Tuesday, January 12, 2010



In the years between the two great World Wars, aviation rapidly came of age, and as ever more powerful aircraft engines became available, the potential of commercial air travel became a driving force in all of the industrial nations. Crossing the Atlantic by the fastest seagoing passenger liners of the day was still a five-day affair, and the vastness of the Pacific defied easy solution for all but the most committed. As technologies brought together larger air frames and matching power plants, multi-engine aircraft made it more and more profitable to establish regular passenger service between major cities, and commercial carriers began to serve the traveling public as well as to transport mail and cargo.
The oceans still presented a barrier to that growth. To carry sufficient fuel to feed two, three or four hungry engines for a three or four thousand mile flight, and enough passengers to make it feasible in the first place meant larger airplanes. And industry had long since been capable of building those. The problem was that not many destinations possessed runways of sufficient length and engineering standards to accommodate them.
Seaplanes of one kind or another had been around since the very earliest days of aviation history; usually float planes on pontoons, or even amphibians which had the virtue of being able to land and take off on either land or water, and a handful of manufacturers had continued to pursue these duel-capability craft. The “flying boat”, however, was a creature unique in both design and operation. It was built around a fuselage which was basically a water-tight hull, much like that of a sea-going ship. Moreover, a true flying “boat” obviated the need for land-based runways and their associated operational costs.
By the dawning of the 1930s, Italy’s Savoia-Marchetti, and Germany’s Dornier were well along with designs no longer inhibited by the constraints of such considerations, and an American dreamer named Juan Trippe was already thinking about an airline operation without borders. Trippe envisioned a world-wide airline system which would offer regular scheduled service across the Atlantic, down the coast of Central and South America, and even to the far-flung Pacific frontier – all built around a fleet of yet-to-be-built flying boats offering a level of customer luxury rivaling sea-going ocean liners.
One of the first aircraft designers to be captivated by this idea was an immigrant from Russia named Igor Sikorsky, who had escaped the 1917 revolution, and who had been experimenting with seaplanes. It was Sikorsky’s S-40 which became the first true “flying boat” in the stable of famous aircraft which would make Juan Trippe’s Pan American World Airline company a commercial pace-setter for decades to come.
Story has it that it was on an early demonstration flight when Trippe was talking to his guest, Charles Lindbergh aboard the new S-40, that the plan for using the log books of old clipper ship captains from the age of sail in setting up a navigation system arose. From that moment on, PanAm would name each of its yet-to-be-born trans-oceanic flying boats “Clippers”.
Besides Sikorsky, the Martin Company and the infant Seattle-based Boeing Company would be asked to submit designs and bids. Martin won the bidding competition with their model 130 (which they underbid, to their eventual misfortune). Thus the first “clipper”, the famous China Clipper was a Martin 130, inaugurating mail service to Manila, Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam under the command of Captain Edwin C. Musick, in November, 1935. In October of 1936, the same “Clipper” would carry passengers in unprecedented luxury along the same route while the whole world watched. The first nine passengers each paid $1,438.20 in 1936 dollars for the round trip. That same year Humphrey Bogart and Pat O’Brian starred in a film named for the famous flying boat.

The original Sikorsky S-42 with its distinctive twin rudders, soon to be eclipsed by history and the coming of the mighty Boeing 314 flying boat, which stars in PART II of this story.

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