Bits & Pieces

September 30, 2012

The Little Airline That Could

FIRST TRANSCONTINENTAL NON-STOP

Introduction

During the late 1930s my uncle Luis "Lucho" Azcarraga would take me and his son Frank to Balboa, by Pier 18, to watch the little seaplanes land and take off.  We made one last visit soon after the war started, but this time only to peek into the hangar and see the little planes stacked, standing on their noses, waiting for the war to be over. Little did I realize that, when we were watching the seaplanes take off and land, we may have been looking at planes belonging to the first airline that could accomplish the feat of flying from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean non-stop!

The airline was the long defunct Isthmian Airways, Inc., founded in 1929 by owner Ralph E. Sexton and forced to close in 1936. During its short life, it operated with two civilian pilots and augmented its fliers with moonlighting military pilots serving in the Panama Canal Zone.  The line operated with three flights a day each way; morning, noon and evening.  However, when tourist demand was high, more flights were added.  Mr. Sexton was proud to boast that his airline never had an accident while carrying passengers (1).

Background

The United States had watched closely the use of aircraft in the Republic of Panama, probably with more justification than its meddling in other communication developments, because of the vulnerability of the canal to air attack.  Thus, it was not until April 21, 1912, the American Clarence DeGiers, flying a Bleriot XI, was granted permission to fly over Panama. He took off from the center of the old Juan Franco race track at 4:15 PM under the watchful eyes of 4000 inhabitants. He was the first person to carry out a powered flight from Panamanian soil. From that date only two other


Clarence DeGiers in his Bleriot XI, Panama

civilian flights were officially logged in Panama until the arrival of Charles A. Lindbergh on January 9, 1929, while on his U.S. State Department good-will tour of Latin America. Landing near Juan Diaz, in what was known afterward for many years as "Campo Lindbergh", he was greeted by the president of Panama, Rodolfo Chiari (2).


Left, Lindbergh arrives at Panama.  Right, "The Spirit of St. Louis over Canal locks.

Up until Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, commercial aviation on the American Continent had been lagging behind Europe.  But after May 21, 1927, interest in flying in our hemisphere was electrified.  While many tried to organize airlines within the United States, Juan Trippe set his sights on the international routes; first in Latin America and then around the world.  The fact that Lindbergh had made a good-will tour of the Americas in his "Spirit of St. Louis" in 1928-29 helped Trippe's efforts and he went as far as to hire Lindbergh to be the technical adviser for his airline. The name of the new company was Pan American Airways, or simply PAA.


Lindbergh arrives at Cristobal in Sikorsky S-38 inaugurating Pan American's Mail Route FAM-5.

On February 4, 1929, with Lindbergh at the controls of a new Sikorsky S-38 amphibian, Pan American Airways officially inaugurated the postal mail route FAM-5 to Latin America when the plane took off from Miami at 6:08 AM.  Three days later, the PAA plane was at Cristobal, Panama Canal Zone, and the first air mail was delivered. (3)

Soon, the PAA planes were landing at David and Panama City in Panama on their way to South America flying down the west coast of the continent.  Then, on March 27, 1929, the German-Colombian airline SCADTA secured permission to fly from Barranquilla, Colombia, to Panama City, having to fly over the Canal Zone.  However, this service was terminated on June 15, 1931. Meanwhile, the monopoly of the United States on trans-Isthmian transportation was finally broken by Isthmian Airways, Inc., flying from Panama City, to Colon and back. (4)

The Little Airline

Isthmian Airways, Inc. was not only the first airline to fly from the Atlantic to the Pacific non-stop, but it was also the only one to do so by flying North to South instead of from East to West.  And they did it in only 30 minutes!


Location of Isthmian Airways terminals at Balboa and Colon.

Isthmian Airways, Inc., was founded in 1929, using seaplanes, by Ralph Ernest Sexton and its first schedule flight took place on May 5 of that same year. It was the first airline founded locally to serve the national market with scheduled flights between Panama and Colon as well as non-schedule flights for observing, from the air, the many interesting sights of the area.


The Balboa Terminal across from Pier 18. Note office and waiting room building next door.


This Isthmian Airways plane in shown on the ramp at the Folk River Terminal on Atlantic side.

Isthmian Airways had its Pacific base on a sandy beach across from Pier 18 in Balboa, Canal Zone.  Here, a hangar had been constructed with the necessary ramp to the water, a dock for handling passengers and cargo and a wooden building next door to serve as an office and waiting room.  Similar facilities were built on the Atlantic side by the Folk River, with landings and take offs made on Manzanillo Bay. Unfortunately, I do not know where the facilities where located and I can only guess, as indicated in the map.


