Thursday, September 24, 2009

Six Days that Shrank the World

by Tom Emch

Forty years ago yesterday, the first flight of the China Clipper from San Francisco Bay to Manila held the attention of the world. It was front page news - a fledgling world radio hookup carried live programs on the departure and arrival in the Philippines, more than 8,000 miles away.

Here is the story of the day of departure, Nov. 22, 1935, as it might have appeared in a newspaper dispatch, and the story of the flight as one of the Pan American crew members might have told it.

ALAMEDA - Nov. 22, 1935 - The China Clipper, beginning a new chapter in American aviation history, lifted off the waters of San Francisco Bay today on the world's first scheduled flight across the Pacific. Her destination: Manila, 8,000 miles away.

More than 10,000 people here cheered as the Clipper rose to the top of the waves and flew under the Bay Bridge, still under construction, over the Marina, where another 20,000 people had gathered, and set a course for Hawaii on the first leg of a world-shrinking journey into history.

At the controls was Captain Edwin Musick, who, moments before had received his sailing orders from Pan American president Juan Trippe.

"Cast off and depart for Manila," Trippe told the veteran pilot, setting in motion a six-day flight that will take the Clipper to Pearl Harbor, Midway, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

During ceremonies preceding the take-off, California Gov. Frank Merriam hailed the event as an aviation milestone. He was followed to the podium by Postmaster General James Farley and the governor of the Territory of Hawaii, Joseph Poindexter.

Then, through special trans-Pacific radio facilities, the voice of Manuel Quezon, president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines was heard. He forecast the "dawn of a new era for the Orient" with the coming of the Clipper ships.

Aboard the China Clipper, now flying directly into the retreating sun at a steady 130 miles per hour, the crew is busy monitoring the rows of flight instruments that describe the performance of the four Pratt & Whitney 850-horsepower engines.

Capt. Musick has told the crew they can change from uniforms worn for the departure ceremonies and get comfortable for the 21-hour flight to Hawaii.

Engineering officer Victor Wright breaks out a pair of red pajamas and slippers. Navigators Fred Noonan and George King shed their jackets and ties and roll up their sleeves.

There are no passengers aboard; seats have been removed to make room for cargo and mail - some 110,000 letters specially canceled as the first transoceanic airmail.

Now the Clipper is swallowed by darkness. A cloud layer has closed out the sea, 8,000 feet below. Radio operator Wilson Jarboe Jr. has just informed Capt. Musick he has raised the Coast Guard cutter Ithaca and confirmed the Clipper's compass bearing.

The wind drift is checked by crewmen dropping flares from the aft hatch. Navigator Noonan takes a sighting on the flares as they fall away into the sea, and notes the speed of the drift.

After midnight he is able to get a celestial navigation fix through a hole in the clouds. In a few hours, the Clipper will pick up the Hawaii direction-finding radio beam and "ride" it home.

At 10,000 feet the big Martin flying boat is drilling through the darkness. Suddenly dawn catches us by the tail. A flood of color spreads across the quiet sea.

Noonan makes another navigation fix and then joins the off-watch crew in the lounge for breakfast. First officer R.O.D. Sullivan has set up a table and arranged hot coffee, sandwiches and fruit.

The Clipper is 20 hours out of Alameda when Capt. Musick announces it is time to shave and get back into uniform.

After the watch change, it is Sullivan who is the first to sight the landfall. Beyond the clouds is the summit of Mt. Molaki, still more than 100 miles away.

Capt. Musick begins the long descent, sliding down the Hawaii direction-finding beacon toward Honolulu. Then, Jarboe raises the radio operator at Pearl Harbor.

Diamond Head looms up in front of us and all hands man their posts for the landing in the patrolled channel. We touch the water at 10:19 a.m. The China Clipper has traversed 2,400 miles in 21 hours, 33 minutes.

The welcoming committee at Pearl is small but enthusiastic. Clipper crewmen are presented with leis, and the naval officers - thanks to Capt. Muscik - are duly impressed with our fresh uniforms and clean-shaven faces.

That evening, under glaring lights, the ground crew inspects every nut and bolt on the Clipper and loads supplies for Pan American's ocean bases on Midway, Wake and Guam.

There are 21 crates of fresh vegetables, 9 crates of oranges and lemons, and 12 crates of turkeys for the first real Thanksgiving in the history of the colonists on Wake and Guam. There are also the spare sewing-machine parts, refrigeration machinery, baseballs, tennis rackets and light bulbs - all the items requested by radio from the ocean bases.

Before the dawn takeoff, 14 passengers come aboard - replacement for the ground staffs on the islands. We are able to take on the extra weight because the hop to Midway is only 1,380 miles, requiring less gas.

The last cargo hatch is closed and, at 6:30 a.m., the second leg of the flight to the Orient begins. The Clipper rises over Honolulu as daylight spills across the mountain peaks.

The Clipper will follow its flight plan over a string of tiny islands and coral reefs - Necker Island, French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles and Marco Reef. The volcanic islands rise sharply out of the sea like a road map across the Pacific.

But beyond Marco Reef a weather front moves down on us, and we come in on direction bearings from the Midway radio compass. Then the clouds clear and we sight the atoll, white waves foaming on the beaches.

We circle the base at 500 feet and settle in for a landing. It is 2 p.m., local time, just 8 1/2 hours from Pearl Harbor.

Our reception is noisy - all Pan American base employees crowding around the little seaplane float. Airport manager Karl Lueder posts a guard over the stacks of mail and supervises the refueling of the Clipper. Departure for Wake Island is scheduled for daybreak.

The jump to Wake is the shortest leg - 1,252 miles - but the most difficult to navigate. There are no island signposts, and finding Wake will be like finding a pinhead on a vast map of the Pacific.

Noonan has to rely on dead reckoning. But about 350 miles out of Midway, Sullivan sights a Matson liner. It's the President Lincoln, 11 days out of San Francisco and bound for Yokohama. Jarboe confirms his position and the liner salutes us with three blasts from her whistle. A few hours later he hears the radio operator on Wake and we can ride the beam into the tiny ocean base.

Eight hours, 28 minutes out of Midway, the Clipper glides into a landing on the lagoon inside the atoll. We have put more than 5,000 miles behind us since leaving San Francisco Bay.

Ahead is Guam, then Manila.

Wake's governor and airport manager, George Bicknell, is on hand to greet us. He has planned a dinner party, but we are all so exhausted that the party has to be cut short so we can get some sleep before still another dawn departure, this time at 6.

There is a final predawn weather briefing and then we are airborne again, this time into dense clouds. Ceiling is 2,000 feet.

After we are aloft an hour Jarboe makes contact with the USS Chester, eastbound out of Manila. Position is confirmed.

Noonan comes up with a little trick to get additional radio bearings as we approach Guam. There is a Japanese radio station on Rota, an island just north of Guam. He sends out a "CQ" signal, meaning "do you hear me?" on the Japanese frequency.

As they answer, he gets a bearing on Apra Harbor, and then combines the two bearings for a positive fix. The Japanese, of course, aren't too interested in anyone establishing an airline across the Pacific.

We drop into Apra Harbor and touch down at 3:05 p.m., local time. The entire Pan American contingent is there to welcome us, and the news is that we won't be taking off again at dawn.

Someone in Manila has become confused by the day gained in crossing the International Dateline. The official reception ceremony is not until the day after tomorrow. They will not be ready until then.

The error provides us with a needed day of rest before the final 1,600-mile leg to the Philippines.

Departure from Guam on November 29, is at 6:12 a.m. Below us is the roughest sea we have encountered, giant whitecaps and a wind-tossed spray leaping high into the air.

Captain Musick takes the Clipper quickly to 6,000 feet, where we find a tailwind that enables us to make almost 200 miles an hour.

The Guam-Manila leg of the flight has a pioneering note. This is the first time anyone has flown over this deserted stretch of the Pacific.

Noonan is using the sun to get a fix on our position. The weather is beautiful and we are now at 11,000 feet, drilling along at 150 miles per hour.

Once again it is time to shave and put on fresh uniforms for the welcoming ceremonies. Sullivan is first to spot the high volcanic cone of Mt. Pandan. The rugged hills of Luzon appear off the port bow and beyond is Manila Bay, our final destination.

This is the Orient. In a few minutes, the China Clipper will have conquered the Pacific. Incredibly, the flight has been almost without incident and, except for the layover on Guam, right on schedule.

From the cockpit Capt. Musick can see the escort of military planes, dipping their wings in salute. Musick responds and gently lets the Clipper down into the channel. We are on the water at 3:31 p.m., local time. Air time from Alameda is exactly 59 hours, 48 minutes.

Taxiing up to the float, we can see thousands of well-wishers lining the Manila rooftops. There is some wild cheering as the mooring lines are secured and Capt. Musick steps down the ladder and onto the float.

President Manuel Quezon of the Philippines is there to greet him. Musick hands him a letter from President Roosevelt and it is immediately canceled by the Philippine postmaster general, marking the first airmail across the Pacific.

At the official reception and banquet at the Malacanang Palace, we are told more than 100,000 people watched the landing of the China Clipper. It's truly a big day for the Filipinos.

Everyone is happy except members of the press, most of whom can't believe the 8,210 mile flight was without serious incident.

"Didn't you get lost?" one of the reporters asks. "How about the thousands of miles of fog?"

Capt. Musick explains patiently that there were four master mariners aboard and two radio operators and that ground stations monitored most of the flight. "It would have been difficult to get lost," he tells them.

Newspapers hailed the flight as the elimination of the barriers of time and space and told the world that the vast Pacific Ocean had suddenly become smaller because of the courage of a handful of aviation pioneers.

But the real significance was that the China Clipper had cut 15 days off the best surface time from San Francisco to Manila and opened up the Orient to air cargo and scheduled passenger flights.

Within a year, Pan American inaugurated passenger service to Manila, and, in the spring of 1937, there was direct service to China.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle November 23, 1975