One of my favorite research topics over the years has been the rise, fall, and sometime resurrection of non-scheduled air carriers in the middle part of the 20th century. I wrote an article a few years ago on Orvis Nelson, founder of Transocean Air Lines, and his experiences between the 1940s and 1960s. It was a wild ride, and in this case there was no resurrection. Here is, so to speak, the rest of the story.
Transocean Air Lines emerged immediately after World War II under the leadership of Orvis M. Nelson, a United Airlines pilot under contract to the U.S. Army’s Air Transport Command during the war, as one of the leading supplemental air carriers. Nelson saw the possibility of intercontinental commercial air operations in the Pacific because of his wartime experiences, and in the spring of 1946 developed plans to begin a supplemental airlines that would operate charter services rather than scheduled flights.
Launched on 18 March 1946, Transocean Air Lines, based in Oakland, California, got its start with a subcontract from United Airlines to make periodic military flights between San Francisco and Honolulu. That contract assured the fledgling carrier’s initial survival, but it quickly developed other clients and diversified its business holdings.
Nelson’s forceful efforts led to the development of some unusual operations. Soon after the war he established a shuttle service between the West Coast of the United States and the Philippines. He hooked Transocean in with the nationalized Philippine Air Lines (PAL) and the partnership proved both lucrative to Transocean and efficient to PAL. Charter work to almost anywhere followed, especially making a place for the carrier in the air transport system between Great Britain and Canada in the late 1940s. In November 1948, Transocean opened twice‑weekly scheduled service between Rome, Italy, and Caracas, Venezuela.
By 1953 Transocean was the largest of the non-scheduled air carriers, possessing a fleet of 114 aircraft, employees numbering better than 3,000, and 28 offices scattered throughout the world. It had also diversified, performing contract maintenance work for other airlines at 16 locations in Europe and the Pacific as well as at its maintenance facilities in Oakland. It operated a heavy construction company which specialized in building airports, and began modest efforts at building aircraft components.
Always Transocean’s primary interest was in air transport and its biggest customer was the American military. During the Berlin Airlift of 1948‑1949 Transocean picked up some of the other routes of the Military Air Transport Service when it was dedicating virtually all of its resources to Berlin. During the Korean Conflict Transocean provided approximately 10 percent of the airlift needed to sustain operations in Asia.
In 1949 the Department of the Interior took over from the Navy administration the American trust territories of Micronesia. In 1951 the Secretary of the Interior decided to contract out air transport for this region; and Transocean was the successful bidder and began scheduled operations on 1 July 1951. Using a fleet of four PBY‑5A flying boats supplied by the Navy, Transocean flew throughout Micronesia from its base on Guam.
In 1960, however, Transocean terminated operations and declared bankruptcy. It had struggled throughout the latter half of the 1950s to overcome governmental restrictions on non-scheduled carriers and mounted an expensive but unsuccessful campaign to challenge Pan American in trans‑Pacific operations via Hawaii and Guam. It sold off many of its assets to meet losses; for instance, by 1958 it had a fleet of only 12 aircraft. On 11 July 1960 Transocean sold out to United States Overseas Airlines, based in Cape May, New Jersey, another supplemental carrier founded in 1946.
Historians studying the non-scheduled carriers have tended to accept at face value that Transocean received a bum deal in operations, the victim of government interference. “If ever an airline promoter was the victim of a subtle form of aviation apartheid that permeated the minds of those in control of commercial aviation in the United States during the first two decades following World War II, that man was Orvis Nelson,” wrote airline historian R.E.G. Davies in 1987. This is a provocative thesis that conjures up images of conspiracy and cover-up at the highest levels of government and business, collusion between the regulators and the regulated, and victimization of the weak and defenseless but nonetheless important supplemental air carriers by a far from benign airline industry elite and the U.S. regulatory infrastructure.
I don’t really see the story in this way. Nelson’s audacious leadership of Transocean Air Lines, which he headed between 1946 and 1960 with sometimes spectacular success and flashy brilliance, was reckless at best. He ran it on the edge of safety, flying old and inefficient war surplus aircraft and suffering a series of high profile accidents that called its operations into question. Nelson admitted that he was rarely far from bankruptcy during the company’s history, living a hand-to-mouth existence on government defense contracts and unusual foreign activities that belied the firm’s relationship to intrigues of the CIA around the globe.
The result was a unique airline with an interesting operational style that proved marginally profitable during the immediate postwar era when Cold War crises seemed to come up every few months and then collapsed as a result of the economics of the airline industry, not because of the machinations of any entity, regulatory or otherwise.
I wrote about this at length in this article, “Right Man, Right Place, Right Time? Orvis M. Nelson and the Politics of Supplemental Air Carriers,” in W David Lewis, editor, Airline Executives and Federal Regulation: Case Studies in American Enterprise from the Airmail Era to the Dawn of the Jet Age (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000), pp. 322-55. I would invite anyone who has an interest in this fascinating story to rad this piece.