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Flying the World in Clipper Ships

Pan American Airways conquers global travel
By John Lowery

After it had been rolled out of its hangar, the first M-130's dolly was turned 90 degrees to line it up with the launch ramp area. (Photo via Air Age archives.)
CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE
February 13, 1930: in 1929, PAA bought Compania Mexicana and began air-mail service between Brownsville, Texas, and places in Mexico, using Ford Trimotors. (Photo courtesy of Betty Lewis via author)
This Pan Am advertisement touts its first achievements in around-the-world passenger flight.
Sikorsky's amphibious S-38 flying boat was powered by two 400hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines. Certified in 1928, it carried a crew of two, eight passengers and some mail. (Photo by Xavier M)
Sikorsky S-42 was delivered to PAA in 1934. Used first on Caribbean and South American routes, it was given long-range fuel tanks, and PAA used it to open the Pacific and Asia to air travel. (Photo via Air Age archives)
The Sikorsky S-40 was PAA's first four-engine “Clipper.” It began service between Miami and Panama in 1931. (Photo via Air Age archives)
In 1934, Pan Am bought 14, Sikorsky, S-43, 18-passenger, twin-engine flying boats. First launched on June 1, 1935, the S-43 was equipped with 750hp Pratt & Whitney R1659-52 engines. It was the first in Pan Am's fleet to have full feathering propellers; top speed: 194mph (165 knots); cruising speed: 178mph (151 knots). (Photo by Budd Davisson)

Imagine boarding a luxurious winged ocean-liner in mid-afternoon and then relaxing as it taxis slowly out into San Francisco Bay. Suddenly, there's a mighty roar from its four engines, and the behemoth accelerates. You watch through portholes as the spray diminishes. Then, almost imperceptibly, there's a feeling of release as the giant flying boat breaks the water's surface tension and lifts smoothly into the air. Shortly, at cruise altitude, the seatbelt sign goes out. And from there, you experience the ultimate in cruise-ship luxury, with drinks served from crystal glasses. Then, with cuisine fit for royalty, you eat dinner on china plates using real silverware.

For some, there was a berth for the all-night journey to Hawaii or points west. The clientele on these “Clipper” flights was so exclusive that during the first years, the airline provided each passenger with a copy of the crew and passenger manifest. Meanwhile, for the crew, 15- to 20-hour all-night flights were exercises in fatigue management.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Pan American Airways' Clippers made aviation an indispensable part of world commerce. In the Pacific basin, the Clippers reduced travel time between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii from five days and four nights at sea to less than 20 hours in the air. And the nearly month-long journey by ship to Manila was reduced to 60 flying hours.

Pan American Airways
The genesis of what ultimately became Pan American Airways actually began in 1923, when 27-year-old Juan Terry Trippe along with two Yale classmates and fellow pilots John Hambleton and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and the latter's cousin, William H. Vanderbilt, formed Colonial Airlines. Their financial motive was an airmail contract between New York and Boston. In those days, wheel-equipped land airplanes could not carry enough passengers to make them profitable. Thus, an airmail contract was their only hope of financial success.

In 1925, they succeeded. Using a single-engine, open-cockpit, five-seat (including pilot) Fokker “Universal,” their first airmail delivery was completed from Boston to New York on July 1, 1926. Just 10 months later, on April 4, 1927, they began carrying passengers, too.

For reasons of prestige, Trippe and his investors—all members of the board of directors—named Gen. John F. O'Ryan president. Trippe was appointed vice president and general manager.

In an effort to increase productivity, to the board's consternation,Trippe purchased two Trimotor Fokker F-VIIs for $37,500 apiece. But the planes proved uninsurable, and the conservative board openly began to question their young manager's judgment.

Shortly thereafter, during a survey flight over the Florida Keys, Trippe, with board member John Hambleton, lost two of the Fokker's three engines. Trippe viewed their subsequent single-engine landing as proof of the safety of multi-engine aircraft. But the conservative board was alarmed. Trippe seemed to be taking unacceptable risks.

Consequently, he was forced out of the company. Fellow board members Hambleton and Whitney loyally sold their shares and followed Trippe to his next venture.

Then Trippe learned of a pending postal contract from Key West to Havana. But now he faced two competitors: Florida Airways, which had been formed by WW I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and Reed Chambers, and a second small operation called Pan American Airways Inc., run by Maj. Henry (Hap) Arnold. Maj. Arnold had already contracted with the Cuban government to fly airmail from Havana to Key West, so he appeared to have an inside track.

