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Pan-Am and the Valley

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Not quite 20 miles up the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico, Brownsville had an airport before it got a sea port.

With much fanfare spread over a two-day celebration, the Brownsville Airport opened on March 8, 1929. In addition to all the local and state politicians, businessmen and other dignitaries attending the event, Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh, who less than two years earlier had flown non-stop from New York to Paris landed at the new Valley airport with the first load of airmail from Mexico City to New York City.
Pan American Airways Terminal in Brownsville Texas
Pan-American Airways Terminal in Brownsville
Postcard courtesy rootsweb.com/%7Etxpstcrd/
With an escort of Mexican military pursuit planes, Lindbergh arrived at 1:53 p.m. on Sunday, March 9. An estimated 20,000 people turned out to greet the famed aviator. He departed at 10 a.m. the following day on a return flight to Mexico with a load of mail that had been flown to Brownsville from New York.

Not only did Lindbergh’s arrival and departure from the new airport mark the beginning of international air mail service in the U.S., stamp collectors acknowledge it as the first time an air carrier managed to lose luggage – in this case numerous bags of mail. Even though recovered a month later, the cancelled envelops are now known among philatelic folks as having come from the “Lost Mail Flight.”

Scores of airplanes from both sides of the Rio Grande flew to Brownsville ’s new air field as part of the festivities. The Army Air Corps dispatched more than 100 aircraft, a large percentage of the entire corps. Using the new airport, American military aviators performed aerial maneuvers with their counterparts from Mexico.

Shorty Radeck, a wing walker, amused spectators by strolling along the top wing of a bi-plane flown by his partner in stunt flying. Radeck also parachuted from the plane. But his signature stunt was jumping from the plane as it roared by the crowd only a few feet above ground. He landed on his feet and then ran to a stop.
Hotel El Jardin, Brownsville, Texas
Hotel El Jardin
Postcard courtesy texasoldphotos.com
While VIPs enjoyed a banquet at the El Jardin Hotel (feasting on fresh fish flown in from Soto de la Marina, Mexico), the public got to see a rare night landing of a Ford tri-motor plane operated by Universal Air Lines. Flares attached to parachutes provided enough light for the pilot to get the plane down.
Ford Tri-motor
A Ford Tri-Motor on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida
Photo courtesy Sam Lester
Another notable figure on hand for the Brownsville festivities was a female flyer originally from Kansas, Amelia Earhart. She had served as navigator on a cross-Atlantic flight the year before, becoming the first woman to fly between the U.S. and Europe, even though she did not pilot the aircraft. Now she had begun to fly planes herself.

Les Mauldin, the manager of the new Valley airport, loaned Earhart a plane so she could take her flight test for a commercial pilot’s license. She passed the exam. Eight years later she flew into aviation history immortality, vanishing on a flight across the Pacific.

Opening an airport in the Rio Grande Valley with proceeds from bond sales proved to be an excellent civic investment. (The Port of Brownsville, located at the end of a 17-mile channel from the mouth of the Rio Grande, was not opened until 1936.)

In June 1929, Pan-American Airlines leased the airport for use in its growing South American service. Three years later, the airline established its Western Division headquarters at the Brownsville airport. In addition, the airline constructed a large repair and maintenance facility there.

Pan-Am’s advertising campaign featured a large magazine and newspaper ad showing the carrier’s far-flung routes. The map showed that all the airline’s Latin American flights had stops at Brownsville.

As the ad pointed out, though Brownsville lay 2,301 miles from the Panama Canal, by air that distance could be covered in only 14 hours.

Just to underscore how much more efficient air travel had become, the ad noted that the average speed of a passenger train was 40 miles an hour. Average automobile speed was 50 mph. From there, the speed increased to 120 miles an hour for a Pan-Am Ford tri-motor plane and 200 miles an hour for a Douglas-built plane.

Brownsville continued to play a major role in Pan-Am’s operations until the mid-1950s when the development turboprop and then jet planes made piston-powered aircraft obsolete. Pan-Am closed its Valley facilities at the end of the decade and moved its Western Division headquarters to Miami. The pioneering airline went into bankruptcy in early 1991, its assets absorbed by Delta Airlines.

With international airports at McAllen and Harlingen in addition to Brownsville, aviation continues to play an important role in the Valley’s economy. But wing-walking is a long-lost art.

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
August 18, 2007 column
See also Texas Aviation & Aviators
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