The Pan Am Series – Part XVIII: First Round the World Flight
14 December 2013 1 Comment
A Round-the-World Trip Home
If there is any one thing that stands out in Pan American World Airways’ history is its legendary round-the-world service. After World War II, Pan American pioneered the service on 17 June 1947 when Clipper America, a Lockheed 749 Constellation, departed La Guardia Field in New York on the first ever scheduled round-the-world flight. After stops in Gander, Shannon, London, Istanbul, Dhahran, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok, Manila, Shanghai, Tokyo, Guam, Wake, Midway and Honolulu, the Clipper arrived in San Francisco on 29 June. As Pan American did not have authority to operate domestic flights in the United States, the Clipper ferried to New York, arriving at La Guardia on 30 June via Chicago to complete the journey.
There was, however, a previous round-the-world flight to La Guardia Field, completed just a few years before Clipper America’s historic trip, and that was the epic journey of the Pacific Clipper, a Boeing 314 flying boat, commanded by Captain Robert Ford.
This flight, which was unplanned, is recognized as the first flight around the world by a commercial airliner. It began as a routine trip from California to Auckland, departing 2 December 1941 from San Francisco for Honolulu, with a stopover in San Pedro. The departure of Clipper NC18606 (the call-sign used at the time), always a memorable experience, is described in Ed Dover’s The Long Way Home – Revised Edition:
“The full-throat-ed roar of the four engines filled the cabin as NC18606 moved forward into the takeoff run. The slap-slap of the water under the hull became a staccato drum beat. Spray whipped higher over the sea wings. After a few seconds the hull began to rise out of the water but was not quite free. Ford held the yoke steady as the airspeed indicator displayed the increasing speed: 40 knots… 50… 60… 70…
“At 70 knots Ford brought the yoke back gently. The Clipper nosed up. Passengers seated in the aft compartments might have thought they were about to submerge as the tail came close to the water and the spray hurtling back from the sea wings splattered the windows. At 75 knots Ford eased up a little on the yoke then immediately brought it back. This rocking motion was necessary to raise the ship “on the step” – that area of the hull which would be the last to break free from the clinging suction effect of the water now hurtling along underneath the ship. As the airspeed went to 80 knots the sound of the water abruptly ceased. The thrumming beat against the hull was replaced by a sudden smoothness as the great ship broke free and began climbing.”
From San Francisco to Honolulu, the total flying time was twenty-two hours and fifty-eight minutes. The next leg of the trip, from Honolulu to Canton, was scheduled for departure on 4 December. For this leg, and the rest of the trip, another Boeing 314, NC18602, the California Clipper, later named the Pacific Clipper, was employed; and at 0830 that morning, Captain Ford, with passengers and crew, took off and headed south. Twelve hours and fifty-seven minutes later, the Clipper landed at Canton. Two days later, after stops in Suva and Noumea, the Clipper was en-route to Auckland when, two hours out, Flight Radio Officer Eugene Leach heard the following (quoted in The Long Way Home-Revised Edition):
“…no confirmation from the American Consulate in Auckland at this time, but it appears that Japanese naval forces have launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. Unconfirmed reports indicate that at least twowaves of bombers have destroyed or disabled a great number of naval vessels and have also attacked and severely damaged Army Air Force installations at Hickam Field and Schofield Barracks. We are attempting to obtain details from the American Consulate, but all communications are subject to priority delays. Please stand by and we will bring you the latest developments as they become available. Once again, repeating our initial report…”
Upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Captain Ford reached for and opened an envelope labelled “Plan A – Top Secret – For Captain’s Eyes Only”. The Captain was ordered to remain in Auckland until further orders from headquarters in New York.
