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Published: Thursday, 5/29/2003

Airline pilot's path was over Andes, jungles

S. Hosmer Compton, who learned to fly at the University of Toledo and taught aeronautics there before embarking on a 34-year career as a commercial airline pilot across the jungles and mountains of South America, died May 21 in HealthSouth Doctors' Hospital, Coral Gables, Fla. He was 85.

He died of respiratory failure. He was in ill health for about a year. But into his 80s, he played tennis and golf, his son Hosmer Lee Compton said.

Mr. Compton lived in Coral Gables since 1954, although he continued to fly South American routes until his retirement in 1977 from what became Braniff Airways.

But when he was hired in 1943 by Pan American-Grace Airways - known as Panagra - only airports in the Panama Canal Zone and in Peru had paved airstrips. During his first 11 years with the airline, he lived in Lima, Peru; Buenos Aires, and Santiago, Chile.

“Those were the days when you flew between mountains instead of over them,” son Hosmer Lee said.

Son Bill, retired chief executive officer of Trans World Airlines, said: “He led an unbelievable life. It was almost like fiction.”

Mr. Compton was born in Clark County, Ohio, and grew up in the Reno Beach section of Lucas County's Jerusalem Township. He was a graduate of Clay High School, where he received letters in track and football.

He received a scholarship to UT with the help of Josephine Fassett, the legendary superintendent of the Oregon schools. He learned to fly in the university's civilian pilot training program and accrued flying time with the university flying club he organized.

Mr. Compton took a furlough from classes and worked around the blast furnaces of Interlake Iron so he could earn money to complete his education. By 1940, he was ground school instructor in the university's flying school and had been named the flying school's outstanding student pilot. He continued as an aeronautics instructor after graduation.

He learned about Panagra from pilots he had trained who went to work for the airline. He had an interest in South American culture and applied to be a pilot.

“Mom and Dad had never been out of Ohio, and here they go to Peru,” son Hosmer said. “They didn't speak the language, and the culture was completely different. It was culture shock.”

He was a Panagra pilot during World War II. But Panagra was indirectly part of the war effort. Panagra, with the help of South American governments and the U.S. State Department, first paralleled and then replaced German-controlled airlines during the war years in order to remove the Nazi threat from the continent, according to a Web site that details the history of Braniff.

During Mr. Compton's early years as a pilot, he had to make a pass over airstrips before landing to scare the llamas away.

Mr. Compton was credited with being the first to photograph a waterfall in a part of the Andes that peaked at 14,700 feet. He became an expert on the pre-Columbian art of Peru and acquired an extensive collection, which he in recent years donated to the University of Miami and Duke University.

“He always wanted to study and improve himself on every topic,” son Robert said. “He had a thirst for knowledge.”

Mr. Compton and his wife, Gertrude, married in 1940. She died in 1978.

Surviving are his sons, Hosmer Lee, Bill, Philip, and Robert, and five grandchildren.

Services will be private. Arrangements are by the Fountain-Chandler Mortuary, Lake Placid, Fla.



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