JUAN TERRY TRIPPE was one of that small group of Americans who recognized 50 years ago that the airplane would change the world. His name never became a household word like Lindgergh, Rickenbacker, Earhart and the rest. They flew and reaped the publicity. Mr. Trippe built a great airline and racked up one "first" after another in the history of commercial aviation. When he died in New York City last Friday, the company he had built -- Pan American World Airways -- was still flying people around the world.

Few Americans who lived through the period will forget the China Clippers, those high-winged flying boats that opened the Pacific to regular air travel. They belonged to Pan Am and Pan Am belonged for 40 years to Mr. Trippe in a way few large corporations ever belong to any one individual. He ran the company from its creation until he stepped aside in 1968, turning back several attempts to depose him because no one else could run it so well.

During the early years, Pan Am emerged as the American international airline. It carried the first mail by air from North America to Central America (with Charles Lindbergh at the controls) and from San Francisco to Manila. It opened the first regular transatlantic service from New York to England and the first passenger service across the Pacific. In those less complicated days, private individuals, not diplomats, negotiated air rights, and Mr. Trippe established the rights that gave America its strong start in international aviation. The network of airfields and communications his company had built in South America and the Pacific was invaluable during World War II.

After the war, his vision of a great American "merchant marine of the air" with Pan Am as its chosen instrument fell apart. Other American airlines became fierce competitors overseas and Pan Am had to struggle to stay in business. Under Mr. Trippe's direction, however, it was the first airline to put American-made jets into passenger service and the first to order the huge airliners that are now so common.

All these firsts may seem to be no more than corporate decisions that, in retrospect, turned out to be right. But being right about the future of air travel in the 1920s and '30s, and even in the '40s and '50s, was as much a matter of vision as of good business judgment. By being right and first so many times, Mr. Trippe had a major hand in creating the transportation system that has shrunk the world to a shadow of what it was when he bought his first six Navy surplus airplanes in 1924.