One of the most important
pioneering journalists in air cargo history, Richard Malkin is
the only air cargo reporter who covered the Berlin Airlift; with that
one act, he practically invented air cargo journalism.
Richard died in July 2017 at the age of 104.
Richard Malkin was part of our print publication from 1990
until 1994. He returned to FlyingTypers at age 100 and wrote
continuously until mid-2016, supplying a flurry of final of interviews,
comments, and feature stories.
It is worth mentioning that Richard left us with a living
legacy of yet-to-be-published stories created in his final years. They
cover his exploits during an amazing 65+ years covering the air cargo
This is a first in the series on air cargo from the beginnings
to the Jet Age.
Richard Malkin at The Reichstag Berlin, 1948.
cargo journalism was a career that I neither
planned nor anticipated. In fact, it did not
exist as a specific profession before I gave
up my job as a reporter for a daily newspaper
to assume the editorship of what billed itself
as the world’s first dedicated air cargo
periodical. This occurred a couple of years
before the dawn of the so-called Air Cargo
Age in domestic and international commerce
at the end of World War II.
The plain truth
is that my passage from newspaper to magazine
activity was purely an economic decision:
I harbored no interest in aviation or transportation.
Privately, I intended to hold on to the job
for several years, get onto firmer economic
ground, then shift to a more desirable editorial
As it turned
out, I lasted 66 years writing about all manner
of property moved by air.
it, I had been seized and held captive in
the powerful grip of diverse dynamic forces
in motion, not least the spectacle of the
horde of Air Transport Command and Naval Air
Transport service veterans, many of them with
overblown visions of their roles in this new
business called air cargo—a reminder,
as a wise man once pointed out, an exaggeration
is a truth that has lost its way. But more
about the Air Force hopefuls later in this
At the time
of the new industry’s beginning—and
even before then—the absolute definition
of air cargo embraced all forms of property.
Not only did it cover express and freight,
but mail and baggage as well.
the monthly traffic statistics received from
the airlines, savvy editors soon learned to
verify the actual tonnage of shipments carried.
Adding to the statistical confusion, foreign
operators tended to report the results in
kilos in contrast to pounds or tons reported
by the U.S. airlines. A Civil Aeronautics
Board held tight rein on a new industry it
was learning to understand.
Despite, as previously indicated, the birth
of the Air Cargo Age at the end of hostilities
in 1945, scheduled air shipping in the U.S.
had been in existence since 1927 when a single-engine
aircraft of National Air Transport flew a
load of small packages and boxes from New
Brunswick, New Jersey to Chicago. This was
the origin of REA Air Express. A creature
of Railway Express Agency (owned by 80 railroads
which enjoyed a lucrative contract with the
nation’s scheduled airlines until international
competitive reverses decades later spelled
the agency’s end. An ambitious newcomer
with a service strategy all its own, popped
Nor was air
absent in the pre-Air Cargo Age years. Pan
Am flew occasional planeloads of 24-hour baby
chicks to Latin American destinations, and
there were notable freight movements by TACA
and Avianca, and, yes, the Canadian bush flyers,
but these were too few to signal an explosion
of freight revenue for the airlines.
From a running
start in the second half of the 1940s, significant
examples registered what the new industry
would look like in the future. Hauled in aircraft
that were pale shadows of today’s giant
jets, the world’s important airlines
gave evidence of starting hard- freight operations.
Consider, for example, a zoo-bound planeload
of assorted animals, including a baby elephant.
Or an entire household flown thousands of
miles to an overseas inland location. Or the
substitution of the speed of air cargo for
refrigerated ground or sea transport of perishable
commodities. To borrow a biblical expression,
the fledgling industry went annually from
strength to strength.
Like the history
of the surface transportation companies, the
appearance of the middleman inspired little
affection in airline ranks. The IATA-approved
commission-earning cargo agent preceded by
years the cargo-consolidating air freight
The rise of
the cargo agents was swift and dramatic. They
descended in large numbers on export communities
on both coasts and the Midwest. Typical of
the swarm of newly IATA-authorized cargo agents
was the avid chap armed with a desk, a phone
and a stack of air waybills. Facing traditional
shippers asked to pay rates sharply higher
than they were accustomed to pay, the cargo
agents turned patient and persistent educators,
setting forth the inherent economic advantages
produced by the speed of air transport. It
was no easy sell, and often—too often—price
was king, even under demonstrated proof that
air freight’s bottom line should be
preferable. Those were the days when physical
distribution executives were as rare as kiwis
in Yellowstone Park.
As the volume
of agent-derived traffic increased at a steady
pace, a few international air carriers questioned
internally whether it was smart to become
dependent on the agent for what may turn out
to be an interesting potential.
A leak at Pan Am disclosed that a key executive,
concerned that the cargo agents might achieve
control of the airline’s growing freight
business had proposed to open direct competition
against them if their input reached a threshold
of 20% of Pan Am freight revenue. The leaked
news produced an instant emergency meeting
of agents in a Manhattan restaurant, and after
emotional debate voted to make Pan Am the
carrier of last resort. Pan Am reacted quickly.
At a hastily arranged meeting with an agents
committee, it pooh-poohed the veracity of
the leak and offered calming words of support.
