Pan Am Across the Pacific

Juan Trippe

Juan Trippe

The Pacific was not Pan American’s original goal.  Juan Trippe and his investors originally set their sights on the North Atlantic, because the passage between America and Europe was the most prestigious and profitable passenger route in the world.  But political and diplomatic delays frustrated their plans, and by mid-1934 Pan Am had three Sikorsky S-42 clippers already in its fleet, and three Martin M-130’s about to be delivered, and no permission to cross the Atlantic.  With almost $2 million dollars invested in trans-oceanic airliners, Pan Am needed an ocean to cross, and so the airline turned its eyes to the Pacific.

The Challenge of the Pacific

Flying the Pacific presented a much greater challenge than crossing the Atlantic. The routes across the Atlantic were relatively short, and it was even possible to follow an extreme northern route where the longest over-water leg would be the 496 miles between Greenland and Iceland.  Even the direct route from Newfoundland to Ireland, which avoided the harsh weather of the far north, was under 2,000 miles.  But the distance from San Francisco to Honolulu was almost 2,400 miles, and the next leg of the Pacific crossing (from the cable station at Midway to the next inhabited island at Guam) was even farther.  This was a huge stretch for Pan Am; at the time the airline began thinking of crossing the Pacific, the longest leg it flew was under 600 miles (the distance between Kingston, Jamaica and Barranquilla, Colombia).

Wake Island

Wake Island

The real obstacle to a route across the Pacific was the distance between Midway and Guam. Desperate to put his planes to work crossing an ocean, Juan Trippe searched for a solution, and his research discovered a small, uninhabited Pacific island named Wake. Claimed by the United States in 1899, but deserted and virtually forgotten, Wake was just 1,200 miles from Midway and within reach of Guam; the perfect stepping-stone to cross the Pacific, and still used to this day as an alternate landing site for trans-pacific airliners.

The Route to China

With the “discovery” of Wake Island, Pan American’s path across the Pacific was set:

Pan Am's Route Across the Pacific

Pan Am's Route Across the Pacific

  • San Francisco – Honolulu: 2,390 miles
  • Honolulu – Mdway:  1,380 miles
  • Midway – Wake:  1,260 miles
  • Wake – Guam:  1,560 miles
  • Guam – Manila:  1,610 miles

Building Bases Across the Pacific

Before Pan Am could begin flying the Pacific, however, it needed to develop bases; Wake was completely deserted, and neither Midway nor Guam had facilities for Pan Am’s aircraft, passengers, crew, and navigation and weather equipment.  So in early 1935, Pan Am leased the freighter North Haven and carefully packed it with all the items required to develop bases across the pacific; prefabricated hotels and support buildings, construction equipment, motorboats, long-distance direction-finding equipment (to help the clippers navigate to these tiny specks in the Pacific), a four month supply of food, 250,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and about 120 laborers, engineers, demolition experts, and other workers, many of them college students from elite universities looking for an adventure.

Pan Am bases at Guam, Wake, and Midway

Pan Am bases at Guam, Wake, and Midway

Pacific Survey Flights

In 1935 — even while its crews were still constructing bases across — Pan Am made its first Pacific survey flights.  Since the M-130 clippers ordered from the Glen L. Martin company were a year behind schedule, the largest flying boat available as the Sikorsky S-42.  The S-42 had been designed for the Atlantic, and barely had the range to fly the longer distances of the Pacific; it was only able to make the 2,400 mile flight to Hawaii with its passenger accommodation stripped out and replaced with auxiliary fuel tanks in the passenger cabin. But determined to push ahead, on April 17, 1935, Pan Am sent the Pan American Clipper, a stripped-down S-42 under the command of Captain Edwin Musick, on a survey flight from San Francisco to Honolulu.   On its return to San Francisco, the clipper brought the first airmail ever carried across the Pacific.

Pan Am continued its Pacific survey flights through the summer of 1935:  In June, an S-42 flew the route to Midway; in August, Pan Am flew to Wake; and by October they had crossed the Pacific all the way to Guam.

Captain Musick arriving in Honolulu aboard Sikorsky S-42 after first Pacific survey flight. April, 1935.

Captain Musick arriving in Honolulu aboard Sikorsky S-42 after first Pacific survey flight. April, 1935.

Pan Am prepared the path across the Pacific with stripped-down S-42 clippers, but when the long-delayed Martin M-130 was finally delivered on October 9, 1935 — just two days after its first test flight — Pan American wasted no time before commencing Pacific service.  Less than six weeks after taking delivery of its first M-130, the China Clipper, Pan Am was ready to begin regular service from San Francisco to Manila.

The China Clipper and the First Airmail Flight Across the Pacific

On November 22, 1935 — with a great ceremony broadcast nationally over the radio, including Juan Trippe, Postmaster General Jim Farley, the governor of California, and radio hookups with the Governor of Hawaii and Phillipine President Manuel Quezon — the China Clipper prepared to depart San Francisco on the first transpacific mail flight.  Juan Trippe’s voice came over the radio:  “Captain Musick, you have your sailing orders.  Cast off and depart for Manila in accordance therewith.” Six days later, after five legs and 59 hours and 48 minutes in the air, the China Clipper landed in Manila.