For a week after landing in Auckland, no word was received from headquarters in New York until, on 14 December, Captain Ford received the following (quoted in The Long Way Home-Revised Edition):
“TO: CAPTAIN ROBERT FORD
FROM: CHIEF, FLIGHT SYSTEMS
SUBJECT: DIVERSION PLANS FOR NC18602
NORMAL RETURN ROUTE CANCELED STOP PROCEED AS FOLLOWS COLON STRIP ALL COMPANY MARKINGS COMMA REGISTRATION NUMBERS COMMA AND IDENTIFIABLE INSIGNIA FROM EXTERIOR SURFACES STOP PROCEED WESTBOUND SOONEST YOUR DISCRETION TO AVOID HOSTILITIES AND DELIVER NC18602 TO MARINE TERMINAL LAGUARDIA FIELD NEW YORK STOP GOOD LUCK STOP”
On the evening of 15 December 1941, Clipper NC18602, left Auckland. From The Long Way Home-Revised Edition:
“Bill Mullahey peered into the darkness ahead of the small boat. Except for the electric lantern he held in his hand, no lights were visible along the length of the seaplane channel. As he motored slowly along the length of the takeoff area he strained to detect the presence of any floating object that might present a risk for the takeoff. Water takeoffs and landings at night were marginally safe at best. Under these conditions the risk was magnified many times. With full fuel tanks and the added weight of the stripped down engines, NC18602 was at least 1,000 pounds over-grossed. Ford would need every bit of takeoff length to break free of the calm water of the bay. There would be no room for error. As Mullahey approached the far end of the channel, with his electric lantern providing the only visual reference, he slowed to a stop and took one more look around. Then, very carefully and deliberately, he held the lantern aloft and waved it in a horizontal arc toward the takeoff end of the channel where Ford waited with engines idling. “’There it is,’ Johnny Mack called out. ‘Bill’s reached the end of the channel. That’s the all clear for takeoff signal.’ Bob Ford had also spotted the light signal. He tightened his grip on the throttle controls. ‘Okay, Swede, full power follow through, now!’ Once again the overpowering roar of the four Wright Cyclone engines filled the cabin. NC18602 surged forward into the blackness, guided only by the dim point of light at the far end of the channel. Within 35 seconds, Ford had the big ship on the step and, with a gentle back pressure on the yoke, broke free of the water and settled into a shallow climb. As they reached 200 feet, they passed the motor launch where Bill Mullahey was still waving his lantern.
“’Godspeed, you guys!’ Mullahey uttered a quiet prayer as the Boeing roared past. ‘…and good luck. You’re going to need it!’”
The Clipper flew through the night to Noumea, where it picked up Pan American staff and refueled. From Noumea the Boeing proceeded to Gladstone to off-load its passengers (the Pan American staff) and get fuel. Unable to get 100-octane gas, the aircraft flew on to for Darwin with the fuel tanks one-third empty, an eleven hour trip over land, and, for Captain Ford and his crew, a journey into the unknown. Having no charts, the crew had put together some makeshift charts from old geography books found at Auckland library. In addition, as the trip was over land, if something went wrong, a safe landing would be impossible: a belly landing would destroy the aircraft and end the flight home.
At Darwin, the crew faced a city in panic, fearful of a Japanese attack, with drunks either fighting or passed out in the street. They were, however, able find the fuel, and gassed up in the midst of a thunderstorm. Not long after fueling was completed, early in the morning of 18 December, the Clipper was back in the air, en-route to Surabaya. This trip was not without a big scare for Captain Ford and his crew, as described in Robert Gandt’s China Clipper – The Age of the Great Flying Boats:
“Flying in radio silence over the island of Java, the Pacific Clipper was suddenly intercepted by fighters – Dutch – whose pilots had never seen a Boeing flying boat and were unable to identify the aircraft. For several tense minutes the fighter pilots debated by radio whether to shoot the intruder down. Finally one of the Dutchmen thought he could discern part of an American flag on the top of the wing. The fighters stayed on the Boeing’s tail, their guns armed, until the entire entourage arrived in Surabaya-with the Clipper landing in a minefield. “Not until later, when they chatted with the young fighter pilots in the officers’ mess, did the flying boat crew realize how close it had been. The Dutch in the Far East had been badly mauled by Japanese air raids. The fighter pilots were anxious to retaliate. They wanted to shoot something down. It had almost been the Pacific Clipper.”
After landing in Surabaya, Captain Ford and his crew learned that there were no accommodations available for them and that the only fuel they could get was 90-octane. They also learned that they would need immunizations for their next stops, Trincomalee (Ceylon) and Karachi (then British India). The Boeing was fueled with 90-octane, with the remaining 100-octane shifted to the inboard mains for use in takeoffs and landings.