Out of that session came a period of mutually
Forwarder consolidations of high-rated small
shipments incited no yelps of glee from the
airlines. They were largely regarded by the
carriers as competitors. The airlines’
darling of the latter Forties was Emery Air
Freight whose pricing in its startup year—it
refrained from competing with domestic airline
rates unlike the other intermediaries—it
sold and delivered top-quality service before
the iron realities of the marketplace compelled
it to offer competitive rates.
As an air cargo
innocent, virgin territory each workday was
an experience in discovery, often familiar
but in a totally different context. It was
both fascinating and challenging. The determined
forces of a pulsing creative bent, of steady
focus of expectation in a still blurry tomorrow.
Not very long
after the return of peace, I found myself
tramping California’s strawberry and
lettuce fields, and covering stretches of
Florida and Texas flower growers. I watched
the careful offloading of Jamaica lilies for
the Easter market. A bit later I flew to the
Netherlands for an eye-opening visit at the
fabulous flower auction in Aalsmeer. It did
not take genius thinking to understand why
these perishable products were among the first
natural candidates to take to the air. This
led to my discovery that varieties of fish
had donned wings. Interesting to note is that
the Air Cargo Age was only three years old
when Lockheed engineers participated in tests
of the effects of altitude and changes of
pressures on 34 different types of fruits
I can conceive
of no better descriptive word than “wonderland”
for those pristine years. Close witness to
extraordinary feats of freight flying, I was
reminded that all fine things descend from
originality; for the first time restaurants
in interior cities received fresh fish from
Eastern waters . . . A ship’s propeller
weighing 6 1/2 tons, too long for normal loading,
slung on specially constructed beams beneath
the fuselage; an overseas tramp operator picks
up and delivers random shipments to a series
of airports on a circuitous route.
Yes, all the
above—and more!—when commercial
air cargo was still in diapers.
In a published work some years ago I noted
an incident involving an ATC veteran who paid
a visit to my office about a year after the
war. In a broad display of unsophisticated
candor he charmingly informed me that he had
acquired a war-surplus C-47 cargoplane, and
could I tell him how to go about getting into
the airline business.
I mention this
because he was typical of scores of ex-service
flyers and handlers whose postwar ambitions
pointed in the same direction. The immediate
postwar era showed explosive growth of what
now were often called “GI airlines”—all
nonscheduled airlines, many of these new air
carrier companies built on the strength of
a single war-surplus transport. Rise and fall—it
took a few short years, victims of the tough
realities in marketing, pricing and, of course,
But a few hardier
ones survived, a small number longer than
the rest. Among these escapees from nonscheduled
to become scheduled carriers. This small group
included such familiar brands as Flying Tiger,
Slick, Seaboard, etc, now fading memories.
In spite of their record during the first few years,
they are generally credited for a significant contribution to awareness
of the plane as a true component of modern distribution.
Having passed through the entire life of
the air cargo industry to date, I found myself effortlessly settling on
the earliest years—the years when imaginations and hopes ran riot—as,
for me, a spell of utter romance. (What was inevitably to follow was a
parabola of mammoth jetfreighters, automated cargo handling, containerization,
brilliant applications of modern technology, fierce competition on a global
Passenger-oriented from the very start,
the scheduled airlines’ development of revenue from the carriage
of cargo above REA’s contributions was at low ebb. There was a certain
charismatic glow bathing sales people who often rubbed elbows with celebrity
passengers. A man assigned to cargo was likely said to have been exiled
to Siberia. (A former top executive at Lufthansa admitted to me that in
his youth at the German airline, cargo was referred to as a fifth wheel.)
Gradually, but with increasing frequency, bulk shipments moved into the
air. American Airlines anticipated what lay ahead and was the first to
offer scheduled all-cargo service. Its inaugural freighter flight flew
from New York to Burbank, including several intermediate stops.
As sure as the daily rise of the sun, there
came the crop of unabashed prognosticators to spread the good word. There
was a happy aura of certainty that surrounded their expressions. One by
one, airline and forwarder executives donned the seer’s mantle and
seriously issued predictions that airline cargo revenue would pull abreast
passenger revenue in—depending on the predictor’s gift of
prophecy—10 to 15 years. Ralph S. Damon, then president of TWA,
proved to be more conservative! He maintained that it would take about
25 years. The ensuing decades proved that Pliny the Elder had it right:
the only certainty is that nothing is certain.
This article of memory-wresting details
is essentially devoted to the postwar Forties with one or two brief forays
beyond. It is meant to focus on elements—at least some basic ones—that
formed the arc that was dubbed the Air Cargo Age.
On a path that was to lead to an ultimate
global aerial network fat with the goods of man, there were trial and
error, success and disappointments, visionaries and naysayers. All things
considered, I am inclined to say that the first few years of my six-and-a-half
decade career in air cargo were crammed with the stuff of pure romance.
The industry’s green years had, as
shown, its crop of dreamers and those comfortably wrapped in tradition.
The dreamers stretched the bounds of possibility. Along with their dreams
of global airfreighter fleets were predictions of complementary services
by airships, helifreighters, and parachuted deliveries. Is dreaming an
exercise in futility? There is an old French suggestion—Tous
songes sont mensonges (all dreams are lies).
Don’t you believe it.