Edwin Musick won international fame as the captain of the China Clipper on its first scheduled crossing of the Pacific in November, 1935.
The first pilot hired by Pan American Airways, and the airline’s chief pilot, Musick was involved in every aspect of Pan Am’s flight operations. Musick flew every new aircraft and route pioneered by the airline from 1927 until his death at the controls of the Samoan Clipper in January, 1938.
Known as “Meticulous Musick” for the precision he demanded from himself and his crews, in everything from the setting of aircraft instruments to the shine on their shoes and the crease in their trousers, Musick was famous for his cautious and conservative approach to flight operations.
Early Life and Introduction to Aviation
Ed Musick was born in St. Louis in 1894 but moved to California when he was nine years old and grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended, but never finished, high school.
Musick was first exposed to aviation when he was just 15 years old, when he attended the International Air Meet held at Dominguez Field, Los Angeles in January, 1910, the first airshow ever held in the United States. Within the next three years, Musick and two friends were building primitive airplanes of their own, and in 1913 Musick learned to fly in a single-seat Curtiss pusher plane at the Schiller Flying School.
Musick worked as a racing car mechanic, and as an aircraft mechanic at airshows in California and also at Glenn Martin’s airplane factory in Los Angeles. Even as a young mechanic, Musick was called “the jeweler” by airshow pilots for the unusual attention he paid to every part of a plane’s equipment.
Musick toured the west coast as an airshow pilot himself from 1915 to 1917, sometimes billed as “Daredevil Musick” and sometimes performing under the persona of “Monseer Musick, the famous French Flier.”
Musick worked as a civilian flight instructor for the Army as America prepared for World War I, and after receiving a commission as an officer in the United States Marine Corps he became a naval flight instructor in Miami, Florida.
When Musick was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1919 he joined Aeromarine Airways, where he flew F5L (Model 75) flying boats, mainly in passenger between Florida and Havana, and occasionally on publicity flights around other areas of the United States.
When Aeromarine went out of buiness in 1924, Musick bought a Curtiss HS-2L flying boat and barnstormed in Miami and Long Island, New York, but made more money flying illegal liquor, banned under Prohibition, from supply boats in international waters to to bootleggers on the east coast.
On August 14, 1924 he eloped with Cleo Livingston.
Musick and Pan American
Musick’s path to Pan Am began in 1926, when he was hired as a pilot by Andre Priester, who was working as operations manager for a small airline called Philadelphia Rapid Transit Airline, which flew Fokker trimotors between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and eventually Norfolk, Virginia. When Priester was recruited by Juan Trippe to join Pan American Airways in 1927, Musick followed him to the new airline as Pan Am’s Pilot Number 1 on October 19, 1927.
Within less than a week of being hired, Musick and another pilot were at the controls Pan American’s first scheduled flight, from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba, on October 28, 1927.
Musick was involved in all Pan American’s key operations from that point forward. Musick flight-tested the first Sikorsky S-38 flying boat purchased by Pan Am in 1928, and he flew the S-38 on scheduled service between Florida, Cuba, Nassau, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
In 1929 piloted a flight with Juan Trippe and Charles Lindbergh to Dutch Guiana to innaugurate FAM 6 (Foreign Air Mail Route #6) using a Fokker Teimotor and a Sikorsky S-38. Musick also tested the first S-40, which he also flew on the first flights from Miami to Baranquilla, Colombia in 1931.
Musick was also at the controls of the brand new Sikorsky S-42 for its record-breaking test flight on August 1, 1934, and he flew an S-42 on endurance trials in Caribbean in February, 1935, flying continuous circuits between Miami and the Virgin Islands to simulate the distance between San Francisco and Honolulu. In April 17, 1935, Musick flew the stripped down S-42 Pan American Clipper on the first survey flight from San Francisco to Honolulu, which carried the first airmail ever flown across the Pacific on its return to San Francisco. Survey flights continued throughout 1935, and by October Musick and his crew had crossed the Pacific all the way to Guam.
