Pan Am Series – Part XXVIII: Clipper Cargo – 2
8 March 2014 4 Comments
As described in the previous story, Pan American World Airways was an innovator and leader in the early development of the air freight business. Although freight and cargo was nearly always carried on passenger flights, Clipper Cargo was different and was identified with Pan American’s all-freight operation that for all intents and purposes was an airline within an airline. Whilst the all-freighter flights were included in the passenger timetables, as illustrated in the previous story, the flights operated at crazy times , carrying crazy cargoes and sometimes going to crazy places.
Captain John Marshall flew Pan Am Clippers for nearly thirty years and remembers some of his more memorable flights – and cargoes – when assigned to flying the freighters. “Flying freighters was always an exercise in curiosity – one never knew just what the next load will bring”, he recalls. On one trip out of Anchorage, the load-master presented the Dangerous Goods Notifications Sheet, a document that listed all the hazardous materials loaded. On the list were all manner of flammable liquids, solids, poisons, corrosives and explosives. It turned out the explosives was an elephant tranquilizer gun, prompting the question whether there was an elephant on board. Also on board were five kilos of 24 carat gold in one kilo ingots. On another flight were six thoroughbred race horses bound for stud in Japan from New York. Marshall and his crew took over the trip at Anchorage and was told by the incoming crew that one big grey stallion had “an emphatic dislike for turbulence, and that during some light chop over Canada, they could hear him whinnying and stomping in his stall and when he kicked the sides of his enclosure the whole plane shook”. After take off the crew made contact with a Northwest flight twenty minutes ahead on the same track at the same altitude. The Northwest crew promised to advise them of any turbulence. Fortunately there was none, and the horse slept most of the way.
“We carried all manner of cargo on those flights – loads of over one hundred tons of payload were not uncommon”, says Marshall, “on one flight I was informed that the day’s cargo consisted of 110 head of elk — stags, does and yearlings. They were the entire load; there was no room for anything else. When I boarded there was no question as to the nature of the cargo. The smell was overwhelming. It followed us all the way across the Pacific, and permeated my clothes for weeks afterward.”
Once, when reporting for duty at the cargo hanger one midnight in Los Angeles, “I thought I had stumbled into the private quarters of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. There were cages all around the tarmac, carrying all manner of exotic fauna. One held two Bengal tigers, on the next pallet were half a dozen caged chimpanzees,chattering noisily at the big cats. Ahead of the wing was a portable stall which held four Lilliputian ponies, each so small it looked like a real horse viewed through the wrong end of a telescope.”
One of his oddest experiences in Anchorage was when he was told he and his crew were operating out of the Air Force Base at Elmendorf. No explanation was given and when they got to Elemendorf they soon found “our big 747 freighter sitting lonely and alone on the most remote pad on the base”. They boarded the aircraft and saw pallets of cargo tightly covered with dark green tarpaulin stretching into the darkness all the way aft. The cargo was Patriot missiles bound for Kimhae, at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Upon arrival they were met with battalions of huge trucks, along with the usual heavy loaders and forklifts. The plane was unloaded in less than a half an hour.
Jim Duncan, another former Pan American captain who flew the Clippers for over twenty years, had one interesting freighter trip that was then a highly classified Military Airlift Command (MAC) Mission from Little Rock, Arkansas to Mogadishu, Somalia. At the time Duncan was a 747 Check Airman and held the title Manager of Flying of the New York Base at JFK Airport. He wrote about his experience in his story “Night Flight to Mogadishu” in Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People. Below are excerpts from his story:
“It began with Bill McCarthy, the Duty Director in Pan American’s Operational Control Unit informing me that a request had come by way of the Dept. of Defense, the State Department, and possibly the CIA, to ferry a 747 Cargo freighter to Little Rock AFB to take on an extensive load of Class A munitions (rocket propelled grenades, .50 caliber bullets and T.O.W. —Tube-launched, Optically Wired controlled missiles), and transport them non-stop to Ramstein Airbase, Germany with continuation, after a short crew lay-over in Frankfurt, via Cairo for refueling, to Mogadishu, Somalia. Ramstein’s main runway length of 9300 feet would not allow enough fuel, given the heavy cargo load, to make the flight nonstop to Mogadishu.
“My initial call was to my wife who did not take well to the idea.
“’Are you insane?’ she screamed into the phone. ‘Have you forgotten we have small children? Why you?’
“’It’s something I need to do,’ I replied, assuring her that this was not any different than some military missions I had flown in the past. ‘Plus, there will be added life insurance’, I joked.
