The Long Way Home
July 13, 2014 7:10 PM   Subscribe

"Normal return route canceled. Proceed as follows: Strip all company marking, registration numbers and identifiable insignia from exterior surfaces. Proceed westbound soonest your discretion to avoid hostilities and deliver NC18602 to marine terminal La Guardia Field New York. Good luck."

Some background: as Eyebrows McGee explained in this comment, "When Pan Am first started flying across the Pacific in 1935 (for mail, and 1936 for passengers), it took a week to get from San Francisco to Hong Kong by plane -- faster by far than the 25 days the fastest ships could manage. They stopped in Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, and Macao en route."

But those islands were valuable military targets for the Japanese, as were the huge flying boats used by Pan Am to conduct the service, the Pan Am Clippers. In preparation for hostilities, Clipper captains were given sealed instructions to open in case of war: "Plan A." Captain Robert Ford found himself flying a Pan Am Clipper into Auckland, New Zealand when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached him. Plan A instructed him to fly to New York, via the western route, effectively requiring him to circumnavigate the globe, since the trip had started in San Francisco:
Skirting the trouble zone and watching for enemy aircraft, he headed the flying boat west over Australia, India and Central Africa, then crossed to South America, eventually making a safe landing at the Marine Terminal at what is now La Guardia Airport in New York on Jan. 6, 1942.

The entire trip covered 31,500 miles in 209.5 hours of flying time, some of it over war territory. The Clipper had a range of 4,500 miles, and its longest single flight was 3,583 miles across the South Atlantic from Douala, in what is now Cameroon in Central Africa, to Brazil.

Captain Ford, who was then 35, called his round-the-world flight "a purely routine operation."
posted by jedicus (27 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
I was struck by the "...about an hour into the flight No. 3 engine blew, spewing oil over the wing. Ford turned the plane around and returned to Trincomalee, where the crew was able to repair the engine with the spares they had on board..." line. It had not occurred to me previously, but it makes sense in retrospect, that even the regularly scheduled commercial flights of the time would have to carry spare parts and crew trained in the service of aircraft.
posted by RichardP at 7:37 PM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

It is quite the story. Thank you for posting this and thank you Eyebrows McGee

I loved this line from the Wikipedia article

A Pan American airport manager and a radio officer had been dispatched to meet the Clipper at Leopoldville. When Ford landed they handed him a cold beer. Ford said, "That was one of the high points of the whole trip."
posted by 724A at 7:46 PM on July 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Good luck.

We're all counting on you!
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:59 PM on July 13, 2014 [21 favorites]

I was struck by the "...about an hour into the flight No. 3 engine blew, spewing oil over the wing. Ford turned the plane around and returned to Trincomalee, where the crew was able to repair the engine with the spares they had on board..." line.

Engines back then were very different, and were much less reliable than they are now. On a flying boat, which could land anywhere flat and wet, having a few spares and a trained engineer onboard meant you were much more likely to actually reach your destination.

The engines, the Wright Cyclone R-2600, were air cooled radials. This meant that it was relatively simple to replace failed valves and cylinders -- you can see how the cylinders themselves are bolted onto the block, and the valves are bolted onto the cylinder heads. Unlike an inline engine, where you'd have to rebuild the whole block or the whole valve train, you can fix one bad cylinder with just a few parts. Well, sometimes that part would be "the whole cylinder."

This fixablity was a big reason why radial engines stayed popular with the US. Inline engines were much more compact, but fixing them meant complete tear downs.
posted by eriko at 8:10 PM on July 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

A sample chapter from the book The Long Way Home. Really gripping! Why is this not a movie?
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:12 PM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Am I wrong, or is there a mistake in that NYT obit where they refer to "a Pan American Airways Pacific Clipper" rather than "the Pan American Airways Pacific Clipper"?
posted by 256 at 8:13 PM on July 13, 2014

That's a helluva story. Surprising it's not more famous.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:19 PM on July 13, 2014

I'm fascinated by the early Pan Am international service, because it was literally insane; for example, the little "blister" on top of the plane? So that the navigator could pop up and sight stars in the sextant for navigational purposes.

There was a flying crew of five and A LOT OF MATH in the navigation! (Lots of math desks.) That's for 25 passengers overnight; 75 daytime ... there were an additional 5 stewards and stewardesses for passenger flights.

Also I like the pictures of the six-year-old boy on the trans-Pacific flight, because if there's anything better than a little kid on an international flight, it's a little kid on a SIX-DAY international flight.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:25 PM on July 13, 2014 [18 favorites]

I just want to tell him good luck. We're all counting on him.
posted by bleep at 8:29 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

From here:
In 1936, the Clipper began carrying passengers. The service was first class and legendary, with fine food served on fine china. A one-way ticket to Manila, including overnight stays at Pan Am hotels in Honolulu, Midway, Wake and Guam, cost $950 -the equivalent of $14,650 in [2010] dollars.
The official CPI calculator says that's $16K in 2014.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:37 PM on July 13, 2014

It seems implausible to me that there wasn't a viable route across the South Pacific, via Fiji, other islands, the Galapagos and into the Caribbean? But then, I don't much about how far south the Pacific Theatre spread.

