Clipper was the name given by Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American World Airways to the series of flying boats that he commissioned to develop transoceanic, long distance air travel. The Clippers were actually four different aircraft: the Sikorsky S-40, the Sikorsky S-42, the Martin M-130 and the Boeing B-314. They were also indubitably the most romantic and luxurious passenger airplanes of all time. The best know and most exotic of them was the China Clipper, which provided the first trans-Pacific airmail and passenger service.

Early Clippers

Juan Trippe's family had deep roots in the shipping business and had made their fortune centuries before with the square rigged, fast sailing Clipper ships that plied the Atlantic trade routes. Early on, Trippe established himself as a savvy entrepreneur who knew how to seduce the US officialdom, in the foreign service who considered his airline the "chosen instrument" for economic expansion in Latin America, the United States Postal Service who would end up granting him every mail route he competed for, and foreign governments. As he set out to aggressively expand the routes for Pan Am in the early 1930s, he commissioned a seaplane from Igor Sikorsky, a pioneer in multi-engine aircraft and later father of the helicopter. A flying boat had inherent advantages in being able to land anywhere in the world's oceans instead of needing expensive runways, which were quite scarce at the time. The Sikorsky S-40 was the first Clipper series aircraft and the first four engine seaplane ever, Trippe, in keeping with the nautical traditions, named the first plane he took delivery of American Clipper. The S-40 could carry 50 passenger and had a range of 1,000 miles (1,609km) but it had a short lived career and was quickly superseded by the larger Sikorsky S-42 which nearly tripled the earlier aircraft's range. The small initial fleet was used mostly around the Caribbean and Latin America along routes scouted out by the most famous of all Pan Am employees, Charles A. Lindbergh, whom Trippe had hired in a brilliant PR move (Lindbergh was to work for the airline for 45 years). The pinnacle of this early period of the Pan Am Clippers, was the opening of the route from Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Trippe had more ambitious plans though, he wanted to open trans-Pacific routes and had spent almost five years trying out routes with the Sikorskys, but he had to wait for a plane with enough range to fulfill them. That plane was the Martin M-130.

The China Clipper

The flamboyantly named China Clipper (Pan Am only had rights to fly to Hong Kong, then a British colony, but we already know how Mr. Trippe operates), the first M-130 delivered to Pan Am, was a wonder of cutting edge navigation systems and more importantly, had a range of more than 3,200 miles (5,150km) which allowed for a non-stop leg from San Francisco to Honolulu. On November 22nd, 1935 the China Clipper Piloted by Captain Edward C. Musick, Chief Pilot for the airline since 1930, set out from the Alameda Marina with much fanfare for Manila, the capital of the Philippines bearing 110,000 pieces of mail. The press frenzy was such that they forced the Alameda radio controller to fake a telephone conversation with the plane for a newsreel crew, which was impossible even via radio as the Clipper was only equipped to communicate in Morse code. The journey was mostly uneventful except for the takeoff. The plane lacked enough power to clear the Golden Gate Bridge and had to fly under it, which looked quite dramatic and has made for a very famous image since everybody assumed that they had planned it that way. They arrived in Manila after 59 hours and 48 minutes of actual flight time divided in five legs:

  1. San Francisco to Honolulu - 2,410 miles(3,880km)
  2. Honolulu to Midway Island - 1,380 miles(2,200km)
  3. Midway Island to Wake Island - 1,260 miles(2,030km)
  4. Wake Island to Guam - 1,450 miles(2,333km)
  5. Guam to Manila - 1,550 miles(3,220km)

It would take however almost a year of fine tuning and provisioning the stops along the way before the airline was ready for paying passengers. On October 21st, 1936, nine passengers, just shy of the planes total capacity of 12, paid $1,438.20 round trip (more than $20,000 in current 2004 dollars) for the privilege of riding on this historic flight. Now mind you, this is not a modern airliner, which is essentially a bus with wings where you are crammed like cattle. The suave Mr. Trippe wanted to deliver the comfort, elegance and glamour of the finest passenger liners. The plane was large and boasted a central lounge that was wider than a Pullman coach and outfitted with broad armchairs, one forward and two aft passenger compartments that could seat eight or sleep six in comfortable berths, separate bathroom facilities for ladies and gentlemen, not to mention a spacious upper flight deck that accommodated the crew of five (captain, first officer, radio officer, flight engineer, and steward). Wood paneling and fine Persian carpets made for very plush interiors and the service was first rate as befit the glamour and exclusivity of the golden era of air travel. You were also saving between fifteen and twenty days of travel when compared with a ocean liner. After taking delivery of only three Martin M-130s, in 1939 Pan Am would receive the largest commercial passenger airplane to fly until bested by the Boeing 747, the Boeing B-314.

