Moments and Milestones: Birth of the Clippers

Moments and Milestones: Birth of the Clippers

Thousands watched the China Clipper as it set off on the first trans-Pacific airmail flight on November 22, 1935.
Thousands watched the China Clipper as it set off on the first trans-Pacific airmail flight on November 22, 1935. Courtesy San Francisco Airport Museum

Glenn L. Martin made his reputation building big bombers for the air forces of the world. In 1933, he won the Collier Trophy for his spectacular B-10, renowned for being speedier than the fighters of its day. Juan Trippe made his reputation building Pan American World Airways into an airline that, for a time, was the United States’ unofficial flag carrier. Trippe and his group of investors initially aimed their expansion south toward Latin America because they were able to maneuver business and politics to their advantage there. But Trippe’s real objective was the lucrative transatlantic routes, which the British government and the steamship operators were blocking.

Pan Am had bought Sikorsky’s S-40, an awkward, strut-braced contraption of an airplane that the airline’s technical advisor, legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, openly mocked. Trippe wanted a much bigger airplane, which could span both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and two giants of the industry stepped up: Glenn Martin and Igor Sikorsky. Pan Am’s chief engineer, André Priester, wrote the demanding specification. The required range was 2,500 miles against 30-mile headwinds. Trippe split the order evenly, taking three from Martin and three from Sikorsky.

Sikorsky offered the S-42, an improvement over its predecessor, certainly, but able to cross the Pacific to Hawaii only if its interior were stripped and crammed with fuel tanks. Although Martin was late delivering the M-130, which was priced at a staggering $417,000 (at a time when a Douglas DC-2 went for $78,000), it was worth the wait: The M-130 was the airplane that would open the Pacific for Pan Am. And in October 1935, just 75 years ago, Pan Am accepted delivery of its first one, named the China Clipper. On November 22, the airplane left Alameda, California, on the first scheduled airmail run across the Pacific, landing in Manila, the Philippines, on November 29 some 8,000 miles later.

The trans-Pacific run was a formidable trip, the first leg, 2,400 miles to Hawaii, being the longest. Then came Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, and Hong Kong. The passengers enjoyed lavish quarters and equally lavish treatment by the onboard staff. The M-130 could carry 32 passengers; crews were uniformed in the manner of staff on an oceanliner, and meals were served in a dining room.

Martin knew that if he delivered only the three M-130s Trippe ordered, he’d lose money, but he wanted to break into the commercial aircraft business, and Douglas Aircraft Company had a lock on it. Martin may have expected to have a leg up on any competition when Trippe was ready for his next generation of giant flying boats. He was to be bitterly disappointed.

Trippe did invite designs for a follow-on transport and awarded the contract for six aircraft to Boeing, whose 314 was even bigger and more powerful than the M-130, and had elegant compartments and spacious lounges. At the end of the 1930s, having applied his wiles and plied his political connections for a period of years, Trippe, by agreeing to some British and European conditions, finally concluded a deal to serve the Atlantic. The 314 began flying those routes in 1939, but with a war coming, Pan Am’s expansion plan had to change.

Pan American named the first Sikorsky S-40s and -42s “Clippers,” part of a constant effort to link the aircraft with the fast 19th century sailing vessels of that name, but it wasn’t until Martin’s M-130 China Clipper debuted that the phrase took off among the public. And it stuck: After that, all Clippers were China Clippers. And right up until the airline’s collapse in December 1991, its air crews used the call sign “Clipper” to identify their flights.

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