AidSpace Blog

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.

Skylab is Falling!

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Thirty-five years ago, on July 11, 1979, the first US space station fell out of orbit. It wasn’t a surprise or an error, nor was it a calamity. It was more like an intense meteor shower—sparkling and momentary—as Skylab entered the atmosphere. Very little of this spacecraft as large as a house was ever found on the ground.

Skylab had a brief but distinguished history between the last Apollo missions and the beginning of the Space Shuttle era. NASA repurposed some remaining Saturn hardware into an “orbital workshop” where three men at a time could live and work. It was the first US foray into spaceflight lasting longer than two weeks.

Skylab Orbital Workshop in Orbit

An overhead view of the Skylab Orbital Workshop in Earth orbit as photographed from the Skylab 4 Command and Service Modules (CSM) during the final fly-around by the CSM before returning home. Credit: NASA.

Three crews occupied Skylab in 1973-1974, staying 28, 59, and 84 days and setting US long-duration records that lasted until Americans stayed on the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s. They operated an attached solar observatory (the Apollo Telescope Mount), did Earth and astronomical observations, conducted microgravity and biomedical experiments, did EVA maintenance and repair tasks, and proved how productively they could work in space.

When the third crew left, NASA powered down Skylab and abandoned it, committing resources to the next big program, the Space Shuttle. Skylab drifted silently in a parking orbit for the next five years, circling about 269-283 miles (433-455 km) overhead. Expecting it to remain in orbit for about 10 years, NASA gave some thought to its possible eventual reuse.

However, Skylab’s orbit deteriorated more quickly as a more active than expected sunspot cycle affected the atmosphere and increased drag on the space station. By 1978, it was clear that Skylab was losing altitude and would fall out of orbit unless boosted higher. Had the Space Shuttle been ready to fly, it might have been used to reboost Skylab to prolong its existence, but with the first shuttle launch not expected until 1981, NASA had to work on a controlled descent instead.

Of course, the forecast for a huge falling spacecraft caused a great deal of concern and public interest. In 1978, a Soviet satellite crashed in Canada and spread radioactive debris, which raised awareness of potential hazards from above. Skylab had no radioactive materials onboard, but it was a massive 85-ton structure. The prospect of huge chunks of metal raining from the sky was scary.

Cover of The New York Times from July 11, 1979

Cover of The New York Times from July 11, 1979.

NASA calculated a descent trajectory for minimal risk to human life and property that would bring Skylab down over remote areas of the southern Pacific Ocean. Remotely operating the spacecraft’s onboard thrusters, ground controllers oriented Skylab properly to begin its descent.

Meanwhile, the media had stoked interest in the descent and a Chicken Little “the sky is falling” alarmism—both serious and humorous—arose. The Washington Post alone ran some 30 stories about Skylab’s demise from April through July 1979. People worried where the debris would land as Skylab disintegrated and burned during its high-speed passage through the atmosphere, and some joked about being doomsday targets or placed bets on its point of impact. The political and diplomatic consequences would not be trivial if death or destruction occurred.

As it happened, the calculated path of descent was a few degrees off. Some of Australia’s population heard the sonic booms and saw the bright streaks of Skylab debris, some of which fell in the vicinity of Esperance and the desert beyond. No one was hurt, no significant property damage occurred, and some pieces of recovered debris made their way back to NASA for analysis and on to museums. Others bits were doubtless kept as souvenirs of the night when a home in space fell to Earth.

*The backup Skylab orbital workshop has been on display in the Museum’s building on the National Mall since 1976. A few small fragments of charred Skylab debris are in the Museum’s collection.

Backup Skylab Orbital Workshop at the Museum in Washington, DC

Backup model of Skylab’s orbital workshop on display at the Museum in Washington, DC.

Valerie Neal is a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department.

Monumental Views

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Every Fourth of July, visitors and locals alike crowd the National Mall to watch the fireworks show with the Washington Monument as one of its focal points. The monument reopened to the public in May 2014 as the last vestiges of scaffolding were removed from it, a visible reminder of the damage caused by a 2011 earthquake. Every year, thousands of visitors photograph themselves on the National Mall with the monument in the background. It is no surprise that it is popular in aviation photography as well.