After a brief rest, the Pacific Clipper was off to Trincomalee, flying over an unknown sea. Having taken off with 100-octane fuel, at 2000 feet Captain Ford decided to switch to the 90-octane. The procedure involved switching from the inboard mains tanks to the sea wing tanks. The process was slow as the cylinder head temperature gauges needed to be monitored. Once finally stabilized the Boeing was, according to Ed Dover, “flying on auto gas; a condition never contemplated by the engineers at Boeing or at the Wright engine factory.”
Things went well for a while, until something went wrong with the engines. From The Long Way Home-Revised Edition:
“’How’s it look, Swede?’” Ford asked. ‘So far, so good. Cylinder head temps seem to be holding. But we’re flying full rich. We’re going to have to lean it out for best fuel range.’
“BANG! The sudden sound filled the cabin and the Clipper shook as though it were in the grip of a gigantic storm. BANG! Again. ‘Backfiring on Numbers Two and Three!’ Johnny Mack called out. ‘Those cowlings are shaking like Jell-o!’
“’Back off the mixture, Swede!’ Ford shouted. Rothe quickly moved the mixture controls toward the rich side of their range. Just as quickly the banging stopped. But the cylinder head temperatures remained just under redline.
“Once again the mixture controls came back. Once again the manifold pressures increased and the cylinder head temperatures rested within a degree of the forbidden redline.
Then: BANG! BANG! The Clipper shook as though it were a rag doll in the hands of a very active child. Quickly, but with more control this time, Rothe eased the mixture controls back to just under the mark where the backfiring would start. ‘That’s about the best we can do,’ he called out. ‘We can stay below the backfire point, but I can’t guarantee the head temps. They’re just about out of normal range for long-range cruise.’”
Because Captain Ford had no charts for the trip, just the coordinates of their destination, he had to fly by dead-reckoning at a very low altitude in order to detect any landmarks that could help in navigation. As the Clipper droned on, they encountered a Japanese submarine. The submarine, crew, lounging on deck, quickly ran for the deck gun. At the same time, Captain Ford went to full power and pointed the nose up, where they found safety in the clouds. After a flight of twenty hours and twenty-six minutes, the Pacific Clipper landed in Trincomalee, where the crew was able to find accommodations as well as 100-octane fuel. After a day of rest the Clipper was off for Karachi. However, about an hour into the flight No. 3 engine blew, spewing oil over the wing. Ford turned the plane around and returned to Trincomalee, where the crew was able to repair the engine with the spares they had on board, starting work on Christmas Eve and finishing on Christmas Day.
On 26 December, the Boeing was off for a second time for Karachi, and this time they made it, landing in the city’s harbor at 1600 hours. The crew rested and refueled and on 28 December took off for Bahrain where they spent the night and also topped off the fuel tanks, but only with 90-octane. This time, the problem was not as acute as previously, given that the amount taken on was minimal.
From Bahrain, the Clipper flew to Khartoum, over-flying the Arabian Desert and the Great Mosque at Mecca. Soon they intercepted the Nile River and followed it to Khartoum, where they landed on the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, below Khartoum. There they encountered a British presence and were able to get 100-octane fuel and charts for their next flight to Leopoldville. During takeoff down the Nile, part of an exhaust stack blew off No. 1 engine. Although the Boeing continued to gain altitude, No. 1 engine was much noisier than the others and it constituted a fire hazard. But with no spare parts in Khartoum, Captain Ford continued southward. On New Year’s Day, 1942, after a flight over the interior of Africa, Captain Ford put the flying boat down in the fast flowing muddy waters of the Congo River at Leopoldville. Their next stop, Natal, Brazil, was 3100 nautical miles away across the Atlantic and loomed as the longest leg the Clipper ever covered.
