Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, July 10, 2011

China Clipper San Francisco To Hong Kong

Pan Am's China Clipper was a huge milestone in aviation history. The China Clipper could take you across the Pacific Ocean in a fraction of the time as by ship. The China Clipper added an entirely new dimension to air travel and opened the Pacific region to far better mail service.

 Posters advertising destinations throughout Pan Am's route system remind one of the advertising created by railroads such as the Northern Pacific  and their Glacier National Park poster.

Explore the History of the China Clipper

If you're contemplating a San Francisco vacation and you're one of the many that fly directly into SFO there's a terrific display at the SFO Airport Aviation Museum.

Among other exhibits, the aviation museum has quite a collection of China Clipper pictures, documents and original items from the actual Clipper aircraft. It's an excellent museum of California airline history and worth the visit.

Pan Am's China Clipper Opens Up the Orient


The story of Pan Am's China Clipper is a story of America's attempt to meet ever growing international competition.

The world airline industry was in it's first years. The feasibility of international airlines had a lot to do with the aircraft available to fly long distances. The German's were the first to start air routes into South America with their SCADTA Colombian airline back in the mid 1920's. SCADTA even  vied for U.S. mail contracts into the region. This didn't sit well with Washington who preferred not to see a German airline presence through the Canal Zone which it would have entailed.

As a response, two ex Air Corps majors joined together and formed a shell company in 1927 that was later, after acquisitions, mergers and the raising of capital through a stock sale, was to become the Aviation Corporation of the Americas with Pan AM as a subsidiary. Major investors in the fledgling company included eastern millionaires Vanderbilt and Harriman. Pan Am was managed by Juan Terry Trippe, pictured below right.

A Start With Mail Contracts

Trippe was a Yale graduate and many of his financial backers were also Yalie's. The first Pan Am flight was a mail contract route between Key West Florida and Havana Cuba. The first flight transported some 30,000 mail pieces to the island. The aircraft was a leased single engine float plane. This was used until Trippe's Fokkers were delivered. From that point on the goal for Pan Am was to obtain as many mail contracts as possible all over North America, Central America and South America. An interesting truth is that through American history every new mode of transportation relied upon government mail contracts when they began service. This included steamboats, the Butterfield Stage Line and the first railroads. The same held true for American aviation. Since the demand for  passenger traffic was an unknown, a government mail contract offered a steady stream of revenue. Likewise, the mail service was in need of a faster mode of transportation.

The Goal of Adding More Routes


The routes Pan AM initially vied for were to South America although North American mail contracts were also sought. Landing rights, aircraft, crews, support personnel...all these had to be negotiated and put in place. As mentioned above, the first route obtained was a mail flight between Key West Florida and Havana Cuba using a rented float plane.

This certainly was a humble beginning but the goal was to expand to the South American mainland. By 1930 Juan Trippe was at the helm of the world's largest airline. There is a lot of additional information regarding the mergers and setbacks in Pan Am's early history and I think you may enjoy researching it in greater depth.


As time went on and routes were added, Trippe kept pushing for larger and more powerful aircraft that could fly longer distances. Eventually he had a fleet named Clippers.

If you wonder why these planes were named Clippers, the most popular answer is that Juan Trippe came from a very wealthy family whose fortune was made operating a fleet of Clipper Ships on the world's oceans. The other question that comes up is..why were these planes manufactured as flying boats? The answer is that back in the 1930's, concrete runways were scarce. At least they were scarce enough to not be readily available for lucrative mail routes. The Clipper aircraft were able to use any large enough body of water as a landing strip and this opened up quite a few coastal cities to it's services. Rio, Miami, San Francisco and along the eastern seaboard just to name a few.

Manufacturing the Pan AM Clippers


During the reign of Pan Am's Clippers, the aircraft were made by three different manufacturers. They were Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing.