For one week in June 1906, A. Roy Knabenshue and Lincoln Beachey soared over Washington, DC, in an airship. Making flights at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, the aviators took off from Luna Park in Arlington, Virginia, and circled the city to the delight of viewers on the ground. According to the New York Times, on the morning of June 14 Beachey circled the monument and headed for the White House. Landing on the lawn, he was informed that President Theodore Roosevelt was two miles away at Georgetown University for commencement ceremonies. After a brief run-in with the White House constabulary, Beachey was in the air again, emptying the chambers of Congress as senators and representatives rushed to see the spectacle.

Lincoln Beachey Circles the Washington Monument

Lincoln Beachey circles the Washington Monument in an airship, June 13, 1906. NASM 98-15047

James “Jim” Ray, Vice-President of the Autogiro Company of America (formerly Pitcairn Aircraft Company), made a habit of flying an autogiro over Washington. His first demonstration was in 1931, on the occasion of President Hoover’s presentation of the Collier Trophy to Harold Pitcairn and associates for the development of the autogiro. On October 2, 1936, Ray landed the AC-35 in what is now Freedom Plaza. There, he converted the aircraft to its roadable configuration and drove it to the main entrance of the Commerce Building.

Jim Ray Flies over the Washington Monument

Jim Ray flies over the Washington Monument in an experimental autogiro. The photo was taken from autogiro flown by John Miller. Although the original caption written on the image gives a date of 1933, the presence and the height of scaffolding on the Monument places this image in late 1934 or very early 1935. NASM 9A05679

In 1931, Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways introduced the Sikorsky S-40 Clipper. With 38 seats and a crew of six, it was the largest plane built in America at that time. Charles Lindbergh commanded the first leg of the first flight of the American Clipper (NC-80V) in November 1931.

Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-40 American Clipper

Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-40 American Clipper flies by the Washington Monument. NASM 90-14350

In the past, the National Air and Space Museum has exhibited aircraft outside on the National Mall.  To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first transatlantic flight in 1919 by a Navy Curtiss NC-4 between Long Island and Portugal, the restored plane was on public display in 1969 in several locations including Central Park and Philadelphia. By the summer, the aircraft was on the National Mall, almost in the shadow of the Washington Monument. After the outdoor display, the aircraft was disassembled and placed in storage. The NC-4 has been on loan to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida since 1974.

Curtiss NC-4 displayed on the National Mall

Curtiss NC-4 displayed on the National Mall, Summer 1969. The Washington Monument can be seen in the background. NASM 91-14704

Whether you’re watching the fireworks or cooking out with friends, enjoy your Fourth!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.

Remembering Frederick Ira Ordway, III

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Frederick Ira Ordway, III

Frederick Ira Ordway, III. Credit: Apogee Books

Fred Ordway passed away in Huntsville, Alabama, on the morning of Tuesday July 1. We were friends for 40 years, but then I can’t think of anyone in the aerospace community with a wider circle of friends than Fred. We have a tradition at the Museum of honoring deceased aerospace leaders with a short obituary and photo posted near the information desk in our south lobby. My colleagues offered me the honor of preparing such a farewell for Fred.

Frederick Ira Ordway, III (April 4, 1927–July 1, 2014) helped to create the space age, chronicled its history, and shaped the way in which the public perceived the past, present, and future of travel beyond the atmosphere. A native New Yorker, he was educated in primary and secondary schools in Connecticut, New York, Maine, and Washington, D.C. “Like many space flight enthusiasts,” he once remarked, “my interest was first stimulated by science fiction magazines.” He was 11 when he began to devour science fiction, and 13 when he became the youngest member of the fledgling American Rocket Society.

Following service as a naval reserve officer during the closing months of World War II, Ordway entered Harvard University, graduating with a BS in 1949. He pursued graduate study at the University of Paris, and universities in Algiers, Barcelona, and Innsbruck. Initially employed as a mining and petroleum engineer in Latin America, he accepted a job with Reaction Motors, Inc., America’s pioneering rocket motor manufacturer, in 1951, then moved on to the Guided Missile Division of Republic Aviation. A 1955 meeting with space pioneer Wernher von Braun led to a lifelong friendship and a decision to join the von Braun team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Huntsville, Alabama, where he would eventually serve as Chief of the Space Information Systems Branch.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke advised Stanley Kubrick to bring Ordway on board as technical advisor for the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that role he developed basic concepts and detailed designs for the spacecraft featured in the movie. Returning to Huntsville in 1967, he joined the faculty of the University of Alabama. Seven years later he moved to Washington, D.C. and a consulting position with the National Science Foundation followed by service as Special Assistant to Robert C. Seamans, director of the Energy Research Development Agency (later the Department of Energy).

