In 2019, we commemorate several transatlantic firsts, including the 100th anniversaries of the first transatlantic flight by the Navy NC-4 in May and the first nonstop transatlantic flight by John Alcock and Arthur Brown. June 28 marks the 80th anniversary of the inaugural Pan American Airways transatlantic passenger flight in 1939. For William John Eck, it was a voyage for which he had waited eight long years. Finally, he was “Passenger Number One”!
When Eck first applied in 1931 for a ticket on Pan Am’s hypothetical first transatlantic flight, he was actually second in line. Humorist Will Rogers just beat him out for the first ticket. In fact, before his fatal Alaskan flight in 1935, Rogers was angling to be aboard the first transpacific passenger flight of the China Clipper as well. Rogers’ death pushed Eck to the front of the line. Between international negotiations and new technologies, Pan Am was not able to confirm a flight and a seat for Eck, an assistant vice president for the Southern Railway, until 1939.
Eck quickly sought the blessing of Emily, his wife of just two months, and travelled to New York via the Pennsylvania Railroad. At 3 pm on June 28, the Dixie Clipper departed from Port Columbus, New York, for its destination of Marseille, France, with a complement of 22 passengers and 11 crew members. Passengers included Elizabeth (Betty) Trippe, wife of Pan Am co-founder and President Juan Trippe; Clara Adams, who had been the first woman to cross the Atlantic on the Graf Zeppelin, on the inaugural flight of the Hindenburg, and intended this flight as the first leg in an around-the-world trip; and James McVittie, who had been an inaugural passenger on the Graf Zeppelin, the first westbound flight of the Hindenburg, and the first flight of the China Clipper.
The flight took twenty-two hours, with stops at Horta, the Azores, and Lisbon. Passengers were treated to fine dining with white table linens and all the comforts of home.
Upon landing in Marseilles on June 30, the passengers were local celebrities. Jean Eck of Clichy, France, had seen the news of the flight and sent a letter to Marseilles to be held for Eck’s landing. In the letter, he introduces himself, suggesting that he may be a relative of William Eck's, and inviting Eck to visit when he is in Paris.
Eck travelled to Paris for some quick sightseeing before catching his round trip flight back to the United States, landing back at Port Washington on the Fourth of July. He parlayed his celebrity into an appearance on the “Hobby Lobby” radio show, in which guests spoke about their unusual hobbies. He noted that what impressed him the most about his trip was “….speed…the fact that I was away from home only six days and that four of those days were spent on land in Europe.” He reflected on his potentially incongruous dual role as a railroad executive and aviation aficionado: “….I believe that travel begets travel, and that progress in one field means progress in another.”
Though his experience as Pan American Transatlantic Passenger Number One was over, Eck was not one to give up a title. He was “Passenger Number One” again for the Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) first transpolar flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, Denmark (via Winnipeg and Greenland), departing November 15, 1954!
William John Eck’s scrapbook chronicling his transatlantic flight is digitized in its entirety as part of the National Air and Space Museum Archives collections. It is also part of the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s efforts to transcribe archival materials. Please help us make our materials more searchable and accessible!