Pan Am’s Flying Boats: The Alameda Connection

Clyde Sunderland

The China Clipper taxis on the waters just off Alameda Airport on Nov. 22, 1935, set to take off on Pan Am’s first commercial flight acrosss the Pacific Ocean. The airline initiated passenger service to the Far East on Oct. 21, 1936. The Navy buried Alameda Airport beneath its runways in 1940.

Urban legends die hard. The city of Alameda gave one of these new life with the announcement that Wrightspeed had signed a lease to move into Building 41 at Alameda Point. That’s the building with the mural that leads naive passers-by to believe that Pan American World Airways and its Martin M-130 aircraft had some connection to the structure.

The language of the ordinance that approved Wrightspeed’s lease calls the company’s new home at the Point "Building 41." However the city’s less official press release about Wrightspeed refers to Building 41 as "Hangar 41." The city chose a spot right under the deceptive mural to officially welcome Ian Wright to Alameda Point.

The connection is obvious: a hangar with a Pan Am mural implies that Pan Am and its Clippers had some connection to the spot. It never did. In fact, by the time Building 41 rose up next to Seaplane Lagoon in 1945, Pan Am had been gone from Alameda for six years. The airline, which was founded in 1927, began operations at Alameda Airport in 1935. This airport was located along the Oakland Estuary at a spot the Navy buried when it built its runways in 1940. By then Pan Am had moved from Alameda Airport to Treasure Island, where the Golden Gate International Exposition was going on. Their airships docked there at Clipper Cove.

Pan Am hoped to take over Treasure Island as an airport when the expo closed in 1940, but the Navy moved in instead. The Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the country’s focus, and the Navy officially took the man-made island from San Francisco to use as a base.

This dashed Pan Am’s hopes that its Clippers could use Treasure Island as an airfield. Authorities were quick to point out that San Francisco already had an airport. Mills Field had not only been in operation since 1926, but had seen expansion and improvement in 1937.

The airport remains at the site of Mills Field to this day as San Francisco International Airport.

In the meantime the Navy got busy across the bay building an air station at the northwestern tip of Alameda.

In doing so it buried the site of Alameda Airport and of Pan Am’s base of operations beneath tons of concrete.

The Navy also created a lagoon and created built hangars to service its wartime seaplanes. In 1945 the last of the hangars on the lagoon, Building 41, went up. No Pan Am Clipper ever darkened its doors.

About 50 years later a mural appeared on the building’s wall celebrating the 1935 Pan Am flight from Alameda Airport, and an urban legend was born.

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