My Eight Years As A Flight Radio Officer With Pan Am

Vance E. Gildersleeve

The Beginning

In 1941, while working at KNOW as a Broadcast Engineer in Austin, Texas, a close Amateur Radio Operator friend kept me advised when Pan Am was hiring Radio Operators. He was an employee of PAN AM in Brownsville, Texas at the time. On my third visit to the Communications Superintendent in Brownsville, I was hired as a Flight Radio Officer effective April 17, 1941. I spent my first several months with PAN AM in navigation class studying Dead Reckoning and in the radio shop working with airborne receivers and transmitters. I also copied coded weather broadcasts on a typewriter in the Pan Am ground radio station, KGJW. I even did pre-flight radio checks of the radio equipment aboard the planes scheduled to fly. The only call letters that I remember of the planes are, KHFOI & KHFOL. I do not remember the CW frequencies used except 5692.5 Khz and the pilots used 2870 Khz. Eventually I put in 10 hours of direction finding using the loop antenna aboard a Stinson blind flying plane. A copilot would be under the hood with me and a safety pilot was up front for take offs and landings. We would practice orientation on the local airport aerophare.

Brownsville, TX


The Western Division of Pan Am flew Douglas DC-3s from Brownsville, Texas to Port of Spain, Trinidad, a seven day round trip. I made my first seven day round trip flight on Oct. 5, 1941 with the Chief Flight Radio Officer. A normal DC-3 crew consisted of the Captain, Copilot, Flight Radio Officer and cabin attendant. The first day's flight was to Tampico, Mexico, Mexico City, Tapachula, Mexico and overnight in Guatemala City, Guatemala. The next morning we flew to San Salvado, El Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Managua,Nicaragua, San Jose, Costa Rica, David, Panama and overnight in Cristobal, Panama. On Oct 6, 1941, at San Salvador, I learned that I was the proud father of a girl. At a later date, the flights were changed to fly into Albrook Field, Canal Zone instead of Cristobal. In Panama City the crews stayed in the Tivoli Hotel and ate at the Post Exchange. The next morning we flew from Cristobal to Port of Spain, Trinidad, stopping along the way in Venezuela at Maraciabo, Coro, LaGauria, Barcelona and Maturin. We had a day off in Port of Spain before retracing the route back to Bronwsville. Total roundtrip flight time averaged about 60 hours. The Chief Flight Radio Officer okayed me for flight status after this trip.

Two days before we were scheduled to fly, we would be on standby, just in case the scheduled FRO couldn't make the trip or maybe we would be on a local test flight or training flight. Case in point, we went up on a training flight one day with a few new copilots to let them get the feeling of the plane when it stalls. It really vibrates at the stall speed.

Dec. 7,1941. Pan Am went on a war alert status. There were blackouts all over the place. At the Tivoli Hotel we had to dress in the dark. Some one substituded a red tie instead of the black one for the captain. He didn't know about it until we got out to Albrook for breakfast.

On one of our flights into Port of Spain at dusk, someone turned a search light on us. It blinded us in the cockpit. The Captain was pretty unhappy about that and told the airport personnel so.

On another trip to Trinidad, I had the pleasure of touring a Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper. It was on a layover on a trip to Africa. It was quite an impressive plane.

In January of 1942 I became very ill while flying between Port of Spain and Panama. Upon arriving at the Tivoli Hotel the Captain called for a doctor. The doctor said that I either had dengue fever or malaria. They took me to the Gorgas Hospital. A blood test showed I had malaria. This was on a Sunday. I had picked it up on a previous trip to Trinidad. I was given quinine. By the following Friday I was able to catch an off schedule flight back to Brownsville while carrying a big bottle of quinine. I was off the flight schedule for a few weeks.

During the war, a German sub came in and shelled the Island of Aruba. There were oil storage tanks there. I was FRO on a special flight to Maraciabo to pick up some 21 women and 12 children from Aruba and fly them back to the States. Our DC-3s carried only 21 passengers. We took off with full gas tanks, no baggage, but with floatation gear and headed out over the Carribean for Guatamala City. All we had for navigation was a National Geographic map. During the flight the kids ran up and down the aisle upsetting the plane's trim. The Captain did a few maneuvers that made them sick. They settled down. We eventually arrived in Guatemala City where the Captain asked the women if they wanted to stay there the night or go on to Brownsville. They wanted to go on. We gassed up and headed directly for Brownsville. When out over the Gulf of Mexico I was getting sharp angle relative bearings from shore stations. These showed that we were quite a ways out to sea so we began to fly west and northwest to hit Brownsville. Operations kept asking the ground radio operator " where are they". The response was "I don't know, but he gives me a nil once in awhile". Well, we finally made it to Brownsville after a 13 hour flight. It was the longest flight in the Western Division. We found out there had been a strong westerly wind that had blown us out into the Gulf.

On August 27, 1943 I became the proud father of a boy.