  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

Letter carried on China Clipper's first transpacific flight.

Letter carried on China Clipper's first transpacific flight.

Passenger Service Across the Pacific

Over the next year Pan Am continued to fly the Pacific, carrying mail and freight and gaining experience on the route while preparing hotels and other passenger facilities at Midway and Wake.  By October, 1936, Pan American was ready to transport journalists, VIPs, and the first paying passengers from San Francisco to Manila.

On October 7, 1936, the China Clipper left San Francisco for Manila on a press flight with Pan Am publicity director William Van Dusen and ten journalists.  Passengers on the return flight included reporters Leo Kiernan and Dorothy Kilgallen, who were completing their attempt to set a record for an around-the-world flight on passenger aircraft; their voyage had begun with a flight across the Atlantic on the airship Hindenburg.

A week later, starting on October 14, 1936, the Philippine Clipper carried Juan Trippe and other VIP passengers on a  journey across the Pacific as a final preview flight before regular passenger service began:

  • Juan Trippe – President & General Manager of Pan American Airways
  • Sonny Whitney – Chairman of Pan American Airways
  • Senator William Mc Adoo – Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee
  • Wallace Alexander – Chairman of the Matson Steamship Line
  • William Roth – President of the Matson Steamship Line
  • Roy Howard – Chairman of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain
  • Paul Patterson – President of the Baltimore Sun
  • Amon Carter – Publisher of the Fort Worth Star Telegram
Clara Adams with the Hawaii Clipper

Clara Adams with the Hawaii Clipper

On October 21, 1936, the Hawaiian Clipper left San Francisco with the first paying airliner passengers ever to cross the Pacific.  The clipper was under the command of Edwin Musick, with future Pan Am chairman Harold Gray serving as first officer and Fred Noonan as navigator.  The fare to Manila was $950.00, and ticket number 1 was sold to R.F. Bradley, the aviation manager for Standard Oil.  The other passengers were famous “first flighter” Clara Adams, May Department Store executive Wilbur May, aviation executive Alfred Bennett (who disembarked in Hawaii), tobacco and transportation heir Thomas Fortune Ryan III (one of the owners of the Lockheed aircraft company), Charles Bartley, and Mrs. Zetta Averill.

Pan Am would continue to provide regular passenger service across the Atlantic until the outbreak of World War II.   Martin M-130 clippers departed San Francisco every Wednesday (originally just to Manila, and then with connecting flights to Macau and Hong Kong) until the disappearance of the Hawaii Clipper in 1938, when Pan Am was left with only two M-130’s and service was reduced to three times a month.  By February, 1939, the new Boeing B-314 was added to the route and weekly service across the Pacific resumed.

New Routes to New Zealand and Singapore

kingman-reef-route-webAfter its successful conquest of the northern Pacific route to Manila, Macau, and Hong Kong, and with continued political delays frustrating any attempt to provide service across the Atlantic, Pan American began surveying new routes to New Zealand and the South Pacific

In March, 1937, a Sikorsky S-42B under the command of Edwin Musick, surveyed a new route to Auckland involving stops at Kingman Reef, 1100 miles south of Honolulu, and Pago Pago in American Samoa.  Kingman Reef was a tiny speck of land, barely above sea-level and far too small to support building a base, and Pago Pago’s small harbor was not ideal for heavy flying boats, but they were two of the only spots to which America had any claim of sovereignty in a region dominated by the British and French.  The route was difficult, and probably ill-advised, but Pan Am was determined to spread its reach across the Pacific.  In January, 1938, Musick made the first airmail flight from New Zealand to Hawai, in the same S-42B, now renamed Samoan Clipper in honor of its new route.

The Explosion of the Samoan Clipper

The Samoan Clipper and its mail arrived in Honolulu on January 3, 1938, and just six days later it departed again for a return flight to Kingman Reed, Pago Pago, and Auckland with an exhausted Captain Musick and crew.  About an hour after departing Pago Pago in the early morning hours of January 11, the clipper suffered an oil leak and the crew decided to return to Pago Pago.  Fully loaded with fuel for the long flight to Auckland, the ship was to heavy to land safely in Pago Pago’s small harbor, and Captain Musick decided to dump fuel to lighten the aircraft for landing.  At some point during the fuel dumping operation the gasoline ignited and the Samoan Clipper was destroyed by an explosion seen for miles, killing the entire crew of seven aviators.

Pan American abandoned the dangerous route through Kingman Reef and Pago Pago and did not return to New Zealand until August, 1939, by which time it had sturdy Boeing B-314 clippers to fly the long journey and permission to use the British territory of Canton Island as an intermediate base.  The lighthouse at Canton Island was dedicated to the memory of Edqin Musick and the crew of the Samoan Clipper.

The Disappearance of the Hawaiian Clipper

Tragedy struck Pan American again in July, 1938, when the Martin M-130 Hawaiian Clipper disappeared after leaving Guam for Manila on July 29, 1938.

Mail being received at Guam by Posmaster J.H. Underwood from Pan Am airport manager I.P. Gregory. December 15, 1935

Mail being received at Guam by Posmaster J.H. Underwood from Pan Am airport manager I.P. Gregory. December 15, 1935