Aviation history was made on November 22, 1935 when Pan American Airlines “flying boat”, the China Clipper, lifted off from Alameda, California, to begin the first transpacific airmail service.
The Glenn L. Martin Company built the China Clipper for Pan American Airlines at a cost of nearly $450,000. The Martin M-130 was one of the largest airplanes ever built at the time.
25,000 people gathered to see the China Clipper begin her historic flight. The crowd and the crew knew that the flight across the Pacific was a daunting task beginning with the first few minutes in the air. Leaving the airfield to the cheers on the ground below, the large bat plane quickly met an obstacle in the flight path – the Oakland-Bay Bridge which was under construction to span the water from Oakland to San Francisco. The pilot, Edwin C. Musick, fearing he might not have enough clearance to fly over the bridge – Musick flew the China Clipper underneath the bridge!
The China Clipper was a marvel of early aviation and the first plane capable of flying non-stop for 2,400 miles between California and Honolulu which was once considered an impossibility.
Seven days after leaving the runway in Alameda, and flying more than 10,000 miles with only four stops for refueling, the airplane and crew made history landing in Manilla. Musick and his navigator Fred Noonan and the rest of the crew had proven that commercial airline service was possible.
The achievements of the China Clipper and her crew made headlines all over the world. In Hollywood, the news story quickly became a movie script. “China Clipper”, released in 1936, and starred Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart. The movie used both newsreel footage and film clips from test flights of the China Clipper as well as thrilling stunt flying sequences filmed in Hollywood.
Aside from making aviation history and thrilling movie fans, the China Clipper also served the USA in wartime. During World War ll, she was painted olive green and a painted American flag adorned the plane below the cockpit. Given the military registration number of NIC1516, the Clipper would become known during the war as “Sweet Sixteen” a reference to the last two digits of her registration number.
Pan American airmail service with the China Clipper ended in early January of 1945 when the plane heading toward the Caribbean city of Port au Prince in Trinidad and Tobago for refueling, fell short of the landing site. The shattered plane broke in half and sank, tragically killing 23 passengers. Only seven survivors could be rescued.
Today, remember the ingenuity of the engineers, designers, and the skill and bravery of the aviators who could dream beyond the clouds and across the miles to bring the world closer than ever before.