Aboard a Flying Machine

A clipper ship is a three-masted, full-rigged ship built for speed. Pan Am borrowed the name of this sea-going vessel when it christened its fleet of airplanes.
Alameda Naval Air Museum

Aboard a Flying Machine

Pan American World Airways fleet at Alameda Airport consisted of three M-130, “flying ships” that their builder, the Glenn L. Martin Company, called “Martin Ocean Transports.” In keeping with a Pan Am tradition, the planes had the word “Clipper” in their names.

The airline dubbed M-130s “The Hawaiian Clipper,” “The Philippine Clipper” and “The China Clipper.” The Clipper name was the brain child of Pan Am founder Juan Trippe, who felt the flying boats shared a close relationship with large, speedy 19th century clipper ships.

“China Clipper” became the generic name, which applied to all three of these planes. The 1936 film China Clipper with Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart helped cement the name in the American psyche. Bogart’s line in the movie, “China Clipper calling Alameda,” reminded movie-goers that the famous plane did not take off from San Francisco, as the press widely reported.

Martin’s M-130s called Alameda Airport home until 1938, when Pan Ammoved its operations to Treasure Island.

While “The China Clipper” was the last of the three flying boats off Martin’s assembly line, it was the first to take to the skies. The plane made its maiden voyage on Dec. 30, 1934. “The China Clipper” also made Pan Am’s first commercial flight to the Far East, taking off from Alameda Airport on Nov. 29, 1935, a fete memorialized in the film made the following year.

Martin was not the only manufacturer to see Clippers roll off its assembly line. The company only built three of these 25 planes.

Russian immigrant Igor Sikorsky and Boeing also saw their creations put in service as Clippers. Sikorsky built the first “The American Clipper” in 1931. In all, the company, founded by Sikorsky, and his workers built 10 Clippers. In fact, Pan Am used a Sikorsky Clipper to survey the route that “The China Clipper” took out of Alameda Airport in 1935.

Boeing got into the game in 1938, relatively late, and manufactured 12 of these flying boats. Boeing’s creations were the largest. In fact their size went unrivaled until the coming of Boeing’s Jumbo Jet in 1974. The era of Pan Am Clippers ended with the retirement of the last of Boeing’s Clippers in 1951.

The first of the three Clippers that Martin built, “The Hawaiian Clipper,” disappeared while flying from Guam to Manila on July 28, 1938. The second, the “The Philippine Clipper,” crashed into a mountain at Booneville, Calif., about 100 miles north of San Francisco on Jan. 21, 1943.

“The China Clipper” crashed and sank while attempting to make a night landing in the waters off Trinidad on Jan. 8, 1945. The plane departed Dinner Key off Miami at 6:10 a.m. as Flight 161 to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo. The flying boat landed at San Juan Harbor in Puerto Rico, at 2:43 p.m. After refueling Flight 161 took off from San Juan at 4:04 p.m. bound for Port of Spain, Trinidad.

The wind was calm in Trinidad and, according to the accident investigation report “lights to mark the landing area on the surface of the water were laid out on a 70 degree course. The captain (Leonard W. Cramer) acting as first officer in the left hand seat, approached the landing area too high.”

He circled for a second attempt. This time, about 9:15 p.m., he descended too low and hit the water too early. This brought “The China Clipper” to an abrupt stop.

The force of the stop broke the plane’s hull in two. Water poured into the cabin, and the plane sank, drowning 23 of the 30 people aboard; three crew members, including Captain Cyril A. Goyette, who was in command of the aircraft, and four passengers, including a seven-year-old girl, survived the mishap.

The Clippers are gone now, all relegated to the scrap heap.

Contact Dennis Evanosky at editor@almedasun.com