The China Clipper left San Francisco as a huge seaplane full of mail—110,000 pieces of it. But was responsible for the first transpacific flight in history, and became one of the world's first technological celebrities.
In the era of the China Clipper—a four-engine Martin M-130—runways were scarce. It was the 1930s, and if you wanted to haul serious cargo over serious distances—say, to the Philippines—you made your own runway. In the ocean. That, or you waited over two weeks to arrive by boat. But civilization was getting a little tired of that. Lauded by the press as "the greatest airplane ever built in America," the China Clipper revolutionized transcontinental travel, flight itself, and the way we regard technology in our lives.
It's hard to put one's mind 75 years backwards, to a time when steamship transit was the only viable option. But if you try, you might have some idea what it must have been like to see the China Clipper leave for Manila—so encumbered with cargo that it had to fly under the incomplete Golden Gate Bridge before gaining altitude. The notion of a plane heading to another country was more than a novelty in 1935—it was an enormous cultural event, drawing a crowd of 25,000 to view the takeoff—exactly 75 years ago today.
Only a week and four stops later, the China Clipper was in Manila. Mail delivered! History made! But that was just the start. The flight was a sensation—beginning "Clippermania" across the US (only slightly less cool than Beatlemania). The plane was honored with spots on stamps, beer labels, toys, and even its own feature film. Captain Edwin Musick, who skippered the craft, landed a Time magazine cover.
The China Clipper began ferrying passengers instead of mail the next year, for a cool $14,650 per seat (in 2010 dollars), and expanded into a fleet of M-130s. By the time WWII concluded, air tech had advanced beyond the seaplane fleet, and its career came to a close—but not before carrying three quarters of a million pounds of mail and 3,500 passengers across 2.4 million miles of the planet.
And—easily the plane's most far reaching effect—it kicked off our era of regularly scheduled air travel. No small feat. So as much as you might gripe and groan about the Thanksgiving voyage you're preparing for this week, pause and have some respect for the Clipper—you may be dreading your in laws, but it beats arriving there by boat. [SF Gate]
Cross section image via Clipper Flying Boats