Pan Am Across the Atlantic

Yankee Clipper arriving at Southampton, England after survey flight across the Atlantic in April, 1939.

Yankee Clipper arriving at Southampton, England after survey flight across the Atlantic in April, 1939.

Eyes on the Atlantic

Pan American had its eyes on the Atlantic market almost from the beginning of the airline’s history.  The crossing between Europe and America was one of the most heavily traveled passenger routes in the world; in 1925, about a million passengers crossed the North Atlantic. The world’s largest and most prestigious ocean liners were in service on the North Atlantic, and the passage between Europe and the United States boasted more first class passengers (and potential airline customers) than any other steamship route; about 180,000 passengers crossed the Atlantic in first class in 1925.   Perhaps even more importantly, a tremendous quantity of mail (the keystone of any airline’s revenue in the early days of commercial aviation) as well as express packages and valuable freight carried between Europe and the United States.

Pan American assumed that its natural expansion, after its success in Latin America, would be across the Atlantic, and the requirements of a transatlantic crossing dictated Pan American’s specifications for a new aircraft in the early 1930’s, which would become the S-42 and M-130.  Pan American also made early investments in the route, including the purchase of landing rights from the government of Iceland for $55,000 in 1932.  But political and diplomatic roadblocks, primarily set by the British, frustrated Pan Am’s ambitions to offer service across the Atlantic, which remained stalled for most of the 1930’s, even as the German airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg began regularly scheduled passenger and mail service between Europe and America.

Resistance from the British

The main obstacle was that Britain did not want the United States to have a monopoly — or even a head-start — on a transatlantic airline service, and refused to grant landing rights in Britain itself or the British-controlled stepping stone across the Atlantic, such as Atlantic Canada and Bermuda.  Similar rivalry from Portugal also frustrated attempts to inaugurate a southern route with stops in the Azores and Lisbon on the southern route.

The British insisted on reciprocity, and would not grant landing rights to an American airline until Britain’s Imperial Airways was able to commence a similar service.  On January 25, 1936, Juan Trippe and George Woods-Humphrey, Managing Director of Imperial Airways, signed an agreement dividing transatlantic service between Pan American and Imperial Airways; the agreement eliminated competition from other airlines, such as the Dutch, French, and Germans, who were barred from the British stepping stones across the Atlantic, but it provided that neither Pan Am nor Imperial Airways could begin service until both airlines able to do so.  Since Britain was far behind America in flying boat technology, and Imperial Airways did not have any aircraft capable of transatlantic service in 1936, Pan American would have to wait more three years before its planes could fly the Atlantic.

The first crack in the wall of British resistance occurred in early 1937, under the threat of competition from airships and alternative technologies, such as the German sea-air catapult mail service, which did not require landing permits on British-controlled territory.  Pan Am began construction of flying boat bases Baltimore, New York City, and Port Washington, Long Island, and other bases were built at Shediac, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick; Botwood in Newfoundland, not far from Gander Lake; and at Foynes, on the River Shannon in Ireland.

Pan American Service to Bermuda

The first step in creating a reciprocal British-American transatlantic service was the opening of service between the United States and Bermuda.  While Imperial Airways’ principal flying boat in 1937, the Short Brothers S-23, did not have the range to cross the Atlantic, it was able to make the 775 mile flight between Bermuda and New York.  (Although the British flying boat could not reach Bermuda on its own, and had to be disassembled and sent by ship across the Atlantic.)  On May 25, 1937, the Imperial Airways flying boat Cavalier, and Pan American’s S-42B Bermuda Clipper, left Bermuda and Port Washington at the same time for survey flights on the route.  Regular service by both airlines began on June 18, 1937.

Surveying the Atlantic – 1937

With Anglo-American cooperation on the horizon, Pan Am began surveying the route across the Atlantic.  On June 25, 1937, a Pan American S-42B named Pan American Clipper III, fitted with extra fuel tanks and under the command of Captain Harold Gray, flew from New York to Shediac and back, without landing.  And additional flight to Gander followed, and on July 3, 1937, Imperial Airways and Pan American made the first reciprocal survey flights across the North Atlantic.  The British flying boat Caledonia crossed westward, while Captain Gray’s Pan American Clipper III flew the route from New York to Shediac, Botwood, and Foynes.  An additional survey flight was made on the southern route from New York to Bermuda, the Azores, Lisbon, and Marseilles.

The path to transatlantic airliner service seemed clear.  But the British said no.  Their flying boat had only been able to cross the Atlantic with everything from the seats to the flooring stripped out and replaced with fuel tanks, and the British had no plane capable of flying the transatlantic route with passengers or even mail.  The Hindenburg disaster of May, 1937 eliminated the treat of transatlantic competition by airships, and the British retreated to their earlier position:  No service by Pan American until Imperial Airways could commence service as well.  Pan Am’s transatlantic ambitions were put on hold for another two years.  But by the time Pan American was finally allowed to cross the Atlantic with mail and passengers, it had a new advantage over its British rivals: the B-314 Boeing Clipper.

The First Transatlantic Flights

On May 20, 1939 — only twelve years, to the day, after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis — Pan American’s B-314 Yankee Clipper departed Port Washington, New York for the first scheduled mail service across the Atlantic.  The Clipper carried 112,574 pieces of mail (mostly from stamp collectors), four dozen California marigolds for Britain’s Queen Mary, and 16 Pan Am employees under the command of Captain Arthur E. La Porte.  The ship flew the southern route across the Atlantic, landing in Lisbon the next afternoon after flight of approximately 27 hours (which included a stop at Horta in the Azores), and then flew to its final destination in Marseilles, France the next day.

Letter carried on first transatlantic mail flight to England.

Letter carried on first transatlantic mail flight to England.

The Yankee Clipper also made the first mail flight on the northern route across the Atlantic, to England, on June 24, 1939, with stops at Shediac (New Brunswick), Botwood (Newfoundland), and Foynes (Ireland).

Passenger service began a few days later, on June 28, 1939, when the Dixie Clipper left New York with 22 passengers on the southern route to Horta, Lisbon, and Marseilles.  The passengers  — who had paid $375 for a one way ticket, or $675 for a round trip — included Southern Railway executive William J. Eck, who received a silver cigarette case for being the first paying passenger on the route; renowned “first flighter” Clara Adams, who was on the first leg of a record breaking, round-the-world flight; Juan Trippe’s wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Stettinius Trippe; United States Lines president John M. Franklin; Texas Corp. (Texaco) chairman Torkild Rieber, who was forced from his position just a few months later for his overly close business relations with Nazi Germany; investment banker Harold Leonard Stuart; and American-Hawaiian Steamship Company president Roger Lapham.

On July 8, the Yankee Clipper introduced Pan Am’s service on the northern route across the Atlantic, carrying 17 passengers to England.  The era of transatlantic heavier-than-air passenger service had arrived.

Yankee Clipper unloading mail at New York on May 27, 1939, after returning from her first transatlantic flight.

Yankee Clipper unloading mail at New York on May 27, 1939, after returning from her first transatlantic flight.