Pan Am Flew Alameda into the History Books

Library of Congress &nbsp&nbsp Well-wishers look on as Pilot Ed Musick and his crew board China Clipper in Alameda on Nov. 22, 1935, for their historic flight to Manila. Note that the numbers on the wing end with 16. This gave the plane its nickname “Sweet 16.”

Pan Am Flew Alameda into the History Books

In its Nov. 21, 1935, edition, the Oakland Tribune informed its readers that “The largest mail load ever carried by an airplane was placed aboard one of Glenn L. Martin Company’s flying ships China Clipper. The next day, just after 3:30 p.m., pilot Ed Musick and his navigator Fred Noonan taxied the Clipper over the waters just off Alameda Airport, into San Francisco Bay and the history books. The Tribune described the journey as “the longest airmail flight ever scheduled — 8,000 miles over (the) ocean from Alameda to the Orient.”

China Clipper’s load of mail was too heavy to allow it to gain enough altitude to fly over the Bay Bridge, which was still under construction. Aerial photographer Clyde Sunderland tagged along from a safe distance in his own small plane. He snapped a picture as Musick and Noonan skillfully maneuvered the plane under the bridge.

China Clipper arrived safely in Honolulu, where passengers boarded the plane. They included two Sea Scouts and 12 of Pan American World Airway’s employees. After delivering mail and allowing his passengers to disembark at Pan Am’s terminals at Wake and Guam. Musick safely landed China Clipper in Manila on Nov. 29, 1935.

China Clipper arrived back in Alameda on Dec. 6, 1935. A headwind allowed Musick to bring the famous plane home seven hours earlier than scheduled. His return cargo included 48 bags of mail from Manila, Wake and Guam, along with freshly cut flowers from Hawaii, where China Clipper had landed on Dec. 5.

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 Alameda’s M-130s Hawaiian Clipper, Philippine Clipper and China Clipper. While China Clipper was the last of the three flying boats off the Martin Company’s assembly line, it was the first to take to the skies.

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 move, “China Clipper calling Alameda,” reminded movie-goers that the famous plane’s flight did not involve San Francisco, as the press widely reported. Martin’s M-130s called Alameda Airport home until 1938, when Pan Am moved its operations to Treasure Island.

Martin was not the only manufacturer to see Clippers roll off its assembly line. The company only built three of these 25 planes. 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, and his workers built 10 Clippers. In fact, Pan Am used a Sikorsky Clipper to survey the route that 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.

Clyde Sunderland    China Clipper flies under the Bay Bridge while the bridge was still under construction. The weight of the mail on board the plane did not allow Pilot Ed Musick to ascend sufficiently to fly over the bridge.
Clyde Sunderland    China Clipper awaits departure in Pan Am Lagoon just off the shores of Alameda Airport on Nov. 22, 1935. This area now lies buried beneath the runways at the Naval Air Station near the “Northwest Territories.”