“[I put together a crew] and [a]t sun-up the following day, the empty, overpowered 747 Cargo Liner lifted off the runway at JFK like a jet fighter and rocketed to our cruise altitude of 39,000 ft in a matter of minutes on its way to Little Rock AFB. Later that day, after arrival and a few hours rest, we closely inspected the Dangerous Goods Manifest. ‘Looks like a mega load of fireworks,’ commented [one of our crew] sarcastically as we checked the secure tie downs of hundreds of boxes in the lower cargo compartment. In addition to the flight plan, weather and wind forecasts, we were handed a special advisory to steer and remain clear of British and Belgian airspace. European and African countries had allowed ‘only by exception’ the overflight of any aircraft carrying class A explosives.
“We took off into the evening sky crossing over the Atlantic to overhead at Quimper, France in the early morning hours and continued on a straight path to land at Ramstein AFB in Southwestern Germany. An Air Force ‘Follow Me’ truck in bright yellow colors guided us to the Dangerous Cargo loading ramp where six Armored Personnel Carriers were added to the upper deck cargo compartment.
“Over breakfast the following morning, [the crew] and I speculated how we would be routed from Ramstein to Cairo having been denied overflight rights over Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. We were to be picked-up at the hotel at 3 p.m. for a late afternoon departure. However, back in our rooms we were further perplexed by a phone message stating that our departure from the hotel had been moved up by one hour to allow time for a military classified security briefing. The puzzle was solved at Ramstein when we heard the words of the Air Force intelligence officer: ‘From Cairo Southeast bound to Mogadishu you must fly radio silent. Do not answer any transmissions, don’t use your transponder; what’s more important, you will not obtain the usual Air Traffic Control clearance!’
“That was big news to me.
“Despite this unsettling information, we agreed to stick with the plan and take off on our night flight to Mogadishu. Soon we left France behind and looked down on the dark waters of the Mediterranean flying around the boot of Italy southeast to land in Cairo. During refueling we scrutinized our flight plan once more at the operations office. We were to fly a southeasterly track along the center line of the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The airspace to the east of our course was Saudi Arabia and Yemen, to the west the Sudan, Ethiopia, the disputed territory of Eritrea, and finally Somalia. At the mouth of the Red Sea, to make it appear on radar that we were destined somewhere else, we were to fly one hundred nautical miles off-shore, and around the Horn of Africa.
“’We are going to be pretty much on our own for most of the night without any Air traffic Control contact’, I noted. ‘Let’s take on a bit of extra fuel in case we have to divert to Nairobi.’
“The Pan Am freighter lifted off once again into the night sky. The city lights of Cairo gave way to the darkness of the desert below. Thirty minutes into the flight, 150 miles southeast of Cairo, the heavy plane was still laboring to reach its cruising altitude. The termination of all communications with the Egyptian Air Controllers created an eerie stillness. The only contact we could safely make was an hourly call to contact Pan Am Dispatch via Berna Radio in Switzerland on the high frequency single side band radio: ‘Pan Am Clipper Operations Normal.’
“We continued to monitor the local VHF air traffic control frequencies for information on other air traffic nearby and overhear various aircraft reporting their positions.
“As we approached 200 miles north of the mouth of the Red Sea, we eased the power up to hold Mach .88, cutting our transit time by ten minutes. A blind warning call came over the radio: ‘Aircraft heading 140 degrees at high speed 65 Miles NW of Addis Ababa, identify yourself.’
“With us not responding, the warnings came repeatedly from Addis Ababa and San’a. ‘Strangest flight during my Pan Am career,’ I remarked as a visible shrug of relief is felt by all three of us once the plane has turned further to the East to carry us out over the Indian Ocean and around the Horn of Africa.
“More than four hours after leaving Cairo we made our first radio call to Mogadishu, where we would arrive forty minutes later.
On the ground, and from the ramp we watched the Armored Personnel Carriers being unloaded. ‘Do you think we could take one for a spin around the ramp?’ [a crewman] asked the Somali officer. ‘If you think you know how to drive it, go ahead,’ he answered.
“It was a small reward for the Pan Am family having performed the assigned task. Pan American had supported our nation in the past. We were merely filling another square.”
Pan American also carried traditional cargo, like the hard drive of the IBM 305 RAMAC computer, launched in 1956, shown below being loaded onto a Clipper freighter. The hard drive weighed over a ton and stored 5 MB of data. To put this into perspective, it would take 3200 of these units to equal the capacity of that little 16-Gig stick plugged into the side of a laptop.
It would not be surprising that every former Pan American pilot or flight engineer who flew the freighters would have similar stories. Hauling cargo may not have been glamorous, but it must have been fun.
For additional information about Pan American World Airways:
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.
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