Pan American World Airways under the leadership of the visionary Juan Trippe with the financial backing of the powerful Vanderbilt and Harriman families launched flying boat service in 1931 using Sikorsky aircraft to South America. Clipper service was a new era in commercial flight.
Throughout the 1930s PanAm expanded its flying boats across the Atlantic and the Pacific using newer Sikorsky airplanes with great success. PanAm marketed its international routes under the name Clipper Service. Flying Clippers quickly became synonymous in the 30s with safety, speed, and superb service.
The culmination of PanAm’s Clipper services came with the Boeing B-314 flying boat, which debuted in 1939. Here is an advertisement from that era:
The 314 had a range of 3,500 miles, which was sufficient to cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by long-distant island-hopping, and they carried 74 passengers onboard. Boeing built 12 of the graceful, roomy planes between 1938 and 1941 for Pan American World Airways.
The name “Clipper” had originally been chosen because of the fast clipper ships of the late 19th century; hence the comparison in the ad rendering above. The ship reference was appropriate since the aircraft took off and landed on water.
The 314s had style and offered the peak in passenger comfort and features. Like many aircraft of that pre-war era, every seat was essentially First Class. The drawing above shows the plane’s interior configuration.
The 314 airplane boasted dressing rooms and a dining salon that could be converted into a lounge or bridal suite.
Meals from the onboard galley were reputed to be as fine as any five star hotel.
Airlines had not yet dispensed with civilized dining in 1939. One could sit at a proper table for meals and converse with other travelers. A crew of 10 catered to the every need of the pampered 74 passengers on 314 Clipper flights.
Here above is one of the private staterooms.
The 74 seats could be converted into 40 bunks for sleeping on overnight flights, all of which came with privacy curtains much like railroad Pullman berths.
The crew also had enjoyed sleeping arrangements, albeit on rudimentary cots, which were needed on 24-hour transatlantic flights.
The Boeing 314 Flying Boat cockpit.
Transoceanic navigation required a lot of manpower and human skill in 1939.
The lav was utilitarian, but building in a urinal is a luxury compared to modern aircraft, and its design is uniquely suited for the three-plane buffeting of flying.
The ladies’ lav provided another spatial luxury: stools for applying makeup and a window.
PanAm’s Clipper Boeing 314s represented the pinnacle of commercial air service in the 1930s. Its luxury lasted just three years, ending with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Soon After all 12 planes were pressed into war service to carry critical personnel and goods.
World War II didn’t end the Clipper’s fame, however, in the public mind. Here above is a photo of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt celebrating his 61st birthday on a 314 Clipper in January 11, 1943. FDR was flying the “Dixie Clipper,” which had been transferred to the U.S. Navy and designated C-143. The President was en route from Miami, Florida to Bathurst, British Gambia as part of a trip to Casablanca, Morocco to meet with England’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill to plan the Allied European invasion (which later became known as D-Day). Flying was deemed safer than a journey by ship due to German submarines,
The postwar era of commercial aviation would bring many changes which I won’t elaborate in detail, but gradually airlines differentiated classes of service as economies of flying allowed them to pack more passengers into ever-larger and more “efficient” people-carriers. Today’s sardine class of service in the back of the long aluminum tubes of jet aircraft, which carriers euphemistically call “economy class,” is a far cry from the style and luxury of commercial flying between 1931 and 1941.
For me, at least, it’s a wonder that the safe, sumptuous, and chic Handley Page HP-42 and Boeing B-314 airplanes welcomed passengers aboard and made the world a smaller place for a mere decade. It must have been a glorious time to fly for those who could afford it!