Pan American Airways in Central America

Terminal 3

Departures – Level 2 - Pre-Security

Pan American Airways in Central America

Pan American Airways pioneered commercial airline service to Latin America and the Caribbean in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when air travel was first developing into a viable form of transportation. Founded in 1927 by Juan Trippe (1899–1981), the airline grew rapidly during its fledgling years, purchasing or partnering with numerous competing airlines along the way. In less than three years, Pan American’s routes increased from an inaugural 261-mile Miami-Havana line to over 19,000 miles throughout two continents. By 1930, the Pan American Airways System linked twenty-nine Latin American and Caribbean countries and territories with regularly scheduled airmail, passenger, and cargo flights.     

At this time, commercial transportation in Central America was primarily by coastal steamer, river boat, and a few scattered railway lines. Bus systems were rare, and unimproved roads, dense jungles, and mountainous terrain awaited the adventurous auto traveler. Depending on the route, air travel in Central America was days or weeks faster than by land or sea. However, due to unstable tropical weather patterns, few airfields, and a marginal aviation infrastructure, airline operations proved extremely challenging. To extend and complete its routes, Pan American improved existing facilities, constructed new airfields and flying boat bases, and installed a network of radio communications and weather stations throughout the region. 

Pan American Airways began service in Central America with the Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor, a robust, three-engine, twelve-passenger airliner affectionately known as the “Tin Goose.” Tri-Motors departed Cristóbal in the Panama Canal Zone for Guatemala two-to-three times per week, linking cities in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. Connecting flights to Brownsville, Texas, flew along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, while Sikorsky S-38 flying boats departed for Miami via Pan American’s Caribbean route. Flights to South American destinations left from Cristóbal on partner airline Pan American-Grace Airways—completing the Pan American Airways System. This exhibition features images taken on the Pan American Airways route through Central America by the company’s public relations and advertising manager Daniel Rochford (1900–89) in the winter of 1930–31.      

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