First Transpacific Flight of the China Clipper

United States #C20 (1935)

United States #C20 (1935)

On November 22, 1935, the China Clipper (NC14716) took off from Alameda, California, inaugurating the first commercial airmail service across the Pacific Ocean. This was the first of three Martin M-130 four-engine flying boats built for Pan American Airways by the Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore, Maryland, at a cost of $417,000, and delivered to Pan Am on October 9, 1935. It was one of the largest airplanes of its time. The publicity for the first transpacific flight caused all flying boats on that air route to become popularly known as China Clippers. For a few years, this pioneering mail service captured the public imagination like the earlier Pony Express, and offered fast luxury travel like the later Concorde.

Designed to meet Pan American Airways President Juan Trippe’s desire for a trans-Pacific aircraft, the Martin M-130 was an all-metal flying boat with streamlined aerodynamics and powerful engines to achieve Pan Am’s specified range and payload.  Pan Am’s planned route to the Philippines was San Francisco, Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, and Manila. The five legs lengths respectively were: 2,410, 1,260, 1,320, 1,500 and 1,600 miles (3,880, 2,230, 2,125, 2,415 and 2,575 kilometers). Finally, Hong Kong was added to the route for an additional 600 miles (965 km). To accomplish this, it required an aircraft with a non-stop range of 2,500 miles (4,025 km) carrying 12 passengers, which even by mid-1930s standards was hardly an economic payload/weight ratio. While the routes were being surveyed in 1935 by the Sikorsky S-42B, Martin was building three M-130’s, which were named China Clipper, Philippine Clipper and Hawaii Clipper. A fourth flying boat (the M-156) called the Russian Clipper was built for the Soviet Union. It was similar to the M-130 but had a larger wing (giving it greater range) and twin vertical stabilizers.

The M-130 was of all-metal construction except for the fabric trailing edge. It had a two-step double-bottom hull, with upper sections constructed of corrugated duralumin sheeting. Sponsons, sometimes called ‘sea wings’, were fitted to the hull sides at cabin floor level. These airfoil-shaped surfaces fulfilled a dual function; they helped to stabilize the airplane while resting or maneuvering on the water and also served as fuel storage for nearly half of the flying boat’s 3,800-gallon (14,383-liter) fuel load. Retractable platforms were built into the leading-edge of each wing on either side of each engine nacelle, to provide access for servicing the engines — two of which were completely changed every three trips.

The flight crew of five comprised captain, first officer, radio officer, flight engineer and steward. Aft of the flight deck, in order, were the forward passenger compartment, lounge and two rear passenger compartments. Each passenger compartment could accommodate 8 seats or 6 sleeping berths, and the lounge seated 12. While the M-130 could accommodate up to 32 passengers, the long distance payload was only 12 passengers. The flight’s critical segment was the 2,400-mile span between California and Hawaii, with weight restrictions limiting the number of passengers to eight or less. Most often the crew outnumbered passengers. Altogether, one can appreciate the declaration by one American observer that passengers “rattled around in the vast expanse of hull in a degree of comfort never known before.”

On November 22, 1935, China Clipper took off from the yacht harbor of a small airport in Alameda, California. Its departure point was designated California Historical Landmark #968 on November 5, 1985, and can be found in Naval Air Station Alameda. The crew for this flight included Captain Edwin C. Musick as pilot, First Officer R.O.D. Sullivan, and Navigation Officer Fred Noonan. Although its inaugural flight plan called for the China Clipper to fly over the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge (still under construction at the time), upon take-off the pilot realized the plane would not clear the structure, and was forced to fly narrowly under instead. On November 29, the airplane reached its destination, Manila, and delivered over 110,000 pieces of mail. The China Clipper completed the trip in six days, with a flying time of 59 hours, 48 minutes. It returned to San Francisco on December 6, 1935.

The initial flight carried only air mail, but passenger service began in October 1936, with Hawaii Clipper (NC14714), Philippine Clipper (NC14715), and China Clipper (NC14716). The Philippine Clipper inaugurated the first passenger service into Hong Kong on October 14, 1936, but this was really a public relations VIP flight. It landed in Hong Kong on October 23 and returned to San Francisco on November 2, 1936. Hawaii Clipper began the first revenue-generating scheduled transoceanic passenger service between California and the Philippines on October 21, 1936. The round trip flight was completed on November 4, 1936.

