Sunday, July 6, 2008

Weekend Wings #23: The Pioneering Flight Of The Pacific Clipper

At the start of America's entry into World War II, there occurred one of the most remarkable flights in the history of commercial aviation up to that time. I'd like to tell you about it.

In 1941, intercontinental air travel was still a comparatively new venture. It had been in operation for only a decade. The Germans were the first to launch a scheduled service across the Atlantic, using Zeppelin airships, and in 1929 the Graf Zeppelin made a famous world tour. They also pioneered Zeppelin service across the South Atlantic to Brazil. However, the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 put paid to their efforts. In the picture below, the Graf Zeppelin flies over the Hindenburg in 1936. (Click this and other pictures for a larger view.)

The French airline Aéropostale launched an airmail service to South America. Mail was flown via France's African colonies to Dakar in Senegal, from where ships took it to Brazil. It was then flown throughout South America. In 1933 the company was merged with others to form Air France, which continued the airmail service. One of its most famous pilots was Antoine de Saint Exupéry, who has left us fascinating accounts of the South American mail flights in his books.

Britain's Imperial Airways launched services to various destinations in the British Empire during the 1930's, including a route from Britain to South Africa in 1932, and from Britain to Australia (in association with an Australian airline, Qantas) in 1937. These services came to rely on large flying-boats, the Short Empire class, which handled the long over-water flights and connected with land-based aircraft for shorter overland routes.

Most of these services relied on State subsidies to a greater or lesser extent. However, in the USA, Government subsidies were only offered in the form of mail routes (and these were cancelled in the 1930's following the famous Air Mail Scandal). No assistance was offered for flights beyond the borders of the USA.

Juan Trippe began his stellar aviation career in the 1920's when he and some friends from Yale University invested in an airline called Colonial Air Transport. It was later absorbed into American Airlines. Not satisfied with being an investor, in 1927 he joined with then-Major Henry "Hap" Arnold and others to form Pan American World Airways, which won a contract to carry airmail between the USA and Cuba.

The new airline was born in troubled circumstances. In terms of its contract with the US Post Office, Pan Am had to deliver the first mail from Key West to Havana, Cuba, by not later than October 19th, 1927. Unfortunately, its first aircraft, a Fokker F-VII, was only scheduled to be delivered on September 30th: and the airfield at Key West was not yet ready for operations. Pan Am was saved when Trippe discovered that a Fairchild aircraft, belonging to West Indian Aerial Express, of the Dominican Republic, was in Key West, waiting for news of a developing hurricane in the Carribean. Being a much smaller (single-engined) aircraft than the (three-engined) Fokker, the Fairchild did not need the facilities of the new airfield. Trippe hurriedly chartered it for the princely sum of $145.50, and it successfully delivered the mail to Cuba before the contract deadline. Pan Am's own Fokker made its first flight on October 28th, 1927. Pan Am was off and running. Its first office in Key West is still preserved as an historic building.

Over the next decade or more, Pan Am displayed courage, ingenuity and commercial acumen in developing a major network of international flights. It garnered many 'firsts' in its development, including:

1927 - First American airline to operate a permanent international air service.

1927 - First American airline to operate land airplanes over water on a regularly scheduled basis.

1927 - First American airline to operate multi-engine aircraft permanently in scheduled service.

1928 - First American airline to use radio communications.

1928 - First American airline to carry emergency lifesaving equipment.

1928 - First American airline to use multiple flight crews.

1928 - First American airline to develop an airport and airways traffic control system.

1928 - First American airline to to order and purchase an aircraft built to its own specifications, the Sikorsky S-38 amphibious flying-boat.

1929 - First American airline to to employ cabin attendants and serve meals aloft.

1929 - First airline to develop and use instrument flight techniques.

1929 - First American airline to develop a complete aviation weather service.

1930 - First American airline to offer international air express service.

1931 - First American airline to develop and operate four-engined flying boats, the Sikorsky S-40, which was the first aircraft to bear the famous 'Clipper' name. (It was also vulgarly known as the 'Flying Forest', due to its maze of support struts!)

