Eighty Years Ago, Vanderbilt Circumnavigated South America in a Seaplane

William Kissam Vanderbilt II was an explorer and adventurer who traveled the world in his yachts. An avid race driver, he set a world speed record in 1904, and brought auto racing to the United States. Vanderbilt also looked to the skies for diversion and adventure.

In early 1937, William and Rosamund Vanderbilt and their friends, Edie and Robert Huntington, flew around the Caribbean, Central America and the perimeter of South America in his 12-passenger Sikorsky S-43 amphibious airplane, from January 18 to February 11.

William and Rosamund Vanderbilt with Robert and Edie Huntington at airport on Mendoza, Argentina. Sikorsky seaplane is in background.
Photos from Vanderbilt Museum archive

On February 2, they few over the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, which, Vanderbilt wrote, “can be very treacherous…as meteorological conditions in this area change rapidly.” He arranged with the Panagra airline to have one of its pilots show his pilot through the high mountain passes. Altitudes were so high that the travelers occasionally had to use supplemental oxygen tanks.
This year, the Vanderbilt Museum observes the 80th anniversary of that adventure.

Hayden Hamilton, managing editor for the American Aviation Historical Society in Huntington Beach, Calif., said, “This form of tourist travel was extremely rare in this period, generally restricted to the uber-wealthy or well-heeled entrepreneurs.”

Click here for a brief British newsreel feature.

Vanderbilt kept a detailed log and journal of the 25-day trip. They traveled 14,217 miles in 101 hours, 40 minutes, and used 8,360 gallons of gasoline and 828 gallons of oil.

Later that year, Vanderbilt privately published 1,000 copies of his book, Flying Lanes – Being the Journal of a Flight Around South America and Over the Andes. The volume was illustrated with aerial photos from Pan American Airways (PAA), and others taken by Robert Huntington.

Sikorsky built 53 S-43 airplanes. Most were acquired by PAA and only two were sold to private individuals, according to Hamilton of the AAHS: William Vanderbilt and Howard Hughes.

Travelers arrive at airport in Arica, Chile, for flight to Lima, Peru

Just as Vanderbilt donated his 264-foot yacht Alva to the U.S. Navy for service during World War II, he sold his Sikorsky plane for $175,000 to the U.S. government for similar duty in 1941. The Alva, converted to a patrol gunboat and renamed the USS Plymouth, was torpedoed in 1943 by a German submarine and sank off the coast of North Carolina. According to an unconfirmed report, Vanderbilt’s amphibious plane crashed on a flight to Trinidad.

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From Flying Lanes:

After leaving Fisher Island and Miami on January 18, 1937, the Vanderbilts and Huntingtons flew toward Cuba, where they made their first fuel stop.

As they flew, Vanderbilt wrote notes about the flight and thought about the man he had hired to fly them, Earl F. White, whom he described as “one of the most reliable and resourceful aviators in the game.”

White, 49, had been a World War I pilot in the U.S. Air Service, the forerunner of the Army Air Corps and later the Air Force, from 1915 to 1919. His extraordinary credentials included making the first non-stop flight from Chicago to New York in 1919, during which he set the official world distance record of 727 miles. White inaugurated the world’s first scheduled night air-mail service, which operated 1914-1925. He flew for Pan-American Airways on the Miami-Havana-Puerto Rico route, from 1928 to 1931, and began working for Vanderbilt in 1935.

Interior of Sikorsky S-43 amphibious airplane, with luxurious seating and custom-painted wrap-around cloud mural

Robert Huntington, also a licensed pilot (as was his wife), occasionally took the controls of the seaplane to give White a break, so that he could send and receive Morse code messages. Huntington flew the plane for 40 hours of the trip.

“I flew the ship eleven hours during the trip and have altogether 104 hours at the controls to my credit,” Vanderbilt wrote. “But I have no pilot’s license and my guess is – I won’t get one. A little too old to start at this game, but it is nice to feel one knows a little about the ship, and it gives one reassurance that he is not apt to have if he has never actually been at the controls. However, I did do the navigating during the voyage whenever we left the coast and was rather pleased with the results…”

February 10, 1937 – Antiqua, Guatemala. “What a grand day. Motored with the Foreign Minister, Mr. Sanches de Latour, to Antigua, the old capital, and were met there by the Governor and shown about that most interesting and picturesque city, at one time the capital of Guatemala but now abandoned as such because of earthquakes and fear of volcanic eruptions from ever restless volcanoes close by.

“We dined with the American Minister and had a most enjoyable evening and, as 4:00 a.m. was our time for getting up, we were glad to drop into our beds at midnight.”

February 11 – To Havana and Miami: The Vanderbilts and Huntingtons arrived at the airport at 5:30 a.m. “A cup of coffee was all Rose and I could muster, but then we would be home tonight. Think of it! Home! My, how good that sounded.”

After a stop in Havana, the travelers were airborne again, bound for Florida. “American Shoals light appeared at 4:50 p.m.,” he wrote. “There was the good U.S.A. once more. What a thrill went through us!” After landing in Miami, Vanderbilt wrote, “I clasp Mr. White by the hand. ‘Congratulations from all of us, a wonderful flight!’…

“Our total mileage added up to a very considerable total of 14,217 statute miles and the flying time amounted to 101 hours and 40 minutes. We had enjoyed the thrill and adventure of the journey to the utmost, but now that we were home once more we were glad to rest where we were beyond the reach of an alarm clock.”

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