Friday, January 21, 2005

The China Clippers

Aviation history is my most serious geek-pursuit. I've been reading about flying, planes and pilots since I was 14 - and that's about a quarter-century, boys and girls. I am an unbeatable aviation trivia machine. So when Gail wrote about her search for airfare to the Philippines, it called to mind the story of the first commercial transpacific flight, in the 1930s - the age of the China Clippers.

Pan American Airways was the undisputed pioneer in over-the-ocean flying; they offered the first commercial service across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, having developed their planes and techniques on air service to South America. Since large airports didn't exist at the time, and airplane engines not as reliable as they are today, it made sense for the first large airliners to be seaplanes - flying boats, large aircraft with boat-hull bottoms. It did away with the need for long runways, and gave the option of landing in the water in case of critical engine failures, or fuel exhaustion.

Pan Am's colorful president, Juan Terry Trippe, had gone about setting up air service across the Pacific with a zeal that bordered on piracy. Determined to be the first, and where possible the only such service, he secured landing rights in Hong Kong and Macao, and built bases and hotels on Wake Island and Guam. Before the aircraft were even available to fly the long distances, Trippe had a virtual lock on the route.

Finally in 1935 the plane was ready that could do the job: the Martin C-130, by far the largest plane ever built, and the most expensive. (Pan Am had a history of being the launch customer for such planes, from the 1920s through the introduction of the Boeing 747.) There were only three ever built, but they were the most famous commercial planes of their time. Christened China Clipper, Philippine Clipper and Hawaii Clipper, they went into service in 1936.

The clippers flew low and slow by today's standard, about 150 m.p.h., and there were no advanced navigation radios or methods. Neither was there any accurate weather forecasting for the vast areas of ocean to be crossed. Navigation was done by the stars, when they could be seen through the Clipper's dome window. The Pan Am route took its passengers (no more than 18, when full fuel had to be carried) from San Francisco to Manila with stops at Honolulu, Midway, Wake Island, and Guam. The China Clipper inaugurated the service and set the standard for flying time - 57 hours, 42 minutes. A long trip, but the Clippers offered five-star cuisine and luxury accommodations like a fine ocean liner.

The Clipper flights were listed in the shipping register just like the passenger liners, and Pan Am ran everything in a nautical fashion - which is why all pilots today are called Captains, and wear four stripes on their sleeve; and also why airspeed is measured in knots, nautical miles per hour. Pilots flying jets over oceans today use some of the same navigation routes and techniques developed by Pan Am in the 1930s.

The Philippine Clipper began service in 1936 and flew the Pacific route right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When the attack came, the crew was in the air headed east toward Guam. Notified of the attack by radio - "Case 7, Condition A" - they turned around and headed back to Wake Island. There, while floating in the lagoon, they endured a strafing attack by Japanese fighters that put over 90 holes in the big flying boat, but miraculously didn't set it afire. Overloaded with all of the Pan Am personnel on the island - save one - Captain Hamilton coaxed the plane into the air on the third try, and made it back to Honolulu. (The poor soul left behind, Waldo Raugust, was driving an ambulance for wounded Wake Island natives and civilians. He paid for his bravery with four years in a Japanese prison camp.)

Remarkable stories, from when flying was an adventure. Something to think about while whistling along seven miles up, just under the speed of sound.

(Painting, "Hong Kong Clipper" by Stan Stokes.)