The Clippers live on (at least for a while)

The Clippers continued to fly and help position Pan Am as the de facto flag carrier for the United States (Trippe would attempt to make it the de jure US national airline by proposing after the war that government turn Pan Am into a regulated monopoly by having the federal government buy 49% of the company, needless to say, he failed in this attempt) . The Clippers even pitched in as transports during World War II becoming the first presidential aircraft as they ferried Franklin Delano Roosevelt around the world to meet with Churchill and Stalin. Pan Am would continue to give its planes individual Clipper names until the airline's demise in the early/mid 1990s. The three original M-130s would all perish in fatal crashes though the China Clipper would log more than a million miles of service and carry uranium ore from the Belgian Congo for the Manhattan Project.


E2 is not the wikipedia, so there is a reason for this very detailed wu. I was born in Havana twenty-three days after Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra. My family emigrated from Cuba in 1966 after many travails. We were poor, but my father was fiercely determined that my sister and I would grow in liberty and have all the opportunities that were closed to him by the revolution. Though we left through official channels, we had to wait almost a year for the coveted flight to freedom, a weekly flight from Havana to Miami. Being called up for your flight was not a sure sign that you would be leaving. The screenings would continue after you went to the staging location and even at the last minute at José Martí airport. Many were capriciously sent back home. We were lucky, we made it. I remember walking out on the concrete tarmac in the blinding late morning Cuban sunshine and looking out at a vision, a white and light blue jet, probably a DC-8, with the distinctive stylized Pan Am light blue globe logo emblazoned on the tail. This meant everything to me, and that aircraft and that logo signified to me opportunity and liberty. Many years later, I would take on a job that would take me all over Latin America, a region that was then suffering under Augusto Pinochet, Jorge Rafael Videla and other sundry right wing tyrants. I would fly mostly Pan Am as they still had most of the Latin America routes. Every time I would get on one of their magnificent Boeing 747s, I would be home already.


China Clipper is also a 1936 movie that featured Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. It is a thinly disguised fictionalized story of Pan American World Airways and would help propel Bogart to stardom. Pan Am Clippers were also the carriers on the transatlantic flights from Lisbon immortalized in Casablanca.


There are a lot of pictures culled from a Life magazine shoot here http://www.seawings.co.uk/B-314ClipperWRgal.htm

A full list of the Clippers with their registration numbers, name, year placed in service, region where it saw service and some notes:

