Meredith Hindley | Longreads | February 2015 | 18 minutes (4,383 words)

In August 1936, Americans retreated from the summer heat into movie theaters to watch China Clipper, the newest action-adventure from Warner Brothers. The film starred Pat O’Brien as an airline executive obsessed with opening the first airplane route across the Pacific Ocean. An up-and-coming Humphrey Bogart played a grizzled pilot full of common sense and derring-do.

The real star of the film, however, was the China Clipper, a gleaming four-engine silver Martin M-130. As the Clipper makes its maiden flight in the film, the flying boat cuts a white wake into the waters off San Francisco before soaring in the air and passing over a half-constructed Golden Gate Bridge. As it crosses the Pacific, cutting through the clouds and battling a typhoon, a team of radiomen and navigators follow its course on the ground, relaying updated weather information. The plane arrives in Macao to a harbor packed with cheering spectators and beaming government officials.

The film trailer touted it as “the most heroic adventure of the 20th century” and that’s exactly how Juan Terry Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airways, wanted the American public to think of flying. It was under Trippe’s guidance that Pan Am became the first commercial airline to fly across the Pacific in 1935. When Warner Brothers approached Pan Am about fictionalizing its precedent-setting flight, Trippe naturally agreed.

The movie gave American audiences a front-row seat to a story unfolding since 1928, when Trippe secured his first international route. Over the next decade, Pan Am and its fleet of Clippers became symbols of American ingenuity and glamour as Pan Am made it possible for Americans to cross oceans in days rather than weeks. Passengers dined on four-course meals and slipped between sheets when it was time to go to bed. In an age of TSA checkpoints that force passengers to undress in public, battles over legroom, and shrinking seat sizes, the idea of flying as a decadent adventure seems a bit fantastic. But in the 1930s, when the airline industry was in its infancy, international travel was precisely that.

Pan Am's China Clipper over San Francisco in 1936. Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-111417
Pan Am’s China Clipper over San Francisco in 1936. Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-111417

Dreaming Big

On May 20, 1927, Trippe stood among the sea of people gathered at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, watching through the early morning drizzle as Charles Lindbergh piloted the Spirit of St. Louis into the air and toward Paris. Lindbergh was attempting to become the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. Thirty-three hours, 29 minutes, and 30 seconds later, his monoplane touched down at Paris’s Le Bourget airfield. The flight captured the imagination of the world, and it turned Lindbergh into an international hero. After the landmark flight, everybody wanted a piece of Lindbergh, to pitch their product, to headline their event, to shake their hand. Trippe was no different. He wanted Lindbergh to serve as the technical advisor to his fledgling airline.

Juan Terry Trippe. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Juan Terry Trippe. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Like the others gathered on that misty field, Trippe was crazy for airplanes and had been since the age of 10 when he watched Wilbur Wright barnstorm over a New York harbor. During World War I, he abandoned his studies at Yale to train as a Navy pilot. Ensign Trippe, however, never saw combat, as the war ended before he finished his training. After completing his degree, he tried his luck on Wall Street, selling bonds by day, and making the social rounds at night.

In 1923, Trippe convinced his New York Social Register pals—men with names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Whitney—to invest in a small commuter airline to ferry the rich between New York City and the Hamptons. The airline faltered, but Trippe’s next plan struck gold. In 1925, the U.S. Post Office put domestic airmail routes up for bid. Trippe won the lucrative contract to transport mail between New York and Boston. Not content with the eastern seaboard, he began looking south, towards Cuba. His ambition, however, conflicted with his investors’ desire to turn a profit before expanding further. Trippe resigned after losing a struggle for control of the company.

Despite the setback, Trippe kept eyeing the map beyond the United States and seeing opportunity. In March 1928, the Post Office began accepting bids for international mail service. Trippe immediately understood that if he won a contract—and the steady revenue it provided—he could experiment with building passenger service along the same route. As Trippe made the rounds in Washington and New York, lobbying for the contract, Lindbergh was at his side. Trippe’s understated sales pitch had won over Lindbergh, who saw in Trippe a fellow pilot interested in pushing the boundaries of flight. Along with star power, Trippe possessed something else his competitors lacked: landing rights in Cuba.