Fred Ordway was a prolific author, producing 30 books on space flight, some with co-author Wernher von Braun, and 250 articles. In addition to his contributions to the American Rocket Society (now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), he was an early member of the American Astronautical Society, and an editor of its Journal of Astronautics. The only American to attend the First international Astronautical Congress in Paris in 1950, he became an active participant in the activities of the International Astronautical Federation. He was a member, often a Fellow, of many of the world’s aerospace technical societies.

Ordway donated the collection of science fiction and pulp magazines he had begun as a youngster to Harvard University. His impressive library of books on the history of space flight went to the University of Alabama, Huntsville. A collection of space art, focusing on the work of Chesley Bonestell, formed the basis for his 1992 travelling exhibition, Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact. For those of us who knew him, and millions of space enthusiasts around the globe, the world will be a less interesting and entertaining place without Fred Ordway.

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

Blazing the Trail in Space

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The first successful American “astronaut” is on display at the Smithsonian in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition. It’s not Alan Shepard, but Able, a rhesus monkey.


Able sometime before her flight at the U.S. Navy Aviation Medical School where she trained for her flight. (U.S. Army)

Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker were the first American animals to enter space and return safely. On May 28, 1959 at Cape Canaveral, Able was placed in the nose cone of Jupiter AM-18 secured by a contour cradle made of fiberglass with sponge rubber lining specifically built for her body. Included in the cradle were multiple electrodes used to collect information on Able’s reaction to noise, acceleration, deceleration, vibration, rotation, and weightlessness. The cradle was then placed in a capsule with a life support system that included oxygen, moisture and CO2 absorbers, and electrical heating and cooling systems to keep the monkey alive. Baker was placed her in own separate capsule in the nose cone.


Able being secured in her specially designed contour cradle before launch. Able’s position in the cradle mimics how the first human astronauts would be seated. (NASA)


Able seated in her cradle being placed inside the life support capsule before launch. (NASA)


Jupiter AM-18, the rocket that took Able and Baker into space, pre-launch.

Able and Baker’s mission lasted for approximately 16 minutes, nine of which they experienced weightlessness. The two monkeys traveled to an altitude of over 300 miles and 1,700 ground miles south of the launching point. After recovery by the naval ship USS Kiowa, the primate space travelers were reported as unhurt and in good spirits.


Able being extracted from her contour cradle after the successful flight. (NASA)


Able and Baker being shown off aboard the USS Kiowa after their flight. (U.S. Army)

After recovery, the two monkeys were flown to Washington, DC for a press conference, where they were treated like celebrities. They even appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine on June 15, 1959. Able was awarded a medal and Certificate of Merit from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Able at a Press Conference

The press conference held in Washington D.C. for the suddenly famous space monkeys. (U.S. Army)

Able was not the first choice for this mission. Another rhesus monkey had been extensively trained for the flight, but was replaced with Able only two weeks before the launch. The first candidate was born in India, and President Eisenhower determined that this might offend the Indian people who view rhesus monkeys as sacred animals. Therefore, American-born Able from Independence, Kansas was the new choice.


Able undergoing a flight test to prepare her for her flight into space with Baker.


Able, seated in her cradle, on top of her life support capsule on display at the National Air and Space Museum in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.

Unfortunately, Able died on the operating table at Armored Medical Research Laboratory (AMRL) in Fort Knox  just four days after her space flight. She was having an Electroencephalography (EED) electrode removed, a routine procedure. An EED measures electrical activity of the brain. The incision site was a shallow half inch, but anesthesia was used to save Able from discomfort. While under the anesthesia, her heart abruptly stopped. Extensive measures were taken to save her, to no avail. On March 22, 1960, Able’s body was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History preserved her.

Able’s space partner Baker, or Miss Baker as she has been known since her flight, lived out her days first at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida and then at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. On November 29, 1984, Miss Baker died of kidney failure at Auburn University, making her the oldest living squirrel monkey in captivity. Miss Baker’s grave can be seen at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center frequently with a banana or two on top.


Miss Baker sitting on a model of the rocket she and Able rode into space. (NASA)

Thanks to Able and Miss Baker, NASA and the U.S. military were assured that humans could survive in space. These two monkeys paved the way to human exploration in space.

Caroline Elpers was an intern in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.