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


  1. Curious…as a five year old immigrating to the US from Australia I have faint recollections of the flight. I do remember my mother mentioning a few of the islands we refueled at and wondered what route we might have taken. October 1955 was the time and I do remember Hawaii. And landing at SFO and walking down stairs to the tarmac where my father was waiting for us.


  2. I recently had an art studio on a fuel barge in a marina in Redwood City. I was told that the barge itself had been used to moor Clippers in SF Bay. But I can find zero information about it. It certainly looks like it could have served the purpose: huge bollards, big cleats, very heavy concrete. It has a hold divided by a bulkhead and each side of the bulkhead is divided into three or four compartments. I have seen photos of Clippers embarking passengers from a similar structure at the end of a pier. Those structures did not appear to be as robust as mine but they were pre-war. Just curious since I have been evicted because the barge is deemed to be an environmental hazard and will be destroyed.


    Bonnie Eslinger Reply:

    Idaho Spud:
    I’m interested in hearing more about how the Pan Am Barge was being used as an art space. Could you give me a call?
    Bonnie Eslinger
    Daily News Staff Writer
    Office: 650-391-1328
    Cell: 408-859-5101
    [email protected]


  3. Can anyone tell me who to approach about getting permission to reproduce the map of the Pan Am bases at Guam, Wake and Midway which is included in this very informative website? Please reply to [email protected]. Thanks in advance.


  4. Looking for William Records::

    Researching family history. My Grandmothers younger Brothers Son Flew Clippers. Not sure who for?? If you have knowledge of a “Clipper Pilot William Records” it would be wonderful if you respond with what information you have. Think he started flying Clippers at or close to 1936.
    Thank you for any help;; Please email to [email protected]


  5. My father who was the Chief Photographer for the San Francisco Examiner (1920-1947) often took my older brother and I to see the Flying Clipper leave it’s dock to proceed out of the Treasure Island Harbor to take off. He was often required to take photos of political or militarily significant individuals boarding on one of those outbound or arriving flights. It was always a thrilling event to see one of those great planes taking off. And during the war years it was additional exciting for young kids to be in the midst of all the military security (Navy & Marines) present from the time we drove off the San Francisco Bay Bridge until we back on it heading home, home was in the S.F. Marina Distdict so even from there we could see these great planes landing and taking off. Several years later I attended Navy Electronics School on T.I. I was able to visit all the old hangers and Pan American terminal which still stand today.


  6. I am trying to trace the flight my great-uncle, Hyland Lyon, took on a flight aboard the Phillippie Clipper that left Hong Kong on July 15, 1940 arriving Honolulu on July 19, 1940. Any information about the flight or the other passengers, which included members of the French Consulate and various banking employees, would be most appreciated. I already have the passenger list from Ancestry.com. Thank you.


  7. I was an American child living in the Philippines in 1936 when the first passenger Clipper Flight landed in Manila. We watched in awe while my whole family was at barge side when this amazing,beautiful, winged bird came into view. My grandfather, Louis Weinzheimer, was on that first flight. The passengers gifted gold wristlets to each of the Clipper crew at a big party hosted by my grandfather on our sugar plantation in Laguna Province. It was a movable and memorable part of an exciting era in the annals of the Pan Am Clipper Ship and Aviation history.

    My family and I will be attending the 75th Anniversary Commemorative Celebrations of the Pan Am Clipper Ship in November at Treasure Island. We can hardly wait.

    Aloha – Sascha Weinzheimer Jansen


  8. I just found this envelope in some old papers. Apparently the trip back to SF started on December 2, 1935. A SF postmark on the other side is dated Dec. 6. I can’t get the image to register here, but would be delighted to e-mail it to anyone interested.


  9. The last comment in the original article above refers to the July, 1939 disappearance of aGuam to Manila clipper. I read a story once about this flight that told of a Chinese businessman from the east coast of U.S. carrying funds to China. I have been unable to find the book or other information on the flight. Any help would be appreciated

    Kirk Wolford


    woody peard Reply:

    Kirk, See if you can find a copy of “Fix On the Rising Sun” by Charles Hill. It’s a conspiracy book, but with a lot of good information about the ill fated flight. Woody


    P. Choy Reply:

    Kirk – The book is called “China Clipper: The True Story of Pan American’s Flying Boats and Their Role in the War in the Pacific” by Ronald Jackson, 1980, out of print. The Chinese-American businessman, Watson Choy, was my uncle.


    woody peard Reply:

    Hi, So what do you think happened to the plane?


    GT Reply:

    For P. Choy, would love to chat with you about your uncle. Please send me an email to [email protected].




    Edward E Wyman Reply:

    My Grandfather Edward E Wyman was a passenger on that flight. I’d love to discuss with you



    John Geoghegan Reply:

    Kirk, there are two books on the topic you mention.

    China Clipper
    By Ronald W. Jackson
    Everest House, NY, 1980


    “Fix on the Rising Sun: The Clipper Hi-jacking of 1938,” by Charles N. Hill.


  10. I have an original oil painting of China Clipper passing over Wake island that was presented to my great Grandfather Bill S. Jack of the Jack and Heinz Co, of Cleveland Ohio. The artist is Heaslip. Can you tell me anything more about this peice. I can send pictures.

    Thank you

    Trevor Jack


    tom heitzman Reply:

    I have a friend who is working on a book about the aviation artists Wm. Heaslip and Clayton Knight I would love to see an image of your painting. He may have some info about the painting.
    Tom Heitzman


    Trevor Jack Reply:

    Tom, I have a pic I can send you. Please email me your email address. [email protected]

    Thank you
    Trevor Jack


    lars-eric magnusson Reply:

    please contact me


  11. Just thought you would like to meet someone who was born on that eventful day when the first Pan Am flying boat landed in Auckland harbor. My parents thought that event was so memorable that I was named Clipper

    I am sad that the landing in NZ is not featured in these articles.


    admin Reply:

    You have given me an incentive to add more photos and information about NZ! What a great comment! Thanks for taking the time to post it!


    Garry Baker ... Melbourne Reply:

    If it’s of any use to the cause, I have a few minutes of amateur film footage taken in Auckland Harbour during the summer of 1938/9. The Pan Am clipper looks brand new, and from memory there’ an airborn sweep of it as well.
    It has been quite a few years since it was viewed by me, though with a bit of luck the film may have been committed to a capture file, which of course means a short Mpeg can be rendered from it.


  12. You right! The website is simple, clean and elegant. It tells the story without all the bells and whistles of so many other sites today. I plan to add this site to my “Links Page” this weekend.

    I invite you to visit my website (www.nickgrantadventures.com). It’s not as simple, but I’ve cobbled together some additional Pan Am Clippers stuff. My novel, ‘FLYING BOATS & SPIES’ tells the story of building the Tranpacific bases on Midway and Wake. It’s very accurate and I had a blast writing it.
    Cheers! Jamie


  13. Nice website. I’m on dial-up so I appreciate the simple design. I’m a big fan of the clipper ship era. A friend of mine, Steve Neill, is an artist who hand paints replicas of advertising signs from the 30’s and 40’s. I’m still working on the web site for himm (he doesn’t own a computer). Takes forever at modem speeds. Thought you might enjoy his work.


    Mike Kwiatkowski Reply:

    I have a gallery in Hunt Valley, Maryland and represent Steve Neill. Please visit his website at Aviation signs at http://web.me.com/jneill1/www.stevenneillart.com/Gallery/Pages/Navigational.html and let me know what you think, [email protected]


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