No achievement is as few and far between as becoming the youngest passenger in a commercial airline's history. Ben Lee has carried the honor for Hawaiʻi and Hawaiian Airlines since December 1929, when at 11 months old, he was brought onboard an Inter-Island Airways flight by his mother to experience its new passenger air service, which made a historic launch just weeks before on Nov. 11.
Lee, of course, doesn’t recall seeing the crystalline blue waters of Waikīkī from the cabin window or posing for a photo afterward on the wing strut of the Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker, Hawaiian's first aircraft, but archived newspapers and personal photographs cement the milestone.
Now a 94-year-old veteran, father and grandfather, Lee has lived a rich life parallel to Hawaiian Airlines (the new alias of Inter-Island Airways starting in 1941). While the company navigated the impacts of World War II and the Korean War, Lee was finding his bearings in wartime as a civilian and, years later, a Navy captain. Lee also joined Hawaiian for historical celebrations as it grew and evolved over the decades, including a one-day remake of its first Neighbor Island route – Honolulu to Hilo, with a stop at Maʻalaea Airport on Maui – for its 55th anniversary.
Hawaiian recently reconnected Lee with a token of his past, welcoming him onboard the same Bellanca CH-300 he was photographed on with his mother 94 years ago. On a calm Saturday morning, Bellanca Captain Merle Clawson took Lee and his grandson Ian on a sightseeing tour over Oʻahu.
Voice-over credit: Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, director of community and cultural relations at Hawaiian Airlines
The Bellanca began offering sightseeing tours of Oʻahu on Oct. 6, 1929, to get people accustomed to flying at a time when interisland travel was done by ship. On the morning of Nov. 11, the Bellanca passed the torch to the Sikorsky fleet and joined a convoy of military aircraft over Honolulu to send off the carrier's two new amphibious planes, each carrying eight ticketed passengers. Thanks to multiple major restorations, the Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker continues to fly today and remains the crown jewel of Hawaiian's fleet.