The first five planes of Isthmian Airways.  Note the Travel Air trainer in the middle.

According to Engineer Germinal Sarasqueta Oller (5), in an interview with the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa, on May 14, 2006, the 77th anniversary of the founding of the airline, the airline experienced an enormous commercial success.  Starting with 5 planes, four Hamilton H-47 passenger planes and a Travel Air E-4000 trainer, it later acquired two more H-47 (6).  The airline provided six scheduled flights a day, three each way, leaving at 8:00 AM, at 12:00 Noon and at 4:00 PM.  In 1929 the fare was $10.00 one way and $15 round trip.  This was reduced to $7.50 one way and $12.00 round trip around 1932-1933, probably due to the depression (7). While there are no records of the number of passengers flown in 1929, "Airline Timetable Images" calculates that 19,000 used the airline in 1931, 45,000 in 1931 and 50,000 in 1933.  However, Eng. Sarasqueta estimates 6,366 in 1932 and 9,666 in 1933. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between.


Left: Passengers ready to board.  Right: Hamilton H-47 plane with CZ-101 registration.


Inside the Balboa hangar and flying over Gatun Lake.

Here is how the 1930 Isthmian Airways brochure, titled "Panama Canal By Air - Isthmian Airways, Inc.", describes a flying experience with the airline:

The Greatest Engineering Feat In History - To view from the air the connecting link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is to realize the true greatness of this tremendous engineering achievement on which three hundred and seventy millions of dollars were spent for construction.  Only from the air can the extent and magnificence of the three great locks be appreciated, and the 168 square miles of Gatun Lake, Culebra Cut, and the territory for from ten to twenty miles adjacent to the canal.  A flight over the Canal, from ocean to ocean, provides an experience never to be forgotten - a trip which must be taken while you are in the Zone.


L-R: Brochures for 1930, 1931 and 1933-b


At Taboga. Coach Henry Greiser and some of the Red, White and Blue Troop Swimmers.  The girl at the end could be Genie Sexton, as she was a champion swimmer. Circa 1930.

Land of Romance and Adventure - Here Morgan and his buccaneers once roamed - a short air trip from Balboa brings to view the beautiful city of Old Panama, sacked by Morgan, but still defying time and tropical growth.  A half hour flight from Cristobal brings you to the harbor of Porto Bello, and old Spanish forts abandoned long ago.  The ideal seaplane landing affords the opportunity of a trip ashore to inspect and photograph these historic ruins.

Comfort and Safety - On regular Canal flights, Isthmian Airways seaplanes follow the route of the canal from coast to coast - a continuous calm water landing field the entire trip.

Ideal Flying Weather - Panama provides perfect flying weather every day of the year - Isthmian planes have flown every day without exception since inauguration of service in May 1929 - a distance equal to six times around the world with landings every 50 miles. The four all metal Hamilton seaplanes of the Isthmian Airways provide for eight passengers each in perfect comfort, enclosed in a roomy observation cabin.  The planes are powered with 525 HP Pratt & Whitney "Hornet" motors.  Hangars are located within five minutes of leading hotels and docks at Balboa and Cristobal.

Training Student Flyers - A training school for seaplane pilots is operated from Isthmian Airways hangars at Balboa, providing practical instruction where ideal flying weather ia available every day of the year.  Travelair {Travel Air E-4000 biplane} training plane with Edo pontoons powered by Wright {"Whirlwind"} J-6 165 HP motor. (7)

Isthmian Airways also provided non-scheduled flights to such places as Taboga, the Pearl Islands and other places attractive to tourists and fishermen.

It was not long before the success of the company caught the attention of the other larger airlines serving the area. Eng. Sarasqueta says, "such magnificent idea could not last long and, as always, the fat fish (or the hawks?) end up swallowing the smaller ones".  On July 1, 1936, the Canal Zone Government cancelled Sexton's contract and Isthmian Airways ceased to exists.  Pan American was now granted the contract to fly overland from the U.S. Army Air Corps France Field on the Atlantic side to the U.S. Army Air Corps Albrook Field on the Pacific side.  Sexton sued the Canal Zone Government, but there appear to be no records on the result of this litigation (6).


