About Those Flying Machines

The story of the M-130 seaplanes that once called Alameda home

A Pan American World Airways ground crew waits as mechanics inspect one of the China Clipper’s engines. A photographer took this photograph at Alameda Ariport on Nov. 21, 1935. The following day the China Clipper made Pan Am’s maiden voyage to Manila.

irport home until 1938, when Pan American Airways moved 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 fly. The plane made its maiden voyage on Dec. 30, 1934. The China Clipper also made the Clippers’ first commercial flight to the Far East, taking off from Alameda Airport on Nov. 22, 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 the 25 Clippers that "sailed" the skies for Pan Am.

Sikorsky and Boeing also saw their creations put in service as Clippers. Sikorsky built the first American Clipper in 1931. In all, the company, founded by Russian immigrant Igor Sikorsky, 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, carried passengers and mail until 1938. It disappeared while flying from Guam to Manila on July 28, 1938. The second, The Philippine Clipper, survived five years longer. It crashed into a mountain at Booneville, Calif., about 100 miles north of San Francisco on Jan. 21, 1943.

The China Clipper crashed and sank 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 lights to mark the landing area on the surface of the water were laid out on a 70 degree course. The captain, acting as first officer in the left hand seat, approached the landing area too high.

He circled for a second attempt. This time 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.

The Clippers are gone, all relegated to the scrap heap. Readers interested in experiencing what life must have been like aboard one of these magnificent planes can visit the Oakland Aviation Museum at 8252 Earhart Rd. (just off Doolittle Drive). The museum is home to a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Short Solent Mark III, a smaller version of a Clipper. Howard Hughes once owned this plane.

If the plane looks familiar, that’s not your imagination. Indiana Jones flew in this very aircraft in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Visitors will notice a copy of Life magazine on one of the aircraft’s seats. It marks the spot where Jones himself sat on his way from San Francisco to the Philippines.

The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults; $9 for seniors over 55; $7 for teens and members of the military and $5 for children ages six to 12. There’s much more to see than Indy’s plane.

Contact Dennis Evanosky at editor@alamedasun.com.