Pan Am Clipper Service, a visual history

by Owen and Sandy


In August of 1934, the first Pan Am Clipper, a Sikorksy S-42, took flight with 32 passengers aboard on a six-day passage between Miami and Buenos Aires, but the trip would take 6 full days as a plane would only span 1,200 miles before needing refueling. Little did they know that within just a decade, they’d serve most South American cities, out-train the U.S. Air Force, and become the “chosen instrument” for the United States’ overseas operations, all with their “flying boats.”

Equipped with gigantic pontoons, the clippers were actually flying boats of a sort, in the loosest of terms. Because runways were so rare and expensive in the 1930’s, many of Pan Am’s extensive routes operated from the biggest runway in the world: the ocean.

lindyJuan Trippe, whose name will forever be synonymous with Pan Am and its slogan “The World Is Yours,” was only 28 years old when he founded the airline by gathering some of the wealthiest and most powerful support that the 1920s had to offer.  Naming the aircraft “clippers,” Trippe was relating in jest to the wind-driven clipper ships of an earlier period in maritime exploration, from which his ancestors had earned their fortune.

In 1935, Pan Am developed their second clipper, the Martin M-130, which made longer distance nonstop flights possible and extended their service across the Pacific to Manila, Hawaii, Midway Island, Guam, and then Macau and Hong Kong.

On November 22 1935, 25,000 people watched from San Francisco Bay as Pan Am’s first Martin M-130 took off with , becoming the first air mail service to cross the Pacific. Carrying a heavier load than anticipated 110,865 stamped letters, China Clipper, or “Sweet Sixteen” as she was known to Pan Am crew, heavier than planned, unexpectedly passed beneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge heading westward toward the Philippines. First stopping over in Honolulu, then Midway, Wake, Guam, and finally Manila, the entire trip took just over a week.

Just six weeks earlier, that very Martin M-130 had been named by Trippe, with none other than the controversial American patriot, pilot and environmental activist Charles A. Lindbergh at his side. China Clipper would average a speed of 150 m.p.h. with a range of about 3,200 miles. The very next year, she was featured in one of Humphrey Bogart’s early films, China Clipper, and the M-130s began offering week-long, 8,000-mile passenger service to Honk Kong. Her first passenger flight was on October 21, 1936 from San Francisco to Manila, for which a round trip fare cost $1,438.20, or $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Pan Am’s third, largest and final flying ship came in 1939 with the Boeing 314, which had room for 74 passengers and an additional 36 sleeping accommodations. Just one year later, they would introduce their trans-Atlantic route.

The Boeing 314 was not surpassed in size by any commercial aircraft until 30 years later, when the Boeing 747 was introduced. Still, unlike most of today’s commercial airplane cabins, the Boeing 314 was spacious and luxurious, with a stateroom, dressing rooms, and particularly inviting restrooms. It would be another 30 years before a commercial plane would surpass the Boeing 314 in size, with the introduction of the Boeing 747.

When World War II broke out, aviation was still young, and pilots were not scarce, but limited. Pan Am pilots, though, were so advanced in their training that the United States Air Force employed them to not only fly, but train pilots, navigators, radio operators and establish new airports all over the world. Most had previously either been engineers or mechanics, and it was not uncommon to see a plane’s pilot replacing the prop, or fixing the engine himself before taking off (now of course, mechanics are solely designated to perform such fragile operations).

At the end of the war, Pan Am and their clipper planes had flown over 90 million miles in support of military efforts. They then turned their attention back to routing. They looked to add domestic routes, but were denied access until 1978, when the industry was deregulated. All the while, the United States’ domestic airlines were being authorized to fly Pan Am’s routes to Europe, Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean, which some argue may have left Pan Am in the dust, beginning its demise.

However, sharing their international routes certainly didn’t stop them in their tracks, as they quickly went on to launch the world’s first “Round the World” service in 1947, which flew from New York to San Francisco, by way of Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia. Still, at the end of WWII, Pan Am was left with only 28 aircraft: 13 Sikorskys, 3 Martin M-130s, and 12 Boeings.

In the 1970s, Pan Am invested an incredible amount of resources into research and development, producing the first Boeing 747 “jumbo jet,” the Boeing 747SP, and in 1980, they introduced their “sleeperette” seats, upgrading the entire fleet and becoming the first US airline to offer a business section, or “Clipper Class,” for longer flights.

Now in its fifth attempt at resurrection since filing for bankruptcy in 1991, Pan Am has a history of pioneering  progress that is unparalleled by any other airline, and, if for no other reason than to promote their next coming, they’ve now got a new television series.

Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper (4125 x 3218) source

Cutaway (see full size) – source

full size (source)

Boeing 314 Clipper 1939

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