TAL: The First Aviation Conglomerate

Known throughout the industry as the flying airline president, Nelson was the only top executive of a major airline during the late 1940s to hold transport pilot ratings. The number one globetrotter spent much time away from his desk in search of business or visiting Transocean's far-flung outposts, all the while keeping an eye out for profitable enterprises to add to his ever expanding international business empire, or airplanes to add to the fleet.

Soon after taking to the skies in 1946 to fly anything, anywhere, anytime, Nelson began to expand into other areas, usually with great success. But by the mid-fifties and after acquiring several subsidiary businesses, some of the men closest to Nelson began to express concern that perhaps Transocean had over-diversified its resources and that the company was in danger of decline. Nevertheless, from its inception in 1946 until as late as 1959, Transocean basked in the glow of spectacular success in most of its endeavors. The airline and its divisions often received commendations from both` military and civilian groups for its contributions to aviation.

Around the World with Transocen

From its earliest days Transocean Air Lines provoked concern and controversy among its competitors because of its unorthodox ways of getting business and its agility in completing its missions. Orvis Nelson and his crews were always ready and willing to leave for anywhere in the world on short notice with plane and payload.


"Every time I'd hear of a piece of business and go after it, there would be Nelson just departing, shaking hands in the doorway, the contract in his pocket," lamented one competitor. Another complained that every time Nelson threw the dice they came up seven; never snake-eyes. "Sky tramps", "carpetbaggers of the skies", and "gypsies" were but a few of the labels or slurs put on the flight crews and their leader. The successful always have their detractors, and there were some among the scheduled carriers who considered Transocean an outcast in the world of aviation. But the name-calling merely added to the mystique already surrounding TAL and only helped to nurture the esprit de corps that was the most important asset of this adventurous airline.


Everyone expected Transocean to fail from the beginning and throughout its years of success. But history would show that it would be the bold young founders of this "crazy" airline who would make a significant contribution to modern air transportation.


The spirit of cooperation that existed within the organization would extend to governments and other airlines needing assistance during the hectic postwar years. Few countries in the Orient, Europe, or the Middle East had national airlines or airport facilities during the mid-forties. So Transocean often contracted with foreign governments to establish airlines, to supply management, and to train flight crews.


During the early days of TAL, Nelson and Elsmore often served as pilots. On one of these flights, Nelson piloted a group of officials from the Philippine government and Philippine Airlines on a survey flight to Batavia, still at that time Dutch East Indies, (now Jakarta, Indonesia). When Nelson landed, gunfire was erupting all around the airfield. The city was under seige by rebels. This forced Nelson to stop the refueling and get the DC-4 back in the air as quickly as possible. With full gas tanks in one wing and empty tanks in the other, the aircraft was pulling dangerously to one side. He kept the nose down and the control wheel locked in the opposite direction of the plane's yaw. Only with skill and a little luck was Nelson able to build up speed to get off the ground.


The second aircraft, N66644, was placed in schedule in October, 1946. A third, N79048, was put into service in January, 1947. The fourth, N95495, was acquired in November, 1946, was used for only one flight during the month of December prior to its conversion to a B model which was completed in April, 1947. These aircraft helped TAL during its first year in business to earn nearly one half million dollars with a capital investment of only $200,000.


Crew members served as Orvis Nelson's eyes and ears. Their support on several occasions inadvertently played into Lady Luck's hand for TAL. On one flight, a TAL plane with Philippine Air Lines painted on the fuselage developed leaks in the fuel tanks while on the Kwajalein-to-Guam leg. Because they were flying without cargo or passengers, Captain T. A. Buckelew elected to over-fly Guam and continue to the final destination, Manila.


Soon after passing their scheduled intermediate stop, Radio Operator Wally Barnett received a call from a frantic TAL station manager at Guam pleading for them to return to Guam. Apparently he had talked a salesman from rival Pacific Overseas Airlines into hitching a free ride with TAL instead of taking an earlier Pan American flight. This unintentional delay held the salesman in Guam while contract bids for flying services were being submitted and opened in Manila. Needless to say, TAL won that one.


As a collateral enterprise for the establishment and management of foreign airlines, TAL formed a purchasing organization to buy and export spare parts for foreign companies using American equipment. This developed into another lucrative business for the airline.


During its fourteen years of flying, Transocean crossed not only geographical borders to work with peoples and governments around the world, but also broke through the barriers of language, religion, and diverse backgrounds in its globe-encircling activities. The skies knew no boundaries; neither did Transocean Air Lines.