Before the late 1970s, the only way you could book a flight was to go to a travel agent and ask them to book a flight for you or you could go to the local airport and ask a plane attendant to book a flight for you. Going to the airport was an adventure, since you didn’t know what you were going to encounter there. Airports were somewhat like the Wild West, with all manner of people and sounds and smells. To make things more interesting, you were likely to get lost in a big, sprawling, chaotic place that was often very humid or cold, and there are few things more frustrating than being lost in an airport .

“When Airline Travel Was an Adventure” is a blog about history and revolution.

On May 25, 1908, Orville Wright piloted the world’s first airplane to make a 100-foot-high, five-mile-long flight. Although the public was initially skeptical, the Wright brothers’ invention soon revolutionized aviation. In the decades that followed, airplanes went from being a marvel of science to a normal component of modern life. By the mid 1930s, the sky was dotted with planes—most of them piloted by trained professionals.

The huge flying boats of the 1930s and 1940s allowed passengers to travel internationally more quickly while maintaining the conveniences of a cruise ship.

Imagine boarding a magnificent winged ocean liner in the middle of the afternoon and resting as it leisurely taxis into San Francisco Bay. The behemoth accelerates with a thunderous roar from its four engines. As the spray fades, you watch through portholes. Then, very imperceptibly, there’s a sense of release as the massive flying boat breaks the surface tension of the water and soars into the air. The seat belt sign goes out shortly after you reach cruising altitude, and you are treated to the pinnacle in cruise ship luxury: drinks served in crystal and meals fit for royalty served on china. Some passengers prefer a berth on the overnight flight to Hawaii or places west. 

The clientele on these Pan American Airways Clipper flights was so exclusive that the airline provided passengers with a copy of both the crew and passenger manifest during the initial years of operation. Meanwhile, the crew’s fatigue management skills were put to the test throughout the 15- to 20-hour nocturnal journey. 

The Pan American Clippers became an essential aspect of world trade in the early to mid-1930s. From five days and four nights at sea to less than 20 hours in the air, the journey between Hawaii and the mainland was cut in half. The nearly month-long journey by ship to Manila was cut in half with 60 hours of flying. 

Juan Terry Trippe, 27, and Yale classmates and fellow pilots John Hambleton and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, along with Cornelius’ relative, William H. Vanderbilt, founded Colonial Air Transport in 1926, which eventually became Pan American Airways. Their financial motivation was a New York-Boston airmail contract, as landplanes could not carry enough people to be lucrative at the time. Colonial flew a single-engine, five-seat Fokker Universal from Boston to New York for the first time on July 1, 1926.

When Airline Travel Was an Adventure Following their first airmail delivery between Boston and New York in 1926, Juan Trippe (right) congratulates three Colonial Air Transport pilots. (Getty Images/Bettmann) )

Maj. Gen. John F. O’Ryan was named president by Trippe and his investors, who were all members of the board of directors. Trippe has been named vice president and general manager of the company. To extend the enterprise, he bought two Fokker F.VII trimotors for $37,500 each.

Shortly later, Trippe and board member John Hambleton lost two engines on one of the Fokkers during a survey trip over the Florida Keys. Trippe saw their following single-engine landing as confirmation of multiengine aircraft’s safety, but the board thought he was taking too many chances by trying to extend service. As a result, Trippe was fired from the company.

Hambleton and Whit­ney, fellow board members, sold their interests and accompanied Trippe to his next endeavor, the Aviation Corporation of the Americas. A pending postal contract for flights from Key West to Havana, Cuba was discovered by Trippe. Florida Airways, founded by World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and Reed Chambers, and Pan Ameri­can Airways Inc., a modest enterprise created by J.K. Montgomery and controlled by Major Henry “Hap” Arnold, were his main opponents.

When Airline Travel Was an Adventure In September 1928, Trippe (middle) poses with business officials and the first Sikorsky S-38 aircraft to fly scheduled mail from Miami’s Pan American Field. (Photo courtesy of the Florida State Library)

Trippe and his associates traveled to Cuba and persuaded President Gerardo Machado to grant them an exclusive flying permission, preventing all other airlines from flying into Cuban airports. With the rivalry weakened, Trippe and his associates purchased the two competing airlines and renamed them Pan American Airways. Pan American began passenger service between Key West and Havana on January 16, 1928. 

