Sunday, January 30, 2011

20th Century 20 - 10

“If anybody ever flied to the Moon, the very next day Trippe will ask the Civil Aeronautics Board to authorize regular service.”

Orville and Wilbur Wright invented sustained heavier than air flight. Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart glorified it, becoming icons in their own right. Howard Hughes broke records.

But most people treat planes not as amazing wonders, but peanut-providing shuttle busses, or air-trains. Thanks to Juan Trippe.

Trippe was the head of PanAm, now defunct. The 19th century had been reliant on trains for connecting the world, but the 20th would usher in planes as the means of bridging the long-distance gaps. Pan American airways grew like a small business, slowly expanding its destinations further south of the Caribbean. While Lindbergh had impressed all by crossing the Atlantic, Trippe offered anyone service across it or the Pacific.

He didn't invent air travel for tourists. He just made it affordable, creating the economy class. Without it the airlines may have been left in the hands of the very few and privileged. We tend to think of those people as the 'jet set' but Trippe was there at the beginning of the jet set, and made everyone a part. When was the last time you didn't take a jet-powered flight?

These advancements weren't out of the goodness of his heart, but his profits. The 747, which he commissioned from Boeing, was because he needed more seats for more passengers, and therefore more tickets, and more money into PanAm.

So too, did the 747 represent a new development for planes, one which had been used moderately in WWII, but emerged in a big, if rather unnoticed way, with the jet age: the cargo plane. Each piece of mail you get from overseas that didn't come from a boat? That's the small view. Think of all the millions of tonnage that comes to our shores, and leaves them, to stock our store shelves.

Now that space planes and elevators are actually being investigated it is only another step on the path that Trippe began to blaze: making people comfortable and eager to fly, and making the world dependent on the jet engine.

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