Charles Lindbergh. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Lindbergh. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Pan Am won two contracts. Foreign Mail Route No. 5 spanned seven countries, swinging 2,074 miles from Miami to Panama. Foreign Mail Route No. 6 went from Florida to Cuba, over to Haiti and the Dominican Republic and on to Trinidad for a total of 1,930 miles. Pan Am received $2 a mile to transport 800 pounds of mail twice a week, making the contracts worth $2.5 million a year. The contracts shored up the finances of Trippe’s new airline, which would henceforth be called Pan American Airways, a name he borrowed from a losing competitor.

Shortly after dawn on February 4, 1929, the first plane flying Foreign Mail Route No. 5 departed Miami. Behind the controls of the Sikorsky S-38 was Charles Lindbergh, ensuring the press would follow every takeoff and landing along the route—and make Pan Am a household name in the process.

The mail routes provided the foundation for Pan Am’s push into the Caribbean and Central America.  Over the next few years Trippe built up Pan Am’s routes in the region, along with South America, systematically acquiring local airlines or cutting deals with the ones who wouldn’t sell in order to ensure Pan Am’s supremacy. The expansion was aided by Wall Street, which was keen to invest in the region, and businessmen, who didn’t mind paying more to spend less time traveling between home and Latin and South American capitals.

The State Department also came to see Pan Am as a way to promote its own Latin American policy. “Keenly aware that his company needed Washington’s support, Trippe became a skilled lobbyist who secured government favors for Pan Am by branding it as an agent of the national interest,” writes Jenifer Van Vleck in Empire of the Air. Indeed, Trippe regularly reminded the State Department that by aiding Pan Am’s expansion, the U.S. government would help keep the Europeans from encroaching on American interests.

Pan Am forged routes to countries that lacked runways, let alone concrete runways that could hold up in all kinds of weather conditions. That led Trippe to build Pan Am around seaplanes and amphibians, which could land wherever there was a stretch of water, preferably calm. Toward the end of 1928, Trippe began to think about how to use seaplanes beyond transporting goods and mail. The Cunard Line turned sea travel into a decadent experience for those who could afford it. Could Trippe do the same for air travel?

“He had been fascinated then, and was fascinated still, by the Cunard mystique, by the romance of shipboard life, and his ambition now became to run Pan American as a kind of nautical airline,” writes Robert Daley in An American Saga: Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire.

Trippe found a co-conspirator in Igor Sikorsky, an aeronautical engineer who escaped Revolutionary Russia and built an airplane factory in Stratford, Connecticut. Sikorsky’s company made the S-38, a sturdy seaplane used by Pan Am, the U.S. Navy, and others. But the Russian also shared Trippe’s vision of a plane with a lavish interior that would transport passengers in style. In early 1929, Trippe and Sikorsky reached an agreement to construct the S-40, a four-engine seaplane with a cruising speed of 100 miles per hour and accommodations for up to 38 passengers.

In homage to the sleek, fast sailing clipper ships of the mid-19th century, Trippe dubbed the new plane “Clipper.” He clothed the crew in crisp uniforms that made them look like they just stepped off an ocean liner. The maritime theme, along with a heavy dose of art deco sensibility, extended to the décor. The walls were inlaid with mahogany polished to a shine. The wood obscured the extra insulation used to limit the noise and vibration from the engines. Passengers could make use of full-sized lavatories with hot and cold running water.

Passengers boarding a Clipper. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-93421
Passengers boarding a Clipper. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-93421

The maiden flight of the American Clipper, complete with paying passengers, departed Miami on November 19, 1931 bound for Cristobal, Panama. Lindbergh was once again at the controls. While en route to the first stop in Cuba, passengers dined on the very first hot meal prepared in an airplane sailing over water. Sikorsky also was on board, and as they made their way south, Lindbergh and Sikorsky talked about the next step. Lindbergh sketched on menus, envisioning something sleek that could fly 2,500 miles nonstop. The drawings became the S-42.

