Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In researching this story, I made contact with one of the last living crew members of the Boeing 314 era, and was able to obtain and view copies of the flight log from Clipper NC 18602 on its round-the-world flight. As a young boy, I watched the famous flying boats arrive at and depart New York’s Battery Bay.

Every once in a great while, the dreamers with drawing boards, the engineers with slide rules, and the captains of industry with an ever-dawning technology come together in a moment of creative destiny to produce by that rare coupling a true masterpiece. In the field of American aviation, classic aircraft such as the North American “Mustang” in WW II, the Douglas DC-3 “Gooney Bird” which transformed air transport, and the supergiant 747 which remains a worldwide heavy-mover today stand out. If there was one such moment in the Golden Age of Flying Boats, it came in the form of the Boeing 314 “Clipper” which first flew on June 7, 1938 only to meet with an early and quiet retirement in 1946. Only 12 were ever built, and its instant of fame was fleeting. Yet all these years after its demise – a casualty of war and the passing of an era accelerated by that war – the niche it carved out for itself in the annals of transoceanic flight remains unchallenged.
In many ways, the 314 was the Boeing 747 of its day, with a wingspan of 152 feet, and passengers, cargo and crew occupying different parts of its two-level ship-like hull. Its four Wright Twin-Cyclone engines turning extra-large propellers at 1600 horse power each were beautifully fared into a high wing originally designed for the experimental XB-15 bomber which never made it into production. Its unusual fuel capacity gave it a range of nearly 4,000 miles at 180 mph. It could carry 70 passengers and a crew of 11 in daytime configuration and could sleep 45 in berths at night. Passengers ate in a formal dining room in three shifts, served by full-time stewards. Crew sleeping quarters made it possible for two sets of pilots, navigators, engineers and radio officers to work in shifts on long flights, and from the spacious flight deck, hatches on opposite sides afforded in-flight access along walkways in the thick wings to the engines themselves.
Both in the air and on the water, the Boeing design was distinctive. Gone were the usual wingtip balancing floats and all signs of reinforcing struts and guy wires. Instead, short sea wings –or sponsons - sprouted from the hull, acting both as a steadying device when taxiing or maneuvering on water, and a natural gangway for boarding and disembarking passengers. Another hallmark was the triple rudders which aided steering and stability.
The Boeing Clippers not only resembled seagoing ocean liners, but Pan American World Airways
maintained a management and operational culture just as formal as a steamship line, with captains due the
same level of respect, authority and courtesies. When on duty, crew members wore the complete uniform, including officers’ hat and tie, even during hours at the controls . Corporate rules and protocols were strictly adhered to, including the keeping of detailed flight logs, and fifteen-minute en route radio reports. B-314 flight crews endured rigorous training, cross-training and certification testing, with an emphasis on celestial navigation. In short, only the very best got to walk the flight deck of a PanAm Clipper.
On December 1, 1941, a PanAm Airways B-314 with tail number NC 18606 lifted from the waters of San Francisco bay and set a course westward on a scheduled flight to Honolulu, Hawaii. Captain Robert Ford and his crew knew they would be swapping for another plane – number NC18602, The Pacific Clipper - at Pearl Harbor before continuing on to New Zealand and then back home.
At about the same time, somewhere near the Kurile Islands in the far north Pacific, a carrier task force flying the flag of the Empire of Japan was turning south, also heading for Pearl Harbor. The approaching confluence of these two events was about to result in one of the most unusual, and long-secret dramas to emerge from World War II.
Recognizing that hostilities between the two nations could break out at any time, Pan Am’s management had delivered secret orders to its transpacific captains, a set of which was carried in a sealed envelope in Captain Bob Ford’s inner pocket. When Clipper No.18602 now in Auckland, New Zealand, found itself cut off from its normal route “home” by Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the crew looked on as Ford broke the seal. To no one’s surprise, their orders were to get the airplane back to the U.S. mainland with all possible dispatch. But NOT by flying east ! Rather than take a chance of flying right into a brand new war, they were to fly WEST. Secretly, and in total radio silence.
And so, the world’s first round-the-world flight by a commercial airliner involved a route which had to be made up as they went, without navigational aids beyond the sun, and the stars, and sometimes based on charts hand-drawn from a school geography book. With some of its legs involving 23 plus hours over water, their course took them across three oceans, five continents and twelve nations. In 31,000 miles of flight, they crossed and re-crossed the equator four times and made 22 landings, sometimes on waterways which were uncharted, and from which no aircraft of similar size and weight had ever taken off. With no more than $500. in spendable cash between them, they had to beg or purchase with questionable I.O.Us, fuel, food and temporary housing, perform engine overhauls, endure compromised engine performance because of low octane fuel at times, and escape cannon fire from an enemy submarine.
Thirty four days after its departure from New Zealand, Clipper No. 18602 landed at New York’s LaGuardia marine terminal, having written one of the most remarkable chapters in aviation history.
PanAm Captain Robert Ford passed away at his California ranch in 1994 at the age of 88.

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