Saturday, March 23, 2013

Around The World The Hard Way

On December 2, 1941, a Boeing 314 seaplane departed Treasure Island, California. Called the Pacific Clipper, the plane and its ten crew members were under the command of a veteran Pan Am captain, Robert Ford. They were scheduled to make a round-trip commercial passenger flight to Auckland, New Zealand. Along the way to Auckland, the plane proceeded with scheduled stops in San Pedro, California; Honolulu, Hawaii; Kanton Island, Kiribati; Suva, Fiji; and finally Noumea, New Caledonia. 

Treasure Island in 1939.
The island is man-made, created off the coast of San Francisco between 1936 and 1937.
Source: Wikipedia.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Pacific Clipper left New Caledonia for Auckland. A few hours into the flight, Radio Operator John Poindexter received a coded message: the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The Pacific Clipper crew (and the rest of the United States) were now effectively at war. The clipper was not armed, so the crew could only hope to avoid an encounter with Japanese forces. They turned off the radio and steered a few dozen miles off their planned route. Two crew members were stationed in the navigation cupola at the top of the fuselage to watch for Japanese aircraft. Captain Ford took out his revolver.

Tiny Kanton Island. Before the jet travel era, it was a common refueling station for commercial and military flights.
Back then, it had a population of over 1,000. Nowadays, the population is less than 50.
Source: Wikipedia.

Fortunately, no attack came, and the plane landed safely in Auckland a few hours later. But that left a larger issue to resolve: what would happen to the clipper?

The Pacific Clipper was owned and operated by Pan Am, and its crew were all civilians. But the plane was a valuable military asset. Only twelve such seaplanes existed in the whole world. Their engine design was quite advanced; and they were the only aircraft with such heavy-lift, long-distance, and high-speed capabilities belonging to the Axis or Allies. While a propeller-driven seaplane that must make refueling stops to travel between California and New Zealand may seem primitive in 2013, back in 1941 it was cutting edge. If necessary, the clipper crew would have to destroy the plane to keep it out of enemy hands. Ideally, though, they could return it safely to the U.S. so it would be able to contribute to the war effort.

On the flight deck of a Boeing 314.
Source: The Flying Boat Forum.

Upon arrival in Auckland, Captain Ford sent a message home via the local U.S. consulate, asking what to do with the clipper. But the U.S.'s imminent entry into World War Two meant that hundreds of coded messages were flooding the consulate. It took a full week for backlogged staff to decode Captain Ford's instructions: he was told to bring the plane home safely to the U.S.

A Pan Am Clipper over San Francisco.

This presented a problem. The Pacific Clipper could not just retrace its path back east to California. The Japanese had effectively cut off that route, as so many small islands throughout the South Pacific were now under attack or under evacuation orders. That left one alternative: Captain Ford and his crew were to head west instead of East. This would mean a 23,000 mile trip, circumnavigating a world at war.

Winston Churchill aboard a Boeing 314 during the war.
He traveled to the U.S. aboard a clipper several times during the war.
Source: Wikipedia.

Given the situation, the clipper crew would be without ground support for much of this long trip. Pam Am staff in Aukland would help them pick their route home, choosing bodies of water they could land in, but it would be up to the clipper crew to procure spare parts and fuel along the way. There would be no weather forecasts (no weather satellites, too, of course!) and no military escort. Before leaving Aukland, a local Pam Am staffer, Bill Mullahey, collected all the navigational charts, maps, and even geography textbooks that he could find, and he and Ford planned the route. The crew painted over the plane's Pam Am logo and serial number in gray camouflage.

The forward compartments in a Boeing 314 model cutaway.
At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at Dulles.

Before setting out for home, the clipper needed to retrace its steps a bit, to evacuate Pan Am staff and their families from New Caledonia (which never fell to Axis powers, though it did become key to the allied war effort in the South Pacific). On December 16, the Pacific Clipper flew back to Noumea. Upon landing, Captain Ford gave local Pan Am staff and their families one hour to pack. Then, with the twenty-two passengers aboard, the plane headed to Gladstone, Australia. From there, the next day the clipper crossed Australia, landing in Darwin, in the northwest of the country. The crew fueled the plane, slept for four hours, and set off again, bound for Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

Surabaya today. The city was occupied by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945.

On approach to Surabaya, four British fighter aircraft flew out to meet the Clipper. Over the radio, Poindexter could hear the fighter pilots talking among themselves, trying to figure out what to make of this unmarked, never-before-seen plane. The clipper's radio wasn't working quite right, so Poindexter couldn't hail them. Several tense minutes passed while the British pilots debated what to do. Eventually one of them spotted the faint outline of the painted-over American flag on the plane's tail, and they decided not to attack. Instead the four fighter planes escorted the clipper till it landed in the mined waters off of Surabaya. That evening, Captain Ford encountered the pilots in the officer's mess. He recalled later that the four were very young and very trigger-happy. The Pacific Clipper's crew was lucky not to be shot down that day.

Center section of a Boeing 314.

