Orvis M. Nelson and his Transocean Air Lines (1946-1960) were intimately linked with Robert O. Harder's family and fortunes. Orvis was the single greatest influence on Harder's own life, in very much the way Slim Lindbergh's thrilling 1927 Atlantic flying adventure had galvanized Orvis. There was never any going back for the Harder boy once he had heard the eye-widening flying stories from the knee of his Uncle Orvis Nelson--a few of which follow: In 1928, getting called on the carpet in the Philippines by General MacArthur for a dangerous photo/flying stunt that Orvis had in fact hoaxed with some dark room razzle-dazzle; Nelson's 1932 primary flight training and the near mid-airs; pats on the back for fellow Kelly Field Mister, Robert L. Scott ("God is my Co-pilot"), after Scott walked away from a crash landing; first takeoff in a clunky biplane Keystone--will it ever leave the ground?; flying the 1934 Army mail planes at night through rain in open cockpits without sufficient instrument training; catching on with United Air Lines in 1935 as a 2nd pilot in the slick new monoplane Boeing 247s; first flight as an airline captain (DC-3) in August, 1938; flying the Air Transport Command cargo planes in and out of Alaska during World War Two; starting Transocean in 1946; trailblazing cross-polar flights in a DC-7B in the mid-1950s; flying refugees out of world hot spots; the list went on and on.
And what would such air adventures be without a little glamour to go along? Orvis had plenty--there were meetings with kings of Araby; dinners at the White House; intimate suppers on a Sausalito boat with Ernest K. Gann (still flying for Transocean despite a writing career already in full blossom); arranging for Transocean to do the flying for Ernie's movies, "Island in the Sky" and "The High and the Mighty"; hobnobbing with actress Doris Day during the filming in Transocean's Oakland hangars of the stewardess movie, "Julie"; around the globe flights with his mother Mamie Nelson (Harder's grandmother), voyages that attracted world press attention when at age 67 she took on the role of "the world's oldest stewardess"; and very hush-hush work for the CIA, only learned about much, much later. At one time, Transocean, the first airline conglomerate (ten companies), boasted over 140 airplanes and 6,500 worldwide employees. Transocean also helped establish many new airlines around the world (at least sixteen), including such carriers as Air Jordan, Philippine Air Lines, and Japan Air Lines.
All of it seemed too good to last, and alas--it was. Ironically, the company's very success worked against it when powerful competitors began bringing their considerable influence to bear on the Civil Aeronautics Board, whose blessings Transocean needed to survive. By the later 1950s, the company found itself losing business and in serious financial trouble; in 1958 Orvis lost control to outside investors, and in 1960 the company went out of business.
After a marginally successful interlude operating a European freight delivery service using several surplus C-74 Globemaster I cargo planes (Robert O. Harder celebrated his 18th birthday flying over the Mediterranean in one of them), Orvis became an airline consultant and lobbyist for air transportation deregulation. But fate, as his friend Ernie Gann might have put it, intervened and he did not live to see President Jimmy Carter sign the Airline Deregulation Act on October 24, 1978. Orvis passed away in Dec, 1976 and was buried at Hayward, California. In 2003, he was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.
R.E.G. Davies, then Curator of Air Transport at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, captured the sum of Orvis' life with one telling sentence in his Foreword to Arue Szura's 1989 book, "Folded Wings" (see below): "Orvis Nelson was possibly the greatest of all airline promoters who never reaped the just rewards of his enterprise, innovation, and determination."
MORE ABOUT ORVIS M. NELSON AND TRANSOCEAN AIRLINES CAN BE FOUND IN THE FOLLOWING BOOKS, PUBLICATIONS, AND WEBSITES
- Davies, R.E.G., "Rebels and Reformers of the Airways," Washington
DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987
- Gann, Ernest K., "Fate is the Hunter," New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.
- Gann, Ernest K., "A Hostage to Fortune," New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
- Lewis, Ralph, "By Dead Reckoning," McLean, Virginia: Paladwr Press, 1994.
- Robbins, Christopher, "Air America," New York: G.P. Putnam, 1979.
- Szura, Arue, "Folded Wings: A History of Transocean Airlines," Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1989.
- Thruelsen, Richard, "The Daring Young Men of Transocean," New York: Saturday Evening Post, Curtis Pub. Co., 1952.
- Thruelsen, Richard, "Transocean: The Story of an Unusual Airline," New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1953.
- Hearings before the Select Committee on Small Business, U.S. Senate, " The Decline of Supplemental Air Carriers in the U.S.," Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing
Office, Oct. 6, 7, and 8, 1976.
The Wikipedia Free Dictionary link to the History of Transocean Air
For photos, personal histories, people, etc. of TAL, go to the Transocean
Air Lines Alumni organization's website:
For the Saturday Evening Post article of 1952, "
The Daring Young Men of Transocean"
By Richard Thruelsen, go to:
The Oakland Aviation Museum at the Oakland, CA International Airport has several exhibit rooms of Transocean Air Lines memorabilia. For more info, go to: http://www.oaklandaviationmuseum.org/