On this day in 1935, Pan American’s China Clipper left San Francisco on the first scheduled mail flight across the Pacific Ocean.
People often say the age of the airship ended with the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937, but it may have ended with the flight of the China Clipper on November 22, 1935.
Capable of crossing the Atlantic in half the time of a zeppelin, and with a fraction of the crew, Pan Am’s flying boat made the airship obsolete.
The First Mail Flight Across the Pacific
China Clipper being loaded with mail before leaving San Francisco on November 22, 1935
The China Clipper departed San Francisco with a ceremony broadcast nationally on the radio; Pan Am founder Juan Trippe, Postmaster General Jim Farley, and the governor of California were in San Francisco, and the Governor of Hawaii and Manuel Quezon, President of the Phillipines, participated via wireless hookups.
As the highlight of the ceremony, Juan Trippe’s voice came over the radio: “Captain Musick, you have your sailing orders. Cast off and depart for Manila in accordance therewith.”
Six days later — after five legs and 59 hours 48 minutes in the air, crossing the International Date Line between Midway and Wake — the China Clipper landed in Manila.
- San Francisco – Honolulu (Depart 3:46 PM, November 22 – Arrive 10:19 AM, November 23)
- Honolulu – Mdway (Depart 6:35 AM, November 24 – Arrive 2:0o PM, November 24)
- Midway – Wake (Depart 6:12 AM, November 25 – Arrive 1:38 PM, November 26)
- Wake – Guam (Depart 6:01 AM, November 27 – Arrive 3:05 PM, November 27)
- Guam – Manila (Depart 6:12 AM, November 29 – Arrive 3:32 PM, , November 29)
Atlantic Ambitions and Pacific Reality
Crossing the Pacific was not Pan American’s first goal; the airline originally set its sights on the Atlantic, because the passage between America and Europe was the most prestigious and profitable passenger route in the world.
The Martin M-130 flying boat was built to cross the Atlantic and could have flown the route with ease; the longest leg of the Pacific flight (between San Francisco and Honolulu) was almost 2,400 miles, but the longest leg over the Atlantic (between Newfoundland and Ireland) was less than 2,000 miles.
What stopped Pan Am from flying the Atlantic, and from competing head-to-head with the German zeppelins, was not technology but the British. Britain did not want the United States to have a monopoly, or even a head-start, on a transatlantic airline service and refused to grant landing rights in Britain itself or in the British-controlled stepping stones (Atlantic Canada and Bermuda) across the Atlantic. The British refused to allow an American airline to begin transatlantic service until they had a plane capable of the same flight, but in 1935 and 1936 they were not even close.
The Future of Air Travel
While Pan Am’s clippers flew the Pacific rather than the Atlantic — leaving the German Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin with no competition for transatlantic air passengers in 1936 or 1937 — the airplane was a sign of the future.
Although not as comfortable as Hindenburg, the M-130 was more than twice as fast as the zeppelin and offered its passengers greater luxury than any other fixed-wing airliner of its time.
Lounge of a Martin M-130 flying boat
Seating area and sleeping berths on Martin M-130 flying boat
And just a few years later Pan Am introduced an even larger, faster, and more luxurious clipper — the Boeing 314 — and was finally obtained permission to begin passenger service across the Atlantic.
Boeing 314 cutaway and seat map
The first Boeing clipper crossed the Atlantic on May 20, 1939, just two years after the crash of the Hindenburg. The clipper flew between the United States and Europe in half the time of the airship, at far lower cost to the airline, and with more passengers than could have been accommodated in a zeppelin inflated with helium.
Dining room of Boeing 314
Pan Am’s China Clipper flew the Pacific in November of 1935; Hindenburg’s first flight was not until March of 1936. The world’s greatest airship was obsolete before it ever flew.
The age of the airship did not end at Lakehurst, New Jersey; it ended in the board room of Pan American Airways and the drawing rooms of Martin and Boeing.