In Surabaya, the crew encountered their first mechanical challenge. Clippers were built to run on 100 octane aircraft fuel, but there wasn't any 100 octane gas available in Surabaya, so the plane had to be refueled with just automobile gasoline. According to Captain Ford, "we took off from Surabaya on the 100 octane, climbed a couple of thousand feet, and pulled back the power to cool off the engines ... then we switched to the automobile gas and held our breaths. The engines almost jumped out of their mounts, but they ran."

The aft compartments in a Boeing 314 model cutaway.

The clipper made it safely to the harbor at Trincomalee, Celyon (nowadays Sri Lanka). Flying under the cloud cover so that they would not miss the island, the Pacific Clipper accidentally buzzed a Japanese submarine patrolling off shore. The submarine crew was out sunning themselves, and they scrambled to anti-aircraft gun when they saw the clipper. Ford pointed the nose up and throttled the engine, climbing out of range.

Buffet dinner aboard a pre-war clipper.
Source: The Flying Boat Forum.

The Pacific Clipper left Trincomalee on Christmas Eve, and almost immediately one of the engines started leaking oil. The crew turned the plane around and headed back to the harbor. The two flight engineers, Swede Rother and Jocko Parish, took apart the broken engine and fixed it, using tools borrowed from a British warship in the harbor. The plane set off for Karachi, India (now Pakistan) on Christmas day, flying across the subcontinent and landing safely. The crew got a few nights' rest at the Carleton Hotel in Karachi, setting off for Bahrain on December 28.

The flight deck of a Boeing 314.
Source: The Flying Boat Forum.

Upon landing safely in Bahrain, the crew again couldn't obtain 100 octane aircraft fuel, and had to refuel using automobile gasoline instead. They set off across the Arabian Peninsula, with the engines knocking and sputtering, and landed on the Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. The Pacific Clipper couldn't head north from there, since that would take the plane right into the middle of the war. They couldn't head due west, since a long trip across the water-less Sahara desert would have been too risky. Instead, the Pacific Clipper headed southwest to the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). They had some engine trouble soon after take-off, but decided to press on, since there weren't spare parts in Khartoum anyway.

A Boeing 314 operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation.
Source: Wikipedia.

The crew navigated across Africa by matching rivers and other landmarks to features on their maps, landing on the Congo River in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) on New Year's Day. Pan Am ground crew greeted the Pacific Clipper crew with cold beers, "one of the high points of the whole trip," according to Captain Ford!

The catwalk inside of Boeing 314 wing.
Source: The Flying Boat Forum.

The next leg of the journey, across the Atlantic, was by far the longest, so the Pacific Clipper was filled to the brim with fuel when it took off from the Congo River. The heavier-than-usual, fuel-laden aircraft lifted out of the water slowly, just before it would have plummeted over a waterfall at the end of the "runway." Captain Ford steered the craft along the African coast for a little while, monitoring the engines to make sure everything was running smoothly. Satisfied that it was running fine, he steered the clipper out over the Atlantic. 3,583 miles and just under 24 hours later the plane landed in the harbor at Natal, Brazil. There, they refueled and were robbed, loosing their maps and all the various currencies they'd collected from the stops along the way. The clipper spent just four hours in Natal before departing for Port of Spain, Trinidad.

A stewardess in the galley of a pre-war Boeing 314.
Source: The Flying Boat Forum.

Trinidad to New York was the last leg of the trip. On the morning of January 6, 1942, air traffic control at La Guardia in Long Island, New York received a radio message: "Pacific Clipper, inbound from Auckland, New Zealand, Captain Ford reporting. Due to arrive Pan American Marine Terminal LaGuardia seven minutes." The Pacific Clipper had made it home, flying 31,5000 miles since it left Treasure Island!

The entire 31,500 mile long route.

What became of the Pacific Clipper and the other Boeing 314s after 1941? During World War 2, the planes often flew military missions, while crewed by civilian Pan Am employees. A clipper flew President Roosevelt to the 1943 Casablanca Conference; they made military flights from the U.S. to locations as distant as Russia and Liberia. Nine of the twelve planes survived the war intact. By the time the war ended, the clippers were no longer cutting-edge craft they were in 1941. Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s rendered seaplanes obsolete.

A DC-4. Looks pretty much like any modern airplane, doesn't it?
Source: Wikipedia.

The U.S. Navy bought the Pacific Clipper from Pan Am in 1946; then sold it to Universal Airlines. Soon after that, it was damaged in a storm and sold for parts. In fact, all of the remaining clippers were sold for scrap by 1951, and none exist today. Aircraft technology was evolving so quickly at that point that the Boeing 314s had become out-of-fashion relics, apparently not thought to be worth preserving in a museum.

Sources: Pacific Clipper's Round-the-World Flight; Wikipedia; Patterico; Smithsonian AirSpace Blog; Flying Clippers.


  1. A great bit of history. Thank you so much. :-P

    1. Thanks! It's such a neat adventure- I'm surprised no one has made the Pacific Clipper's story into a movie!

    2. I hope somebody does. Will be one to not miss. Tom Hanks as Capt. Ford sounds about right

  2. Your blog posts are articles worthy of a Smithsonian magazine column. I would love to see any recent writing.

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