1932 - First airline to sell all-expense international air tours.

1935 - First airline to develop and employ long range weather forecasting.

1935 - First American airline to install facilities for heating food aboard an aircraft.

1935 - First airline to operate scheduled trans-Pacific passenger and mail service.

1939 - First airline to operate scheduled trans-Atlantic passenger and mail service.

To service its growing intercontinental network, Pan Am turned to larger and larger flying-boats in its 'Clipper' series. By the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, these included three models.

The Sikorsky S-42 first flew in March 1934. It could carry up to 37 seated passengers, or 14 in sleeper berths, at a cruising speed of about 130 mph. Its maximum range was just under 2,000 miles. Ten were built for Pan Am, which used them on its Latin American routes, and later to pioneer its trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic routes.

The Martin M-130 was a larger flying-boat, which first flew several months after the S-42 in 1934. It was designed from the start for trans-Pacific flights. Three were built for Pan Am, carrying 36 day or 18 night passengers, cruising at 130 mph over a range of more than 3,000 miles. In 1935 and 1936 they inaugurated trans-Pacific mail and passenger services to the Philippines and Hong Kong.

The third and most advanced of the 'Clippers' was the Boeing 314. This superb aircraft was the epitome of luxury air travel in its day, incorporating many features that were not seen again on commercial airliners until the advent of the Boeing 747 more than thirty years later.

The Boeing 314 incorporated the wing of the prototype XB-15 bomber, but used much more powerful engines. Boeing did away with external struts to brace the wings, instead opting for a series of heavy ribs and spars in a cantilevered wing structure. Boeing also used large sponsons on the lower hull, instead of stabilizing pontoons on the outer wings, which would have added more drag. The sponsons kept the aircraft level while floating on water, provided an entryway for passengers and crew, and generated additional lift while flying, almost like an abbreviated version of a biplane's lower wing.

To handle the long ranges across the Pacific, the 314 carried 4,246 US gallons of fuel (5,446 in the later 314A model of 1941), plus 300 gallons of lubricating oil for the radial engines, which used it liberally. It could fly at a cruising speed of 180 miles per hour over distances of up to 3,600 miles, carrying a payload of 68 day or 36 night passengers, or up to five tons of mail and cargo.

The interior was luxuriously appointed. Passengers ate in three shifts in a comfortable dining-room, shown below.

The flight deck could accommodate six crew, and was more spacious than that of any other commercial aircraft before or since.

The wings were thick enough to incorporate a catwalk, so that the engines could be serviced even in flight. Mail storage compartments were also built into the wings.

Pan Am signed a contract on July 21st, 1936, to purchase six Boeing 314's at a cost of $550,000 each. Another contract, signed in early 1941, ordered six of the extended-range B314A version.

The initial six 314's entered service in the late 1930's, providing trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific service. They were outstanding aircraft, fulfilling all of Boeing's promises for them, and were soon asked for by name by discerning passengers. The video clip below shows some of the 314's on the trans-Atlantic route.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Pan Am cut back its trans-Atlantic flights, and operated them through neutral termini such as Lisbon in Portugal. The Boeings were increasingly used on the long trans-Pacific routes. Pan Am had established a network of bases on Pacific islands, and the 314's were regular transient visitors during 1940 and 1941.

As war drew nearer, the US Army Air Corps and the commercial air carriers of the USA developed a war plan involving the mobilization of most of the nation's commercial aircraft. Pan Am's large flying-boats were included, and all were scheduled to be taken into military service upon the outbreak of war. However, in the interim, they continued their scheduled services.

