THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
Pan American Airways
(Boeing 314 Clipper, circa 1941)
WHO BENEFITTED FROM THE END
OF THE AIRSHIP INDUSTRY?
The Official Story
PAN AMERICAN AIRWAYS
Pan American World Airways, originally founded as Pan American Airways and commonly known as Pan Am, was the principal and largest international air carrier and unofficial overseas flag carrier of the United States for much of the 20th century. It was the first airline to fly worldwide and pioneered numerous innovations of the modern airline industry, such as jet aircraft, jumbo jets, and computerized reservation systems. Until its dissolution in 1991, Pan Am “epitomized the luxury and glamour of intercontinental travel”, and it remains a cultural icon of the 20th century, identified by its blue globe logo (“The Blue Meatball”), the use of the word “Clipper” in its aircraft names and call signs, and the white uniform caps of its pilots.
Founded in 1927 by two former U.S. Army Air Corps majors, Pan Am began as a scheduled airmail and passenger service flying between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. Under the leadership of American entrepreneur Juan Trippe, in the 1930s the airline purchased a fleet of flying boats and focused its route network on Central and South America, gradually adding transatlantic and transpacific destinations. By the mid-20th century, Pan Am enjoyed a near monopoly on international routes. It led the aircraft industry into the Jet Age by acquiring new jetliners such as the Boeing 707 and Boeing 747. Pan Am’s modern fleet allowed it to fly larger numbers of passengers, at a longer range, and with fewer stops than rivals. Its primary hub and flagship terminal was the Worldport at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
During its peak between the late 1950s and early 1970s, Pan Am was world-renowned for its advanced fleet, experienced and highly trained staff, and numerous amenities. In 1970 alone, it flew 11 million passengers to 86 countries, with destinations in every continent save Antarctica. In an era dominated by flag carriers that were wholly or majority-owned by governments, it became the unofficial national carrier of the United States. Pan Am was a founding member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global airline industry association, and helped shape the industry standard in hospitality and customer service.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Pan Am began facing a series of challenges both internal and external, along with rising competition from the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. After several attempts at financial restructuring and rebranding throughout the 1980s, Pan Am gradually sold off its assets before declaring bankruptcy in 1991. By the time it ceased operations, the airline’s trademark was the second most recognized worldwide, and its loss was felt among travelers and many Americans as signifying the end of the golden age of air travel. Its brand, iconography, and contributions to the industry remain well known in the 21st century. The airline’s name and imagery were purchased by railroad holding company Guilford Transportation Industries in 1998, which changed its name to Pan Am Systems and adopted Pan Am’s logo.
Six large, long-range Boeing 314 flying boats were delivered to Pan Am in early 1939. On March 30, 1939, the Yankee Clipper, piloted by Harold E. Gray, made the first-ever trans-Atlantic passenger flight. The first leg of the flight, Baltimore to Horta, took 17 hours and 32 minutes and covered 2,400 miles (3,900 km). The second leg from Horta to Pan Am’s newly built airport in Lisbon took 7 hours and 7 minutes and covered 1,200 miles (1,900 km). The Boeing 314 also enabled the start of scheduled weekly contract Foreign Air Mail (F.A.M. 18) service and later passenger flights from New York (Port Washington, L.I.) to both France and Britain. The Southern route to France was inaugurated for airmail on May 20, 1939, by the Yankee Clipper piloted by Arthur E. LaPorte flying via Horta, Azores, and Lisbon, Portugal to Marseilles. Passenger service over the route was added on June 28, 1939, by the Dixie Clipper piloted by R.O.D. Sullivan. The Eastbound trip departed every Wednesday at Noon and arrived at Marseilles on Friday at 3 pm GCT with return service leaving Marseilles on Sunday at 8 am and arriving at Port Washington on Tuesday at 7 am. The Northern transatlantic route to Britain was inaugurated for Air Mail service on June 24, 1939, by the Yankee Clipper piloted by Harold Gray flying via Shediac (New Brunswick), Botwood (Newfoundland), and Foynes (Ireland) to Southampton. Passenger service was added on the Northern route on July 8, 1939, by the Yankee Clipper. Eastbound flights left on Saturday at 7:30 am and arrived at Southampton on Sunday at 1 pm GCT. Westbound service departed Southampton on Wednesday at Noon and arrived at Port Washington on Thursday at 3 pm. After the outbreak of World War II in Europe on September 1, 1939, the terminus became Foynes until the service ceased for the winter on October 5 while transatlantic service to Lisbon via the Azores continued into 1941. During World War II, Pan Am flew over 90 million mi (140 million km) worldwide in support of military operations.
BOEING 314 CLIPPER
The Boeing 314 Clipper was an American long-range flying boat produced by Boeing from 1938 to 1941. One of the largest aircraft of its time, it had the range to cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For its wing, Boeing re-used the design from the earlier XB-15 bomber prototype. Twelve Clippers were built, nine of which served with Pan Am.
Design and development
Pan American had requested a flying boat with unprecedented range that could augment the airline’s trans-Pacific Martin M-130. Boeing’s bid was successful and on July 21, 1936, Pan American signed a contract for six. Boeing engineers adapted the cancelled XB-15’s 149 ft (45 m) wing, and replaced the 850 hp (630 kW) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines with the 1,600 hp (1,200 kW) Wright Twin Cyclone. Pan Am ordered six more aircraft with increased engine power and capacity for 77 daytime passengers as the Boeing 314A.
The huge flying boat was assembled at Boeing’s Plant 1 on the Duwamish River in Seattle, and towed to Elliott Bay for taxi and flight tests. The first flight was on June 7, 1938, piloted by Edmund T. “Eddie” Allen. At first the aircraft had a single vertical tail, and Allen found he had inadequate directional control. The aircraft returned to the factory and was fitted with the endplates on the ends of the horizontal tail in place of the single vertical fin. This too was found to be insufficient and finally the centerline vertical fin was restored, after which the aircraft flew satisfactorily.
The 314 used a series of heavy ribs and spars to create a robust fuselage and cantilevered wing, eliminating the need for external drag-inducing struts to brace the wings. Boeing also incorporated Dornier-style sponsons into the hull structure. The sponsons, broad lateral extensions at the waterline on both sides of the hull, served several purposes: They provided a wide platform to stabilize the craft while floating, they acted as a gangway for boarding and exiting, and they possessed intentional shaping to contribute additional aerodynamic lift in flight. Passengers and their baggage were weighed, with each passenger allowed up to 77 pounds (35 kg) free baggage allowance (in the later 314 series) but then charged $3.25 per pound ($7.2/kg) (equivalent to $63 in 2021) for exceeding the limit. To fly the long ranges needed for trans-Pacific service, the 314 carried 4,246 US gallons (16,070 l; 3,536 imp gal) of gasoline. The later 314A model carried a further 1,200 US gallons (4,500 l; 1,000 imp gal). A capacity of 300 US gallons (1,100 l; 250 imp gal) of oil was required for operation of the radial engines.
Pan Am’s “Clippers” were built for “one-class” luxury air travel, a necessity given the long duration of transoceanic flights. The seats could be converted into 36 bunks for overnight accommodation; with a cruising speed of 188 miles per hour (303 km/h) (typically flights at maximum gross weight were flown at 155 miles per hour (249 km/h)) in 1940, Pan Am’s schedule San Francisco to Honolulu was 19 hours. The 314s had a lounge and dining area, and the galleys were crewed by chefs from four-star hotels. Men and women were provided with separate dressing rooms, and white-coated stewards served five and six-course meals with gleaming silver service. The standard of luxury on Pan American’s Boeing 314s has rarely been matched on heavier-than-air transport since then; they were a form of travel for the super-rich, priced at $675 (equivalent to $13,000 in 2021) round trip from New York to Southampton. Most of the flights were transpacific, with a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong via the “stepping-stone” islands posted at $760 (equivalent to $15,000 in 2021). The Pan Am Boeing 314 Clippers brought exotic destinations like the Far East within reach of air travelers and came to represent the romance of flight. Transatlantic flights to neutral Lisbon and Ireland continued after war broke out in Europe in September 1939 (and until 1945), but military passengers and cargoes necessarily got priority, and the service was more spartan.
Equally critical to the 314’s success was the proficiency of its Pan Am flight crews, who were extremely skilled at long-distance, over-water flight operations and navigation. For training, many of the transpacific flights carried a second crew. Only the very best and most experienced flight crews were assigned Boeing 314 flying boat duty. Before coming aboard, all Pan Am captains as well as first and second officers had thousands of hours of flight time in other seaplanes and flying boats. Rigorous training in dead reckoning, timed turns, judging drift from sea current, celestial navigation, and radio navigation were conducted. In conditions of poor or no visibility, pilots sometimes made successful landings at fogged-in harbors by landing out to sea, then taxiing the 314 into port.