Although the S-42 was useful for survey flights, with its passenger accommodations ripped out and replaced with auxiliary fuel tanks, the Sikorsky was not capable of trans-Pacific flights with passengers, and by late 1935 Musick was test flying Pan Am’s newest clipper, the Martin M-130. Within just a few weeks of its first flight, the M-130 China Clipper, with Musick in command, made the first mail flight across the Pacific ocean in November, 1935. The pioneering transpacific flight brought international fame to the shy Musick, who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and was awarded the 1935 Harmon Trophy for his achievement.
Captain Musick was known for his shy, quiet personality, and he disliked the publicity that was thrust upon him. As Time Magazine described him:
He refuses to show off or make wisecracks for newsmen. He has never been known to stunt in a plane, never makes a flight without the most meticulous preparations, even refuses to tie up to a mark until it has been tested. Completely lacking in vanity, he refuses to discuss his career even with such close friends as Navigator Noonan, with whom he bunks when on duty.
He lives quietly with his blonde wife, Cleo, has no children, likes baseball, Buicks, apples, ham & cheese sandwiches, vacations in Manhattan.
His face, almost wooden, sometimes lights up in a crooked smile. Prone to swearing a good deal in a quiet, pleasant way, he never loses his temper, though he is a martinet about detail. When he is in command, his ship must be spotless, his men equally neat.
Musick hated the public appearances pressed on him by an Pan American publicity director William Van Dusen, who even pressured Musick to shave with various different types of razors to eliminate the almost permanent 5-o’clock shadow that showed through in press photographs. Van Dusen was torn between trying to get Musick to cooperate with his efforts, or simply presenting him like the strong, silent type that he was. When Musick was preparing to depart on China Clipper’s historic flight across the Pacific, Van Dusen is supposed to have asked Musick to send some comments over the radio tha would make good copy for the newspapers. Musick protested that he wouldn’t know what to say, so Van Dusen suggested that he say something about the sunset over the Pacific, and Musick agreed. Several hours later, over the Pacific ocean, Musick radioed back: “Sunset, o639 hours.”
“Meticulous Musick’s” most noted characteristic was his reputation for checking and double-checking every aspect of a flight, and his willingness to turn back or abort a flight in the interest of safety if things did not seem right. When he encountered a thick fog near Rio de Janeiro during the inaugural flight of the Brazilian Clipper, for example, Musick delayed his arrival by a day rather than risk landing as scheduled, despite having Juan Trippe and a planeload of journalists in the plane, and a crowd of notables waiting on the dock, including the wife of the Brazilian president who was waiting to christen the plane.
The Crash of the Samoan Clipper and the Death of Captain Musick
In January, 1938, Captain Musick was again pioneering a new route for Pan American, this time to New Zealand via American Samoa. In command of the S-42 previously known as the Pan American Clipper II, now renamed Samoan Clipper in honor of its new route, Musick and a crew of six left
Honolulu for the first scheduled airmail flight to Auckland. After an overnight stop at Pago Pago, Musick departed for New Zealand in the early morning of January 11. Shortly after departure, the clipper suffered an oil leak and radioed its decision to dump fuel and return to Pago Pago.
The dangers of dumping fuel in the S-42 were well known from previous experiences; fuel leaving from the drains at the back of the wing tended to flow back over the wing, toward the engines, and it was also believed that gasoline fumes could build up inside the thick wing itself.
Shortly after reporting their intention to dump fuel and return to Pago Pago, Musick and the crew of the Samoan Clipper were killed in a tremendous explosion that was seen for many miles.
Musick’s decision to dump fuel was, perhaps, an unusual decision for a pilot renowned for his caution. While landing at Pago Pago’s small and dangerous harbor would have been dangerous with the heavy weight of a full load of fuel, Musick could have circled the island while the clipper burned enough gasoline to make a safer landing. It is likely, of course, that Musick had a reason to avoid the many hours in the air which would have been required to lighten the plane; unfortuately, we will never know.