One of them, a brand-new Boeing 314A christened the Pacific Clipper, departed on such a routine flight from San Francisco on the morning of December 2nd, 1941. Flying via Los Angeles, Honolulu, Canton Island, Suva in Fiji, and Noumea in French New Caledonia, she was scheduled to arrive in Auckland, New Zealand, on December 8th. Aboard her were an experienced crew, commanded by Captain Robert Ford, with First Officer John Henry Mack; Second Officer/Navigator Roderick Norman Brown; Third Officer James G. Henriksen; Fourth Officer John Delmer Steers; First Engineer Homans K. "Swede" Roth; Second Engineer John Bertrand "Jocko" Parish; Chief Flight Radio Officer Jack D. Poindexter; First Flight Radio Officer Oscar Hendrickson; Third Flight Radio Officer Eugene Leach; Flight Steward Barney Sawicki; and Assistant Flight Steward Verne C. Edwards. The twelve are shown below. From left to right: top row, Ford, Mack, Brown and Henriksen; middle row, Steers, Roth, Parish and Poindexter; bottom row, Hendrikson, Leach, Sawicki and Edwards.

(Chief Flight Radio Officer Poindexter was particularly unfortunate. He'd been scheduled to fly only from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where he was to have been replaced by the regular radio officer. He'd even asked his wife to hold dinner for him that evening. However, in Los Angeles the scheduled radio officer was apparently taken ill, and couldn't fly: so Poindexter had to take his place. He had only a single shirt with him, which ended up having to be washed at every stop along the way!)

Half an hour after taking off from Noumea on December 8th (having crossed the International Date Line, the local time was a day ahead of that in Hawaii), the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor commenced. By the time the Pacific Clipper landed in Auckland, her return route across the Pacific Ocean was irrevocably closed.

The crew waited in Auckland for instructions. For a week they heard nothing - everything and everyone in the USA was busy responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and didn't have time to spare for an aircraft and crew on the other side of the Pacific. Finally the word came, via the US Embassy radio room. The crew were to return the Pacific Clipper to the USA, but going the long way around - circumnavigating the globe. The aircraft was urgently needed by the US forces, and was now the property of the US Government. They were not to risk being intercepted by enemy forces. On the way, they were to pick up the Pan Am station crew at Noumea and deliver them to Australia, where they would be safer.

These instructions may sound simple to us today, but remember - this was 1941. No commercial aircraft had ever circumnavigated the globe. With a cruising speed of only 180 miles per hour at best, the trip would take a very long time: and the aircraft was unique to Pan Am. Since no-one else operated it, there were no spares, trained mechanics or repair depots en route - not even any Pan Am offices. If anything went wrong, they were on their own. They would have to fly almost 30,000 miles, across oceans and continents none of the crew had ever seen. They had no maps to guide them, and none were available. They had no money for their daily needs, or for fuel: they'd be utterly dependent on getting fuel from military bases along the way - and such bases might not be feeling very co-operative in the middle of a war!

Captain Ford had a quick coat of plain camouflage paint applied to the Pacific Clipper, and took aboard all the spare parts he could find at the local Pan Am station. Late in the evening of December 16th, 1941, the darkened flying-boat departed from Auckland. At sunrise it landed in the harbor at Noumea, and Captain Ford went ashore to round up the Pan Am station staff. He gave them only one hour to be on board, or be left behind. In the event it took two hours to refuel the aircraft and top it up with lubricating oil, and they loaded an extra drum of oil in case none was available en route. They also took aboard all spare parts that were available at Noumea. As soon as they had finished, the Pacific Clipper lifted off for Australia.

Early that evening Ford set the aircraft down in the harbor of Gladstone, on the Queensland coast of Australia. Their passengers disembarked, and Ford had a stroke of luck: a local banker agreed to advance him $500 in US currency. That money was to take them the rest of the way back home.

Early next morning they took off, heading across Australia for Darwin. The whole journey was over land, with no body of water large enough to set down the aircraft if they got into trouble. They reached Darwin late in the afternoon, landing in the harbor. They were welcomed with some surprise (no-one had been warned that they were coming), and offered the opportunity to shower and clean up in an 'hotel' ashore. To their amusement, it turned out to be a brothel!

After showering, they set to work refueling the aircraft. This was an exhausting job, which had to be done by hand, taking five-gallon jerry cans, hoisting them up to the wing from a boat, and pouring each into the tanks by hand. It was after midnight by the time they finished. They grabbed a few hours of sleep, then, still exhausted, took off in the early dawn light, heading across the Timor Sea towards Surabaya in Java.