In February 1929, Trippe and J.P. Grace founded Pan American-Grace Airways, a new airline with ties to J.P. Grace’s chemical company, W.R. Grace, which was influential on the west coast of South America. Panagra, as it was known, had early success using Ford Tri-Motors on inland routes.

Ralph A. O’Neill, a WWI ace, founded NYRBA, which flew from New York to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. It was equipped with 14 Consolidated Commodore flying boats and was backed financially by several of Pan American’s founders. Because of the Commodore’s large range and payload capacity, it promised even more profit. Originally designed as a navy patrol jet, it was repurposed to carry 22 passengers on short-haul journeys, or its range could be expanded to 1,000 miles by limiting its passengers and cargo. On the seven-day, 9,000-mile journey, the flying boat soon proved commercially successful.

When Airline Travel Was an Adventure In 1936-38, Pan Am’s Sikorsky S-42 Bermuda Clipper flew the Baltimore to Bermuda route. It was renamed and transported to the Pacific before being sunk by the Japanese in Hong Kong Harbor on December 8, 1941. (Getty Images/Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives)

Trippe detested competition, and NYRBA offered severe competition for Pan American. He used his considerable political clout to launch a campaign to shut down NYRBA’s mail routes. Pan Am began obstructing NYRBA’s routes that traveled through regions it controlled, such as Cuba. 

Trippe’s efforts were successful, and NYRBA was obliged to transfer its assets to him for $2 million on September 15, 1929, resulting in a $3 million loss to stockholders. Pan Am swiftly acquired control of South America’s east and west coastline routes with the Commodores, and effectively established nonstop service connecting major metropolitan centers across the continent. 

Pan Am employed a variety of planes on its Latin American operations in the beginning. On the inland routes, the Fokker F.VII and Ford Tri-Motor were effective, although there were few airports. With plenty of rivers, lakes, and ocean surface to choose from, flying boats were an obvious choice. 

The Sikorsky S-38 amphibious sesquiplane, purchased in 1928, was the first flying boat widely used by Pan Am. Powered by twin 420-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engines, it had a crew of two and could carry eight passengers plus some mail. In February 1929 Charles Lindbergh and Hambleton (with Trippe along for the ride) inaugurated S-38 airmail service from Miami to the Panama Canal Zone. 

The 15-passenger S-41 was Sikorsky’s next aircraft, simply a stretched monoplane version of the S-38 that proved difficult to fly. “There is nothing good you can say about the S-41,” one Pan Am chief pilot said. The 38-passenger S-40, the first of which was dubbed American Clipper, was Pan Am’s first big four-engine flying boat. Only three were built, and Lindbergh described them as “flying a forest in the air” because of the complexity of wing wires, braces, and struts. 

The four-engine Sikorsky S-42 was introduced in the fall of 1934, and Pan Am bought all ten of them, naming them Clippers. The first, the Brazilian Clipper, was utilized to begin service between Miami and Rio de Janeiro. The advanced flying boat could accommodate up to 37 day travelers, with a full-time radio officer, flight mechanic, and cabin attendant on board (purser).

After Pan Am service had expanded to the Pacific, a design flaw with the S-42 involving the fuel-jettison system occurred, which was thought to have caused a tragic accident on January 11, 1938. The S-42 Samoan Clipper, piloted by Captain Edwin Musick, took off from Pago Pago with a crew of six when they spotted an engine oil leak shortly after takeoff and returned for a precautionary landing. Musick chose to discharge fuel since the flying boat had surpassed the landing weight limit. Investigators believe that the flaps were extended during the dumping, and the electric flap motor ignited the fuel, causing the plane to explode.

In 1934 Pan Am purchased 14 of Sikorsky’s 18-passenger twin-engine S-43 flying boats. First launched on June 1, 1935, the S-43 was equipped with 750-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet engines that gave it a top speed of 190 mph and a cruising speed of 166 mph. Its engines sat close together atop the 86-foot cantilever wing, which was mounted above the cabin on a short pylon. With no water rudder and close-set engines, the airplane was reportedly difficult to taxi. Yet Pan Am’s pilots liked its speed, and sometimes referred to it as the “Baby Clipper.”

