Saturday, January 9, 2010

By flying boat to Hawaii and beyond: part 1

As we go into yet another snowy week the appeal of the South Seas increases! So now is a very good time to take a flight to exotic Hawaii for some sun, sea and wahines!

Agent Triple P very nearly went to Hawaii a few years ago. We were in Los Angeles and had a long telephone call with some government types who wanted us to fly out there at two hours notice. Unfortunately, because of the length of the flight we couldn't fit it into our schedule. Hawaii is over 2,000 miles from California which is a fair old flight even today. This year, however, is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first US- Hawaiian flight. So how would we have got to Honolulu in 1935 other than by a long sea voyage?

The answer is by one of the most iconic aircraft ever; from a time when long distance flying was far more, romantic, adventurous and de luxe than it is now: the Pan American Airways Clipper flying boat.

Juan Trippe

Pan American Airlines originated in the twenties when a Colombia based, but German owned, airline was pitching for the first overseas US Air mail contract. Concerned that this contract would be awarded to a foreign airline, unless a credible US alternative came forward, a group of men, led by Major Henry Arnold of the Army Air Corps put together Pan American in March 1927. Although they had the company on paper, and won the air mail contract to Cuba as a result, they had no planes. In stepped Juan Trippe who had created the Aviation Company of the Americas, really as something to do with an inheritance he had just come into. He also got backing from Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and William A Rockefeller. In 1926 he had acquired a small airline with a Florida to Cuba service and all important landing rights in Havana. Trippe suggested that his firm, Pan American and the Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean Airways company, established by New York City investment banker Richard Hoyt, should join forces and Pan American Airlines was born with Trippe as operational director (he served as CEO of Pan Am until 1968).

Pan Am's South American routes

Over the next few years the airline grew rapidly, establishing routes from the US to the Caribbean, Central and South America. Because of the large distances flown over water seaplanes were used by the airline on all these routes.

Trippe was really interested in oceanic routes, however, but political problems plagued his initial attempts to organiose a trans-Atlantic route and so he turned to the trans-pacific route to China. He had to abandon his initial plan for an Alaska/Japan/China route because of the political instability in the area and the Soviets refused him permission to land in Russia. The only option, therefore was an island hopping route across the huge Pacific Ocean. Eventually he negotiated a Pearl Harbor/ Midway Island/Wake Island/Guam/Subic Bay (Manila) route. Great Britain refused him permission to land in Hong Kong, his ultimate end destination and so the initial service finished in the Philippines. In the meantime he struck a deal with the Portugese and got landing rights in Macau. Following this the British soon caved in and let him land in Hong Kong (in 1936).

The only problem was that no plane existed which could cover this 8,000 mile, largely over water, route. There were very few concrete runways at this time and so flying boats were really the only way that large airliners could be contemplated. Pan Am, therfore, asked aircraft manufactureres to come up with a suitable design.

Sikorsky S-40

First into production was the Sikorsky S-40 in 1931. They were immediately put on the South American route and the Pan Am crews started to build what would become a much envied technical and operational abiliy. The first passenger flight from Pan Am's base in Miami to the Panama Canal set off on November 19th 1931 piloted by Pan Am consultant, famous transatlantic flyer, Charles Lindbergh. The S-40 had a crew of four and could carry 38 passengers up to 875 miles in one go. It was over 75 feet long and had a wingspan of 114 feet. Only three were built as Sikorsky were already working on the bigger S-42.