This failed to deter Trippe and his partners. Instead, they went to Cuba and talked Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado into an exclusive flying permit that barred all other airlines from operating into and out of Cuban airports. This emasculated both competitors. Trippe and his partners promptly took over the two competing airlines and adopted the name Pan American Airways.

Next, Trippe met with Mr. J. P. Grace, CEO of W. R. Grace and Co. His organization had a strong influence on air traffic on the west coast of South America. Thus, in February 1929, they formed a new airline: Pan American-Grace Airways, or “Panagra.” It was owned 50:50 by the two companies.

Concurrently, WW I ace Ralph A. O'Neill established an airline flying from New York to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Called NYRBA, and with 14 Consolidated Commodore flying boats on order, the airline had financial backing from some of the same men as had originally founded Pan American.

Using Ford Trimotor airplanes on inland routes, this new airline was immediately successful. And the Commodore's significant range and payload capacity offered promise of even greater profitability.

Originally designed as a naval patrol plane, the Commodore had been reconfigured to carry 20 passengers on short-haul routes; or, by limiting its passengers and cargo, its range was extended to 1,000 miles. This exceptional performance made it ideal for carrying passengers and mail from New York to terminals along the U.S.'s East Coast all the way to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

The aircraft quickly proved financially successful on the seven-day, 9,000-mile route. Thus, NYRBA was a serious competitor for Pan American. But Trippe disliked competition.

Using his significant political influence, he began a campaign to shut down NYRBA's mail routes. Countries with which the airline had valid mail contracts began to make unreasonable demands. And Pan American began to block NYRBA's established air routes where they passed through PAA controlled areas, e.g., Cuba.

Trippe's efforts were successful, and on September 15, 1929, after a year and a half of operation, NYRBA was forced to sell its assets to Trippe for $2 million—a loss to investors of about $3 million.

Using the newly acquired Commodores, Pan Am quickly gained control of South America's east and west coastal routes and successfully established a nonstop service between major metropolitan areas throughout South America.

Still, the acquisitions continued. Trippe bought Companía Mexicana and promptly obtained an airmail contract. This led to the formation of Pan Am's Western Division based in Brownsville, Texas, where, in March 1929, they began flying mail from the U.S. into Mexico.

In April 1931, Trippe bought a controlling interest in Columbia's SCADTA and UMCA airlines. In February 1932, Pan Am took over the main routes of Mexico's Corporation de Aeronautica de Transportes, which ran throughout Central America, and then Aerovías Centrales, which flew from Mexico City to Los Angeles. Finally, in May 1932, Pan Am bought Cuba's Compania Nacional Cubana de Aviacion Curtiss S.A.

With a virtual monopoly on Central and South American routes, Pan American's airline service was unequaled anywhere in the world.

Sikorsky's Flying Boats
During the early days, Pan Am used several different airplanes. The Ford Trimotor was productive on inland routes, but there were few airports. Thus, with plenty of water available—rivers, lakes and the ocean surface—flying boats were the answer.

Among the best known of the early Sikorsky flying boats was the amphibious S-38 that was powered by twin 400hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines. Certified in 1928 and with a crew of two, it could carry eight passengers plus some mail. Purchased by Pan Am in September 1929, it was used on April 1930 by Charles Lindbergh and Capt. Basil Rowe to inaugurate airmail service from Miami to the Panama Canal Zone.

Sikorsky's next aircraft—essentially an improved and stretched S-38—was the 12-passenger S-41. It proved to be very difficult to fly. One PAA chief pilot stated, “There is nothing good you can say about the S-41.”

To make these amphibians self-sufficient in the primitive areas they served, the copilot—known officially as an “apprentice pilot”—acted as a so-called “combination man.” As well as being a pilot, he had to be a certified A&P; mechanic, and because all radio communication was via shortwave radio in Morse code, he had to be a licensed radio operator.

Each copilot carried a full toolbox, navigation charts, radio message pads, an operating manual and aircraft and engine manuals as well as a flashlight and pistol. At each stop, he reported to the company operations office. If a mechanical problem developed, he repaired it promptly.

The pistol, required by U.S. Post regulations, was almost always stolen at one of the en route stops, and that requirement was later changed.

In 1931, the four-engine, 32-passenger, Sikorsky S-40 was introduced. It was the first aircraft to be called a “Clipper;” the first delivered was designated the American Clipper. It was used to inaugurate the Miami to Panama route.

With this larger four-engine aircraft, the crew complement increased also. Added was a full-time radio officer, a flight mechanic and a cabin attendant. (After PAA added cabin attendants, the senior attendant was called a “purser.” And until 1944, all cabin attendants were Spanish-speaking men.)