When Airline Travel Was an Adventure From Dinner Key, a Pan Am twin-engine Sikorsky S-43 “Baby Clipper” takes off. (Photo courtesy of the Pan American Historical Foundation)

 Crew weariness was a major issue on Pan Am’s long overwater flights. Domestic airline pilots were limited to eight hours of flying per day and 85 hours per month under Civil Air Regulations. Pan Am, on the other hand, could operate 24 hours a day with its expanded flight crews. The captain, first officer, flight engineer, and radio officer were all relieved on a regular basis by a “third officer.” Floating among the various crew positions, this relief pilot gave a much-needed rest break during long over-ocean flights. The navigator was an outlier, standing at his post for up to 20 hours at a time. 

Trippe wanted Pan Am to portray itself as the “commercial marine of the air,” with nautical customs and history woven into every aspect of the company’s operations. The captain was aided by a first officer; distances were measured in nautical miles, and airspeed was measured in knots; and the galley was dubbed the galley, while the head was dubbed the head. “Master of Ocean Flying Boats” was the captain’s ultimate title.

Pan Am stressed professionalism while still included a showmanship element. Before each flight, the crew lingered around the airplane dockside and stood at attention at one bell. They then marched two at a time to board the plane, as is customary in the military. Passengers were escorted on board at two bells once the engines were fired and warmed up.

On October 9, 1935, the Glenn L. Martin Company delivered the first of three four-engine Martin M-130s, China Clipper, allowing Pan Am to establish transoceanic service. Originally powered by 830-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines, in 1938 they were refitted with 950-hp Twin Wasps and hydromatic propellers that changed pitch automatically. With a potential range of 4,000 miles, the M-130 carried a crew of seven and up to 43 passengers, with sleeping accommodations available for 18. The M-130’s only design flaw reportedly was its single vertical fin and rudder, which caused the big flying boat to wallow in rough air, especially when the autopilot was engaged. This tended to cause air sickness among the passengers. 

With Lindbergh on board as a consultant, it appeared appropriate for Pan Am to use the M-130 to begin transatlantic service to Europe. The British, however, refused to refuel in Bermuda to safeguard their own Imperial Airways. As a result, Trippe shifted his focus westward, established the Pacific Division to serve in the Pacific and China. 

Initial airmail operations began on November 22, 1935, from Pan Am’s Alameda Yacht Club facility in San Francisco Bay, using the M-130 and S-42. For almost a year, the airline transported goods and airmail from San Francisco to China via Honolulu, Midway, Wake Island, Guam, and Hong Kong on testing runs. A stop at Manila was later added as part of an airmail contract to the Philippines. On October 21, 1936, passenger service to Manila began with a six-day voyage. 

When Airline Travel Was an Adventure A Pan Am crew attends the christening ceremony for Hawaii Clipper, one of three large four-engine Martin M-130s built for the airline, on May 3, 1936. (Photo courtesy of the Pan American Historical Foundation)

Despite its high efficiency, all three M-130s were lost in crashes. On July 28, 1938, while en route from Guam to Manila, the Hawaii Clipper vanished without a trace. The remaining two aircraft were acquired by the US Naval Air Transport Service after World War II broke out, but they were operated by Pan Am pilots. The Philippine Clipper was lost during a journey from Hawaii to San Francisco on January 21, 1943, with Rear Adm. Robert H. Eng­lish and his crew on board. When the Clipper arrived at San Francisco, the winds and visibility were too severe to risk landing, so the captain chose to stay in the air until the weather changed. However, the winds carried him over land, and when he dropped over what he mistook for the ocean, the M-130 collided with a mountain northwest of San Francisco, killing all 19 aboard. 

The China Clipper was hit by a nocturnal glassy water landing attempt at Port of Spain, Trinidad, on January 18, 1945. The copilot, who was piloting the plane, overestimated its altitude above the calm, black lake surface and failed to reduce his rate of descent, according to investigators. When the flying boat hit the sea, it split in half and sank quickly. Seven of the thirty people on board, including the copilot, survived.

The Boeing 314 was the last and best of the American-built flying boat airliners. It was the world’s first widebody airplane, capable of carrying 74 people and a crew of ten. On July 21, 1936, Pan Am signed a contract for six B-314s at a cost of $668,908 apiece, with an option for six more. The first six planes were powered by Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone engines with 1,500 horsepower. The first aircraft was delivered in mid-February 1939, after the inaugural test flight on June 7, 1938. 

