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The First Transpacific Passenger Flight

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Passed over S.F. Bay Bridge, along Embarcadero, Marina, Presidio, etc. Just after passing over Golden Gate Bridge encountered low cumulus clouds on the coast. “On top” from there on over “snowy desert.” Later clear & broken—smooth air. Early morning, “detoured” to south to avoid several storm areas. Arrived Honolulu (Pearl City) after passing over “Diamond Head” & Waikiki Beach. Very elaborate “Hawaiian welcome.”

Richard Bradley's log book

Richard F. Bradley’s log book.

These brief observations, written by Richard F. Bradley on October 21–22, 1936, hardly hint at the enormity of the occasion. The aviation manager for the San Francisco office of Standard Oil, Bradley was one of seven lucky people to acquire a ticket to fly that day on Pan American Airways’ Hawaii Clipper. Bradley, in fact, held Ticket No. 1 for that inaugural passenger flight to Hawaii.

Richard F. Bradley (left) bought Ticket #1 for the inaugural transpacific passenger flight, October 21–22, 1936. National Air and Space Museum Archives.

Bradley wrote those words in a small souvenir log book, presented to him by Pan American Airways and now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum Archives. I came across it while looking for artifacts and images relating to travel to Hawaii. Leather bound and enclosed in its own sleeve, the log book is embossed with Bradley’s name and personally signed by Pan Am founder and president Juan Trippe.

In the log book, Bradley recorded the details of his flight from Pan Am’s base at Alameda on San Francisco Bay to Hawaii, and then on to Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, and back again. It includes a single page for each day of the 10-day flight, which accounts for Bradley’s brevity. He notes departure and arrival times, distances flown, average speeds, and times aloft, along with other things he saw or experienced.

As you travel the same route today in a jetliner, you probably don’t realize just how big a deal it once was to reach Hawaii by air. To get a better sense of why, turn and tilt a globe so the Hawaiian Islands are dead center. Nearly all the rest of that hemispherical view is water. Located near the middle of the world’s largest ocean, Hawaii is one of the most remote places on Earth. The route Bradley flew from San Francisco to Honolulu was at that time the longest landless air route in the world. Beyond the small rocky islands just past the Golden Gate, not a single spot of land breaks the waves for 2,400 miles. Out over the Pacific with nothing below me for hours but water, I still get a little nervous thinking about that.

Bradley’s flight on the Hawaii Clipper marked the beginning of transpacific air travel and followed years of planning and preparation. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had scouted a great circle route to the Orient for Pan Am that followed the North Pacific rim. But obtaining operating rights in Asia proved problematic, so Juan Trippe decided to create a route across the Central Pacific via Hawaii and other U.S. possessions. Pan Am had to plan and survey the route, establish bases on islands across the Pacific, and build hotels and other facilities for passengers on remote Midway Island, uninhabited Wake Island, and the territory of Guam.

The China Clipper flies past the unfinished Golden Gate Bridge and heads toward Hawaii, November 22, 1935. National Air and Space Museum Archives

Pan Am also needed a new seaplane large enough and powerful enough to carry a load big enough and far enough to make the whole enterprise feasible. The airline worked with the Glen L. Martin Company of Baltimore to develop such an aircraft. While Pan Am surveyed the route and built the bases, Martin designed and built the three largest air transports yet created: the Martin M-130 clippers. The China Clipper gained lasting fame on November 22, 1935, when it left San Francisco Bay to inaugurate regularly scheduled transpacific air service. For the next year, while passenger accommodations were being completed, the China Clipper and its sister ships, the Philippine Clipper and Hawaii Clipper, carried cargo and mail back and forth across the Pacific. By October 1936, the route was finally ready for passenger service.

The Martins were huge planes for their time, but even so, the extra fuel needed for the flight from California to Hawaii, the longest hop on the transpacific route, limited the number of passengers they could carry. Richard Bradley shared the spacious cabin with only six other passengers. Future flights would carry as many as 13, but more often the crew would outnumber the passengers.

That wasn’t the only thing that made membership in this particular flying club so exclusive. The one-way fare from San Francisco to Manila was set at $799. That amounts to almost $14,000 in today’s dollars. Not until after World War II and the introduction of faster and more economical aircraft would transpacific air travel begin to become more affordable.

The Hawaii Clipper’s passengers after arriving in Hawaii. They included five businessmen and two women world travelers. Bradley, in his distinctive fedora, stands at the left. Hawaii State Archives.

Bradley’s log book contains a map of the route and a brief history of it, and then the 10 pages where Bradley wrote about each day’s flight. Here you can read his notes on winds and weather and the impact of storms on other clipper flights, about his crossings of the International Date Line, and about beautiful views and memorable meals. The end pages are devoted to autographs of the crew, passengers, and others he met. A few of the names may sound familiar.

Topping the list of crew signatures is Captain Edwin C. Musick, Pan Am’s most famous and accomplished pilot. Musick led the surveys that established the route and piloted the China Clipper on its first transpacific flight. In 1938 Musick and his crew perished on the Samoan Clipper when the aircraft exploded in flight.

Beneath Musick’s name is First Officer H. E. Gray, another top Pan Am pilot, one of the first 10 hired by Pan Am. Harold Gray became president of Pan Am after Juan Trippe retired in 1968 after leading the airline for more than 40 years.

Also on the crew list is the signature of another famous flyer, F. J. Noonan. One of the best navigators of his day, Fred Noonan later left Pan Am and accompanied Amelia Earhart on her ill-fated round-the-world flight in 1937, from which neither returned.

The Hawaii Clipper on which Bradley flew has its own tragic story. In 1938, six months after the Samoan Clipper explosion, the Hawaii Clipper and all its passengers and crew vanished without a trace somewhere between Guam and Manila. What happened to it is another of aviation’s enduring mysteries.

On the last page of Bradley’s log book is a final interesting item: his “Passenger’s Identification Coupon,” imprinted with a special commemorative stamp and stating his itinerary, baggage weight allowance, and fare. How much did it cost Bradley to take part in this “Special Inaugural Flight”? The fare printed on the coupon is $3,000—which amounts to more than $50,000 today.

Thanks for reading; I have to go. I’m putting the final touches on a new exhibition that will open in the Museum on July 25. It’s called Hawaii by Air.

David Romanowski, is the Writer-Editor in the Exhibits Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

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6 thoughts on “The First Transpacific Passenger Flight

  1. Thank you for the excellent article. In 2014 we have lost the fascination of flight that people had in the 1920s and 1930s. Your history of the clipper brings to life that fascination. Thanks, again!

  2. The 1st pix in your article shows Fred Ordway talking to a Howard Hughes lookalike.
    Is this in fact Hughes and why would he be in the picture??

  3. Great to see Mr. Bradley’s actual log book! Worth noting that he was an important executive with the Standard Oil Company of California, and just as for so many other American business people, Pan Am’s new route to Asia offered an immense advantage. The financial cost to travel across the Pacific by air was far outweighed by the advantages gained in time saved over traveling by ship, which could take weeks.

    Lots more about Pan American Airways at: http://www.panam.org

  4. Pingback: The Brief, Ultra Romantic History Of Hawaii’s ‘Flying Hotels’ | Times of News | Online breaking and Latest News From USA

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