To their dismay, the recognition signals that they had been given in Darwin proved to be inaccurate: and, to make matters worse, whilst they could hear the British fighters that rose to investigate their arrival, the fighters could not hear them. With real fear they heard the fighter pilots discussing with their controller whether to shoot down this strange aircraft. Eventually one of the fighters spotted the outline of a US flag, showing beneath the hastily-applied camouflage paint. The pilot reported this to the controller, who then ordered the fighters to let the Pacific Clipper land, but to shoot it down at once if it did anything suspicious.

As you can imagine, they made the most cautious and careful landing of their lives! Ford touched down outside the harbor, which was full of warships, then turned to taxi in. To his surprise, the boat which had come out to meet them waited in the harbor entrance, and its crew made frantic waving motions. He had to taxi more than a mile before the boat approached. Its crew then informed him that he'd been taxiing over a minefield, and they'd been waiting for the plane to blow up! Only when he'd taxied clear of the mines did they dare come closer.

The crew was discouraged to learn that they would not be able to refuel with 100-octane aviation gasoline. The limited supply at Surabaya was reserved for military aircraft only. However, they could have as much 87-octane regular gasoline as they wished. Ford consulted with Roth and Parish, and they worked out a plan. The engineers transferred all their remaining 100-octane fuel to the fuselage tanks, and filled the wing tanks with 87-octane fuel. They would take off and climb to cruising altitude on the 'good stuff', then try to fly onward using the low-octane fuel.

Next morning they took off, leveled out at about 2,000 feet, and crossed their fingers as they switched over to the low-octane fuel. As Ford later described it, "The engines almost jumped out of their mounts, but they ran. We figured it was either that or leave the airplane to the Japs." They headed across Sumatra and the Bay of Bengal towards Ceylon (today known as Sri Lanka). They had no aviation charts or maps, and navigator Brown was reduced to drawing his own Mercator-projection maps from memory, to try to find their way.

As they approached Sri Lanka a cloud bank loomed up ahead. Ford took the aircraft down, but to their astonishment the aircraft broke through the clouds directly above a Japanese submarine. Ford rammed the throttles forward, and the engines took them higher, although running very rough on the low-octane fuel. They were soon out of range, and in another hour they reached the harbor of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka's East coast. Ford set the aircraft down, bringing a sigh of relief from the entire crew.

Ford was able to arrange to get 100-octane fuel from the British forces at Trincomalee. While the aircraft was being refueled, he was summoned to a meeting with senior officers to recount what they'd seen on their journey so far. To his anger, their report of the Japanese submarine was dismissed by the military officers. Ford bit his tongue and said nothing. His need for fuel was too great to risk annoying them.

The Pacific Clipper took off from Trincomalee on Christmas Eve, but within an hour the number three engine failed, shuddering and leaking oil. Ford had no choice but to turn back to Trincomalee. They spent the next two days repairing the engine (the damage was probably the result of burning low-octane fuel from Surabaya to Trincomalee - the engines were designed to run on high-octane fuel only). Ten of the sixteen studs holding a cylinder in place had ruptured. They had spare studs, loaded at Auckland and Noumea, but didn't have the right tools to remove the broken studs and replace them with new ones. The resourceful flight engineers visited a British warship to beg for help. They were given some steel bar stock and the use of the ship's lathe. With this they manufactured the tools they needed, and were able to complete the repairs.

On December 26th, the big Boeing lifted off, heading for Karachi (then in India, now in Pakistan). The following day they flew to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. From here they planned to head for Khartoum in the Sudan, but there was a complication. As Ford reported, "When we were preparing to leave Bahrain we were warned by the British authorities not to fly across Arabia. The Saudis had apparently already caught some British fliers who had been forced down there. The natives had dug a hole, buried them in it up to their necks, and just left them."

