Clipper Flies Sentimental Journey : 747 Follows S. Pacific Route of Pan Am’s ‘Flying Boats’
Fifty years ago the first transpacific Clipper, a 50-ton “flying boat,” churned across San Francisco Bay and took off on a historic 8,210-mile flight to Manila.
Twenty-thousand spectators lined the shore to cheer the four-engine Martin-130 seaplane over the partially built Golden Gate Bridge on a route to Hawaii, Midway, Wake, Guam and the Philippines that would take 59 hours, 48 minutes of flying time.
On Friday, half a century later, a Pan American Boeing 747 jumbo jet with “China Clipper II” painted on the nose reenacted--in a 14 1/2-hour nostalgic flight--the journey that initiated commercial air service across the Pacific only six years before World War II.
The flight, ironically, could be the last anniversary observance of Clipper service under the Pan Am banner. United Airlines recently received Department of Transportation approval to buy Pacific routes served by Pan Am since the pioneer run of Nov. 22, 1935.
“We pioneered service in the Pacific and we plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary whether we’re still operating there or not,” Pan Am spokesman James Arey said before the flight. He said the journey was a sentimental one for the passengers and crew and many of them planned to dress in 1930s attire.
Among those aboard the special anniversary flight were author James Michener, actor John Travolta, Congressman Ben Blass of Guam and Lars Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh, the early aviator who laid out the route still flown by Pan Am’s Clippers.
The first seaplane to Manila carried only the crew and a heavy payload of 1,837 pounds of mail, but it wasn’t long before passenger service was extended all the way to Hong Kong aboard the now famous “China Clipper.”
Dispatching the historic flight from a command post in Alameda was radio operator John Cooke, who recalls the replies of “Ready!” from the Pan Am stations on the island outposts. Cooke said the weather on departure day was beautiful as the seaplane actually went under the still-unfinished Bay Bridge because of its weight.
“The day that airplane departed I was a veteran of three weeks,” said Cooke, 75, who retired from Pan Am 10 years ago and now lives in the Sierra foothills in Penn Valley. “I didn’t realize how significant the flight was at the time, but I do now.”
Taking Anniversary Flight
Cooke and his wife, Isyl, also 75, were aboard the 50th anniversary flight and were looking forward to ceremonies on Guam, where Cooke was stationed when the Japanese captured the island on Dec. 8, 1941.
“I was one of the fortunate few who escaped by airplane,” said Cooke, whose wife and two children were ordered off the island two months before the attack. Only 41 Americans escaped and 1,200 were captured by the Japanese forces.
“The women and children were evacuated off the island in October, so we were not at all surprised when the attack came,” Cooke said. “I think the only ones surprised were the American public.”
When the “China Clipper” passenger service was inaugurated to Hong Kong in 1937, one of the first tickets was issued to Carlton Morse, a noted radio personality whose classic, “One Man’s Family,” aired for 27 years. Morse bought two $1,700 round-trip tickets for himself and his wife in order to be a part of history in the making.
“I didn’t think of it as dangerous, I thought of it as an adventure,” said Morse, 84, who also wrote the radio series “I Love a Mystery,” and who still writes murder mysteries at his home in Woodside.
Submerged During Takeoff
Morse had a seat amidships on the seaplane and said the scariest time was during takeoff when the windows were submerged.
“We were underwater during takeoff, and the first few times it was frightening,” Morse said. “But, it was a beautiful, beautiful trip.”
Morse radioed back broadcasts of the flight, going on and off the air from Manila with a cheery, “Good morning, tonight,” because while it was morning in the Philippines, it was nighttime in the states.
He said the pilots navigated to the little islands and to Manila by “shooting the sun” with sextants to stay on course and land before nightfall. “It was a tremendous, tremendous effort.”
Bored at Outposts
John Boyle, who was airport manager on Midway Island at the time, said the men at the outposts were basically pretty bored, working all day to clear a landing zone among the offshore coral reefs.
“There was no pioneering spirit at the time,” he said. “It was during the Depression and we were glad to have a job. We didn’t know anything about the history, glory and glamour that would be ascribed to the Clipper flights.”
The things that stand out in his mind, Boyle said, were the hundreds of gooney birds and armies of rats from shipwrecks that inhabited the island.
“The construction crew guys built more fancy rat traps than you ever saw in your life.”