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Crew Recalls Dixie Clipper’s Flight Into History

Times Staff Writer

It was early afternoon when the crowd began to gather along the shore of Long Island’s Manhasset Bay.

By 1:30, several thousand New Yorkers were straining to catch a glimpse of the gray leviathan bobbing gently on the waves at Port Washington.

The giant flying boat, the words “Dixie Clipper” painted on her bow and “Pan American Airways System” on her fuselage, was about to take to the air on a journey into history.

The date was June 28, 1939, and the first aerial transatlantic passenger crossing soon would begin.

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Almost half a century later there are those who remember that afternoon as if it were yesterday, men who made the flight from Port Washington to Marseilles.

Gilbert B. (Gib) Blackmore is 85 and living in retirement in Tacoma, Wash. He was second in command on the historic trip. Robert Fordyce is 80 and lives in Manhattan, N.Y. He was one of the four flight officers on the Dixie Clipper.

The youngest of a trio of crew members interviewed by The Times is Stephen Kitchell, 76, of St. Augustine, Fla. Kitchell was an assistant engineer on the inaugural flight.

‘The Greatest Airplane’

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The details have become a little hazy, not surprisingly, but all three have fond memories of both the journey and the Boeing 314 aircraft.

“Oh, hell, they were wonderful, the greatest airplane of their day,” said Blackmore, who was a captain in 1939 but who was being checked out on that flight as a first officer.

Indeed, the gray Dixie Clipper was an imposing sight as it sat there waiting for its crew of 12 and 22 passengers to board. Weighing close to 42 tons, it was 109 feet long, 28 1/2 feet high and had a wingspan of 152 feet. The carrier seemed huge and ponderous, but was anything but.

“It was a beautiful airplane, either to fly in or to work on,” said Kitchell. “A super airplane.”

While Kitchell and a couple of other crew members went through their preflight checks, the Dixie Clipper waited.

Roar of Engines

First there were the ceremonies to get out of the way. Photographers busily snapped shots of crew and passengers alike; speeches were read; a band played; the passengers bid excited farewells to friends and relatives and, on the water, yachtsmen positioned themselves to see the takeoff better.

Finally, all was ready.

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The Dixie Clipper’s four giant engines coughed into life at 1:59 p.m. and it started to taxi across the bay. As the band played on and the crowd of 5,000 cheered, it rose into the sky, the roar of its engines drowning out the gun salutes from four yacht clubs and the whistles from the craft in the harbor.

In The Times the next morning, the Associated Press described the scene this way:

“With the ship’s departure at 2:12 p.m. on a 4,650-mile flight, aviation’s long-cherished dream of regular transatlantic passenger service by plane became a reality.”

Well, not immediately. It would be 42 hours and 10 minutes before Capt. Robert Oliver Daniel Sullivan landed the Dixie Clipper in the French port of Marseilles. The flying boat had, after all, a top cruising speed of only 150 m.p.h., and it had to stop for fuel along the way.

Southern Route

The name Dixie Clipper was bestowed on the plane because of the southern route it flew to Europe: first to Horta in the Azores, then on to Lisbon in Portugal, where the crew and passengers spent the night in a hotel, and finally on a curving path around the Portuguese and Spanish coasts and across the Mediterranean to Marseilles. It was not allowed to fly the overland route because the Spanish Civil War was still in progress.

(Pan Am, which had started transpacific passenger service in 1935 using the famed China Clipper, had two other flying boats on the Atlantic run: the ill-fated Yankee Clipper, which usually flew the northern route via Newfoundland and Ireland to Southampton, England, and the Atlantic Clipper.

(Twenty-five minutes after the Dixie Clipper took off from Port Washington, the Yankee Clipper landed at Southampton, thereby inaugurating regular mail service between the United States and Great Britain.)

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Because of the length of the journey--it took 15 hours and 55 minutes just to reach Horta in the Azores--a large crew was necessary, consisting of the captain, four flight officers, one engineering officer, two assistant engineers, two radio officers and two stewards.

Six Women Aboard

Female flight crew members were still an idea for the future, but there were six women among the 22 passengers, including, according to the Associated Press, “Mrs. Clara Adams of Maspeth, N.Y., a veteran of history-making flights (who) planned to keep on going after she reached Europe and to circle the world on regular passenger planes. She expected to arrive home in 16 days.”

Most of the passengers were wealthy, well-known or both. They included C. V. Whitney, the chairman of Pan Am, railroad executive W. J. Eck, who had applied eight years earlier to be on the first transatlantic passenger flight, and Louis Gimbel of Gimbel’s department store. The crew had good reason to remember the latter.

“Pan American gave all the passengers a silver cigarette case (embossed) with a facsimile of the ticket,” Kitchell said. “Mr. Gimbel was showing us his and he said, ‘What do yours look like?’ and we said, ‘Well, we didn’t get any.’ And he had them made up for each of the crew. I’ve still got mine. It has (the words) ‘First Transatlantic Passenger Flight’ and my name on it.”

1939 Timetable

Another of Kitchell’s souvenirs is a 1939 timetable for the twice-weekly Clipper flights to Europe. The one-way fare from New York, he said, was $309 to Lisbon and $375 to Marseilles.

Like today’s Concorde passengers, those who took the flight were paying for speed as much as anything. Until the Dixie Clipper came along, the fastest way across the Atlantic was aboard the Queen Mary, which had made the sea voyage in 1938 in a record 3 days, 20 hours, 42 minutes. Compared to that, 42 hours seemed a breeze.

The flying boat could carry up to 40 passengers, so the 22 aboard on this trip had more than enough room. Everything was first-class, with the interior of the aircraft paneled in wood and each compartment and the main salon having windows from which to take in the view.

‘Honeymoon Compartment’

The forward compartment just below the flight deck was the crew’s rest quarters, while the rear compartment was nicknamed the “honeymoon compartment” for reasons best not examined here.

“Everybody was so excited, even the passengers, that I don’t think they slept much,” Kitchell said.

Passengers and crew mingled freely when the latter were off duty. In those days before in-flight movies or music, there wasn’t much else to do but read, talk, write letters or play bridge or chess.

Or look forward to the next meal. The food on board was excellent--no frozen dinners then.

Before the Dixie Clipper’s first passenger-carrying flight, crew members had made several survey flights to check into optimum routes and conditions. Stewards had been sent out on those flights to find the best hotels and restaurants and the best stores to restock the galley.

“Let me tell you, we ate high off the hog on those flights,” Kitchell recalled. “They (the stewards) were first-class cooks to start with. They had to cook everything from scratch. There were no microwaves.

Just Like a Ship

“The food was terrific. You talk about French restaurants--they had it. They (the passengers) sat down at tables just like on a ship. It was quite a setup, a far cry from today.”

Did the inaugural flight produce anything out of the ordinary?

“No, nothing really,” said Fordyce. “It never did. Of course, it was not supposed to.”

Then again, what may have been routine for the crew in 1939 seems particularly strange to airline passengers half a century later.

Just the idea of traveling across the world by flying boat, of landing in the Atlantic Ocean, then on the Tagus River in Lisbon and, finally, in the harbor at Marseilles appears intriguing today.

And yet, Fordyce explained matter-of-factly, flying the Dixie Clipper “was just a matter of taking off or landing a boat, so to speak.”

By today’s technological standards, however, that “boat” was relatively primitive. Take navigation, for example. Today’s airline passengers would surely think twice about seeing flares tossed from their plane.

Celestial Navigation

“They (the flares) were used as a drift indicator,” Kitchell explained. “In other words, you’d line them up with the waves and they would tell you which way the waves were going in relation to the airplane, and that would give you your drift.

“Then of course back aft they had a dome where the navigator would take celestial sights. It was all done the old-fashioned way, just like a ship. A far cry from now.”

Communication, too, was a lot different.

“We had two radio operators on board and we kept in contact with everybody,” Blackmore said. “For the first 150 miles out we could have voice communications. After that, we were on CW (Morse code).”

Usually the Clippers would fly at about 8,000 feet. On occasion, though, they would be considerably lower.

“We had one captain who used to fly very low,” Kitchell recalled with a laugh. “One time a passenger came up and wanted to know how we checked the altitude, and he (the captain) said, ‘Oh, I just open the window and put my finger out, and if I taste salt, I climb a hundred feet.’ ”

Wave-Hopping

There was some wave-hopping on the return leg of the inaugural flight, in fact.

“We were flying at around 500 feet to keep away from the head winds,” Kitchell said, “when we saw this boat way ahead of us all lit up and everything. Then they heard the airplane and, boy, it was black. I mean they turned everything off. Of course, this was back in 1939 (when fear of war was justifiably high).”

Fordyce recalled another aspect of traveling aboard the Clippers that would also startle today’s passengers.

“They were quite a fabulous plane,” he said. “As a matter of fact, they were the only planes I’ve ever seen where somebody could walk out into the wing and change the generator on an engine.

“There were times (during a flight) when we used to do that, which was rather extraordinary. It wasn’t at all dangerous.”

Kitchell, the engineer, explained how it was done.

“You had two doors, one on each side, and you could go right out in the wing,” he said. “We crawled out on a catwalk inside the wing and changed a magneto one time. Just stopped the engine and put a new magneto on. You were right inside the airplane, you could pull the fire wall off and there was the back of the engine.”

Landing in Azores

Despite such antics, passengers seemed to feel safer crossing the ocean in a flying boat than they might have in a conventional aircraft, Kitchell said.

“If we had been forced down in the ocean, we would probably not have lasted too long,” he said. “But the fact that you took off from water and landed on water was just a confidence builder. Today, a 747 would float much longer.”

The first leg of the flight ended with an ocean landing in the Azores between the islands of Faial and Pico. It went without a hitch on the inaugural flight, but sometimes the waves caused difficulties.

“A lot of times the swells were so big that it was real bad,” Kitchell said. "(But) the captain on that trip, Sullivan, was an expert in taking off and landing in swells. He had a knack of just riding those swells until all of a sudden he’d call back to us, ‘Give us the power,’ and we’d give him full power and off we’d go. But he had a knack, a sixth sense of feeling the swells as we came in.”

(It is one of history’s small ironies that it was Sullivan, the pilot with the sixth sense about water landings, who crashed the Yankee Clipper while landing on the Tagus in Lisbon less than four years later.

(The accident caused two dozen deaths, but among those passengers who were rescued was singer/actress Jane Froman, whose battle to recover from her injuries later became the subject of the 1952 film “With a Song in My Heart.”)

Turnout in Lisbon

After a 1-hour, 24-minute refueling stop in Horta (the 4,200 gallons of fuel aboard were not enough for the whole trip) the Dixie Clipper took off again, this time for Lisbon, where it arrived 6 hours, 44 minutes later.

“There was a big turnout when we arrived in Lisbon,” Kitchell recalled. “There was a band, and the mayor was there and there were probably other dignitaries. They had a big banquet that night for everybody.”

Refreshed by the layover of 1 hour, 26 minutes, the crew and passengers set off on the morning of June 30 on the last leg to Marseilles, landing at the harbor there at 1:21 p.m. local time.

In all, the historic journey had taken 42 hours, 10 minutes, including 29 hours and 20 minutes of flying time.

Looking back now, 50 years later, Fordyce, Kitchell and Blackmore would not have missed it for the world.

“It was an interesting time,” Kitchell said. “People missed a lot who didn’t get involved in that.”

“Yes,” agreed Blackmore, “it was fun while it lasted.”


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