They left Bahrain on December 28th, flying South for about twenty minutes, then - disregarding the warnings of their British counterparts - turned West and headed across Saudi Arabia. Ford again: "We flew for several hours before there was a break in the clouds below us, and damned if we weren't smack over the Mosque at Mecca! I could see the people pouring out of it, it was just like kicking an anthill. They were probably firing at us, but at least they didn't have any anti-aircraft [guns]."

They landed on the Nile River at Khartoum late that evening. Next morning they headed across Africa, bound for Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire). They arrived late in the afternoon, landing on the Congo River, which runs through the city. To their joy, waiting for them was a Pan American station manager and Radio Officer, who had been sent to meet them. They handed out cold beers, which, according to Ford, "was one of the high points of the whole trip!"

The oppressive tropical heat and humidity in the Congo was worse than anything they'd experienced so far. It was a real effort to stir themselves to refuel the aircraft and prepare for the long trans-Atlantic flight that lay ahead of them. Due to the enormous distance to be covered (some 3,500 miles), they had to fill the aircraft's tanks to the brim. It was heavily overloaded when they came to take off, and they only just managed to get airborne before the river ran into the rapids below the city (which would certainly have destroyed the plane). Even after lift-off, it took several miles of flight before they could gain enough altitude to feel safe.

It took them more than twenty hours to cross the South Atlantic. Shortly before noon, local time, they landed at Natal in Brazil. While they were waiting for the immigration formalities to be completed and the aircraft to be refueled, they were forced to disembark so that two local officials could fumigate the aircraft against yellow fever. To their anger and disgust, when they got aboard once more to continue the flight, personal documents, cash and some maps were missing, clearly the work of the fumigation crew.

That same afternoon they headed for Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean. They arrived there at 3 a.m. the following morning, to find the first Pan Am station they'd encountered since leaving Noumea. They were given a warm welcome, and collapsed into bed to rest after their long ordeal. While they slept, the local station supervised the refueling of their aircraft.

The final leg of the journey was from Trinidad to New York. They arrived shortly before dawn on January 6th, 1942, only to be ordered to wait until sunrise before landing, for fear of striking a floating obstacle in the water. Their long journey was over at last - and, as a contrast to the heat and humidity of the tropics through which they'd flown around the world, the cold water of New York harbor froze against their hull as they touched down!

The flight of the Pacific Clipper broke many records. Although technically not a complete circumnavigation of the Earth, because it did not return to San Francisco, the point of departure, it was nevertheless accounted as such, because they had flown far more than the distance around the world. As such, it was recognized as the first round-the-world flight by any commercial airliner. It was also the longest continuous journey by a commercial aircraft, and the first-ever circumnavigation by any aircraft to follow a near-Equatorial route (they had crossed the Equator four times on their journey). They landed in five out of seven continents, flew 31,500 miles in 209 hours at an average speed of 150 miles per hour, and made 18 stops under the flags of 12 different nations. They also made the longest non-stop flight in Pan American's history, the 3,583 mile crossing of the South Atlantic from Leopoldville to Natal.

The Pacific Clipper, along with her sister Clippers, was taken into the service of the US Navy. They spent the war ferrying personnel and supplies across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. None of them returned to commercial service with Pan American. By the end of World War II, land-based aircraft had developed sufficiently to make flying-boats uneconomical, and largely irrelevant to the future growth of aviation.

The Pacific Clipper was sold to Universal Airlines after the war, and was damaged in a severe storm while riding to her moorings. She was subsequently broken up for parts - a sad and undignified end for an aircraft that had made history.



MJRoss said...

Many thanks for the Boeing 314 pix and info. I am reading Ken Follett's 'Night over Water", about the fictional 'last flight' of the Clipper in 1939 at the start of WWII. Great thriler.

pburt said...

How strange! The same book brought me to search for information about Boeing 314s and to this website. Thanks for the information.

sevenrobes said...

the third officer is my grandfather, now deceased.

Cambias said...

I've been fascinated by this story ever since I read about it in a magazine article -- either Smithsonian or Air & Space. I didn't know there was a book about it; now I'll have to track down a copy.