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The China Clipper

This is not a tale about an oriental barber. It is instead the story of the most technically advanced transport plane of the early 1930s. A plane that carried its own weight in cargo and travelled three times farther than existing airliners. It is as much a story of the plane as it is a history of Juan Trippe, Pan American Airways, the U.S. Postal Service and the turmoil in the Pacific that led up to the events of December 7, 1941 and the Second World War.

First of all the mood of this country in the early to mid 30s was one of isolationalism. We were less than 20 years from the ending of the wae in Europe that we got dragged into and everyone wanted for us never to get involved in a foreign war again. This was "the war to end all wars." We were also in the midst of a bitter depression that was partly brought on by our military involvement. Jobs were few, families were losing their homes and bank accounts, the veterans were marching on Washington demanding a promised pension for their efforts.

In the midst of these domestic problems our government was looking for an opportunity to solidify our positions in Central and South America as well as the islands we controlled in the Pacific. Japan in 1932 had already conquered Manchuria, invaded China, took control of Micronesia and was seeking further expansion in the entire Pacific. We had gained control of numerous islands and atolls by the Act of 1880. These included Hawaii, Baker, Jarvis, Howland, Midway, Guam, Wake, Samoa and the Phillipines. Arming and defending these islands was out of the question and would seem warlike to the Japanese, who would have retaliated in some manner.

That opportunity came with the enactment of the Kelly Mail Act of 1925. The U.S. Post Office Dept. began underwriting commercial aviation through massive subsidies and with the blessings of the State Dept. Pan American, Inc. was founded as an airline to counter a German line that was interested in mail service between Columbia and the U.S. An intelligence officer named Henry (Hap) Arnold, Maj. Carl Spaatz, Maj. Jack Joulet and John Montgomery were the original founders. They were ready to resign their commissions to run this new paper airline but were persuaded to stay in the service by current events. Montgomery got sole control of Pan American, Inc.

Enter Juan Trippe. He got the name Juan when his mother was expecting a girl but had a boy instead. This name would later in life aid in his dealings with the Spanish speaking diplomats he encountered. He had learned to fly in the Navy at the end of the war and chose aviation over his dad's brokerage business. He was born into wealth and was educated at the best schools. He had many influential freinds in banking and the government. In 1923 he bought nine surplus Navy seaplanes and formed Long Island Airways but this venture failed. Four years later with nine partners he bought Pan Am and got a mail contract to Cuba. The total investment in the company was $500,000. He later took control of the company and in 1928 reached out to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and most of South America.

Pan American had become a diplomatic tool for the United States. They were going places and dealing with people that the government couldn't do officially.

At this time the Postal Service was paying Pan Am as much as $3.00 a pound to deliver the mail. They were being paid so well that they could afford new planes, supply the fuel, pay the personnel and build bases and facilities wherever they flew. They didn't even have to rely on passengers to be profitable.

In 1930 trans-Pacific routes were being laid out to fly the northern route through Alaska, Siberia, Japan and on to Nanking as there were no long range airliners. Our government wouldn't approve our landing in Russia and the Japanese were opposed to the Americans flying across the Pacific. In addition the weather in the North was also a major problem.

So in 1931 Trippe sent Col. Charles Lindbergh and his wife to survey a central Pacific crossing flying the island chain and ending in Macao. (Landing in Hong Kong would have meant that we'd have to allow the Brits to land at our bases which Trippe strongly opposed.) They completed the flight and proved the feasability of the route. The only thing missing were planes capable of such distances. Tripped went to Glen Martin in Middle River, Maryland to design a large flying boat for these flights. Martin bid $3 million dollars to build three planes. After much dickering they settled on the final price of $417,000 each. This was a real bargain. At that time the DC-2 cost a mere $180,000 and the smaller Sikorsky Clippers that were being used in Pan America cost only $210,000. The three planes were built and were named the China, the Hawaii and the Phillipines Clippers, after the famous Clipper sailing ships.

The first flight was the China Clipper. It took off from San Francisco harbor on November 22, 1925 at 3:45 pm. This was a sight equal in importance to a present day shuttle launching. 150,000 people lines the shores as the Clipper took off and flew over the Golden Gate Bridge.

This was indeed a plane to behold. A 26 ton craft with a 130' wing span, a 90' long hull and stood 24' tall. The hull was double bottomed and had six water tight compartments. It was powered by four twin wasp 14 cylinder P & W R1830 engines producing 800 h.p. each (later upped to 950 h.p.), and Hamilton Hydromatic propellors and could fly on two engines. It had a range of 3200 miles at 130 mph., cruising at 9000 ft. It was the most advanced plane of its day. Aerodynamically clean of flying wires and using sponsons instead of wing tip floats for easier water handling, for boarding and they held 1900 gals. of fuel. It carried 21 passengers and a crew of 8. The ost of a trip to Hawaii was $360, and to China $800 in luxurious seating and sleeping berths.

The flight to Manila took six days with layovers at the various islands. 63 hours and 24 minutes total flying time. The third day of this first trip was very eventful because Japanese fighter planes forced the Clipper down near one of their islands when they were suspected of spying and taking pictures of Japanese military installations. They were delayed for several hours and allowed to proceed. There had been sabotage before this flight when two Japanese civilians were caught tampering with the directional gyros in California. Also in July 1938 sabotage was suspected when the Hawaii Clipper was damaged on takeoff in San Francisco. Concrete blocks were found in the water with steel rods running to just below the surface of the water. Several gashes were torn in the hull. Fortunately, they were found in time and repaired.

In July, 1938 the Hawaii Clipper, on flight #229 was lost at sea. There were no survivors, no oil slicks on the water and no evidence of crash landings on any island along the route. Shortly thereafter the Japanese built a reconnaissance plans that we called the "Betty" that was an almost duplicate of the Clipper design.

After 10 years of service the China Clipper crashed in the bay off Port of Spain, Trinidad on January 8, 1945 on its 161st flight. All but seven aboard were killed. The Phillipine Clipper was riddled by machine gun fire at Wake Island but escaped. It finally crashed on a mountainside north of San Francisco on January 21, 1943 during a severe storm.

Thus ended the era of the Pan American Clippers. SOon new long range planes would be built that made non-stop travel to the Orient possible. With these known facts it is not hard to guess the fate of Amelia Earhart and her navigator on their ill-fated flight between Lae and Howland Islands in that same time period.

To this day the debate goes on in the halls of the U.S. Congress and the Smithsonian Institution as to who provoked the war in the Pacific and its final outcome. Were we the ones that forced Japan's hand by flying to the Orient near to their islands or was it just part of their plans of domination in the Pacific?

That's another story.

Len Marzewski
Past President
EAA Chapter 113