N: Pan Am – icon of the air, pioneer of the Pacific Routes


How the attack on Pearl Harbor almost
clipped the wings of a high flier

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a major blow to Pan American Airways, which was operating flying boat passenger services across the Pacific.

Built by Martin (M-130s) and Boeing (314s and 314As), the Pan American Clippers flew the rich and famous to island exotic ports and on to the western Pacific. Hawaii, Guam, Manila and stopovers in between formed a line of stepping stones to Asia presenting Pan American with great opportunities for expansion.

The Island-hopping bases included Wake Island that was to experience the full force of a Japanese attack.

The first leg of the trans-Pacific flights was the 2,400-mi (3,862km) hop from San Francisco to Honolulu.  The leg from the cable station at Midway to the next inhabited island, Guam, was even longer and establishing a station on Wake Island just 1,200 mi (1,931km) from Midway provided a relieving break in an arduous flight. The establishment of bases was relatively easy as formed landing strips were not needed.

Routes were opened to the Philippines, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore. But when war came to the Pacific, the Clipper flights and their island stopovers were in great peril. Several planes were in the firing line when Japan launched their devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and followed up the next day with attacks around the Pacific.

One of the first to encounter an emergency was the newest plane in the fleet, the Anzac Clipper, a four-engine Boeing 314 under the control of Captain H. Lanier Turner. The flight was heading for Pearl Harbor with a crew of nine and 37 passengers on the first leg of a 14-day round trip. It was due to arrive just on sunrise on 7 December. An on-time arrival would have put the plane right in the middle of the attack. Undoubtedly it would have been shot out of the air by the Japanese warplanes it would have encountered.

But a 40-minute delay in leaving San Francisco put the Anzac Clipper behind time.

By early Sunday morning, the Anzac crew was homing in on the same radio station signals that the Japanese planes were using to track to their target.

Just 40 minutes from arrival, before 8 am, the Clipper crew heard a frantic radio broadcast that the Japanese were attacking Hawaiian bases.

Captain Turner diverted from Pearl Harbor and headed the Anzac Clipper towards a lagoon at Hilo on the Island of Hawaii, about two hours south, where the big plane landed and sheltered overnight.

There were few facilities to service the plane and it had to be refuelled by hand. It was ready to fly again on the night of 8 December and 72 hours after leaving it was back on the US mainland having aborted the flight to Asia.

There were two significant passengers aboard the Anzac Clipper – the Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) and Galon U Saw, Premier of Burma (now Myanmar). The Shah was believed to be on his way home after assuring President Roosevelt of his country’s co-operation with the US.
Premier Saw was on his way home also after meeting President Roosevelt where he failed to get endorsement for his country’s independence from Britain. Saw’s trip home also took him via Lisbon where he is reported to have visited the Japanese Embassy to tell the ambassador that his country would support Japan. He was later executed for his part in the assassination of Burmese independence leader Aung San and six others.

Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper

The Philippine Clipper under the control of Captain John Hamilton, came under direct attack by Japanese warplanes while refuelling at Pan American’s base on Wake Island. The Martin M-130 had just left Wake Island for Guam when news of the Pearl Harbor attack came through. The captain was ordered to return to Wake Island to evacuate airline staff.

But upon returning, Captain Hamilton was called upon to make a sweep around the island to look for enemy forces before loading his passengers and evacuees.


Before the survey mission could begin, Japanese planes appeared over the base. They took only a few minutes to completely destroy the facilities. The Philippine Clipper was strafed – there were almost 100 bullet holes. But the big plane was intact. Captain Hamilton had it stripped of all non-essential gear and loaded the passengers and remaining Pan Am staff. Nine Pan Am staff were killed in the raid.

With 34 people on board the Clipper was overloaded but on his third attempt to take off Captain Hamilton managed to get airborne and head east. He put down in a lagoon at Midway which by then also had been attacked. The next day he took the plane to Pearl Harbor and then to San Francisco.

The California Clipper

Another remarkable Pan American flight at the time was that of the then-named California Clipper. The flight began on 2 December 1941 under the control of Captain Bob Ford from the Pan Am base on Treasure Island, California, for the passenger service to Auckland, New Zealand, with scheduled stops in San Pedro, Honolulu, Canton Island, Suva and Nouméa.

Cut off on the return flight to California via Hawaii by the Japanese raid, Captain Ford was directed to strip company markings, registration and insignia from the Clipper and proceed in secret from Auckland to the Marine Terminal, LaGuardia Field, New York.

The plane, by now renamed Pacific Clipper, left Auckland on 8 December and flew more than 31,500 mi (50,694 km) home via Gladstone (Australia), Darwin (Australia), Surabaya (Java), Trincomalee (Ceylon – now Sri Lanka), Karachi, British India (now Pakistan), Bahrain, Khartoum (Sudan), Leopoldville (Belgian Congo), Natal (Brazil) and Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago).

The Pacific Clipper, landed at Pan American’s LaGuardia Field seaplane base on the morning of 6 January 1942, completing Pan American’s first round-the-world flight.

In Hong Kong, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, another Clipper captain faced a dilemma – the Japanese were expected to invade at any time.

Captain Fred Ralph’s next destination with the Hong Kong Clipper on the Hong Kong-Manila leg of the trans-Pacific route was to be Manila. But on 8 December, Manila was under attack.

Before he could execute his plan to fly instead to Kunming in China, the Kai Tak aerial centre was attacked. The Japanese planes dive-bombed the plane at its moorings several times. Eventually the incendiary bullets set the plane ablaze and it burned to the water line.

Ralph and his crew escaped from Hong Kong that night on board a plane operated by a Chinese affiliate of Pan American, the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC). They eventually found their way back to New York in January 1942.

Although the Japanese overran all of Pan American’s Central Pacific bases except Honolulu, the airline continued flying in Asia. CNAC evacuated around 275 American, British and Chinese civilians from Hong Kong, in a 72-hour non-stop operation.

Also on the morning of 8 December 1941 the Pan American base in Guam at Sumay was bombed and machine-gunned by Japanese planes. The Pan Am Hotel, crew quarters and fuel tanks were destroyed and two employees were killed.

The China Clipper

Pan American also was engaged in military transport activities during World War II – many planes called in for military duty – and suffered badly; more than 200 employees were killed, an unknown number were imprisoned in enemy prison camps and at least a dozen planes were lost.

Flying boat Clipper services were scaled down after World War II.   Seaplanes eventually were replaced by new four-engine landplanes. Pan American lost its near-monopolistic hold over the international American airline industry when the US government allowed other airlines to compete in the post-war aviation boom. Pan American operated its last B-314 flight on the Pacific routes in May 1946.

After the war, the government offered to sell the Clippers it had commandeered back to Pan Am, but the company declined. The war had resulted in many more airports being developed around the world, and four-engine landplanes could fly faster than the fat Clipper flying boats. DC-4s and Boeing 307s had begun to appear even before the war. Shortly after the war, Pan Am Lockheed Constellations, DC-5s, and Boeing 377s took over the routes that the Clippers had pioneered.

Through the jet era, Pan Am’s flagship terminal was the Worldport located at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City.

Pan Am operated the first Boeing 747
on commercial routes

Today, the Pan Am International Flight Academy (PAIFA) is the only remaining division of Pan American World Airways, which declared bankruptcy in January 1991 and shut down in December 1991. Under the terms of bankruptcy, the International Flight Academy in Miami was allowed to remain open. It was established as an independent training organization in 1992.

The Flight Academy is now owned by the parent company of All Nippon Airways.


  1. A crew member of the first trans-Pacific Clipper flights was navigator Fred Noonan who a year later disappeared somewhere in the Pacific on a flight with Amelia Earhart in 1937.
  2. Pan American World Airways, known from its founding until 1950 as Pan American Airways and branded as Pan Am, was the largest international air carrier in the US from 1927 until its collapse on December 4, 1991. Founded in 1927 as a scheduled air mail and passenger service operating between Key West, Florida, and Havana (Cuba) the airline was credited with many innovations adopted worldwide, including the widespread use of jet planes, jumbo jets, and computerised reservation systems. 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, the airline was an icon of the 20th century.
  3. On 17 August, 2001, Zaharias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker” of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, was arrested after an instructor at Pan Am International Flight Academy became suspicious of him.

UNSOLVED MYSTERY: Hawaii Clipper was one of three Pan American Airways Martin M-130 flying boats. It disappeared with six passengers and nine crew on a flight from Guam to Manila, on 28 July, 1938. The flying boat service to Manila Bay took about 60 hours over six days, with stops at Pearl Harbor, Midway Atoll, Wake Island and Guam. Hawaii Clipper left Guam on the last leg of the journey at 11:39 local time. The last radio contact was 3 hours 27 minutes later, when the plane’s crew reported flying through layers of clouds and unsettled air 565 mi (900 km) from the Philippine coast. The US Army transport ship USAT Meigs found an oil slick along the course of the lost aircraft about 500 mi (800 km) from Manila. The search for the plane was called off on 5 August 1938. Tests on the oil found did not establish a link to the plane. It remains unclear where the Hawaii Clipper met its end.

FOOTNOTE: The Pan Am Boeing 747SP “Clipper Liberty Bell” set a circumnavigation record flying around the world in under 40 hours of flight time and arriving back in New York on  May 3, 1976. This record smashed the previous holder by 16 hours just six days after the first 747SP went into service. The record-setting SP is now a museum exhibit, likely be the only 747SP on display in the western hemisphere.

References and sources: Pan Am Historical Foundation; “Forty Minutes to Pearl” (Jim Slade), Pan Am at War (Robert Gandt). Pacific Aviation Museum, Pan American Clippers Wikia, Wikipedia.

Big Amphibious plane are making a comeback. In December 2017, the world’s largest amphibious aircraft, China’s AG600, made a successful one-hour maiden flight.

The plane, roughly the size of a Boeing 747 but with four turboprop engines, lifted off from Zhuhai airport in the southern province of Guangdong.

The plane, codenamed Kunlong, can carry 50 people and can stay airborne for 12 hours.

It has firefighting and marine rescue duties as well as military applications.

The AG600 is considerably smaller than billionaire Howard Hughes’ flying boat, better known as the Spruce Goose, which had a wingspan of 97 m and was 67 m long but only made one brief flight, in 1947.

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