Pan Am in the Western Division, later known as the LAD (Latin American Division), flew only between 30 minutes before sunup and 30 minutes after sunset. I don't remember when we started night survey flights. I remember flying between Brownsville and Mexico City. On another night survey flight and training we took off from Guatemala City to Tehuantepec, Mexico, where there was a 10,000 foot runway to practice night landings and take offs. We had 3 copilots on board. Two liked to make touch and go landings and the third liked to land, taxi back and take off. Well, on our way back to Guatemala, we practiced landings, etc. at Tapachula. The one that liked to taxi back and take off, landed. While taxing back, #1 engine quit. We tried to start it, and each time a flame would shoot out the exhaust pipe. We couldn't start it so we taxied onto the ramp and overnighted there. We found out later that the engine had swallowed a valve. It could have happened on a touch and go.

My draft board was located in Austin, Texas as that is where I had registered. I was called up to take my pre-induction physical on April 28, 1944. 10 bus loads, 30 to a bus went to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio for our physicals. I passed the physical, was put in the Navy pool and sent back to my job with Pan Am.

On June 12-30, 1944, I attended a Celestial Navigation course in Brownsville. It was a pretty tough course.

While on a trip across the North Coast of South America to Trinidad, I received a message from Brownsville that there was an opening in New Orleans for an FRO. Did I want it? I replied that I would have to talk it over with my wife before deciding. On January 6, 1945 I transferred to NOX. We stayed at a motel a while until buying a home at 316 Maple Ridge Dr., Metaire, LA.

New Orleans, LA

Boeing S-307 Stratoliners, DC-4s

On January 12th I made my first round trip flight to Merida, Mexico on board 701-70402 (N19902 Boeing S-307) with the NOX Chief Flight Radio Officer. The round trip time was 7:10 hours. The normal 307 crew consisted of the Captain, First Officer, Flight Engineer, Flight Radio Officer and two cabin attendants. The FROs were normally scheduled to fly 3 day flights in a row, with 3 days off and 3 night flights in a row, with 4 days off.

My next trip was on January 15th on 703-70203 (N19903), NOX-REM-NOX. 7:09 hours round trip time.

Pan Am had three Boeing S-307 Stratoliners based in Miami, FL: N19902 Clipper Rainbow, N19903 Clipper Flying Cloud & N19910 Clipper Comet. To exchange planes, we would ferry one to Miami and ferry one back.

Most of my trips on the Boeing S-307s were uneventful. On one flight we lost #3 engine. A passenger wanted to know what happened. I told him that I guess it got tired. On another flight, we took off in bad weather from NOX. There was so much lightning that the crew turned on all the cockpit lights to keep from being blinded by it. We broke out of the front over the Gulf, turned 90 degrees to take a look at the wall of the front. On our way back to NOX, we tried to go over it at 15,000 feet but were unable to get over it at that altitude.

My last trip on Clipper Flying Cloud was on March 3, 1946. The last flight of the Boeing Stratoliners out on NOX was on March 21, 1946. PAN AM replaced them with Douglas DC-4s on March 22, 1946 flying a double "V": New Orleans, Merida, Guatemala City, Managua, Balboa, Camaguey, Cuba, Miami, FL. I was on this first flight of the DC-4s. By this time the pilots were using radio telephone for air to ground communication. We were along as back up just in case we had to revert to CW.

On one of the flights into Managua we did not get three green lights indicating the three landing gears were down and locked. We buzzed the field twice and the tower said all three were down but we didn't know if they were locked. Managua set up emergency procedures and we landed. The gear was locked. The problem turned out a broken micro-switch on the gear up/down handle. This the flight engineer and I found. I think we repaired the switch.

The month of April, I went on vacation to San Francisco, CA. I wanted to check out the area just in case an opening occured for FROs.

I was back on flight duty May 6, 1946. The flight plans had now been changed to flying NOX to BLB non-stop and non-stop BLB to MIA. On one flight BLB to NOX, we lost #3 engine due to an oil line leak. Engine oil is used to feather the propellers. In this case we just pumped the oil overboard and the propeller windmilled until the engine froze. We landed in Managua. We were there 2 days until MIA sent a crew and replaced the engine. On another trip BLB to MIA we had engine trouble and returned to BLB. We continued on the next day.

On October 15, 1946 our flight schedule was again changed to just fly NOX to GUA and return the next day. On one trip the weather was so bad in NOX that we returned to REM and overnighted. Another time the weather was so bad in NOX that we landed at Lake Charles, LA., put the passenger on the bus, flew on to Houston, TX, overnighted and went back to GUA the next day.

March 12, 1947 was my last flight into NOX. The FROs were no longer needed on the planes. On the 19th I dead headed to MIA for two weeks in navigation school. I was slated to go to New York and fly the New York-San Juan, PR run. While there, however, I found out that PAN AM, San Francisco, needed more FROs and I transfered there. PAN AM flew DC-4s on the Pacific runs.