With these three planes the "Clipper" name, devised by Trippe himself, was used by Pan Am for the first time evoking the days of fast sailing ships. Indeed, Pan Am crews wore naval style uniforms rather than typical flyers uniform, starting a trend that persists in the airline industry to this day. The first three planes were christened Caribbean Clipper, American Clipper and Southern Clipper. Jerry Gray, Glenn Miller's arranger wrote an instrumental called Caribbean Clipper in 1942 and later lyrics were added to it by Sammy Gallop: "Come on aboard the Caribbean Clipper, we'll ride a moonbeam to the little dipper". The only song Agent Triple P knows written about a flying boat! The version performed by The Modernaires, Glenn Miller's vocal backing group, has Paula Kelly as the stewardess offering "coffee, tea or milk?" The reply comes "Er, Miss, the starboard engine is on fire" to which she replies "How about a Martini?" All this, perhaps, reflected the fact that a flight that made the whole distance without some sort of engine trouble was generally cause to celebrate!

Sikorsky S 42

The Sikorsky S-42 first flew in March 1934 and whilst not bigger than the S-40 it was this plane that was designed to meet Trippe's specifications of an aircraft that could do the China run. Although the nember of passengers it could carry was similar to the earlier aircraft it was faster and its range was more than tripled to over 3,000 miles. This was the key factor as the longest leg on a trans-Pacific flight was the San Francisco to Hawaii section of 2,400 miles.

Martin M-130

At the end of 1934, the Baltimore based Glenn L Martin company flew the Martin M-130 for the first time. Bigger than the Sikorsky it was 91 feet long and had a 130 foot wingspan. It could carry 36 passengers or 16 in night berths. Crucially, it had a range of 3,200 miles.

Given the existence of these two aircraft Trippe felt able to set up a base for Pan Am's Pacific operations in San Francisco on January 1st 1935. A month later a ship charted by Trippe, the New Haven, sailed for Honolulu with equipment to establish facilities on the islands along the route. It carried over 6,000 tons of supplies including the material to build two complete villages, generators, motor launches, water distillations units, 44 airline technicians and a 74-man construction crew.

Captain Musick leaves the Pioneer Clipper in Hawaii on the first test flight April 17th 1935. the men in the fetching swimsuits are the Pan Am ground crew!

On April 17th, 1935 the Martin M-130 Pioneer Clipper arrived in Honolulu 18 hours and 37 minutes after taking off from Alameda on San Francisco Bay.

The aircraft continued to Midway, Wake and Guam. Several more test flights followed and in November the first official passenger carrying flight was seen off by a crowd of 20,000 at Pan Am's base in Alameda, California. An estimated 150,000 other spectators almost saw the flight end in disaster when Captain Musick had to dive to avoid hanging cables from the partly built Oakland Bay bridge.

The China Clipper's first Hawaiian bound passengers receive a traditional welcome in November 1935

Captain Edwin Musicke piloted another M-130 the China Clipper on this historic flight which carried 110,000 pieces of mail weighing two tons. 21 hours and 20 minutes later (headwinds slowed the plane's progress) the China Clipper touched down in Pearl Harbor to be greeted by another huge crowd of 3,000 people.

The next day the flying boat took on over 6,500 lbs of cargo and 14 passengers before heading off to Wake Island. Eventually the China Clipper landed in Manila 59 hours and 48 minutes after leaving California as opposed to a journey time of 21 days by ship.

The China Clipper arrives in Manila
Because of the intense publicity surrounding this voyage, the name China Clipper, although technically the name of one particular aircraft (NC14716) was popularly adopted for any Pan Am flying boat making the run and was even used by some as a generic term for any flying boat.

A voyage across the Pacific

In October 1936 the first scheduled flight from San Francisco to Manila via Hawaii took off. Nine passengers paid over $1,400 each for a return ticket. This became a weekly service; one plane each making a westwards and an eastwards run. Eventually Pan Am would link up to its own internal Chinese airline, China National Aviation Corporation; a joint venture with the Chinese government.

The ill-fated Samoan Clipper

Sadly, Captain Musicke, his crew of six and his Sikorsky S-42B Samoan Clipper disappeared during a flight from Honolulu in January 1938 after reporting engine trouble. Seven months later the Martin M-130 Hawaiian Clipper was lost in the Pacific east of Manila.

In our next post we will look at the final and most famous aircraft to make this run: the Boeing 314.

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