China Clipper

The name “China Clipper” became synonymous with Pan American’s Martin M-130 clipper, and even, to many people, shorthand for Pan Am flying boats in general.  But the China Clipper was an individual aircraft, Construction number 558, Registration Number NC14716, known as “Sweet Sixteen” to Pan Am employees.

Clipper at Pearl Harbor

China Clipper at Pearl Harbor

The China Clipper was actually the third M-130 laid down by the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company (construction number 558), but it was the first M-130 delivered to Pan American.  Although never formally “christened,” the ship was named “China Clipper” by Pan American chief Juan Trippe on October 9, 1935, with Charles Lindbergh at his side.

U.S. Air Mail stamp issued for China Clipper's first flight across the Pacific

U.S. Air Mail stamp issued for China Clipper's first flight across the Pacific

China Clipper made its most famous flight just six weeks after its delivery to Pan American, when it inaugurated the first scheduled air mail service across the Pacific.

On November 22, 1935, before a crowd of 25,000 people, the China Clipper lifted off the waters of San Francisco Bay to begin its flight to Manila.  The aircraft carried 58 mailbags, weighing 1,837 lbs, containing 110,865 specially stamped letters.

After unexpectedly passing underneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which was thwn still under construction — the plane was too heavy to fly over the bridge as planned — the China Clipper headed west to Honolulu on its five leg trip across the Pacific:

  1. San Francisco – Honolulu (Depart 3:46 PM, November 22 – Arrive 10:19 AM, November 23)
  2. Honolulu – Mdway (Depart 6:35 AM, November 24 – Arrive 2:0o PM, November 24)
  3. Midway – Wake (Depart 6:12 AM, November 25 – Arrive 1:38 PM, November 26)
  4. Wake – Guam (Depart 6:01 AM, November 27 – Arrive 3:05 PM, November 27)
  5. Guam – Manila (Depart 6:12 AM, November 29 – Arrive 3:32 PM, , November 29)

The Clipper crossed the International Date Line between Midway and Wake.

Pan Am pilot Edwin Musick was command of the flight and its seven man crew:

  • Captain:  Edwin Music
  • First Officer:  R.O.D. Sullivan
  • Second Officer:  George King
  • Navigator:  Fred Noonan
  • First Engineer:  C.D. Wright
  • Second Engineer:  Victor Wright
  • Radio Officer:  William Jarboe

The China Clipper continued to fly the Pacific for the next eight years, until she was transferred to Florida in June, 1943 to begin service on the less glamorous route between Miami and Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo.

On the evening of January 8, 1945, the China Clipper stuck an object in the water and sank at Port of Spain in Trinidad; the crash killed 14 of the 18 passengers, and 9 of the 12 members of the crew.

Over its career, the China Clipper flew more than 2.4 million miles and spent more than 15,000 hours in the air, carrying approximately 3,500 passengers and 750,000 lbs of mail and freight.