Trippe's vision was for these Clipper planes to have amenities similar to first class ocean travel by ship. Luxuries such as lounges were added to these planes.Not a bad way to travel long distances if you could afford the airfare. Also a five to six day journey across the Pacific sounded better than a several week ship voyage. Juan Trippe had interest early on in a route to the Orient and dispatched Charles Lindbergh on a surveying mission to determine if a route through Alaska, the Aleutians and into China was feasible. Political problems in the Orient made this type of route impossible during the 30's.


The China Clipper was a Martin M-130 four engine flying boat similar to the one shown at the top of this story. It was built at a cost of $417,000.

The First China Clipper Flight

 The China Clipper took off on November 22, 1935 from Alameda California at the site of the old Alameda Naval Air Station in front of an audience of thousands. People arrived early to gain the best vantage point all along the bay area and the take off ceremony itself was broadcast live on radio.

Many historians draw comparisons to the excitement of the first moon landing. It was also a positive newsworthy event in the middle of the Great Depression. Positive events were in great demand. The destination was Manila via Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam. The flight carried over 100,000 pieces of mail. A few historic side notes were that the navigator on the flight was Fred Noonan who later flew with Amelia Earhart and disappeared with her just two years later in 1937. The pilot of the 1935 flight was Edwin C. Musick who ended up on the cover of Time magazine in December 1935 but later was killed with his crew in the Samoan Clipper when it exploded about an hour after take off near Pago Pago in American Samoa in 1938.


The first China Clipper flights carried only mail but by 1936 there were three Martin M-130's operating on the route and passenger service began.  The three were the China Clipper, Hawaiian Clipper and the Philippine Clipper although people would often refer to any of them as the China Clipper because of the popularity of the route.

The trip from California to Manila Bay took about six days at an average speed of 130 MPH. The planes carried twelve passengers and two sets of crew. There was quite a bit of navigational training going on and typically the first crew would help train the second. In these days, before global positioning systems, the crews would navigate using compass, map and celestial positioning. It was said that some charts could be as much as 100 miles off therefore knowing how to follow the compass was quite important. Pan Am flight crews earned the reputation as being the best in aviation. The route eventually reached Hong Kong where travelers could connect to other airlines owned by the Pan Am company which had bought out several operators.

 In 1942 the U.S. government due to the Pacific War took control of the Clippers although the flight crews were employed by Pan Am. During the war the routes tended to run from San Francisco southeastward to the Fiji Islands and on to Australia and New Zealand.



To the left is a printed schedule of the U.S. to Philippine route. Prior to World War Two, Pan Am had a virtual monopoly with overseas routes including those to Europe. Competition didn't arrive until 1945 when Howard Hughes' Trans World Airlines vied for those lucrative routes. If you've seen the motion picture "The Aviator", while the movie is about the life of Howard Hughes, you had a glimpse of the competitive route war going on between Pan Am and TWA.

More Concrete Runway Airports


The end of the flying boat era came as a result of new concrete runways built throughout the world at the end of World War Two and the arrival of competitors both in North America and overseas. As a result of this, the aircraft manufacturers built new and larger aircraft for land use. There is no question that the rapid rise and fortunes of Pan AM had a lot to do with it's monopolies of routes and government contracts. Nevertheless, the service they offered and the unique amenities they provided travelers is quite an amazing story and exemplifies the farsighted vision of it's original creator, Juan Terry Trippe.

Explore the History


In addition to the Aviation Museum at SFO Airport you'll find a California Historical Marker #968 at the Alameda Naval Air Station (NAS Alameda) in Alameda California. This is also adjacent to the USS Hornet at Alameda Point.

Also you will find a good compliment of Pan Am Clipper exhibits at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. If you make it to Hawaii there are excellent Pan Am Clipper photographs at the Hawaiian Historical Society in Honolulu. All of these interesting exhibits can be fun and educational low cost additions to your vacation planner.


Another interesting Western Trips article is the story of  Wiley Post and his recordsetting Lockheed Vega.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)



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