In June of 1939, 22 high-profile intrepid passengers embarked on a giant flying boat moored in New York. Its final destination was Marseille, France, via the Azores and Lisbon for refueling. This route would become the very first transatlantic service. The giant seaplane that would lead the way was produced by Boeing and was named the Boeing 314 Clipper. Because these flying machines were often closer to boats than they were to airplanes, the commander was called the skipper, a term usually reserved to ship commanders.
In the late 1930s, Boeing produced a total of 12 Model 314 Clippers of which six were ordered by Pan Am. Using two distinct routes, Pan Am operated the first commercial transatlantic service. The southern route ran from New York to Marseille via the Azores and Lisbon. And the northern route followed a path from New York to Southampton via Newfoundland and Ireland.
Pan American World Airways had its eyes on the Atlantic routes since the mid-1930s but was facing two very different challenges. The first challenge was technological: in the mid 1930s, several constructors were in a race to develop the next generation of transatlantic airliners. Pan Am even promised to offer a $50,000 USD prize for the winning design, but none of the designs presented before the Boeing 314 were deemed suitable for the luxury long-range services intended by Pan Am.
The second challenge was political: the British didn’t want the Americans to get a head-start, let alone build a monopoly on transatlantic routes. So they systematically refused to grant landing rights to Pan Am, not only in Britain, but also in other British-controlled Atlantic steppingstones such as Atlantic Canada or Bermuda.
As a result, Atlantic crossings were made impossible for Pan Am, which ended up having to negotiate an agreement with the British government. According to that agreement, the British would not grant landing rights to Pan Am before Imperial Airways, the British flag career at the time, was also able to commence similar services. What followed was one of the first large-scale principles of reciprocity in aviation history. However, the agreement also had a side effect of eliminating airline competition from France, Holland and Germany.
To launch its transatlantic services, Pan Am had to invest colossal amounts of money to build a huge network of refueling stations and bases on islands as well as along the coast of the Atlantic. Pan Am’s transatlantic services eventually took off during the summer of 1939, using the Boeing 314 Clipper. Travelling from New York to Europe by air on a giant seaplane in the late 1930s was an experience like no other before in the aviation industry.
Passengers embarked at the brand-new Marine Terminal at La Guardia airport and climb aboard an opulent machine, which would be their home for the next 30 hours at least. The Pan Am Boeing 314 could carry up to 74 passengers and 10 crew. In an overnight configuration, the ship could only accommodate 40 guests in seven different luxury compartments, including a private “honeymoon suite” at the tail end of the airplane.
Guests on the Clipper enjoyed a dining room where white-coated stewards served 6-course meals prepared onboard by renowned chefs. The dining room featured white linen tablecloths, crystal glasses and around-the-clock waiter service. About 300 pounds of food were loaded on the aircraft for each transatlantic flight. Men and women also had separate dressing rooms and enjoyed a good night’s sleep in oversized beds. When they woke up, they had breakfast in bed and saw that their shoes had been cleaned and polished overnight.
The standard fare for transatlantic crossing on a Pan Am clipper in the late 1930s was $675 USD, roughly $14,000 USD in today’s money.
Piloting and navigating such a giant ship with 1930s technology over long distances was no easy task. The aircraft was equipped with a celestial observation turret on the top of the fuselage, where the navigator was positioned to constantly check the flying boat’s position against the sun and the stars. In fact, the flight deck of the clipper was very similar to the helm of a large cruise ship. It was huge and manned by up to 11 crew including pilots, navigators, engineers and radio operators. The wings didn’t contain any fuel and were thick enough to allow access to the engines through a walkway where engineers could perform repairs in-flight. Between June 1939 and June 1941, engineers performed no less than 431 successful in-flight repairs.
Given the complexity of the airplane, its temperamental engines and the difficult navigation, only the very best and most experienced Pan Am crews were awarded a position on the Boeing 314. What’s more, this was only after following months of intensive training. In conditions of poor or no visibility, pilots sometimes had to land in high seas and then making a slow sailing approach in fogged-in harbors. As a result, rigorous training in dead reckoning, judging drift from sea current, celestial navigation and radio navigation was provided.
As scheduled overseas transatlantic services between the United States and Europe soared, the fall of France in 1940 caused some doubts about whether transcontinental services could continue. Passenger numbers dwindled and Pan Am cancelled some additional Boeing 314 orders. They also sold three Clippers under construction to British Overseas Airways Corporation.
In December 1941, the Pacific Clipper was en-route from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand. The aircraft and crew conducted a stopover in Pearl Harbor just a few days before the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Clipper was on the final leg of its journey and about to land in Auckland when the crew received the terrible news. To avoid being shot down over Pacific waters by enemy forces, Pan Am headquarters instructed the crew to fly back to America westbound, by flying over the Far East, Africa and the Atlantic. That flight made aviation history by being the first commercial flight to complete a flight around the Globe, albeit accidentally.
During the war, most Clippers were converted into military troop transport airplanes or bombers. At the end of World War II, the remaining Clippers were returned to their civil operators to resume passenger operations. Unfortunately, by that time, they were obsolete. The flying boat’s main operating advantage was that it didn’t require a long concrete runway to take-off. During the war however, many long runways had been built to allow heavy bombers to take-off. As a result, the Clipper lost its comparative advantage and was soon replaced.
Sadly enough, all of the 12 clippers ever produced were either lost during war or scrapped following their decommission. Apart from archive pictures and documents, there is no physical memory of this fantastic aircraft that revolutionized the aviation industry.
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