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December 7, 1941 and the First Around-the-World Commercial Flight

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clipper

Pan Am Boeing 314

Stranded. Six days from its home port of San Francisco, a luxurious Boeing 314 flying boat, the Pacific Clipper, was preparing to alight in Auckland, New Zealand, as part of the airline’s transpacific service when the crew of ten learned of the Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. All across the Pacific, Pan Am facilities came under assault: Wake Island, where the Martin M-130 Philippine Clipper returned just in time to pick up the Pan Am staff and escape although riddled with bullet holes; Manila, which had come under direct air attack; Hong Kong, where a Sikorsky S-42B was destroyed at its dock; and, of course, Pearl Harbor. Where to go?

Sikorsky

The revolutionary new 32-seat Sikorsky S-42 flying boat entered service in 1934.

Pan Am Captain Robert Ford was faced with a dilemma. After a week in the U.S. Embassy Ford finally received word from Pan Am headquarters that they were to return to the U.S. by flying westward. They were on their own for gasoline and supplies and had to fly over land and water with which none of the crew was familiar. With orders in hand, Captain Ford took off on December 16th, unsure of his fate, backtracked to Noumea, New Caledonia, to pick up the Pan Am staff left there and headed west for Australia. Hours later, they put down in Gladstone, north of Brisbane on the Coral Sea. The next day, Captain Ford and the Pacific Clipper headed northwest to Darwin, flying over the Queensland desert and watching it gradually transform into tropical rainforest near their destination of Darwin. The next goal was Surabaya, in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia). Keeping their fingers crossed that the Japanese expansion had not reached this far, the crew of the massive flying boat flew 2,253 kilometers (1,400 miles) over open ocean and reached the city but not before they were intercepted by suspicious British fighter aircraft and escorted in to safety after taxiing through mined waters.

After refueling with automobile grade gasoline, since no 100 octane fuel was available, the Pacific Clipper carefully took off and headed for Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) without any charts, only the coordinates of their destination. With remarkable precision, navigator Roderick Brown found the island and the port city where they alighted safely, although only after avoiding a patrolling Japanese submarine. Refueling once again, the Boeing 314 left Trincomalee on Christmas Eve only to turn back after losing an engine. Repairs took all day on Christmas before they retook to the air on Boxing Day bound for Karachi, India (now Pakistan). After an uneventful flight, Captain Ford continued safely on to Bahrain and then across the vast desert expanse of the Arabian peninsula to Khartoum, Sudan, where they alighted on the Nile. Not wishing to risk any further desert flying, the crew of the Pacific Clipper pressed on to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo (now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and was able to put the huge flying boat down on the Congo River when they reached their destination.

Pacific Clipper

“Pacific Clipper” in flight (1944). During the war the “Pacific Clipper” flew for the U.S. Navy with a Pan Am crew.

Fighting the oppressive heat and the strong current of the river, the flying boat once again clawed into the sky becoming airborne before reaching a set of waterfalls. Safely clear of the obstacles, the Pacific Clipper droned 5,766 kilometers (3,583 miles) westward to Natal, Brazil, then up the coast to Port of Spain, Trinidad, and finally on January 6, 1942, to the Marine terminal at La Guardia, Long Island, New York. Total flight time was 209 hours which covered 50,694 kilometers (31,500 miles). It was the first around the world flight by a commercial airliner — the hard way.

After this historic flight, the Pacific Clipper was assigned to the U.S. Navy for the rest of World War II. When the War ended, the aircraft was sold to Universal Airlines who salvaged it after it was damaged in a storm.

Have you ever had a harrowing flight experience? Tell us about it.

Robert van der Linden is Chair of the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum.


11 thoughts on “December 7, 1941 and the First Around-the-World Commercial Flight

  1. Well, this certainly beats any harrowing aviation experience I’ve had by about ten orders of magnitude. A couple of questions: Were there actual paying passengers on this flight, or was it all Pan Am personnel? And has the crew’s story been published in a book? I’d love to read more about it.

  2. There were no paying passengers on board. So far, no book has been written on this remarkable flight but John A. Marshall wrote an article in the August 1999 issue of Air & Space Magazine, which was one of the sources I used.

  3. Were they aware of the Pearl Harbor bombings, well I guess
    if they had a radio on board they knew. Not much they could have done about except avoid anything that had big red circles on the wings.

  4. Wow, it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like. Historic, challenging, do what you have to do. But to look back and realize the differences in flight from 1941 to today, makes me wonder how people will look at historic flight in another 60 years.

    BTW – these pictures are beautiful. Sharing them with my plane-loving 9 year old. Kinds of sad to know that it was just salvaged after the war.

  5. My father was one of the radio engineers on that harrowing flight….I am reading all that I can about it.

  6. A couple of observations. Captain FORD did not fly NC18602
    California/Pacific Clipper “around the world.” He flew her from Honolulu to New York. Both Ford and the airplane went almost all the way around – but separately between California and Hawaii at the beginning of the trip. Both
    they missed by the distance between NY and SF. A Pan Am B314 did fly around the world in 1944 piloted by Captain Bill MASLAND. The aircraft was B314A NC18611 Anzac Clipper.
    Paying passengers were on board the Ford flight as far as Auckland. Carlos’s post above is correct, Ed Dover’s book The Long Way Home has been in print since 1999 and has been revised several times as new information came to light. I heartily commend it. Dover wasn’t a member of the crew.

  7. Follow-up: My bad on the Masland flight typo. It was 1943 not 1944. To clarify on the difference between Captain FORD
    and NC18602′s itineraries. Captain Ford left Treasure Island on December 1, 1941, in command of B314A NC18606 American Clipper. He stopped at San Pedro (LA) overnight and proceeded to Honolulu, Dec 2-3. NC18602, originally named California Clipper, left Treasure Island on Dec 2 and flew directly to Honolulu without the San Pedro stop. Both planes arrived in Hawaii on Dec 3. Ford and most of his crew switched to California/Pacific Clipper there and proceed on the epic flight discussed in the article. American Clipper went back to San Francisco as part of the Pan Am shuttle service that had been running on-and-off since August, 1941.

  8. Thanks for clarifications, Mr. Mattingly. I have an original manuscript that my father, Robert Ford, shared with Ed Dover to help him write his marvelous book. You may contact me at fordranch2005 at yahoo dot com.

  9. Does anyone know if Capt.Ford was de-briefed by Intelligence units in the War Dept after his return to US in Jan 1942?
    I have a postal cover addressed to him ( by himself ) it is a First flight cover on the Transatlantic Natal-Leopoldville Flight which was in the air on Dec 7th 1941. I carries a censor mark for Washington DC
    it is Racetrack Type with number 00000 used by counter intelligence unit at the War Dept .?

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