In 1934, Pan Am purchased 14 of Sikorsky's 18-passenger, twin-engine S-43 flying boats. First launched on June 1, 1935, it was equipped with 750hp Pratt & Whitney R1659-52 engines. The first of Pan Am's fleet with full feathering propellers, its top speed was 194mph (165 knots), with a cruising speed of 178mph (151 knots).

Its engines sat close together atop the 86-foot cantilevered wing that was mounted above the cabin on a short pylon. With no water rudder and close-set engines, the airplane was reportedly difficult to taxi. Yet PAA's pilots liked its speed and sometimes referred to it as the “Baby Clipper.”

Crew discipline
To shake the “barn-storming cowboy” image, Pan Am emphasized professionalism but with a touch of showmanship. Their reported rigid discipline was part of the professional image sought by Trippe. With everyone milling about the dockside airplane, at one bell, the flight crew formed up at “attention.” Then, in the best military tradition, they marched two at a time on board the aircraft. After the engines were started and warmed, at two bells, the passengers were boarded. (For safety reasons, the engines were always started before passengers were allowed on board.) Noteworthy, too, was that despite the long hours aloft, Pan Am forbade smoking in the cockpits of all its airplanes.

It was Pan Am's Latin American chief pilot Jimmy Walker who originated the challenge and response checklist procedure in company flying boats. In concept, the pilot read the checklist items and the copilot responded with the correct action. (Today, in two-man cockpits, it's the copilot who reads the challenge and the captain who responds.)

Crew considerations
Pan Am's long over-water flights caused serious crew fatigue problems. The old Civil Air Regulations limited domestic airline pilots to eight hours of flying per day and 85 hours per month: however, with their augmented flight crew, Pan Am's pilots could fly 24 hours in a day, with a 250-hour limit per quarter. Compounding the problem was “... the very high level of vibration, noise and the dehydration on long flights at low altitudes, when the cockpit temperature might be continuously over 80 degrees, and the lack of oxygen if we flew long at altitude.”

Pan American's junior officers were all qualified for each cockpit position. From third officer, the junior pilot progressed to flight engineer, radio officer and then to navigator before finally sitting in the right seat as first officer.

The airline's augmented crew provided periodic relief for the captain, first officer, engineer and radio officer, by the “third officer.” This relief pilot moved between the various crew positions and provided a necessary rest break for the long transoceanic flights. The navigator was a notable exception and stood at his position—often for 20 hours—without relief.

Trippe wanted Pan American to project itself as the “merchant marine of the air.” Thus, he incorporated maritime custom and lore into all areas of its operation. The captain was assisted by a first officer; distances were in nautical miles, airspeed was calculated in knots; you ate in the galley, and the bathroom was called a “head.” And the captain enjoyed the ultimate title: “Master of Ocean Flying Boats.”

Their public relations and marketing efforts paid off because between 1931 and 1934, Pan Am became one of the hottest stocks on Wall Street. In November 1932, Trippe contracted with two manufacturers, Sikorsky and the Glenn L. Martin Co., and ordered three airplanes from each. The first delivered, costing $210,487, was the extended-range, four-engine, 32-passenger Sikorsky S-42. In 1934, it began service on the Buenos Aires route and quickly established 10 new records for altitude and payload.

Yet, over time, it became apparent that the Sikorsky airplanes had not been tested adequately. In rough water, the aircraft's hull tended to break aft of the cockpit. This resulted from the standard seaplane method of using full-up elevators before opening the throttles. Then, as the aircraft accelerated and began planing “on the step,” the nose was kept well up. Consequently, the support structure and the bottom of the planing surface took an unnecessary beating. Another S-42 problem concerned the design and testing of the fuel-jettison system. This was thought to have caused a fatal accident on January 11, 1937. Flown by highly experienced Capt. Edwin Musick, the S-42 departed Pago Pago with passengers. Shortly after takeoff, the crew noticed an engine oil leak and turned back for a precautionary landing. Because the airplane exceeded the allowable landing weight, Capt. Musick decided to dump fuel. Speculation was that with fuel dumping in progress, as flaps were extended, the fuel was ignited by the operation of the electric flap motor. “The Clipper blew up and went down like a flaming comet.”

Another incident involved the improper loading of the aircraft. With a full load of passengers, an S-42 was departing Miami for Havana. After liftoff, it “tried hard to do a full loop on takeoff.” Fortunately, an accident was avoided. But Pan Am's Capt. Harold Gray was tasked with conducting tests, and he used his copilot to lug the bags of sand ballast around in the plane to determine the full CG range under which it was controllable.


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