Airline Expansion and Innovation (1927 - 1941)

The China Clipper

Pan Am to Hawaii
National Air and Space Museum Archives

The name China Clipper evokes a romantic age of luxurious air travel, when the rich and adventurous flew across the Pacific to the Orient.

The China Clipper was the name of one of three Martin M-130 flying boats built for Pan American Airways. The others were the Hawaii Clipper and the Philippine Clipper. The Martin M-130 was the first airliner that could fly nonstop the 3,840-kilometer (2,400-mile) distance between San Francisco and Honolulu, Hawaii-the longest major route in the world without and emergency intermediate landing field.

The China Clipper and its sister ships demonstrated that there were no technological barriers to transoceanic travel.

Boarding Boeing 314
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Why Flying Boats?

Flying boats became popular in the 1930s because they did not have to contend with the rough state of early airfields. They could also alight on water in emergencies, thus allaying fears of passengers flying long distances over oceans. And they could be made larger and heavier than other airliners, because they were not restricted by the short length of airfields.

Most of Pan American's Latin American destinations were along coasts, so flying boats were a logical choice.  Pan Am president Juan Trippe ordered the Boeing 314 flying boat in 1936 specifically for the planned transatlantic route. The aircraft had a maximum range of 5,700 kilometers (3,500 miles), and on shorter flights it could carry up to 74 passengers and a crew of 10.

Martin 130 China Clipper Sleeper
National Air and Space Museum Archives
Martin 130 Clipper Pan Am
National Air and Space Museum Archives

On November 22, 1935, the Martin M-130 China Clipper opened the first regularly scheduled air mail service across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Manila. Here, it flies over the unfinished Golden Gate Bridge. A year later, the China Clipper began the first trans-Pacific passenger service.

 

Each Clipper flew a total of 60 hours over a six-day span, with stops at Midway and Wake islands, where Pan Am constructed its own hotels and facilities, as well as Guam. Few could afford the $799 one-way fare, so the M-130s usually carried no more than eight passengers, and often less.

Propellor from the China Clipper
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Propeller from the China Clipper

This Hamilton Standard variable-pitch propeller belonged to the famous Martin M-130 flying boat China Clipper. The blade's angle could be adjusted for optimum performance during takeoff and cruise, thus greatly increasing the aircraft's efficiency.
Gift of Pan American Airways

Pan American Cigarette Case
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Pan American Cigarette Case

On June 28, 1939, Pan American presented this sterling silver cigarette case to William J. Eck for being the first paying passenger to cross the Atlantic by aircraft. He flew on the Boeing 314 Dixie Clipper.
Gift of William J. Eck

Juan Trippe's Globe
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Juan Trippe's Globe

From his office in New York City, Pan American president Juan T. Trippe used this globe to plan his airline's expansion around the world. Trippe often would stretch a string between two points on the globe and calculate the distance and time it would take for his airliners to fly between them. Made in the late 1800s, this globe was featured prominently in many publicity photos of Trippe, and it became part of Pan Am's and Trippe's public image.
Gift of the Pan American Historical Foundation