The route from San Francisco Bay, via Pearl Harbor, Midway Atoll, Wake Island, and Guam to Manila Bay required six days with approximately sixty hours of flying time at a cruising speed of 130 miles per hour. A typical passenger would have been very wealthy as well as adventurous. The one-way fare from San Francisco to Manila was $799, roughly $10,000 in today’s money — twice the price of a seat on the supersonic Concorde. The fare to Hong Kong was $950 one-way, which was certainly out of the reach for most people except for the very well off.

An S-42 began flying Manila-Hong Kong in 1937 and the Martins replaced it in 1938. In July 1938, Hawaii Clipper disappeared between Guam and Manila with the loss of nine crew and six passengers. No cause was determined. By 1940, the surviving pair of M-130s had accumulated some 10,000 flying hours each, equal to an average daily utilization of 5½ hours and having flown 12,718,200 passenger miles (20,467,930 passenger kilometers) in addition to express and mail flights.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, brought the age of Pacific flying boats to an abrupt end. Pan American Airways was still operating regularly scheduled flights at the time of the attack. Wake Island was marked for special Japanese attention, and a devastating air raid blasted its facilities to shreds. The Philippine Clipper was moored at Wake during the attack, and was machine-gunned. It was not destroyed, but peppered with 97 bullets. The M-130 managed to evacuate Pan Am personnel from the stricken island. Unfortunately, nine of Pan Am’s complement of 66 employees were killed in the raid. The only Pacific run that Pan Am had left during the war was the vital California-Hawaii run. Pan Am placed itself at the disposal of the US government and did a sterling service throughout the war.

The flying boats’ range and capacity made them valuable for over ocean military flights during World War II. Beginning in 1942, the two remaining M-130s were impressed for war service as United States Navy transports, though not given a Naval designation. The Philippine Clipper crashed in January 1943 when it crashed into the side of a mountain between Ukiah and Boonville, while approaching landing in San Francisco Bay killing 18 crew and passengers, including ComSubPac Admiral Robert H. English.

The China Clipper left Miami on Pan Am’s first scheduled flight to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo via Brazil in early January 1945. It broke up and sank during landing at Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on January 8, when it struck an unlit boat during a night landing, The impact broke the hull in two which quickly flooded and sank. Twenty three passengers and crew were killed while there were seven survivors including Captain C.A. Goyette who was the Pilot in Command of the flight and Captain L.W. Cramer who was acting as First Officer and was flying the plane from the left seat when it crashed. The plane had been referred to as “Sweet Sixteen” by Pan American personnel, a reference to the aircraft’s registration number NC14716.

First National Pictures released a movie called “China Clipper” in 1936, telling a thinly disguised biography of Juan Trippe during the founding of Pan Am. The film made use of much documentary footage of the actual airplane, as well as aerial photography created specifically for the production. It was one of Humphrey Bogart’s earliest film roles. Footage of the China Clipper, and/or possibly other M-130’s loading and taking off from Alameda, is included in the 1937 comedy film “Fly-Away Baby” and the 1939 adventure film “Secret Service of the Air.”

Both the United States and Philippine Islands issued stamps for Air Mail carried on the first flights in each direction of the Transpacific “China Clipper” service between San Francisco and Manila from November 22 to December 6, 1935. The Philippines stamps in denominations of 10 and 30 centavos, overprinted in gold P.I. – U.S. INITIAL FLIGHT December – 1935 along with a silhouette of a Martin M-130.

Scott #C20 was released by the United States Post Office Department on November 22, 1935, a 20 cent 25-cent airmail blue stamp issued to pay postage on mail carried on the route. The rate was based on twenty-five cents per leg — that is, a segment that had a post office at each end. With no post offices, the refueling stops at Midway and Wake didn’t count as legs. The stamp was perforated 11 and produced using the flat plate printing process by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. On April 21, 1937, service was extended to Macao and Hong Kong. Two new stamps, a 20-cent green and a 50-cent carmine, similar to the 1935 issue but without the wording NOVEMBER 1935, were issued on February 15, 1937 (Scott #C21-22).

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