He was not famous. He did not hold world records. He was, by his own account, an average boy from the Bronx who nearly got kicked out of high school when he hung around with a delinquent crowd that frequently ditched and got caught. But, by the time Henry “Hank” Anholzer was in his 80s, he proudly wrote his life story, most of which encompassed a remarkable career in aircraft maintenance for Pan American Airways (PAA) between 1941 and 1982.
Anholzer died in 2007 after volunteering for decades at the Cradle of Aviation Museum (CAM) on Long Island doing restoration of vintage aircraft. During his “retirement” he received the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award and was recognized in his community as a volunteer for historical societies and the Boy Scouts.
Senior curator at the CAM Joshua Stoff remembers him well. “He was an interesting guy,” says Stoff. “He had great stories to tell. He is sorely missed here.”
A river runs through it
Anholzer first became interested in building 10-cent model airplane kits after being inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s cross-Atlantic flight in 1927. He was five years old. Modeling aircraft was a hobby which re-occurred throughout his entire life, often leading to professional jobs, and always to adventures and great pleasure. Five years before his death he wrote that through the years dozens of home built planes were “long gone,” but, “I have all my engines to this day, except the Bunch Mighty Midget.”
It is not surprising that Anholzer kept his model aircraft engines for 70 years, as modeling was the passion that inspired him to finish high school, become a machinist and mechanic, and work for some of the most influential men in commercial aviation development. It also became a hobby which sustained him during personal challenges, and later led to satisfying retirement years.
Airplane modeling was the river which ran through Anholzer’s life. There are few academic references in which to follow his career in aviation maintenance, but his short autobiography suggests volumes of untold accomplishments. In his own words, he describes a linear progression from the boy racing remote control (RC) planes to the man in charge of building an aircraft service maintenance dock for PAA at JFK Airport. In summary, he wrote, “Model experience came into my professional life time and time again.”
“Delinquent” turns machinist
Anholzer grew up on Long Island after moving from the Bronx in 1927 and met boys who were also interested in model airplanes. It was a foreshadowing of his future career working for Pan American Airways.
“We bought white pine and made our own scratch built,” said Anholzer. “We built a small airport next to my house with runways from cement and hangars from cheese box wood. We sure were busy kids … all my spare time went into modeling.”
While Anholzer was building model airplanes, another New Yorker, Juan Trippe, started building an airline. He was so successful that one historian described him as “the man who shrank the earth.”
Trippe was 29 years old when he formed PAA in 1928. He ordered twin-engine Sikorsky S-40s and S-42s to carry passengers on routes in South America. Trippe named his new fleet “Clippers” after the sailing ships which navigated many of the seas over which his aircraft flew. Charles Lindbergh assisted Trippe to determine PAA’s travel routes and improve aircraft design.
PAA eventually flew to Mexico, Cuba, and the route from Panama to British Honduras. By 1937, PAA added M-130 (Martin) aircraft and flew to New Zealand and China. By 1939, PAA’s Martin aircraft were replaced by Boeing 314s. The 314 series hosted passengers on a lower deck, connected by a spiral staircase to the cargo and crew above. Some ships offered a separate compartment called the “bridal suite.” Engines could be accessed through the wings by mechanics for in-flight repairs. At more than 100 feet long, the Clipper’s 152-foot wingspan floated 20 feet above the waterline.
Back on Long Island, as Trippe continued to expanded his PAA empire, a valuable future employee was caught cutting school.
“I was really a juvenile delinquent, one step from going to jail,” said Anholzer. “When I was playing hooky with my friend Artie, we would walk to Jamaica Sea Airport and watch and help the mechanics. The airport was a sandy field with a big rusted tin hangar. We were touching real airplanes and drumming fabric on Curtis Robins, Fledglings, Wacos, etc. This was for us.”
Fortunately for Anholzer, “Mrs. Sargent,” his teacher, noticed his passion for aviation and influenced his admittance at Manhattan High School of Aviation Trades (S.A.T).