The first 314 departed Seattle on February 19 after four days of crew familiarization. It was transferred to Baltimore, Pan Am’s Atlantic Division base, when the British and French agreed to transatlantic service. Eleanor Roosevelt christened the plane Yankee Clipper on March 3, and it took off from Baltimore through the Azores on March 26 for the first survey journey to Europe. On May 20, Dixie Clipper launched the first regular transatlantic passenger service, and on June 28, Revenue airmail services to Europe commenced. 

The first six planes were delivered in June 1939. Trippe acquired the option for the remaining six 314s somewhere in the summer of 1939. Pan Am received the first modified 314A, equipped with 1,600-hp Double Wasp engines, in March 1941. The first six were later converted to 314As. The extra horsepower allowed for the addition of three passenger seats, bringing the total number of passengers to 74 for the day or 34 for the night.

Three Pan Am Clippers were scattered throughout the Pacific after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Captain Bob Ford was en route to Auckland, New Zealand, when the 314A Pacific Clipper was hijacked and flown back to the United States through Australia, Java, Ceylon, Bahrain, the Belgian Congo, Brazil, and New York City. Captain John H. Hamilton had left Wake Island in the M-130 Philippine Clipper for Guam, but had been called back and was on the water at Wake when the Japanese attacked. The Clipper left with 70 people on board and 97 bullet holes, but they made it home safely. 

When Airline Travel Was an Adventure The Pacific Clippers wore a camouflage paint scheme on the Boeing 314 Anzac Clipper during World War II. (Getty Images/Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection)

When Captain Harry L. Turner learned of the attack, he was on a scheduled trip from San Francisco to Hawaii in the 314A Anzac Clipper. The flight would have been in the middle of the attack if he had arrived on time, but it had left 40 minutes late. Turner’s daughter was doing her first piano performance in Oakland, and he took his time listening to her first piece. Then he ran into severe traffic on his way to Treasure Island, where Pan Am was situated. These elements, combined with a lengthy pre-flight briefing on Japan’s anxieties, saved the trip from potential disaster.

Pan Am had six Boeing 314s based at North Beach close to LaGuardia Field for Atlantic operations and three on the West Coast by 1943, when the 12 Boeing 314s were delivered. The other three were sold to the British for use by BOAC, the country’s new national airline. Pan Am’s Pacific Division was absorbed into the Naval Air Transport Service after the commencement of hostilities.

The sole 314 accident occurred as a direct result of the calm water “mirror effect” that resulted in the loss of the China Clipper. Captain R.O.D. Sullivan was maneuvering to land Yankee Clipper on the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal, shortly after dusk on February 22, 1943. However, he lost depth perception because to the dark, crystalline water. The enormous flying boat fell after a wing tip allegedly struck the surface. 24 of the 39 passengers and crew members on board were killed. 

The flying boats’ days were numbered as the postwar Marshall Plan funded the construction of huge international airports in Europe’s main cities and the expanding availability of long-range, high-capacity landplanes. The military had a large number of excess DC-3 (C-47) and DC-4 (C-54) transports towards the end of the war. The B-314 was dated while the four-engine Lockheed Constellation was nearing certification.

Pan Am’s last planned flight in the famous Boeing Clipper was piloted by Captain William M. Masland. It was late December 1945 in Lisbon, and everyone wished they could spend Christmas in New York. Due to the cold, it was necessary to travel the long way home, via Africa, South America, and the West Indies. They arrived in New York at 2 a.m. on the 24th after flying three days and most of three nights and stopping only for fuel. “Only the night watchman met us,” Masland remembered. “There were no flags, bands, or speeches; just the night watchman going about his business. There has never been a more solemn conclusion to a bold and magnificent era.”  


John Lowery, a frequent contributor, served as a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Additional reading includes James Trautman’s Pan American Clippers: The Golden Age of Flying Boats and Roy Allen’s The Pan Am Clipper: The History of America’s Flying Boats 1935–1945.

This article first published in Aviation History’s May 2023 edition. Today is the last day to subscribe!

On July 14, 1930, a strange sight unfolded at the corner of Washington and Madison streets in the heart of San Francisco. That summer, the world’s first commercial airline, the Boeing Air Transport (BATA) operated by Richard H. Reid, took off from Burlingame, California.. Read more about when did air travel start and let us know what you think.

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