became threatened by none other than by Germany, right in our own Hemisphere. But that is later in the story.

Let’s go back to Basel Rowe and Juan Trippe.

BL Rowe was one the founders of the three aircraft company called West Indies Ariel Express.

This signed Cover from 1927 was carried from Santo Domingo to Port Au Prince on board the Fairchild F-2, “Santa Maria”.

The ambitious Juan Trippe whose newly established   Aviation Corporation of America (soon to be merged with Pan Am), held the mail contract from Key West to Havana.  But they had no flyable aircraft to fulfill the contract. That is where Basil Rowe stepped up and chartered the “La Nina” flown by Cy Caldwell that led to the start of a beautiful friendship.  Trippe bought out Rowe and his partners’ company and installed him as one of the founding Chief Pilots for the ambitious expansion plans

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The Lindbergh Promotions

Lindbergh’s most significant flight in the region was his February 1928 tour in the Spirit of St Louis advocating air mail routes between Santo Domingo, Port-au-Prince and Havana.

There were only about 3,000 pieces of mail carried and a number were destroyed in a later hurricane. This piece was one of the surviving covers in the hurricane batch. Notice what the rain did to the envelope.

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Charles Lindberg and his wife, Anne (Morrow) early on connected with Trippe and Igor Sikorski, who designed most of the amphibians employed over the years by Pan Am. With his fame on fire, he undertook several  goodwill tours of the Caribbean including Central America, the Eastern Caribbean from San Juan with stops in  St Thomas, Antigua, St Lucia, Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname. Do any Virgin Islanders recall the original name of the now, Lindbergh Bay?

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Pan American’s FAM-6  flew between Miami the Northern Greater Antilles in durable Ford Tri-Motors and Fokker F-series, holding about 8 passengers and mail, these aircraft were a mainstay of the Pan Am land fleet.

This Cover is particularly note worthy because it is autographed by Pan Am’s three chief pilots who shared duties in the left seat along the flight’s legs.  Basil Rowe we know;  Swinson is the least known, and then there is Edwin Musik who later was responsible for incredible logistical task of developing the Pacific China Clipper routes.

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With approaching storm clouds in Europe, a serious game of intrigue was being played out in the Caribbean and South America. German interests partnering with Colombian businessmen established SCADTA (Sociedad Colombiana De Transportes Aereos).

Operating with Junkers and Wals float planes and landing on flat, long river stretches, SCADTA posed a threat to American interests.

During the mid-1930’s, the American government became fearful that Germany was getting too close to the Panama Canal and unless an American counter airline was expanded who knows what could have resulted.

Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways now became known as the Chosen Airline and went on a massive expansion spree in the coming decades.

SCADTA bears importance because it also financed a private postal system which the Colombian government could not afford. Ultimately through mergers and acquisitions SCADTA evolved into today’s Avianca owned by Brazilian Summa Group who recently digested the TACA Group of Central America.

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Junkers Float Plane on the Magdalena River

The Push to South America Pan Am competed with the New York and Buenos Aires Line ; NYRBA who flew sleek Commodore amphibians from New York and of course stopped in Miami and a number of layovers in the West Indies.

Pan American rapidly expanded deep in to South America on both coasts. On the west, it partnered with Grace Shipping to form Panagra which was eventually sold off to Braniff.

On the east coast the routes extended to Buenos Aires and on the Atlantic is when some ruthless business activities took place.

NYRBA’s owner, Ralph O’Neill, a former war ace had the planes and infrastructure. One of Trippe’s allies was a postmaster refused to let out any contracts to NYRBA. Other business and political obstacles forced O’Neill to sell out to Trippe in what he described,  “A shotgun wedding after a damnable rape”.

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Pan Am took over the Commodores and based them at Dinner Key. One can only imagine boarding one of these eight-passenger intimate travel machines, flying only several thousand feet over blue seas and rugged mountain coastlines on their way to Rio.

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The Caribbean As a Way Station

As the 1930’s and early 40’s passed, the Caribbean route structures became layovers rather  than destinations. With fully-developed networks down south, the last phase of extension in our hemisphere is ironically a first flight in a Boeing 314 Clipper from Miami to West Africa.

Ironic because the flight departed on at 3 AM on December 6, 1941.

The flight progressed to San Juan, Port of Spain, Belem, and Natal before crossing the Atlantic and terminating in Lagos. The next day Pearl Harbour was bombed.

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Above: a Boeing 314

From being an incubator of international travel, to a layover to South America, the Caribbean has been transformed again as a destination.

As contrails cross the skies, aircraft traveling at over 500 knots inherited air space once flown by a few adventurous pilots flying at barely 200 knots.

The glamour of air travel for most of us is gone, but the sense of adventure can still be anticipated in the skies as we get closer to our Caribbean destination.

Flight Covers from Keats Collection.

Steven Keats is VP/partner Kestrel Liner Agencies LLP. His interest in stamp collecting grew from clipping  cancelled stamps from the disbursement accounts sent by the shipping line’s agents in the Caribbean in the late 1970’s. First Flight Cover Collection evolved through the mentorship of Ken Lawrence of North Miami who was one of the leading philatelists in the 1980s.