On August 16, 1934, the plane envisioned by Lindbergh and Sikorsky, dubbed Brazilian Clipper, left Miami bound for Buenos Aires. The flight was hailed both for its luxury and for its time saving. If the schedule could be maintained, the journey by air from Florida to Argentina could be reduced from eight days to six days. The flight, however, took eight days after an impenetrable fog bank forced the Clipper to land in semi-darkness off the Brazilian coast short of its intended port of Rio de Janeiro. “Never before had water looked so good to any of us,” wrote John N. Wheeler, who chronicled the journey for The New York Times.

The itinerary change forced the passengers to miss the lavish party planned for them by Rio’s movers and shakers. Instead of checking into swanky hotel suites, they spent the night on the plane. The delay, however, reinforced in a very public fashion Trippe’s insistence that Pan Am put “safety first.” When the Clipper landed in Rio, the city threw a two-day party. The festivities were so engrossing that two of the passengers arrived at the dock the next morning minutes before the plane took off breathless and still wearing their evening clothes.

Trippe’s attention to luxury paid off. In 1933, 85 percent of Pan Am’s passengers traveled on business. By 1940, businessmen accounted for only 45 percent. The rest were tourists flying south on holiday.

Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-55443
To cross the Pacific, Pan Am set up facilities on Midway, Wake Island, and Guam. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-55443

The Problem of Distance

With the Caribbean and South American routes up and running, Trippe grudgingly turned his attention to the Pacific. He really wanted to start a service to Europe, but despite his best efforts, he couldn’t manage to overcome the political hurdles. The British and French jealously guarded their airline industries and looked askance at Pan Am’s efforts to obtain landing rights. The Pacific, however, remained for the taking if the problem of distance could be solved. Seven thousand miles of sparsely populated water lay between San Francisco and Manila. The trip could be broken down into shorter flights, hopping from island to island, but Pan Am still needed a plane that could fly between San Francisco to Honolulu (2,400 miles).

This time, the winning design emerged not from Sikorsky, but from the Baltimore-based Glenn L. Martin Company, the precursor to Lockheed Martin. The Martin M-130 had a range of 3,200 miles and a cruising speed of 157 miles per hour. Four Pratt and Whitney engines pushed the 51,000-lb. plane into the air, where it could fly as high as 10,000 feet.

On November 22, 1935, the China Clipper took off from Alameda, California, embarking on the first transpacific air mail flight. Stashed into its cargo bay were 115,000 letters weighing almost two tons. As the plane approached Hawaii, a squadron of sixty U.S. Army and Navy airplanes joined it, providing a ceremonial escort to Pearl Harbor.

The China Clipper was manned by a crew of a six, who received support from 42 men on the ground.  “It is one thing to navigate a surface vessel moving a mile every two minutes with a wealth of navigational aids at the command of the mariner,” wrote Clipper Captain Edwin C. Musick in a newspaper article filed during the flight. “It is quite another to guide an air liner racing a mile every twenty-four seconds, enshrouded by clouds or above them, with endless horizon of open sea below, with the goal even from high altitude visible under best conditions scarcely twenty miles.”

Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-61986
The flight deck of the China Clipper (l to r): navigator, captain at the controls, first officer, radio officer, and flight engineer. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-61986

From Hawaii, the China Clipper continued on to Midway (1,323 miles) and Wake Island (1,191 miles). Before Pan Am built a refueling station, Wake Island had been deserted. Now, this trip delivered nine more employees, along with additional supplies. Next came Guam (1,536 miles), before finally touching down in Manila, Philippines, on November 29, 1935.  Pan Am turned a two-week or more crossing by boat into an eight-day journey by air.

