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Pan Am Route Map – 1933

Pan American Airways System in 1933.

Sikorsky S-40 flying boat interior

Interior of Sikorsky S-40 flying boat, the first four-engine seaplane.

Sikorsky S-42 flying boat

The Sikorsky S-42 seaplane was the worldďs first big luxury airliner.

China Clipper arrives at Manila

After 59 hours, 48 minutes of flying across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco with stops at Honolulu, Midway, Wake, and Guam, the Pan American China Clipper berths at Manila on November 29, 1935.

Pan American's Flying Boats

In the history of American commercial aviation, the Pan American Airways flying boats occupy an important place. The planes, first by carrying mail and then passengers, were part of an ocean-wide network that set a host of aviation records as part of the famous Clipper Ships service. Using these flying boats—a fleet of 25 in total—Pan American became the first airline to cross the Pacific, the first to establish extensive routes in South America, and the first to offer regular airplane commercial service across the North Atlantic.

Juan Trippe, the visionary founder of Pan American, was the major driving force behind the founding of the Clipper service. In need of a modern amphibious plane, Trippe turned to famous aviation designer Igor Sikorsky. The Russian genius produced two planes for Pan American, the S-40 and the S-42, which were the first four-engine seaplanes. The former could carry 50 passengers in relative comfort and had a range of nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers). The S-42 had a range nearly three times the S-40, and was the world's first big luxury airliner. In 1931, after delivery of the first S-40, Trippe named the aircraft American Clipper, in tribute to the China tea trade clipper ships of the 1860s, the fastest sailing ships of their day.

Beginning in November 1931, Trippe began to establish extensive international mail and passenger services to the Caribbean and then to South America using three S-40 flying boats. The longer-range S-42 began passenger service in South America in August 1934.

For crossing the Pacific, Trippe was convinced by famous aviator Charles Lindbergh that the most efficient route would be to fly along the coast of Alaska and then to Japan (a distance of about 2,000 miles—3,219 kilometers) and on to China. Diplomatic problems with both the Soviet Union and Japan, however, forced Trippe to look at alternative routes. The most obvious way was to go straight across the ocean, from California to Hawaii, and then to Midway Island and Wake Island, an uninhabited lagoon in the Western Pacific. From there, the planes could fly to Guam and then finally to the Philippines. Despite only lukewarm interest from the U.S. postal service for such routes, Trippe pressed ahead with his plans. In 1935, Pan American built airfields in Midway, Wake, and Guam and ran test flights across the Pacific using the S-42.

For the initial flights, Pan American used the Martin M-130 flying boat, a thoroughly modern plane equipped with state-of-the-art navigation systems and a range of 3,200 miles (5,150 kilometers). The interior of the large but graceful aircraft was modeled like a hotel, with broad armchairs and full meal service. It could carry as many as 52 passengers. Trippe dubbed the first plane the China Clipper, although in truth, Pan American had landing rights only to the British colony of Hong Kong on the southern coast of China. On November 22, 1935, the airline began mail service across the Pacific, when the China Clipper took off with much fanfare from San Francisco Bay and flew to Hawaii, then on to Manila in the Philippines by way of Midway, Wake, and Guam.

In October 1936, Pan American finally inaugurated its first passenger flights across the Pacific by carrying nine travelers across the largest ocean in the world. Each passenger paid more than $1,400 for the round-trip from San Francisco to Manila, an astronomical sum at that time. Soon after establishing the service to Hong Kong and Manila, Trippe looked forward to expanding routes in Australia and New Zealand. Although the British refused to grant landing rights to Australia, New Zealand was more cooperative. Pan American's Clippers began flying regular passenger services to New Zealand in March 1937, flying via the Kingman Reef south of Hawaii and American Samoa.

Using the Martin M-130 seaplanes, Pan American Airways became the world's dominant transoceanic airline. The Clipper service gained a reputation as a dependable and elegant service that literally reduced the size of the world. On regular flights across the Pacific, the bulk of cargo would be mail, leaving room for usually eight to ten passengers who could stretch out in three large compartments, and a larger lounge/dining salon. During the 18-to-20-hour trip from San Francisco to Hawaii, passengers could enjoy cocktails in the lounge and formal evening meals. Although uncomfortable in comparison to current-day standards, passengers did not seem bothered by the loud noise of the engines that droned for the total flight time of about 60 hours spread over five days. So famous were the Pan American Clipper flying boats that even Hollywood joined in the chorus of praise by producing a movie named China Clipper, starring Humphrey Bogart.

Pan American's ambitious plans for expansion were tragically cut short when two Clippers, the Samoan Clipper and the Hawaii Clipper, crashed in 1937 and 1938 within six months of each other, killing all on board. With only two remaining Martin flying boats, the company was forced to cut its schedule by 60 percent. Passenger business also dropped off sharply as public confidence in the Clipper service plummeted. At the same time, Pan American's monopolistic practices in the international market drew fire from many quarters including pioneer aircraft builder Grover Loening, who resigned from Pan American's board, citing “the monopolistic aims of…one company in a tragic blunder of overexpansion, underpreparation and overworking….” The U.S. Department of Commerce subsequently withdrew its authorization for Pan American to use American Samoa as a landing point.

Trippe temporarily turned his attention to transatlantic routes, but he did not lose his determination to salvage the Pacific Clipper service. In a brilliant strategic move, he introduced the magnificent Boeing B-314 seaplane on his Pacific routes. The huge whale-shaped B-314 had already proved itself in the North Atlantic, and its range of 3,500 miles was perfect for the Pacific. In February 1939, the B-314 officially replaced the older Martin M-130 flying boats on the Northern Pacific route. Later, in July 1940, Trippe finally reopened the South Pacific route that stretched from California to New Zealand. Despite this modest comeback, Pan American remained in financial trouble, and one of Trippe's financial backers, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, led a successful charge in March 1939 to depose Trippe as chief executive officer of Pan American. Trippe eventually returned to the helm of Pan American in January 1940, but financial troubles dogged the company, even as it was expanding its Clipper service to the North Atlantic.

Through World War II, Pan American operated scaled-down Clipper services over both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, but the end of the war signaled the beginning of a new era. Seaplanes were being replaced by new four-engine landplanes that could land at the multitude of new modern airstrips. Most significantly, Pan American had finally lost its near-monopolistic hold over the international American airline industry when the U.S. government allowed other airlines to compete in the postwar aviation boom. In January 1946, Pan American operated its B-314 for the last time on the Atlantic routes. The last Pacific flight occurred four months later. Although the seaplane service ended, Pan American, with its Clipper service, left behind a legacy of ambition, excellent service, and adventure that few airlines ever equaled in the postwar era.

—Asif Siddiqi


Allen, Oliver E. The Airline Builders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Allen, Roy. The Pan Am Clipper: The History of Pan American's Flying Boats 1931 to 1946. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2000.

Davies, R.E.G. Airlines of the United States Since 1914. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972.

Leary, William M. Editor. Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: The Air Industry. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

On-line References:

“The China Clipper – The Martin M-130—flyingclippers.com,” http://www.flyingclippers.com/main.html

Marshall, John A. “The Round The World Saga of the "Pacific Clipper." http://www.panam.com/cgi-bin/_textdisplay_0.asp?display=RTWSAGA&refer=243182666&call=D

PanAmAir. http://www.panamair.org/History/history.htm.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 11

The process, patterns, and functions of human settlement.