Sikorsky S-40
  • NC80V - American Clipper - 1931 - Pacific - The First PAA Clipper, inaugural flight 11/19/31
  • NC81V - Caribbean Clipper - 1931 - Pacific
  • NC752V - Southern Clipper - 1932 - Pacific
Sikorsky S-42
  • NC822M - Brazilian Clipper aka Colombia Clipper - 1934 - Latin America & Pacific - Renamed Colombia Clipper for use on Pacific Survey flights, scrapped 1946
  • NC823M - West Indies Clipper aka Pan American Clipper aka Hong Kong Clipper - 1934 - Latin America - Renamed Pan American Clipper. Renamed Hong Kong Clipper 1937. Sank at Antilla, Cuba, 9/7/44
  • NC824M - unchristened - 1935 - Latin America Crashed, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 12/20/35
  • NC15373 - Jamaica Clipper - 1935 - Latin America - (S-42A). Scrapped 7/15/46
  • NC15374 - Antilles Clipper - 1935 - Latin America - (S-42A). Scrapped 7/15/46
  • NC15375 - Brazilian Clipper aka Colombian Clipper - 1936 - Latin America - (S-42A). Scrapped 7/15/46
  • NC15376 - Dominican Clipper - 1936 - Latin America - (S-42A). Lost in accident in San Juan Harbor, Puerto Rico 10/3/41
  • NC16734 - Pan American Clipper II aka Samoan Clipper - 1936 - Pacific - (S-42A). Renamed Samoan Clipper, lost near Pago Pago, Samoa, 1/11/38
  • NC16735 - Bermuda Clipper aka Alaska Clipper aka Hong Kong Clipper II - 1936 - Atlantic & Pacific - (S-42A). Baltimore-Bermuda route. To Alaska 1940 and renamed Alaska Clipper, to Manila-Hong Kong route 1941 and renamed Hong Kong Clipper II. Sunk by Japanese bombing, Hong Kong 12/8/41.
  • NC16736 - Pan American Clipper III aka Bermuda Clipper - 1937 - North Atlantic & South Atlantic (S-42A). Survey flights, to Bermuda route 1940 and renamed Bermuda Clipper. To South America 19??. Destroyed at Manaus, Brazil, on the Rio Negro 7/27/43
Martin M-130
  • NC14714 - Hawaiian Clipper aka Hawaii Clipper - 1936 - Pacific - First scheduled transpacific passenger service 10/21/36. Rechristened Hawaii Clipper in 1937. Lost over the Pacific east of Manila 7/29/38
  • NC14715 - Philippine Clipper - 1935 -Pacific - To USN as M-130 48230 1942. Crashed into a mountain at Boonville, California, 1/21/43
  • NC14716 - China Clipper - 1935 - Pacific - First transpacific air mail 11/22/35. To USN as M-130 48231 1942. Crashed Port au Spain, Trinidad, 1/8/45
Boeing B-314
  • NC18601 - Honolulu Clipper - 1939 - Pacific - Operated by PAA during the war. Collided with USS San Pablo taking it under tow and was sunk by cannon fire 11/14/45
  • NC18602 - California Clipper aka Pacific Clipper - 1939 - Pacific Renamed Pacific Clipper. To USN as B-314 48224 1942 but operated by PAA; to World Airways 1946, scrapped in 1950
  • NC18603 - Yankee Clipper - 1939 - Atlantic First transatlantic air mail. To USN as B-314 48225 1942 but operated by PAA. Crashed and sank in River Tagus near Lisbon, Portugal, 2/22/43
  • NC18604 - Atlantic Clipper - 1939 - Atlantic - To USN as B-314 48226 1942 but operated by PAA. Salvaged for parts in 1946
  • NC18605 - Dixie Clipper - 1939 - Atlantic - First transatlantic passenger service; first actual US presidential aircraft 1/11/43. To USN as B-314 48227 1942 but operated by PAA; to World Airways 1946, scrapped in 1950.
  • NC18606 - American Clipper - 1939 - Atlantic - To USAAF 42-88631 then USN 99083 1942; to World Airways 1946, scrapped in 1950
  • NC18607 and NC18608 - 1941 - England (B-314A) Both ordered by PAA but went to BOAC 1941 as G-AGBZ Bristol and G-AGCA Berwick; both to World Airways 1948-??
  • NC18609 - Pacific Clipper - 1941 - Pacific (B-314A) To USAAF 42-88632 then USN 99084 1946; to Universal Airlines 1946-??, damaged in a storm and salvaged for parts
  • NC18610 - 1941 - England (B-314A) Ordered by PAA but went to BOAC 1941 as G-AGCB Bangor, to World Airways 1948-??
  • NC18611 - Anzac Clipper - 1941 - Atlantic & Pacific (B-314A) To USAAF 42-88630 then USN 99082 1942; to American International Airways 1946; to World Airways 1948, sold and destroyed in Baltimore, Maryland in late 1951
  • NC18612 - Capetown Clipper - 1941 - Atlantic (B-314A) To USAAF 42-88622 then USN 99081 1942; to American International Airways 1946. Sunk at sea by USCG as a hazard to ships after colliding with boat in precautionary landing 10/14/47
Data: Peter M Bowers, Andres Visser, PanAm.org, R E G Davies: Pan Am, An Airline and Its Aircraft

Aerofiles PAA Clippers,http://www.aerofiles.com/PAA-clippers.html, 10/1/2004
Our History,http://www.sikorsky.com/details/0,3036,CLI1_DIV69_ETI683,00.html, 9/24/2004
Can of the Month - China Clipper,http://www.rustycans.com/month0903.html, 10/1/2004
China Clipper,http://www.zpub.com/sf/history/sfh-cc.html, 10/1/2004
The Big Clipper Flying Boats,http://w1.901.telia.com/~u90113819/archives/flyboats.htm, 10/1/2004
China Clipper Radio,http://www.panam.com/cgi-bin/_textdisplay_0.asp?display=RADIODAYS&refer=692284737&call=M , 10/1/2004
Transoceanic travel and the Pan American Clippers,http://www.flyingclippers.com/transoceanic.html , 10/1/2004
Modern Airliners - Pan American Clippers,http://www.pbs.org/kcet/chasingthesun/planes/clipper.html, 10/1/2004
Martin M-130 "China Clipper",http://www.aviation-history.com/martin/m130.html, 10/1/2004
Pan American's Flying Boats,http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Commercial_Aviation/china_clipper/Tran5.htm, 10/1/2004
Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records,http://www.library.miami.edu/archives/panam/pan.html, 10/1/2004
Martin Sea Planes,http://www.chicagoboyz.net/archives/002295.html, 10/1/2004

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