A few months later, as planned, the mail route also became a passenger route. Trippe’s fascination with maritime habits continued. “Clipper is a ship, not a plane. Time is marked by bells, the crew’s watches are set at Greenwich mean time, and everything on board moves according to the best merchant marine practice,” wrote Lauren Lyman, who flew on the inaugural passenger flight. As with ships, a steward oversaw the passenger cabin, helping with customs and immigration forms, and organizing luggage. He kept smokers stocked with a steady supply of gum to help them cope with the “no smoking” rule. He served the meals, which were prepared in advance and stored in insulated containers to keep them hot. Along with lunch and dinner, which consisted of four courses, there were regular snacks and tea. Alcohol, however, had to be imbibed on the ground.

If passengers needed help entertaining themselves, magazines, cards, and games were available. The view, of course, offered its own entertainment: lonely ships traversing the vast stretch of ocean below, a cavalcade of cloud formations, and spectacular sunrises and sunsets. At night, the moon played on the ocean while constellations danced across the sky.

Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-91091
Passenger berths aboard the China Clipper. Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-91091

The long flights necessitated sleeping accommodations. Trippe wanted space for fifty passengers, but had to settle for sleeping berths for eighteen. A Pullman curtain divided the main lounge into separate dressing rooms for men and women. After putting on their pajamas, the passengers could retreat to one of the sleeping berths, which were the size of a camp cot. The early morning departures and constantly changing time zones led many passengers to retreat to their berths after takeoff and reemerge for lunch.

By 1939, Pan Am’s routes in Asia and the Pacific expanded to include Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand.

Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-61987
The main lounge of the Clipper was designed for comfort and socializing. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-61987

The Mighty Atlantic

While Pan Am’s transpacific service got underway, Trippe continued to work on the problem of crossing the Atlantic. The obstacle wasn’t technology—a trip across the Atlantic was half the distance of the Pacific—but politics. The Europeans had no intention of letting Pan Am monopolize routes as it had in Central and South America.

In 1935, Pan Am and the British Imperial Line reached an understanding that service across the Atlantic would not begin until it could be done as a joint venture. In June 1937, the duo introduced service between New York and Bermuda, offering two flights a week in both directions. The service proved so popular that by the end of August the number climbed to four.

That summer also brought the disconcerting sight of a seaplane with a swastika painted on its tail floating in the Long Island Sound. Nazi Germany was testing its own transatlantic airmail and passenger service. Unlike Pan Am’s seaplanes, which could take off on their own, the German plane needed to be catapulted from a steamship, which then rendezvoused with the plane days later.

Over the next two years, Pan Am conducted headline-grabbing test and inspection flights of the southern route (Bermuda-Azores-Lisbon-Marseille) and the northern route (Newfoundland-Greenland-Foynes-Southampton). But the main delay in opening the route came in Trippe’s decision to use the Boeing 314, which offered a substantial increase in cargo and passenger capacity—and eventually profits. Trippe ordered six of the planes and Boeing promised to deliver them at the end of 1937. In mid-1938, Boeing was still conducting test flights.

In a little more than a decade, Trippe had built the largest airline in the world, employing 5,000 people supporting 126 planes flying 54,072 route miles. Pan Am was also mired in debt. It struggled to turn a profit in the Pacific while making large capital investments to launch the Atlantic routes. Newspaper headlines and record-setting flights didn’t necessarily translate to healthy balance sheets.

Over the years, Pan Am’s board had tolerated Trippe’s free-spending ways and his secretive tendencies—he rarely informed them of his plans until the deal was done—but they had finally had enough. In March 1939, Pan Am’s board of directors ousted Trippe as chief executive officer and replaced him with Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, a man known more for paternity suits and horse racing than business acumen. Whitney had been one of the original backers of Trippe’s New England airmail scheme, the seed from which Pan Am grew. And in his role as chairman of the board, Whitney had consistently supported Trippe’s expansion plans. Now Whitney would serve as CEO, while Trippe, swallowing his pride, continued to manage Pan Am’s operations as its president.

