Pan Am’s Inaugural International Flight

 October 28, 1927:

Pan Am's First Flight Vokker F-VII photograph from Pan Am Historical Foundation no copyright infringement intended
Pan Am’s First Flight Vokker F-VII photograph from Pan Am Historical Foundation no copyright infringement intended
“A wood and fabric Fokker trimotor airplane loaded with sacks of mil bounces along a dirt runway at Key West, Florida.  Airborne, it heads south across the water…. and an hour and ten minutes later lands in Havana, Cuba, 90 miles away.

Government officials, including President Machado himself are on hand to greet the plane, for this is a special occasion:  the very first scheduled international flight by an American aircraft.  It is also the birth of a new airline.  As the welcoming dignitaries approach the plane they see, freshly painted on the rear fuselage, three letters:  PAA.  Pan American Airways.  A name that soon will be recognized around the world.

Within three months the fledgling airline is carrying passengers as well as mail on a daily schedule between Florida and Cuba.”
The First 50 Years of Pan Am 500px
Text from “The First 50 Years of Pan Am”  The Story of Pan American World Airways, Inc from 1927 -1977.  This anniversary booklet is still available for purchase from Everything Pan Am.


Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly, authors of “Images of Aviation – Pan Am” describe the day:
Pilot Hugh Wells, navigator Edwin C. Musick, and John Johansen, engineer-mechanic, made the flight in 1 hour and twenty minutes.  Thousands of insistent people had inundated Captain J.E. Whitbeck, Pan Am’s Key West representative, for the opportunity to fly on the first regularly scheduled flight to Havana.  It did not matter that the flight was only going to carry mail; they still wanted to fly.

Over 700 people witnessed the departure of the General Machado from Key West’s Meacham Airport.  The eight-passenger Fokker-F-VII had cost $45,000 and had been built especially for Pan American for the Key West-to-Havana service.  Scheduled for 8:00 a.m. the departure was delayed until 8:25 a.m. because Wells had not arrived in Key West until early that morning.  A photographer for the International News was on hand to record the day’s event for posterity.  After Cuba received nearly a foot of rain in a 24-hour period, turning Havana’s Camp Columbia, the military airfield, into a sea of mud, the return flight to Key West was postponed until the next morning.  An aviation legend had begun.”

Cover from the first scheduled flight Key West to Havana October 28, 1927
Cover from the first scheduled flight Key West to Havana October 28, . Photograph courtesy of No copyright infringement intended.

Note of Interest:  Though this flight is the first INAUGURAL flight, it is not the first Pan Am flight.  According to the History of Air Cargo and Airmail from the 18th Century:

“Pan American World Airways, for so long one of the world’ leading international airlines, and the incarnation of American might, was the achievement of one man Juan Trippe, and one organization, the U.S. Post Office.

On the same basis as the domestic airlines, Pan American owed its rapid expansion and its prosperity to the generosity of the American Post, as shown by the accumulated results for the ten years 1920-1938:  During this period, mail revenue represented 70% of the total income of Pan American (65.91 million compared with 95.4 million).

 Once it was solidly propped up, the expansion of Pan American Airways evolved in three stages, corresponding to the three principal geographic areas of operation: Central and South America, the cradle of the company; the Pacific: and finally the North Atlantic.
It all began between Key West (at the southern most tip of Florida) to Havana (Cuba) in October 1927.  As the successful bidder for the Key West to Havana Postal Contract, which was extremely important because of the busy trade between Cuba and the United States, the young company was confronted with a dramatic problem:  It was obliged to commence operations on 19th October latest, but did not yet actually own an aircraft.  Everything turned out well, due to the unexpected arrival of a Fairchild FC-2 Seaplane.  It was chartered on the spot, and on 19th October transported seven bags of mail weighing 114 kilograms from Key West to Havana on behalf of Pan American Airways.  (This preceded the flight, which many consider wrongly, to be the first scheduled airmail flight. That did not occur until 28th October 1927 in a Fokker F-VII piloted by Hugh Wells and assisted by Ed Musick the future Chief Pilot of the company, carrying 350 kilograms of mail on board.)
First Flight Cover
Cy Caldwell was the Canadian pilot aboard La Nina, which was chartered from West Indian Aerial Express, to make the first Pan Am mail flight on October 19, 1927.
Cy Caldwell
Picture courtesy of Pan Am Historical Foundation, no copyright infringement intended.
It’s all in the details:  When the bids for carriage of first class mail between Key West and Havana were opened on July 19th Pan American Airways was the successful bidder at 40.5 cents per pound. According to Aviation Magazine 1928 “in order to take advantage of the passenger business which was available, the company decided to use large planes which could accommodate the mail as well as a passenger load.  The question of equipment, a very important one, was given exhaustive study from all angles.  While the earlier lines had used Flying Boats this did not prevent accidents due to forced landings.  Moreover, Havana Harbor does not provide suitable conditions for the take-off of a heavily loaded flying boat.  Furthermore, no American manufacturer was in a position to deliver large seaplanes, and it is a requirement of the U.S. Post Office that planes carrying mail under a foreign mail contract must be 66 and 2/3 percent built in this country. ”   This is how Fokker Tri Motor planes were selected.  With a payload of 1500 the plane could easily climb on two engines and fly a distance of 50 miles or more on one engine from 2,000 feet altitude.

Key West had no landing facilities.  J.E. Whitbeck was appointed Operations Manager and immediately set about the task of erecting hangars.  A.A. Priester was Chief Engineer.  Preparing Key West was no small task.  The field had to be totally cleared and two runways constructed.  “In addition to the hangar, a passenger station has been constructed which houses the various government officials on duty at the airport of entry and also provides a waiting room for passengers and a weighing and checking office.  As the field is several miles from the railroad station bus service is provided for passengers both to and and from the airport. “

Click to read the complete story Key West to Havana.

About Cy Caldwell: In 1915 Cy Caldwell bought an airplane with his own money and taught himself to fly.  He flew extensively during the war.  In 1922 he came to the United States to work as a test pilot. In 1927 he began the first commercial airlines in the West Indies, the West Indian Express, which later became part of Pan American World Airways. He quit flying in 1930 to devote himself entirely to writing.  He was also Associate Editor of Aero Digest: The Magazine of the Air.
Captain Edwin Musick
Captain Edwin Musick. Photograph courtesy of, by Clyde Sunderland, no copyright infringement intended.

About Edwin  Musick: Edwin Musick’s path to Pan Am began in 1926, when he was hired as a pilot by Andre Priester, who was working as operations manager for a small airline called Philadephia Rapid Transit Airline, which flew Fokker trimotors between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. , and later Norfolk, Virginia.  When Priester was recruited by Juan Trippe to join Pan American Airways in 1927, Musick followed him to the new airline as Pan Am’s Pilot Number 1 on October 19, 1927.  Within a short time Musick and another pilot were at the controls of Pan American’s first scheduled flight from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, on October 28, 1927.

Visit the Pan American Historical Foundation for more history on Pan Am.