The flight logs of 1st Officer John Mack (left) and 4th Officer John Steers (Courtesy of Ed Dover):
The next morning, the Clipper was off again. In preparation for the long trip that lay ahead, 5,100 gallons of fuel was taken on, weighing some 33,600 pounds. Takeoff would be tricky. The temperature was very high and there was no wind. And just downstream began the cataracts. Robert Daley, in An American Saga – Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire, describes the takeoff:
“A worried Ford revved his engines as high as they could go, and headed downstream . . . taking advantage of the six-knot current, but heading straight for the cataracts, hoping to lift off out of this glassy calm before going over the edge. But the flying boat was so heavily loaded that it would not lift. An average takeoff would have lasted thirty seconds. This one took ninety-one. Just before entering the rapids, the hull broke contact with the river – barely. Ford held the throttles wide open because beyond the cataracts came the gorges of the Congo – a new problem. The flying boat was so heavy that Ford could not make it climb. It was down in the gorges. The wings were deformed from the overload of fuel and the ailerons wouldn’t move, and Ford was skidding all of his turns. To hold the engines wide open any longer than a minute was to risk burning them out, but three minutes had now gone by, and still Ford couldn’t throttle back. Still he held full power until at last the Boeing had cleared the gorges and begun to climb.
“After dropping back to cruising power, Ford listened to his engines for a while. They sounded all right, so he pointed the nose of the Boeing due west toward the South Atlantic and Brazil.”
The flight to Natal, Brazil took twenty-three hours and thirty-five minutes, the longest flight of the entire journey. The Clipper arrived at about noon, where repairs were made to the exhaust stack on No. 1 engine and the ship was refueled. Insecticides were also sprayed inside the aircraft. Soon the Boeing was back flying to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on its penultimate leg where she landed at 0300 hours, thirteen hours and fifty-two minutes from Natal. In Port-of-Spain, after nearly forty hours of continuous flying, the crew rested. However, sensing the smell of home, the crew filed back on board and were soon off on the last leg of their epic flight. From The Long Way Home – Revised Edition:
“Bob Ford glanced at his wrist watch. 5:54 A.M. I guess it’s time to give those LaGuardia boys a wake up call, he thought. He picked up his microphone, but paused with it poised just in front of his face. Just what the hell do you say after coming all this way? The simpler, the better, I guess. Well, here goes. He pressed the microphone button with his thumb.
“The morning was black and bitter cold. A mournful whisper of wind teased the outside of the glassed-in tower. It was the only sound to be heard inside the dark interior where the lone mid-shift controller sat nursing his coffee mug. Aircraft movements during the night in the New York control area were minimal. His thoughts rambled. Two hours to go. * * * Tough trying to stay awake on dull shifts like this when it stays dark so long. * * *
“‘LAGUARDIA TOWER, LAGUARDIA TOWER – PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER NC18602, INBOUND FROM AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND. CAPTAIN FORD REPORTING. DUE TO ARRIVE PAN AMERICAN MARINE TERMINAL LA GUARDIA IN SEVEN MINUTES. OVER!’
“‘What the hell!’ Did he fall fast asleep and dream it? But in a couple of seconds he was fully alert and digested the full impact of the sudden presence blasting out of the loudspeaker. Hunching forward in his seat, he grabbed his microphone and, almost sub-consciously, out of long habit, responded.
“‘PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER 18602. THIS IS LAGUARDIA TOWER, ROGER'” * * *
“[Ford was told he had to hold for about an hour to land in daylight] * * * ‘AND SAY AGAIN, CONFIRM YOUR DEPARTURE POINT. WE HAVE NO OVERSEAS INBOUNDS AT THIS TIME.’
“‘I SAY AGAIN, INBOUND FROM AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND, BY WAY OF THE LONG WAY ‘ROUND FOR ABOUT THE PAST MONTH. IT’LL SURE BE GOOD TO GET HOME AGAIN'”
With that, this epic round-the-world flight was completed. Robert Gandt summarized it fittingly:
“To a flying boat had fallen the distinction of making the first round-the-world flight in a commercial airliner. Bob Ford and the Pacific Clipper, though they had not set out to do so, had entered history.”
For additional information about Pan American World Airways:
The following works were used in preparing this blog: Robert Daley’s An American Saga – Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire, Ron Davies’ Pan Am – An Airline and its Aircraft, Ed Dover’s The Long Way Home – Revised Edition and Robert Gandt’s China Clipper – The Age of the Great Flying Boats. In addition, retired Pan Am Captain John Marshall’s two articles on Captain Ford’s flight published in Airways Magazine were also valuable sources in preparing this blog.
The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.
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For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline.
For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation