December 17th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 49
Looking Back - John Kinnear
When Flying Boats were King
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
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Sikorsky s42 - First commercial flying boat for Pan Am - first trans-Pacific flight to Honolulu in 1935.
Before the advent of the first long range airliners like the Lockheed Constellation and the Douglas DC-4, (around the end of the Second World War), there was a very different way to cross the Atlantic or the Pacific in an airliner. That would be in spectacularly huge flying boats.
A very different and a helluva lot more comfortable way to travel over the seas by air than today. It is unfortunate that these marvellous long-range flying boats like the Boeing 314, also known as Clippers, became obsolete just after the close of the war. In their day they were the ultimate in transoceanic flying and offered a level of luxury that was unprecedented in air travel.
As with any aircraft development there is always a story of demand and opportunity and such was the case with flying boats. The main driver behind their development and adaptation was a nautical-minded man named Juan Trippe whose family had amassed a fortune centuries earlier from sailing Clipper ships. Trippe was responsible for several innovations in the airline world and was a firm believer in the idea of air travel for all.
His beginnings go back to the development in 1927 of intercontinental floatplane mail delivery to places like Havana, Cuba, South America and eventually to the Republic of China. The company that evolved in this effort was none other than Pan American Airways, commonly known as Pan Am.
His fleet planes were of course equipped with giant pontoons so as to take off and land on water and the idea was, like their maritime namesakes, to make use of the oceans to form a vast global network of air routes. With concrete runways being expensive and rare in the 1930’s it was logical and prudent to take advantage of the world's free and plentiful oceans as their runways.
The first Pan Am Clipper introduced was the Sikorsky S-42. Launched in August of 1934, the S-42 first began service in Pan Am's six-day Miami to Buenos Aires route. Although the Sikorsky could accommodate up to 32 passengers, the S-42's 1,200 mile range wouldn't stretch the needed distance without help from additional fuel tanks.
To make the longer distances required by Trippe, Pan Am next introduced the second version of the Clipper, the Martin M-130. Launched with much fanfare, the first M-130, named the China Clipper, first flew across the Pacific in late 1935. The following year it offered passenger service on the over 8,000 mile, week-long trip to Hong Kong. The three M-130's put into service each carried between five to eight crew members and as many as 46 passengers.
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That 8,000 mile trip went from San Francisco to Honolulu then to the stepping-stone islands of Midway, Wake, and Guam, then to Manila and on to Hong Kong. Wow, that would be like being on a cruise ship without the sea sickness! I got to thinking about the pilots and crew on these long junkets and had a look at their training. Here is what I found.
The flight crew’s proficiency was critical and they were rigorously trained in long-distance flight, seaplane anchorage and berthing operations, over-water navigation, radio procedure, aircraft repair, and marine tides. During the day, use of the compass while judging drift from sea currents was normal procedure; at night, all flight crews were trained to use celestial navigation. They used dead reckoning and timed turns in bad weather, making successful landings at fogged-in harbors by landing out to sea, then taxiing the plane into port. (Thereby providing a nice harbour tour!)
A Pan Am flight captain normally began his career years earlier as a radio operator or even mechanic, steadily gaining his licenses and working his way up the flight crew roster to navigator, second officer, and first officer. Before World War II it was not unusual for a captain to make engine repairs at remote locations. That last responsibility might make a few passengers, including me, a tad nervous!
The third and largest of Pan Am's flying boats was the Boeing 314 introduced in 1939 for the Pacific route and a year later they were flying the Atlantic. It wasn’t until thirty years later with the arrival of the 747 that a commercial plane would surpass the 314 in size. It could carry up to 74 passengers during day flights while offering sleeping accommodations for up to 36 passengers. Unlike today's commercial planes, the 314 - as well as the other Clippers - were divided into several luxurious cabin compartments including a stateroom, dressing rooms, and men's and women's restrooms. The 314 featured a separate dining room where passengers were served full-course meals. The galleys were crewed by chefs from four-star hotels and white-coated stewards served five and six-course meals with silver service no less!
So what hauled all this luxury over the waves? Four 1,600 horsepower Pratt and Whitney radial engines and fuel tanks that held 16,000 liters. Eventually the 314 was modified (314A) to carry yet another 4,500 liters of fuel and larger-diameter propellers giving them a 4,700 mile range.
When America entered into World War II, Pan Am's fleet of Clippers were quickly put into military service. The planes' long-distance range, combined with its tremendous storage capacity, was really important during the war. After the war ended, worldwide expansion of airports with new and improved concrete runways led to the Clipper fleet's ultimate demise.
An interesting note is that in 1943 Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to travel on official business in an airplane. German U-boats had made marine traffic treacherous so FDR flew to Casablanca in North Africa for an important wartime meeting with Churchill. The top secret and circuitous trip took four days and went from Florida to the Caribbean to Brazil and then across the Atlantic to Gambia and on to Casablanca. On returning he celebrated his 61st birthday in the air over Haiti. The marvellous craft that FDR flew in was a Boeing 314 known as the Dixie Clipper and it was dubbed Clipper One which started the tradition that carries on today as Air Force One.
December 17th ~ Vol. 84 No. 49
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