Pan Am’s Pacific Clippers
The 1930s were the romantic years of flight. At the beginning of the decade, flying across oceans was a life-risking experience. However, beginning in 1936, Pan Am began to fly across the Pacific. Their aircraft were the beautiful, luxurious, and enormous Clippers. Built by Martin and Boeing, these amazing aircraft flew the rich and famous in style to exotic locations throughout the Pacific. Although Clippers only flew passengers for five years before America was dragged into the war, it is difficult to think of pre-war Hawaii without a Pan Am Clipper flying above the islands.
In 1927, Pan Am began to fly in Central and South America. By the early 1930s, Juan Trippe wanted to create regular mail, cargo, and passenger service to Hawaii and locations deeper in the Pacific. His initial goal was to carry people, cargo, and mail all the way from San Francisco to China. In 1935, the first survey flights gained the company experience for operating the route. October 1935 saw the beginning of mail and cargo service. October 21, 1936 saw the first passenger flight. Pan Am provided weekly service along recently impossible routes. Although the first services stopped at Manila for political reasons, service continued to expand and eventually reached Hong Kong and Singapore.
Pan Am was also eyeing the more lucrative market for service between America and Europe, but poor weather conditions made year-round Atlantic service extremely risky. In addition, the required stepping stones along the Pacific route to Manila were U.S. possessions, while trans-Atlantic flights would have to stop at possessions owned by other countries. Only in 1939 did Pan Am begin service to Europe, and that year weather problems cancelled 40% of the flights, and many that did complete the route were delayed for several days.
Before Clipper service began, Pan Am operations in Central and South America became a laboratory for how to extend air service to regions where distances were long, airports few, and facilities largely non-existent. Although Pan Am used airports when it could, there were many more bays than airports, and they used flying boats and float planes heavily. The Americas operations forced Pan Am to develop long-distance navigation, radio communication, and the creation of fully functional air support and hotel facilities where none existed. Although the Pacific would bring even greater challenges, Pan Am already had oversea flying capabilities that no other company could approach.
To cross the Pacific, Pan Am would need far larger flying boats to achieve economic payloads. Although aircraft companies were ready to create large four-engine aircraft, few airports could to accommodate. Four-engine flying boats would not have these problems. The first Pan Am Clipper, the Sikorsky S-42, was really designed for the Americas, although S-42s surveyed some Pacific routes and flew the short hop between Manila and Hong Kong. Next came three larger Martin M-130s provided the first regular service.
Then came the definitive Boeing 314s and 314As. With a payload five times that of the Martins, the twelve B314s and B-314As finally brought the Pacific service to maturity when they arrived in early 1939. These enormous aircraft had a stunning maximum gross weight of 84,000 pounds. Their wide boat hulls have enormous room for passengers and cargo. Their wings were so thick that the flight engineer could crawl out to the engines and service them in flight. They would be the widest passenger aircraft until the Boeing 747 many years later.
The Boeings were enormous. By way of comparison, the dominant passenger airliner at the time was the twin-engine Douglas DC-2, which carried 14 passengers over routes nearing 1,000 miles and cost about $80,000. In contrast, the Boeings cost $620,000 apiece—just under ten million of today’s dollars. They could carry 74 passengers, cargo, and mail over 3,500-mile hops. Boeing had previously built the XB-15, which was heavier than the later B-17. Engines strong enough to give the XB-15 good performance had not been available, so that project died. Boeing responded to Pan Am’s needs by adapting the 150 foot wing of the XB-15 and the engine nacelles to an enormous flying boat body. Using new Wright 1,500 hp and later 1,600 hp Twin Cyclone engines, the 314A was able to carry this enormous bulk at cruising speeds of 188 mph.
The only class was first class. Passenger compartments had heavy sound deadening. The aircraft had couches instead of just seats. On overnight flights, they could convert into beds. The passenger space was divided into five compartments. In addition, there was a spacious main lounge, separate men’s and women’s restrooms and changing rooms, and even a bridal suite in the tail. Food was served on China plates, and the level of cuisine was high. In addition, on most part of the journey, passengers only flew during the day and slept at comfortable hotels at night. Pan Am loved to use nautical terminology, so it called its cabin attendants stewards and later stewardesses. For this level of service, prices were beyond the reach of anyone but the super wealthy. In 1939, a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Honolulu cost $278, and a one-way ticket to Hong Kong cost $1,368. In 2010 dollars, these were $4,317 and $11,803.