Ralph E. Sexton

The Man Behind The Idea

Ralph Ernest Sexton was born on March 16, 1885, in Bushnell, Illinois (8).  He was a well educated man having attended Stanford and Cornell Universities as well as the University of Chicago.  His main courses of study appear to be in the fields of engineering.  His first job was in Enid, Oklahoma surveying road and railroad lines.  In 1910 he arrived at Panama to work as an engineering draftsman for the Isthmian Canal Commission.  He soon took over as a foreman on the construction of the Balboa docks later moving on to the construction of the emergency dams at the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks.  Having finished his work with the canal, Eng. Sexton moved on to several South American countries, including Colombia and Venezuela, providing engineering expertise in the construction of roads and bridges as well as in the development of oil fields.

As commercial aviation grew, Sexton developed and interest in that field and, returning to Panama in 1929, decided to create the airline subject of this article.  He actually learned to fly during the time he was putting together the enterprise using the Travel Air E-4000 plane he had purchased.  Other Panamanians learned to fly with him at the same location across from Pier 18, including Nicanor Obarrio, Rodolfo Estripeaut and Eustacio A. Chichaco (9).

At this point, I must insert a personal note.  As a very young kid, I would hear my father mention the name Chichaco.  And he would hum a little tune to which the only words he seemed to know were, "Chichaco, se olle una maquina volar." (Chichaco, one hears a machine flying).  With such a strange sounding name, I never took it seriously that this was actually a person.  One day I asked him and he told me that, sure enough, Chichaco was a known Panamanian flyer.  After that, all faded into the dust covered attic of my mind.  Not too long ago, the name popped into my mind suddenly, without reason.  I wrote my cousin Teresita in Panama to see if there was such a person, but she could not find out.  Now, as I read Eng. Sarasqueta's accounts, I came across the full name of Chichaco! There WAS such a person after all!  And as I think more about it, I believe my father said the song about Chichaco was in his memory as he had been killed in a flying accident. Any comments from the readers?

Back to the story... Sexton was married to Thyrsa Vacher and had one daughter named Genie born in 1919. (More on her further in this article.) Later, he divorced and married Kay continuing to live in Panama. He promoted tourism and established the first resorts for fishing and hunting in the country, including the Pearl Island, the Northern Caribbean and in the province of Cocle.  He died at age 71 on February 18, 1956.  He is buried at Corozal Cemetery, Marker 8046, Section P, Cemetery Row 15, Grave #14.  As Eng. Sarasqueta stated, no one can deny Sexton the title of being the pioneer of commercial aviation in the Republic of Panama.

The Planes

The passenger planes that Isthmian Airways, Inc., used were Hamilton H-47 eight passenger, all metal, high wing monoplanes powered by a single Pratt &Whitney "Hornet" 9-cylinder radial engine of 525 HP, with a useful load of 2300 pounds and a cruising speed of 125 MPH. Isthmian Airways started service with four Hamilton H-47 planes adding two more later. 

Designed by Thomas F. Hamilton, they were produced by The Hamilton Metal Plane Company, which merged with Boeign in 1926.  Most likely, the Isthmian planes were built by Boeing.  The skin was corrugated aluminum and the fuselage was flat sided with wide windows affording great viewing for the passengers.  The passengers entered the cabin through a side door while the two crew members entered the cockpit through a roof top hatch. The planes that Isthmian used were equipped with floats (12).


Hamilton H-47 equipped with floats as used by Isthmian.

In addition, Isthmian had a Travel Air E-4000 on two Edo floats used for training.  This biplane had two open cockpits and was equipped with a Wright "Whirlwind" J-6 5-cylinder engine of 165 HP giving it a cruising speed of 103 MPH.  Travel Air Manufacturing Company was founded in 1925 by Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman, names that became by-words in aviation cirles. After many successful models, including small passenger planes, the company shut its doors in 1929 after the market crash (13).


The Travel Air E-4000 trainer similar to the one used by Isthmian.
The one Isthmian used was equipped with floats as the Hamilton H-47s.

Believe It Or Not

On December 3, 1931, The Gazette and Farmers Journal of Baldwinsville, New York, reported that Burton Brown Barber, a pilot in the aviation mail service, had left for Panama where he had accepted a position in the aviation service in the Panama Canal Zone. It stated that he would be making round trips daily between Cristobal and Balboa.  By 1936 he had become the "Chief Pilot" and the best known commercial pilot in Panama.  Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" took notice of his many flights and published his record, in the well-known cartoon format he used, appearing in the April 6, 1936 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel.  It states:

"Captain" Burton Brown Barber, Chief Pilot Isthmian Airways has made 5,504 non-stop flights from coast-to-coast, Cristobal-Balboa Canal Zone"


Ripley's cartoon. The memento card, right, was signed by Barber and given to the passengers on completion of their flight.  The card showed the number of times Barber had made the crossings up to that point.