During Whitney’s tenure as CEO, Trippe’s plans for the transatlantic route came to fruition. On May 20, 1939, the Yankee Clipper left New York on its inaugural transatlantic airmail flight, 12 years to the day after Lindbergh flew the Spirit of Saint Louis. When it touched down in the Azores, the planned two-and-a-half-hour layover had to be extended to six hours while the crew waited for the local post office to stamp the 23,000 pieces of mail collectors had sent as souvenirs.

When Pan Am announced transatlantic passenger service to Marseille would begin at the end of June 1939, it immediately received 500 requests for tickets. The flight to Marseille, which included an overnight stay in Lisbon, could take up to 44 hours, while the return trip might run as along as 52 hours because of headwinds across the Atlantic. Tickets for the twice-a-week service were available for $375 one-way and $675 for a round trip. (In today’s money, that’s $6,242 one-way and $11,236 round trip.)

At 2:30 p.m. on June 28, 1939, a bell rang prompting 22 passengers to queue up, show their tickets, and have their luggage weighed. Before boarding the Dixie Clipper, the passengers posed for pictures, flashblubs popping, in front of the scrum of reporters and photographers assembled at Pan Am’s departure terminal in Port Washington, Long Island. The town declared a semi-holiday in honor of the record-setting flight. The local high school band serenaded the swell of people gathered on the shoreline, while brightly decorated boats floated on the murky water of Manhasset Bay.

A half-hour later, with passengers, crew, and mail stowed away, the Clipper’s four propellers spun to life, filling the harbor with the buzzing of its four Wright Twin Cyclone engines. The plane surged forward, churning a white wake behind it, before breaking the surface and climbing into the clear afternoon sky. In 22 hours, the Dixie Clipper would land in Lisbon. While en route, passengers dined on four-course meals served on china, accompanied by silver place settings and linen tablecloths. They slept on beds with sheets and did their ablutions in a full-sized bathroom.  After spending the night in Lisbon, it was only another six hours to Marseille. If they timed it right, the Clipper’s passengers could be in Paris for dinner.

Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-91148
Passengers play a game aboard the China Clipper, 1936. Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-91148

The following month, Pan Am launched its northern transatlantic route, which flew to Southampton in around 27 hours. The inaugural flight again became a celebration, and people jockeyed to obtain seats so they could claim bragging rights to being on the first Clipper flight to Britain. American Express begged Pan Am to make room on the flight for Guido Coen, a businessman from Florence who needed to get home to see his dying son. Pan Am gave him a seat—and reaped the dividends of press coverage about how the new Clipper service helped reunite a family in a time of crisis.  “When I get to Paris, I hope there will be a message from my wife letting me know how Luciano is,” Coen told reporters. “I can’t bear to think of his suffering. I pray I may not be too late.”

Pan Am Goes to War

President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrates his 61st birthday on the Dixie Clipper while flying from Trinidad to Miami. Photo via the White House.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrates his 61st birthday on the Dixie Clipper while flying from Trinidad to Miami. Photo via the White House.

After years of planning and scheming to open Pan Am’s transatlantic routes, World War II intervened two months later. The first Clipper to arrive in New York after Nazi Germany invaded Poland carried passengers with harrowing tales of their travels. “I’ve never seen a prettier sight than the Clipper. And when I stepped aboard, I felt just as if I were home,” said Justin D. Bowersock, the aviation editor for the Kansas City Star. Unable to board the Clipper in Marseille, Bowersock and 13 others commandeered an ancient bus to take them to Biarritz on the French Atlantic coast. From there, they took a train to Lisbon, where they boarded the Clipper.

The war in Europe led to the termination of the northern route at Foynes, Ireland, before being suspended entirely. The southern route, however, did booming business as refugees made their way first to Marseille and then to Lisbon. In Asia, Pan Am withdrew from China and pulled back routes as the Japanese advanced in the region.

