November 22, 1935, a plane took off from San Francisco heading to Hawaii. A regular event today, but in 1935 aviation was still in its early years and the plane that took off that day quickly captured national and international attention. The China Clipper was the first commercial aircraft to establish a regularly travel route from across the Pacific. The “China” Clipper was somewhat of a misnomer. The route extended from San Francisco through Hawaii, Midway, Wake and Guam before ending in the Philippines, not China. This route was selected because it was an “all-American” flag route. The China Clipper was the first of a series of flying boats owned by Pan American airways that crisscrossed the Pacific beginning in 1935. The boats were named for the clipper sailing ships of the mid-19th century, the speedy trading ships.
The first Clipper was a Martin M-130 aircraft, built in 1935 by the Glenn L. Martin aircraft company. Pan American also purchased flying boats for their pacific fleet from Sikorsky and Boeing. That craft’s wingspan was 130’ and it weighed 52,000 pounds. It was powered by four Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines and had a maximum speed of 180mph. The craft had a range of 3,200 miles, a cruising ceiling of 17,000’ and could carry 18 passengers on overnight trips and 46 people on day trips.
Newspapers were filled with articles about the new airplane and its impending inaugural flight. They followed its flight from Miami through Acapulco to San Diego and finally the Alameda base at San Francisco where it was readied for its transpacific debut. There was great zeal for the idea of speedier connections between the U.S. and Pacific islands and nations, as seen in an enthusiastic editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled, “The Conquest of the Pacific.” The author touted this achievement as one that could stand alongside “the date of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph message, the completion of the first continental American railway, and the receiving of the first wireless signal from Europe to America. . . . How many thrill at the thought of a voyage through the skies from California to China in 65 hours of actual flying time.”
The first flight did not carry passengers. All that kept the crew company on that historic flight were 58 mail pouches stuffed with 111,000 envelopes weighing almost 2,000 pounds. At the time, it was the largest mail shipment ever taken on board an airplane. The plane’s crew included Captain Edwin C. Musick and Frederick Noonan, navigation officer. Noonan would later partner with Amelia Earhart on her ill-fated 1937 attempt to fly around the world. They were joined by three more officers and two radio men. Their cargo was almost completely philatelic – envelopes sent by collectors who were looking to have a “first flight” mail piece. There were so many envelopes sent that the luxurious furnishings created for the Clipper’s future passengers had to be removed to make room for the mail pouches.
Prior to the clipper’s departure, the post office, which anticipated only a third of the final total volume, was kept hopping across the country. Postal officials noted that in San Francisco 100 clerks were kept busy preparing the tens of thousands of letters that were being prepared for the flight. United Airlines, Transcontinental and Western Air each brought a planeload of envelopes in from the east coast before the clipper set off.
China Clipper, the name of the inaugural M-130 aircraft of the transpacific fleet, became the name the public used for all of the subsequent Pan American aircraft on that route. The China Clipper captured the national imagination. A movie of the same name starring Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart was released the next year, Captain Musick was featured on the cover of Time magazine and in addition to a raft of Clipper-inspired toys and souvenirs was a newly named beer—Clipper beer.
The real China Clipper arrived in Manila, eight thousand miles away from San Francisco on the afternoon of November 29 after traveling through Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam. The plane’s actual flying time was 59 hours and 48 minutes. The same voyage by the speediest steamship would have taken 15 to 16 days.
About the Author
Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, has worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she has curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.