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One of the first things that I did after joining American many years ago was read Eagle: The Story of American Airlines
by Robert Serling. This wonderful book tells the story of how a ragtag group of small carriers, carrying mostly mail, grew into an icon of American commerce, and culture. While learning the company history was a common-sense move for an enthusiastic new hire, the book is so full of interesting stories, some verging on incredible, that the exercise was every bit as entertaining as it was educational.
One of my favorite stories in the book took place in the late 1930s. On a flight to Los Angeles, the pilots received a rather surprising visitor to the cockpit — a lion! The film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was shipping a lion cub to Hollywood as a potential replacement for the aging Leo, whose roar opened every MGM movie. Shortly after takeoff, the co-pilot found the cub happily purring in his lap. A cardboard box stowed between the cockpit and the cabin was apparently no match for the lonely and curious cub. Twice the crew cajoled the cub back into the box, and twice it returned to visit its new, increasingly nervous pilot friends. Fortunately, the plane they were flying was a Douglas Sleeper Transport, which featured a “Sky Room” lounge. After much effort, the crew was able to secure the lion inside the lounge until a scheduled stop in Dallas — and once on the ground, they were able to locate a more secure box for the friendly feline.
Another strange-but-true story from our early days involves Charles Howard, a young aviator the company hired as a co-pilot in 1932. Howard’s stint with the airline lasted only two months. He flew mostly between Cleveland and Fort Worth, Texas, and he earned a monthly salary of $250. This unremarkable career would not be a footnote in our history were it not for the fact that Charles Howard was in fact Howard Hughes, one of the richest and most famous people in the world. Hughes, an accomplished aviator, used the alias to gain some airline experience. It is an unsolved mystery whether any airline personnel were complicit in the ruse (I tend to think so), but one thing we do know is that for two months at least, we provided Hughes with the only steady job he held in his life. After being recognized a number of times, Hughes abandoned the charade, abruptly resigned in the middle of a scheduled trip, and flew home as a passenger.
In contrast to Hughes, whose celebrity far outweighed his modest contribution to our airline, Goodrich Murphy, a young manager of the same era, almost inadvertently created one of the most enduring symbols in the history of American business. As Serling describes in his book, Murphy entered a company-sponsored contest to design a new American Airways (the name change to American Airlines took place in 1934) insignia that would adorn all aircraft, facilities, and letterheads. The top prize was $100. On his card table at home, Murphy came up with several possible designs, which he submitted. On the night of the deadline, however, a new idea caused him to cut short a night out with his wife so he could sketch and submit one more. His last-minute entry — featuring patriotic red, white, and blue colors and an American bald eagle hovering over the airline’s initials — prevailed over hundreds of other designs to become the official company logo. And while it has continued to evolve from that time, the eagle — created on Goodrich Murphy’s card table — has lasted more than 80 years and has become one of the world’s most recognized corporate symbols.
Stories like these are a source of pride, inspiration — and yes, entertainment — for all of us who call American home. But while 80-plus years of anecdotes and milestones make for good reading, we know there’s a big difference between history and destiny. Our logo may be instantly recognizable, but from our earliest days through today, the American Airlines story has always been one of continuous transformation — of charging forward, not looking back.
And of course, it’s ultimately not our stories, but the stories we help make possible — your stories — that explain the longevity of American Airlines. The cherished family vacations. The triumphant business trips. The once-in-a-lifetime adventures. With all due respect to the author Robert Serling, these are, collectively, the real “Story of American Airlines.”
I want to thank you for letting us be a part of your story. Wherever you are going today, have a great trip.
Thomas W. Horton