The war also saw the triumphant return of Trippe as the head of Pan Am. Over the course of 1939, Whitney failed to display the executive touch, his floundering aided by Trippe’s refusal to share basic details about Pan Am’s operations. To make matters worse for Whitney, the company posted a record year-end profit of $1.98 million, all of which was attributed to Trippe’s unwavering vision. At the beginning of 1940, the board put control of Pan Am in back in Trippe’s hands.

Trippe’s triumphant return also coincided with a concerted attempt to break Pan Am’s monopoly on overseas airline routes. Despite the best efforts of American Export Airlines and its supporters in the State Department, Post Office, War and Navy Departments, and the White House, Pan Am maintained control of its routes thanks to Congress. Pan Am’s congressional supporters squashed provisions that would have allowed American Export Airlines to carry mail overseas, effectively grounding the fledgling airline.

Even while official Washington groused about Pan Am’s monopoly, the U.S. Army enlisted its services to build a series of air bases in Latin and Central America to bolster American defensive capabilities in the Western Hemisphere. American diplomats, in an early form of shuttle diplomacy, logged tens of thousands of miles traveling back and forth across the Atlantic on Pan Am’s Clipper service. Pan Am was also recruited to ferry planes from the United States to British forces in Khartoum, Sudan, as part of the Lend-Lease Act. In Latin America, Trippe used his standing interest in SCADTA, the German-run airline that operated routes adjacent to the Panama Canal, to stage a management takeover. All German personnel were purged in order to quell concerns about possible sabotage attempts on the canal.

As a sign of how enmeshed Pan Am was in the unofficial American war effort, LIFE magazine subtitled its October 1941 profile of Trippe: “Pan American Airways Young Chief Helps Run a Branch of U.S. Defense.” The profile is also notable for its focus on Trippe as its subject. Throughout Pan Am’s rise, Trippe preferred to remain in the background, letting Pan Am’s planes and accomplishments generate excitement. There isn’t a single direct quote from Trippe in the entire piece.

Cover of LIFE, 1941
Cover of LIFE, 1941

When the United States joined the Allies in the wake of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Pan Am’s Clipper fleet went to war as well, ferrying American military personnel around the globe under the auspices of the U.S. Army Transport Command. Pan Am crews continued to pilot the planes, which received the military designation C-98.

The Clippers transported some of the most valuable cargo of the war. In January 1942, the RMS Berwick, a Clipper bought from Pan Am by the British Overseas Airways Corporation, carried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic, making him the first head of state to cross the ocean by air. Churchill had journeyed to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt following Pearl Harbor. Instead of spending a week at sea to return home, Churchill decided to risk the 18-hour flight from Bermuda to Plymouth. Germany scrambled a Luftwaffe squadron to hunt the plane, but its efforts failed. In January 1943, under an elaborate veil of secrecy, the Dixie Clipper carried President Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic to attend the Casablanca Conference in French Morocco.

End of an Era

Before World War II, Pan Am boasted that it alone possessed the expertise to fly international routes. The war changed that as American planes dispersed across the globe. In the postwar era, despite its best efforts, Pan Am lost its monopoly on overseas routes. The war also spelled the end of the Clipper. Four Boeing 314s survived the war, but they were taken out of service at the beginning of 1946 in favor of Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed L-049 Constellation. Both planes could cover long distances and land on runways, which had sprouted as a result of wartime building programs.

Despite its short life, the Clipper helped usher in a new era of international travel and allowed Pan Am to become an aviation force around the world. Pan Am again became synonymous with glamour when the jet age led to another transformation of commercial air travel. In October 1958, Pan Am began transatlantic jet service between New York and Paris. The Boeing 707 carried 141 first and economy class passengers and logged a cruising speed of 607 miles per hour. It traveled almost four times as fast the Clipper and carried six times as many passengers.

The man who convinced Trippe to invest in jet engines? Charles Lindbergh.

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Meredith Hindley is a writer and historian living in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Humanities, The New York Times, Salon, Christian Science Monitor, Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, and Barnes and Noble Review. She is currently writing a book about Casablanca during World War II for Public Affairs Books.

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Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Brendan O’Connor