San Fransisco, CA


My first flight out of San Fransisco was a double "V", San Francisco (SFX) to Honolulu, HI (HNL) to Los Angeles (LAX) and back. The Chief FRO gave me a check ride. The FRO could only be scheduled 12 hours in a day, if the flight was longer, 2 FROs were required. SFX to HNL was a scheduled 12 hour flight and HNL to LAX was scheduled 13 1/2 hour flight. I remember one flight from HNL to SFX took 14 hours bucking a head wind. Since the rest of the crew were Captain, Copilot, Navigator and Flight Engineer and two cabin attendants, they could be scheduled to fly more than 12 in a day. Case in point, on a flight between HNL and Wake Island with a stop in Midway Island, the FRO had to get off and wait for the next flight as the scheduled flight was more than 12 hours. It was the same in going to Sydney, Australia or Auckland, New Zealand. We had to get off at Canton Island as the flight from HNL to the Fiji Islands was about 15 hours.

I made a number of these double "V" flights before going on a long flight to Shanghai, China via Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam to Shanghai and return. I left home on July 25,1947 and returned back home on August the 8th. The longest FRO scheduled flight was to Calcutta, India and back, 28 days. I made only one of these: San Francisco, Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, Bangkok, Calcutta. I also made trips to Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong, China. I made two trips to Sydney and one to Auckland.

The night of Feb. 28, 1948, on our take off for HNL, our landing gear folded up and we settled back on the runway under full power. I didn't know what was happening. There was an awful racket, the Capt. calling out "get the passengers off", the fire bell going off and #3 engine on fire. I opened the cockpit door and saw the passengers jumping out the cabin door. At that point I realized we were on our belly. The airport fire department showed up but we had put the fire out with the onboard system. 13 minutes after we left the terminal, we were through. The next day I went out to the airport to get my bag as it was in the belly of the plane. They had put air bags under the wings and inflated them to raise the plane up so they could get the gear down. The plane was patched up and flown to Douglas to be rebuilt. I flew in it later and it had a cyclic quiver back in the tail section.

I only experienced an engine failure on a Pacific flight and it was on our way home to SFX from HNL. We were past ETP, equal time point, either return or continue on, so we continued on to SFX. The DC-4 flew very well on 3 engines.

When I first started flying the Pacific runs, we stayed in a hotel built by the cable company on Midway Island. On Wake Island we stayed in wood/tent barricks and showered with brine water. Later the company built a hotel and we showered with distilled sea water. Wake is a 2 1/2 square mile coral reef with a lagoon in the middle. We used to swim there. On Guam we stayed in nice navy type barricks. We stayed at a hotel in Manila. You could see bullet pockmarks all over town from the war. There were still destroyed buildings all over and sunken ships in the Bay of Manila.

At this time Japan was under occupation by Douglas McArthur. We stayed at a nice hotel there. I toured the Imperial Hotel and places around Tokyo. We could ride the train system for free.

We stayed in a nice hotel in Shanghai. On my first flight there, the whole crew got a couple of cabs and went shopping. Well, a bunch of chinese began following us. One slit the engineer's back pocket near his wallet with a razor to steal the wallet. Another tried to steal my fountain pen and pencil. We got in our cabs and went back to the hotel. On my last trip there, I got off the flight and the rest of the crew went on to Hong Kong. It was kind of scary riding in a cab by yourself in a foreign country to the American compound where the FROs stayed. When the communists took over China, we no longer flew into Shanghai. We stopped at Okinawa for gas on the Tokyo/Hong Kong flight. I saw my first Air Force jet there.

In Bangkok, Thailand, we stayed in a nice hotel. It was an interesting country. On our layover, you could rent a pedicab for $2.00/day and the man would haul you all over town to see the sights.

In Calcutta, we stayed in a staff house. We would arrive in the morning, try to sleep in the heat during the day and leave that night for Bangkok. It was 104 that day but I did get out and see a temple. Bear in mind, there was no air conditioning those days anywhere.

On our South Pacific flights, we stayed in a staff house on Canton Island. The fishing was great off of a passenger ship that had run aground trying to get into the lagoon while being chased by a Jap sub. There was an Amateur Radio Station there that we "Hams" could operate. There was also one on Midway and we "Ham" FROs set up our own on Wake Island.

At Nandi, Fiji Islands, we stayed in a staff house there with a thached roof. This was another interesting place and people.

I flew into Sydney, Australia twice. We stayed in a nice hotel. I got to see some of the sights around there and found that on Sundays the resturants closed down around 5PM.

I made one flight into Auckland, New Zealand. The country side there reminded me of Minnesota. I don't remember much about Auckland.

The End

I don't remember the exact date that PAN AM started using radiotelphone on the Pacific flights. It worked so well that the company decided to do away with the FROs. I elected to leave with the first group of 130 FROs that were terminated on June 6, 1949.

With PAN AM I got to see a lot of the World but I never got all the way around it.

Go to Vance's Clipper Flying Cloud Page