As we now know, Isthmian Airways contract was canceled by the Canal Zone Government on July 1 of that same year.

Unfortunately, the same Baldwinsville paper announcing Barber's moving to Panama, carried the story of his death on September 24, 1941.  Barber had served aboard a U.S. Navy submarine during WW I.  After the war, he took up flying and was soon one of the most experienced pilots in commercial aviation.  He had worked for Isthmian Airways, as well as other lines, and had chartered the first commercial route between New York and Brazil, establishing bases for refueling.  After giving up flying he had purchased a farm in Florida and retired.  The U.S. Navy recalled him to active duty as an aviator with the outbreak of "The Emergency" prior to our entering the war. He crashed during bad weather southwest of Bay Springs, Mississippi, while on a flight with three other U.S. Navy aviators (10).

Genie Sexton Clary

Genie Vacher Sexton was born in 1919 near Pike's Peak, Colorado, to Ralph Ernest Sexton and wife Thyrza Vacher Sexton.  She moved with her parents to the Panama Canal Zone in 1929 and attended schools there graduating from Balboa High School in 1936.  She was an excellent swimmer and represented the Canal Zone in the International Freestyle-Swimming Competition.  She was also an accomplished violinist, occasionally playing and dancing with the band of Lucho Azcarraga. Additionally, she was very concerned about the treatment of animals and helped found many organizations for the humane treatment of animals.  Genie learned to fly in her father's Travel Air and would co-pilot the H-47 passenger planes in some non-schedule flights.  She married Wilton Clary and moved to Hendersonville, NC, but continued to attend some Canal Zone Society meetings.  Her last known appearance there was in 1999.  She died on March 20, 2012 (11).


Left: Bill Russon (stepfather), Thyrza (Sexton) Russon and Genie Sexton
Right: Genie Sexton and her husband Wilson Clary.


Genie Sexton Clary receiving a prize she won at the 1985 Panama Canal Society meeting.

Conclusion

The little airline that could is only a vague memory as most of those involved in any form or manner are now gone.  Efforts by Engineer Germinal Sarasqueta to interview Genie Saxton Clary while she lived apparently proved fruitless.  Julius Grigore, another historian, met Genie at one of the Panama Canal society meetings around 1999 and she was very reluctant to give any information about her dad and the airline.  Her recent death seals the last available source of first-hand information.

The Hamiltom planes that Isthmian used were definitely the planes of the times.  They were cheaper than the Ford Tri-Motors and carried the same number of passengers.  Northwestern Airlines got started using Hamilton planes, as did Sexton, and some 40 may have been built going mostly to Alaska and Canada, especially after the U.S. Government required multi-engined planes for commercial passenger planes (14).

I have not been able to confirm all the registration numbers of Isthmian Airways aircraft.  But the Canal Zone Civil Aircraft Register shows one Isthmian Hamilton with the number CZ-102.  On close examination, one of the Hamiltons appears to bear the registration number CZ-101.  It would stand to reason, then, that the other three planes were CZ-103, CZ-104 and CZ-105.  Since the Register does not show any other numbers until it gets to CZ-110, it is safe to assume that the next two Hamiltons Sexton bought were CZ-106 and CZ-107.  The next registration of CZ-110 is given to a Taylorcraft E-2 Cub. Puzzling is the registration of a Beechcraft B17B with the number CZ-116 as belonging to Isthmian Airways in 1935. While I found a photo of this plane, it shows no markings of I.A. (16).


Beechcraft "Stagger Wing" B17 biplane registered to Isthmian Airways with number CZ-116.
Most likely the personal craft of Ralph Sexton and probably the one it is said Genie flew to Cristobal "wearing a cocktail dress and high heels."

Panama used a different registration numbering system. Their registration numbers began with the prefix "R" until 1941 when the prefix was changed to "RX".  Interestingly, in 1941 there is a Hamilton H-47 registered as R-12 owned by Transportes Aereos Gelabert y Cia.  It shows it to be formerly NC-134E/ CZ.  This would then be CZ-102 for the CZ Register shows this plane also to be "probably" ex NC134E.  Its fate is listed as SOC 8.43 indicating that something took place in August 1943, but what?  This same register shows that Chichaco owned a Piper J-3 Cub, RX-27, as late as 1945 (15).  Did he really die in a plane crash as I think my father told me?  My memory must be playing tricks on me.