The flight from San Francisco to Manila took six hops. The big jump was the flight between San Francisco and Honolulu. This 2,400-mile flight was roughly a thousand miles longer than other routes. Even with Boeing Clippers, overnight flying was unavoidable. Due to the long distance of this flight, even the Boeing Clippers only carried about 25 passengers and limited their speeds to between 135 and 144 mph. On other legs, as noted earlier, the Boeing Clipper could carry 74 passengers with cruising speeds as high as 188 mph. Night flying was hazardous because aircraft could fly into unseen storms. Consequently, only the Honolulu–San Francisco leg used overnight flying.
Beyond Hawaii, Midway Island was 1,400 miles away, Wake Island was 1,300 miles further, and Guam was an additional 1,600 miles. The flight from San Francisco to Manila covered 8,200 miles. It took six days and involved about 60 hours of flying time. On Midway and Wake, Pan Am had to create two facilities on barren islands. For these stops, Pan Am built service facilities and comfortable hotels. These were only used once or twice a week, so operating costs were enormous. This was far from today’s pace of travel, but it was only about a third of the time required to travel these distances by ship. Later, Pan Am introduced Clipper service to New Zealand and other southern points.
When we think of Clipper service, we usually focus on passengers. However, Pan Am made half of its annual revenues from the carriage of mail. Mail was also critical on the Pacific routes. In fact, the first Pacific Clippers flew for almost a year delivering cargo and mail before they began to carry passengers.
When the Japanese attacked on December 7, one Pan Am Clipper was about an hour away from landing in the harbor. Fortunately, it was warned and was able to divert to Hilo. A few hours later, a Martin M-130 Clipper was called back to Wake Island to make a patrol flight toward Midway to try to locate the Japanese fleet. As it was refueling for the mission, the Japanese bombed the island by air. The Clipper received 97 bullet holes, but it could fly well enough to evacuate 56 Pan Am employees.
Nine others had died in the attack, and one more failed to make the flight. At Hong Kong, a Sikorsky S-42 Clipper was caught in a Japanese attack shortly afterward it was heavily strafed and burned to the water line. Other Clippers were in the air and managed to evade destruction, although one had to return by flying West over 30,000 miles to La Guardia Airport—all under radio silence. After the start of the war, U.S. military took over Pan Am’s eleven Martin M-130s and Boeing B-314s. Due to the enormous experience of Pan Am in long-distance flying over water, the military asked the company to operate some of the Clippers using its own crew and staff.
Throughout the war, Pan Am flew across the Atlantic carrying high-priority passengers and critical cargo. For example, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, three Boeing 314s flew from New York to India. They were carrying vital spare parts and ammunition for the American Volunteer Group in China. On one trip, the Dixie Clipper took President Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference and brought him home again. President Roosevelt, who thus became the first president of fly, celebrated his birthday in the Clipper’s dining room. Heavily overloaded, these wartime flights had some crashes. In one of these crashes, the aircraft was carrying a Pan Am Clipper pilot named Gene Roddenberry.
In 1945, the Honolulu Clipper lost two engines and had to land on the ocean 650 miles east of Hawaii. The passengers and crew were evacuated by ships in the area. The seaplane tender San Pablo attempted to take the Clipper in tow, but it accidentally ran into the Clipper, damaging it beyond repair. The San Pablo sunk the Clipper with 20 mm cannon fire, but it took 1,200 rounds and 30 minutes of fire to finally sink the aircraft.
After the war, the government offered to sell the Clippers back to Pan Am, but the company declined. The war had brought many more airports around the world, and four-engine landplanes could fly faster than the fat Clipper flying boats. DC-4s and Boeing 307s had begun to appear even before the war. Shortly after the war, Pan Am Lockheed Constellations, DC-5s, and Boeing 377s took over the routes that the Clippers had pioneered. Other companies bought the remaining Clippers from the military, but in 1951, the last of the huge Boeing Clippers reached the end of its career. None of these beautiful and historic aircraft remain except in old travel posters and cherished photographs.