mmi50005.jpg Recent headlines proclaimed the news that Pan American Airlines was to get back into the flying business. Some five years ago Pan Am closed its operations due to fierce competition, rising costs and an end to the subsidies previously granted by the government. This once giant flagship U.S. company that pioneered overseas routes to the Orient, Europe and to South America shut the doors in bankruptcy. A sad end to the former "Round the World Airline." But now they will try again to regain their stature, first as a regional line and later to expand into something better.
Several months ago I wrote a story on the begeinnings and early trials of Pan Am from the early Sikorsky flying boats, the Martin Clippers and then the company bought the new and larger Boeing 314's with a longer range capable of global flights.
This is the tale of how Pan Am became the "Around the World Airline" - by accident.
In a recent article in the Smithsonian's Air and Space magazine, the writer interviewed the pilot of that first globe spanning flight, a Captain Robert Ford, a 28 year veteran with the company.
On this particular flight in December, 1941, the huge triple tail flying boat was six days out of its home port of San Francisco out over the Pacific and just hours from getting its 12 passengers to their destination of Auckland, New Zealand, when the crew received the radio message that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. John Poindexter, the radio operator relayed that we had suffered heavy losses of life and that the U.S. was at war. The stunned crew knew that there was no turning back over the Pacific. Radio silence was immediately ordered and sentries were posted in the blisters to scan the skies for the enemy. Two hours later they landed in Auckland harbor safely. The next week went by before they got word from the home office of Pan Am in New York, they were told to make it back home the long way - around the world westbound. This meant a trip of over 30,000 miles over oceans and lands that none of them had ever seen and without any financial support from the company. They would have to do all their own planning, servicing and scrounging whatever supplies and equipment they needed. All this in an erupting world war where political alliances and loyalties were uncertain. They first flew back to Noumea, New Caledonia to pick up the Pan Am station personnel and deliver them to Australia. Within an hour everyone was on board along with fuel and a barrel of oil. They landed their charges in Gladstone, Australia and then faced the problem of paying for the trip home. The crew had very little on their person. A young banker came up to the captain and out of the blue asked, "How are you fixed for money?" The captain replied, "We're broke." "I'll probably be shot for this - " but he went to the bank on a Saturday, opened the vault, and handed over $500 U.S. dollars (remember these were 1941 dollars) to the captain. This $500 financed the trip back to New York. The next day they flew across the Queensland Desert to Darwin, a 10 hour flight with no water in sight to make a forced landing, because of poor radio communications they were afraid of being shot at by the Aussies. They finally landed far out in the harbor among the warships and were escorted to the dock by a tender, as the harbor was mined. They needed 100 octane fuel but that fuel was needed by the military. The only thing available was auto gas. The high octane gas was transferred into the main tanks and the auto gas into the spare tanks, to be used after they were at altitude. The next stop was at Surabaya, many hours over the Indian Ocean and with no charts or maps. Navigator Rod Brown created his own Mercator map of South Asia from memory with only the coordinates for the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) They ran into scud clouds, had to drop to find the island. When they broke out there was a Jap submarine below them with its crew running for the deck guns, so back up into the clouds to hide, and thus they managed to escape untouched and finally landed safely.
The next several days across thousands of miles up the coast of India to Korachi, they found friendly British RAF bases there and at Bahrain and Khartoun, Sudan. It took a full day to fly across Africa, down the Nile to the Congo River, which flowed south to present Zaire town of Kinshasa. They stepped off ashore into a sauna. The heat and humidity was oppressive. Two friendly faces greeted them with cold beer, a very welcome surprise. A Pan Am airport manager and a radio officer had been dispatched to meet the plane here in Leopoldville. The next morning the heavily overloaded plane was ready to takeoff for a flight across the south Atlantic, but overgrossed and in high altitude density conditions takeoff from the river even with the six knot current and into the wind the captain had to rock the hull with the elevators to break away from the water before the upcoming cataract falls. At the last possible moment the plane got off and was now flying in a gorge beyond the falls. It was like flying in a canyon, the plane staggered, the winds bowed, and the engines now at full takeoff power for nearly five minutes were rapidly reaching their red lines. Finally rising above the walls of the gorge, the power was pulled back and the plane turned west toward the Atlantic. After more than 20 hours the Pacific Clipper landed in the harbor of Natal, Brazil just before noon. That afternoon they tookoff for Trinidad in the Caribbean and arrived at 3 a.m. The final leg to New York was almost anticlimactic. Just before six a.m. on January 6, 1942 Captain Ford radioed in to the control officer at the marine terminal at La Guardia Airport, "Pacific Clipper, inbound from Auckland, New Zealand, Captain Ford reporting. Due arrive Pan American Terminal La Guardia seven minutes."
After over a month the Clipper had made it home. In a final bit of irony, after almost nine days of flying, the plane had to circle the New York harbor for nearly an hour - no landings were permitted until official sunrise.
The flight had covered 31,500 miles in 209 hours, made 18 stops under the flags of 12 different nations. They made the longest non-stop flight in Pan Am history, the 3583 mile crossing of the Atlantic from Africa to South America. The radio operator, John Poindexter was originally scheduled to accompany the Clipper to Los Angeles and return to San Francisco the same evening; he had told his wife to hold dinner. But the regularly scheduled radio officer became ill, and John took his place on the flight to New Zealand. His one shirt was washed in every port the Clipper visited.