From the early days of the little airline that could, commercial aviation in Panama has developed in great strides.  Today, Tocumen is the main hub for the Americas and COPA (Compania Panamena de Aviacion), in spite of its small market, is one of the most important airlines in the American Continent, transporting 8.8 million passengers in 2011.  Let's hope that the big fish (or hawks) out there do not prey on it as they did on Isthmian Airways in 1936, the little airline that could (17).

NOTES:
A.  For other Bits and Pieces on the History of Panama go to www.panamahistorybits.com
B.  This article, as well as all other Bits and Pieces, may be reproduced by anyone.

 

Remembering

 

The following is a list of comments I have received after announcing that I was tackling this history bit:

 

I remember the airplanes, they had about two or three of them at the obsolete warehouse, I believe it was either Section I or J.  The wings were off and we used to play in them, they had wicker high back seats.  There was also a ramp hangar by Pier 18 were a number of other planes were kept.

Gil Jones

BHS '51,

May 4, 2012

 

I remember those planes in the 40s in the "backyard" at Section I (Obsolete Storehouse) on Diablo Road close to Pier 18.  They were junked at that point but kids loved to play in them.  Right next to them were two or three decommissioned PRR Mogul steam locomotives in the 600 series.  We remember the 700 and 800 series when we were kids before the diesels.

Dale Cockle

BHS '54

May 6, 2012

 

I flew Isthmian, I guess.  I remember only it was a seaplane, saw mostly only the green tops of trees - we weren't very high.  It was me and my mother, as I remember.  I must have been 3 or 4.  I do remember distinctly we landed in Stilson's Pond, a pretty good size body of water in the vicinity of what is now Rainbow City.  I also remember the name of Ralph Sexton being spoken about in our house.

Marguerite "Pete" Bouche Boudreax

BHS '51

May 4, 2012

 

Isthmian Airways, operated by Ralph E. Sexton, ran the passenger service between Cristobal and Balboa, flying five all-metal Hamilton seaplanes.  They did not have an air mail contract with the Canal Zone Postal Service.  I met Genie at a PanCanal Reunion about 1999 and she was extremely reluclant to give any information about her dad and the airline.

Julius Grigore, Jr.

Captain USN, Ret.

Author and Historical Researcher

 

I can't be of much help, but I do remember my dad taking me down to the same dock and I climbed into the remains of one of the old seaplanes that was being demolished.  Tis had to be in the late 30s or early 40s

Jim Forbes

BHS '50

May 3, 2012

 

I remember those planes! I found them in the backwoods behind the old Obsolete Storehouse in Balboa that was on the road to Diablo.  I would ride my bike out there and browse the collection of junk that was for sale.  Back in the trees, near the water, there was a stack of ┬áties with one or two of those seaplanes stored there high and dry and out of reach.  I don't have any idea what happened to them after that

Leo McIntire

BHS '50

May 3, 2012

FOOTNOTES:

1.   Isthmian Airways, George Chevalier, www.pancanalsociety.org/articles

2.   www.aeronautica.gob.pa/recursos/index

3.   An American Saga, Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire, Robert Daley, 1980.

4.   The United States And The Republic Of Panama, William David McCain, p. 184, reprinted 1970.

5.   Germinal Sarasqueta O., author of several books on the history of aviation in Panama.

6.   Germinal Sarasqueta interview with La Prensa, May 14, 2006

7.   Airline Timetable Images, www.timetableimages.com

8.   Barbara Baldwin from Ancestry.com

9.   Germinal Sarasqueta O. to Luis Celerier, e-mail, May 19, 2012

10.  Barbara Baldwin, www.fultonhistory.com

11.  Blue Ridge News, April 21, 2012, www.blueridgenow.com

12.  Hamilton H-47, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamilton-47

13.  Travel Air E-4000, AirVenture Museum, www.airventuremuseum.org/

14.   Air-Land-Sea Weapons, Thomas F. Hamilton, www.airlandseaweapons.com/

15.  Golden Years of Aviation, Civil Aircraft Register-Panama, www.goldenyears.ukf.net

16.  Golden Years of Aviation, Civil Aircraft Register- Canal Zone, www.goldenyears.ukf.net

17.  "The Reformer", Santo Domingo, Republica Dominicana, Sept. 18, 2021

PHOTOS & ILLUSTRATIONS

Photos and illustrations used in this article came from many sources with duplications making it a bit difficult for me to know exactly which source provided what, therefore, I am listing here all the sources I used:

OTHER SOURCES

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas