The Pan Am Series – Part XIV: Crossing the Pacific
18 November 2013 2 Comments
Crossing the Pacific – The “Unsung Hero”
On the date 22 November, Pan American World Airways was part of two historic events. The first, in 1935, was the inauguration of trans-Pacific airline service, and the second, in 1963, was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In this installment is the story of the China Clipper, which crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1935; in the next will be the story of Pan Am’s part in the tragic events in Dallas, Texas in 1963.
Whenever there is reference to the first airliner crossing of the Pacific Ocean, invariably it is the Martin M-130 China Clipper that comes to mind. This, event, according to Ron Davies in Pan Am – An Airline and its Aircraft, was “one of the most noteworthy and historic dates in the history of transport”. The Clipper, commanded by Edwin C. Musick, departed San Francisco Friday afternoon, 22 November 1935 and arrived in Manila, Philippines Friday afternoon, 29 November, having stopped in Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam along the way. The 8210 mile trip took 59 hours and 48 minutes flying time.
In addition to its historic importance, the event was one of the most publicized ever. Described in detail by Robert Daley in An American Saga – Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire, the celebration included lunches, speeches by VIPs and “crowds on the docks, crowds on the rooftops and crowds aboard the extra ferries that had been added on”. In addition the inaugural ceremony was broadcast both in the USA as well as in Europe, South America and the Orient and included speeches by Postmaster General James Farley and Juan Trippe. Trippe concluded matters with the command, “Captain Musick, you have your sailing orders. Cast off and depart for Manila in accordance therewith”. Receptions greeted the Clipper in Honolulu and upon arrival in Manila between two and three hundred thousand Filipinos jammed together along a jetty to welcome the ship. In addition was an enclosure with two thousand prominent guests as well as people in the streets and on rooftops. A flotilla of military fighter planes flew out to escort the Clipper through its splashdown and landing. There followed a reception, banquet and parade. Later, Captain Musick presented a letter from US President Roosevelt to Philippine President Quezon commemorating the flight. It was indeed an important event in aviation history.
Crossing the Pacific, however, was not the original intent of Juan Trippe in his desire to cross an ocean. It was the Atlantic. However the geopolitical situation coupled with technological limitations made that option impossible. The details are spelled out with precision in Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul’s The Chosen instrument. In a nutshell, the path to Europe was through Newfoundland. Unfortunately, negotiations between Juan Trippe, Britain, Canada and Newfoundland in 1932 did not provide the access desired, although some understanding was achieved between Pan American and Britain’s Imperial Airways with regard to traffic rights. Because Newfoundland appeared to be in doubt, Trippe looked south. Unfortunately, the political situation in Portugal made it difficult for Pan American to negotiate for traffic rights there as well. In addition, a survey trip made by Charles Lindbergh in the summer of 1933 brought into question the feasibility of using flying boats for regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic service.
What is interesting here, with respect to the negotiations over Newfoundland, is that it was not the American government doing Pan American’s bidding. It was Juan Trippe. And it was Juan Trippe who personally dealt with the governments of Britain, Canada and Newfoundland, following a pattern used when he negotiated traffic rights to countries in Latin America.
Any hope for trans-Atlantic operations, however, was dashed when, in April 1934, the British government demanded reciprocity with the United States over traffic rights. According to Bender and Altschul, the British “[g]overnment pulled the strings for Imperial, and if it viewed Pan American Airways as a similar instrument of national policy, then it would want to settle matters with the United States government.” Juan Trippe had overestimated his diplomatic skills and his “go-it-alone diplomacy” was not working. He admitted that he did not see much future for Pan American in the North Atlantic. In addition, as pointed out by Bob Gandt in China Clipper – The Age of the Great Flying Boats, “[t]he British, in 1934, had nothing like the S-42 or the coming M-130. Until Imperial Airways . . . possessed an airplane that could commence scheduled flights from Britain to the United States, Pan American would find itself blocked from the British crown colonies”.
One point of interest here is that during this time the state-owned flag carriers of several European nations were establishing routes to their own colonies in Asia, Africa and the Indian Sub-Continent, all without the need to obtain traffic rights. Privately owned Pan American did not have this luxury in that part of the world.
The focus thus switched to the Pacific. After a “great circle” trans-Pacific route through the north was ruled out due to issues between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was decided to take the route that represented the longest distance between the United States and the Orient: the mid-Pacific.
Here, the issue of traffic rights was not a problem for Pan American. The route involved stops at Honolulu, Midway, Wake and Guam, terminating in Manila, all of which were under U.S. jurisdiction. At Guam and the Philippines, the U.S. Navy had established bases on the pretext of potential confrontation with Japan. Midway was being used by the Navy for war games staged in the area. This left Wake, a tiny island, discovered by Juan Trippe in the New York Public Library, and, according to Daley, “[f]or a brief time – only the blink of an eye as history is measured – it was one of the most famous places in the world”.
The tiny island of Wake, an uninhabited coral atoll, was to become one of the most important way points on the route west to the Orient. It lay over 4000 miles from the U.S. mainland in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and was a minor trophy of the Spanish-American War. Inside was a lagoon with surface water smooth enough to handle landings of flying boats, but the presence of coral heads made landings impossible. Its location, however, made it a critical point for the trans-Pacific flight. Juan Trippe eventually got permission to use the island as a base, and on 27 March 1935, the S.S. North Haven, a cargo ship, sailed west with provisions to set up bases for Pan American at Midway and Wake. At Wake, an entire village was built, including a hotel for passengers en-route to or from the Orient. Everything used in building the base was shipped from the mainland. In addition, a swimmer from Columbia University, Bill Mullahey, who boarded the ship in Honolulu in a swimsuit, straw hat and a surfboard over his shoulder, was brought on board as the one man demolition expert to clear the lagoon for landings. Wherever there was a coral head in the lagoon, he would dive down and place dynamite sticks in holes in the coral heads and attach detonator wires to them. After he surfaced the dynamite was blasted, and afterward he would go down to inspect. The channel to be cleared was one mile long and three hundred yards wide and it took months to clear the channel of several hundred coral heads. His only gear was a pair of marine goggles; fins, face-masks, snorkels and scuba tanks had not yet been invented.
The below illustrations of Wake Island are from Robert Daley’s An American Saga. Shown is the treacherous surf outside the lagoon the workers bringing in gear had to brave, the village and the hotel’s lobby. Because there was no anchorage, the North Haven anchored offshore.
On 1 October 1932, Pan American placed an order for three Sikorsky S-42s, The aircraft was a product of the joint oversight of Pan American’s Chief Engineer Andre Priester and Charles Lindbergh. What was unique about this aircraft, according to Bob Gandt, was the design of the wing, which gave it greater range and the ability to bear a greater load. By the time Pan American accepted delivery of its first S-42, the aircraft had set several aviation records that made it probably the most advanced airliner in the world. Unfortunately, it was primarily designed for service in Latin America and was not suitable for trans-oceanic passenger operations. The aircraft could only carry six or eight passengers with the required fuel. In Latin American operations, passenger capacity was up two thirty-two.
At the same time, the Martin M-130, a larger aircraft capable of trans-oceanic flight, was on the drawing board. A more advanced airliner than the S-42, Juan Trippe also placed an order for three.
The M-130 was the intended aircraft for the new trans-Pacific route, however it was not due for delivery until the end of 1935. Survey flights were needed and Juan Trippe would not wait. The West Indies Clipper, an S-42 then being used in Latin America, was selected for the duty. It was renamed the Pan American Clipper and was stripped of all passenger accommodation and fitted with extra fuel tanks, giving it an endurance of 21 1/2 hours and a range of 3000 miles. The key, and most important flight segment of the trans-Pacific trip was California-Honolulu. The ability to fly this critical segment meant there would be no barrier to the eventual establishment of trans-oceanic flight. That was achieved. The Pan American Clipper departed San Francisco on 16 April 1935 for Honolulu and returned on 22 April. On 12 June it surveyed the Honolulu-Midway segment; on 9 August, Midway-Wake; and on 5 October, Wake-Guam. On 24 October, the U.S. Post Office awarded Pan American the trans-Pacific mail contract, the day the Pan American Clipper arrived back in San Francisco from its survey flights across the Pacific.
The two illustrations below are from different sources: On the left is a picture of an S-42 departing San Francisco, presumably on one of the survey flights. It was provided by the late Marcel “Skip” Conrad, Esq., who was an attorney for Oakland International Airport. The picture was on one of the walls in his office. The picture on the right is the S-42 upon arrival in Honolulu on its first survey flight. This was an illustration in Robert Daley’s An American Saga.
The first Martin M-130, China Clipper, was delivered 9 October 1935. On 22 November, China Clipper inaugurated trans-Pacific airline service. The planning and preparation for this service was typical of the efficient organization nurtured by Pan American, and was a manifestation of the high standards demanded of the flying crews. As described by Ron Davies, “… there was a certain inevitability about the event. . . .the planning which went into the preparation for the historic event left no stone unturned, or to be exact, no potentially damaging piece of coral reef unmoved. * * * Pan American Clippers had cut the trans-Pacific travel time from a matter of weeks to a matter of days. The world’s biggest ocean had been conquered. A new age had begun.”
Below is illustrated the cover and the inside page (showing the route map and flight schedules) of Pan Am’s June-August 1940 timetable. Note the flight numbers were 800 and 801 and the aircraft used were either the M-130 or the Boeing 314. Until the sale of its Pacific routes to United in 1986, all Pan Am flight numbers in the Pacific were numbered in the 800’s.
The Unsung Hero
On 22 November 1985, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the historic flight of the China Clipper, Pan American re-enacted the event with a Boeing 747-212B, named China Clipper II. Ann Whyte, who was Manager, Public Relations at the time, was a participant. She tells about her experiences of that flight in the book, Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People. Below is an excerpt from her story:
“The 1935 China Clipper, piloted by Captain Edwin Musick, departed from Alameda and stopped in Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam before finally landing in Manila. * * * Our 747 would follow the exact route. The revenue passengers, in addition to many VIPs, were composed of members of our frequent flyers program, others who yearned to be a part of aviation history, and those who wanted a package tour to the Pacific.
“Excitement and expectancy were evident at our airport ceremony that included music and speeches. The son of James A. Farley, Postmaster General in 1935, was there. His father had delivered a message from President Franklin Roosevelt, who said, ‘Even at this distance, I thrill to the wonder of it all.’ San Francisco Postmaster Mrs. Mary Brown told us that a special China Clipper international 44-cent stamp had been issued at Treasure Island in February 1985 and that the original flight carried 100,000 letters to the Philippines. Also, 5,000 envelopes which had received philatelic treatment were on board our flight and would get special cancellations at each stop. Flight attendants paraded in the various styles of uniform worn since the early days. We cheered members of our flight crew when they were introduced. It was a festive atmosphere.
“For the 1935 flight, the San Francisco to Hawaii leg was the most dangerous. It took 21 hours for the seaplane to fly over the 2,397 miles of open water. There was no radar, no voice communication. The flight navigator had to climb out of a hatch several times at night to take star sightings with a sextant. Harry R. Canaday, a pioneer captain on board our flight, remembered that in the early days, even with the best equipment available, it was what they called ‘flying by the seat of your pants.’ Shure V. Sigfred, another pioneer captain on board, was astounded by the amount of people and cargo carried on our modern 747. ‘We loaded the ship according to the weather and weighed every ounce,’ he reminisced.
“But on our flight there was a party atmosphere. It took just five hours for us to reach Honolulu. I was eager to see each island for a different reason. I had had the opportunity to look at photographs and read accounts of those early days in the archives. What I saw were pictures of enthusiastic crowds, flowers, song and dance waiting to greet the M-130 crew in Hawaii 50 years ago.
“I could feel the hospitality as soon as we landed. To me, Hawaii signifies music, dancing, singing, fragrant blossoms, romance and exotic fruit. We received a warm Aloha welcome of leis, song and dance. Next we were whisked away to Pearl Harbor where we were honored with a ceremony to dedicate a plaque commemorating 50 years of commercial air service at the location where the original China Clipper landed, Middle Loch, Pearl City Peninsula. That evening, it was thrilling to be part of the reception, testimonial dinner and entertainment at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel where our pioneers were recognized and applauded.”
At the other end of the trip, Cass Myers, Regional Director for Sales based in Hong Kong, was involved with the re-enactment of the China Clipper’s historic flight as well. His memories are also included in the above book, and are excerpted below:
“The seats on the flight were marketed commercially and there were many celebrities participating, including author James Michener, an astronaut, and other dignitaries such as Charles Lindbergh’s four grand-sons. The Manila Hotel on Manila Bay was also nearly taken over for the group where two days of fun was planned.
“Two outside factors made this flight re-enactment especially interesting: (1) United Airlines had already purchased Pan Am’s Pacific Division and was scheduled to take over flight operations as United Airlines in early February 1986; and (2) the President and First lady of the Philippines, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, were on their last legs as rulers, both literally and figuratively. In a couple months, the world would know that Imelda Marcos owned 2,000 pairs of shoes.
“Being based at the Pan Am Regional Office in Hong Kong, I was fortunate to be one of the people responsible for the setup on the ground in Manila for the arrival, greeting and hotel transfer for the passengers and all the ceremonies and entertainment that followed.
“The event itself was what was expected and more! The arrival went without a hitch. The Pan Am Country Manager, the late Joe Basso, even managed to locate the same bugler who in 1935 was a Boy Scout and then (at 58 years of age) still had the same bugle and played for the arrival. Needless to say, a great time was had by all but it was, in a way, bittersweet as Pan Am’s presence in the Pacific was rapidly coming to an end.”
The above excerpts are from two of seventy-one stories in Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People 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.
Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People
Also available in a Kindle Edition
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
The writer of this article gratefully acknowledges the four sources liberally used in its preparation:
Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul, The Chosen instrument
Robert Daley, An American Saga – Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire
Ron Davies, Pan Am – An Airline and its Aircraft
Robert Gandt, China Clipper – The Age of the Great Flying Boats