Anholzer and his friends formed the Idlewild Gas Model Club. “Our home field was the swamps of Idlewild, where JFK is now,” recalled Anholzer, who failed to get his first powered model off the ground.
“I bought a two-cylinder Imp for $5. Its fuel was dry ice and carbide. There was a brass generator with dry ice, carbide in the lower chamber and water in the upper chamber,” he said. “We had to pull a plunger (ring) valve. This would cause the water to drip on the carbide and dry ice, forming a stinky gas that drove the engine. The engine was installed in a Megow Monocoupe, but it had no power.”
After graduation from S.A.T. in 1941, Anholzer worked a drill press and turret lathe in a machine shop, but he later wrote, “My head was on airplanes.” Certified at Long Island’s Brewster Aviation School, Anholzer became a rivet inspector. Bored, he quit after one day, but he soon had a job offer that changed his life. He was 18 years old.
PAA – The war years
In May of 1941, Anholzer began working in the sheet metal shop at PAA in New York. The “luxurious” S-42s converted from day flights to night aerial bedrooms with 14 berths. They were 68 feet long, 17 feet high, and had wing spans of 118 feet.
“[My] first job on aircraft was to drill a stop hole in a little crack in the forward bulkhead of the Sikorsky S-42,” he said. “The S-42 was the Bermuda Clipper we called Old Betsy, which made the survey flights over the Atlantic and Pacific.
“I worked on Boeing 314s … Dixie, Yankee, etc. There was always lots of metal work on the flying boats due to corrosion and hitting driftwood in waters all over the world. After a year and a half of doing all kinds of metal work, from rebuilding sea wings to replacing hull bottoms, I was getting to be a good metal pecker. Boy, did I fall in love with the PAA aircraft.”
The inauguration of the flying boat service to distant, exotic places captured the imagination of the entire world. The huge, graceful floating aircraft with luxurious comfort for passengers and safety features for crew were to dominate air travel for decades.
But the role of the PAA Clipper fleet was soon destined to change.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught the United States by surprise and the alarm went out to protect the mainland from further assault.
Stoff recounts one of Anholzer’s first assignments on the job for PAA.
“The flying boats which were anchored off the coast in Flushing Bay (near La Guardia) were considered a valuable military asset,” says Stoff. “Hank told me they handed him a WWI Springfield rifle, and ferried him out to the aircraft, instructing him to sit on the wing of the plane and look for saboteurs.”
It is not clear what Anholzer was expected to do if he spotted an enemy submarine, but shortly thereafter he was transferred to PAA’s Treasure Island facility in San Francisco where he worked on the Clippers, Martin 130s, PBM3Rs, and the Consolidated PB2Y3. From California, PAA sent Anholzer, two other mechanics, and some “Navy Brass” aboard a Boeing 314 headed to work in Honolulu. En route they ate dinner with “real silverware” on tables covered in white linen.
“We shipped our tools in the bridal suite,” said Anholzer. “It was stripped of all interior paneling to save weight for war-time cargo. When it came time to sleep I had no bunk. A Navy man got out of his bunk, so I sneaked in and fell asleep. He came back, peeked in the curtains and left me to sleep for a couple of hours. We talked after I woke up and he was a pleasant man. We had breakfast together.”
Anholzer and his companion traded signatures on souvenir dollar bills, revealing that he had shared breakfast with Chester A. Nimitz, the Navy’s newest four star admiral, and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
PAA’s fleet transformed from luxury airliner to military support aircraft during WWII. Anholzer was there to keep them flying.
Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian and author. She was the founder and director of the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum from 1995-2001 (the site of Charles Taylor’s grave in North Hollywood, CA). Giacinta holds a BA in anthropology with a minor in U.S. history and has given presentations on pioneer aviation since 1995. Most recently she has been awarded a partial grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund to write her second book, highlighting the life of Amelia Earhart’s mechanic, Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr.