Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space venture successfully conducted its first rocket-powered flight this week and may carry out a trial voyage into space by the end of the year. More than 500 “space tourists” have already signed up for the first commercial flight.
The idea recalls another wildly ambitious, even reckless, business venture: The Pan Am clippers, which had an immediate and powerful effect on both business and leisure travel that extended well beyond the few well-heeled passengers flown in just a few years of operation.
These flying boats were sui generis. They cut by half the time required to cross the Atlantic, and slashed by two thirds the time it took to cross the Pacific. When commercial transpacific flights began in 1936, an importer based on the U.S. West Coast could fly to meet suppliers in Asia, spend a week holding meetings, making deals and inspecting goods, then fly home in the same amount of time it used to take him just to make the outbound crossing by ship.
In the late 1930s, trade with the West was a delicate issue in parts of Asia. China was wracked by civil war and Imperial Japan was focused on trade within its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” However, Hong Kong, Manila and the Dutch East Indies remained thriving export markets for goods from across Asia until the spread of World War II in 1941.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the “China Clippers” is that they were practically willed into existence by Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airways. His business acumen and commercial vision have been well documented. Marine aviation was an essential component of his growth strategy from the start, when Pan Am began connecting destinations around the Caribbean and Latin America.
Even for Trippe it was an audacious reach to plan transoceanic commercial aviation, just four years after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic. His innovation was island hopping: San Francisco to Hawaii, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila and finally Hong Kong. The biggest and best aircraft at the time was the Sikorsky S-40, introduced in 1931. It resembled a boat attached to a huge parasol wing by a maze of struts, with four stubby engines precariously lashed in between. It could carry 32 passengers over a range of 600 miles, sufficient for Pan Am’s Miami-to-Panama run, but it couldn’t cross oceans.
In 1934, Sikorsky delivered the S-42, a larger and more streamlined craft, and with the same payload and twice the range as its predecessor. That was sufficient for all but the first leg of the Pacific route, San Francisco to Hawaii, which is 2,400 miles. Pan Am took 10 S-42s for its Rio run, and tried to upgrade them with more powerful engines and fuel capacity for the Hawaii hop. It wasn’t commercially viable.
Turning to Martin Aviation, Trippe bought a trio of M-130 flying boats. They had a range of 4,000 miles. One, the China Clipper, flew the 8,210 miles from San Francisco to Manila in six and a half days in November 1935. Having proved the viability of the concept, the name was applied to the whole fleet.
Commercial Pacific service began less than year later, after Pan Am invested more than $1 million (about $17 million today) in facilities at way stations. The M-130 could carry as many as 41 passengers, but Pacific service was limited to just 14, who paid fares of about $1,500 (about $25,000 today). The venture was a success, and was extended to New Zealand by way of Samoa in 1937.
The rock star of flying boats, the Boeing 314, entered service on the North Atlantic run in 1939. With a range of 3,700 miles and a payload of 74 daytime travelers or half that many sleepers, it could travel nonstop from Newfoundland to Foynes, Ireland. Two accidents involving M-130s led Pan Am to deploy the big Boeings on the Pacific routes, too.
During the war all the flying boats were put to use as military transports, and went back to passenger service afterward. But airframe and engine technology, along with the proliferation of large airports, meant the flying boats’ era was over. The last Boeing 314s were scrapped in 1950.
But they had changed commercial aviation and business travel. In 1937, the steamship journey from San Francisco to Yokohama took 15 days, and three more days to reach Shanghai. The Pan Am clippers did it in one-third the time.
Even on the Atlantic run, where the time savings was only a couple of days, a new mindset for business and travel had developed. In an article describing the departure of the first 314 for Europe on June 29, 1939, the New York Times described a girl in the crowd calling to her mother, “Write me a letter!” The mother replied with a laugh as she boarded the big Boeing, “I’ll be back before the letter.”
(Gregory DL Morris is a member of the editorial board of the Museum of American Finance, a Smithsonian affiliate. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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