Not to take anything away from Captain Ford and his amazing flight. I salute you, sir!
posted by dry white toast at 8:55 PM on July 13, 2014

Wow, thanks for this post. I'm usually not that interested in aviation stuff, but that telegram that starts this post is chilling. I don't think I've ever read a blog post (the first linked article) that was such a nail-biter. So pretty much it starts off as your usual flying-across-the-Pacific-in-a-crazy-ass-flying-boat-when-World-War-II-breaks-out kind of story. But then they had to do a bunch of flying without charts? And using the wrong octane fuel so the engines kept backfiring? And some Dutch planes almost shot them down? And they landed in a minefield that one time? And they flew right over a Japanese submarine? And one of the engines blew up? And then they could barely take off before hitting the rapids? By the time they got to the conversation with LaGuardia I was crying.

I agree with Joe in Australia, it's shocking this isn't a movie. I can see in my mind the slow-motion shot of the LaGuardia air-traffic control guy knocking over his coffee while the schmaltzy music rises to a crescendo. In my hypothetical alternate reality life as a screenwriter, I'm going to make a recurring motif in the movie how all they did was execute Plan A. They never even had to go to Plan B.

I'd also like to know (maybe I missed it in the links) more about who was on the flight. How many people?
posted by medusa at 9:04 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

"It seems implausible to me that there wasn't a viable route across the South Pacific, via Fiji, other islands, the Galapagos and into the Caribbean?"

The planes they used could only just barely make the "long hop" from San Francisco to Honolulu (1000 km longer than other legs), flying at 1/3 passenger capacity and well below full speed to save fuel. So I'm guessing they couldn't make one of the legs that way, as San Fran to Honolulu was unavoidable and I can't think of a much shorter distance in the Eastern Pacific.

Boeing 314s for Pan Am carried 75 passengers on daytime flights; 25 on international overnights. So probably 25ish.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:21 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

It also sounded like they took on Pan Am staff for the flight at some point, so maybe they flew the plane home with just crew? Imagine trying to arrange hotel stays for the passengers at some African colonial port city on the Nile. Wow, what a story!
posted by montag2k at 9:42 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Eyebrows: don't feel too bad for the little guy. Someone paid $15k for him to fly somewhere one way - I bet there is something fun waiting there for him.

It's really interesting to compare this to the modern commercial passenger space flight world today. If you squint your eyes enough you can see a direct lineage in these "just for the rich" options eventually falling into the economy of scale and opening up for everybody else. I can't wait.
posted by montag2k at 10:06 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Two things that struck me:
  1. Canton? How did landing in southeast China make any sense during the Japanese invasion? Oh, the other Canton...
  2. At first I thought it was odd that the return route spent so much time over water—cutting across Africa directly to the Gulf of Guinea, for example—but of course that was the safe thing to do. If something went wrong a flying boat could land on water and maybe effect repairs or call for help, but over land they'd be SOL unless there was a river or lake nearby.
posted by The Tensor at 11:26 PM on July 13, 2014

For some context, here are some lists detailing civilian airliners destroyed or shot down in the earliest phases of the war in the Pacific: (1); (2).
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:26 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

According to this page, 747s still have a port for a sextant, although nobody is now trained in their use. Apparently some pilots attach a hose and use them as a vacuum cleaner (the lower outside pressure at altitude means that air is "sucked" through it).

If you think about it, once out of sight of land there was no direct way to establish your position before the advent of GPS. There was dead reckoning, and inertial guidance, but those were imprecise and could fail. So the advent of civilian GPS (a mere thirty years ago!) has so thoroughly extinguished the ancient art of celestial navigation that it has become a mere joke, despite the fact that we are still building tools to accommodate it.

In further news, damn kids won't get off my lawn.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:02 AM on July 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is why I read Metafilter! Amazing post, about an amazing journey!
posted by Mogur at 4:34 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

16k isn't actually so much more than one way first class jfk-hkg today.
posted by JPD at 4:49 AM on July 14, 2014

So that the navigator could pop up and sight stars in the sextant for navigational purposes.

Yup, there's still a sextant port on the plane I work on. Sometimes they pass wires through it for temporary antennas, but otherwise it's unused. I don't think the actual sextant pieces are carried on the plane anymore, just the hole is left.

Imagine trying to navigate using dead reckoning over thousands of miles of featureless ocean. Or (in the case of Cold War-era early warning aircraft) flying over the North Pole where your magnetic compass stops working. Sextants were useful!
posted by backseatpilot at 5:15 AM on July 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Others here will know better, but wasn't radio direction finding viable over the horizon? All of the other major pre-GPS radio navigation systems were introduced during WWII, but RDF/ADB was a WWI development.

You still would have wanted celestial navigation as a backup, and it might have been more accurate. But I hadn't thought that inter-war pilots would have been completely lost if they lacked the skills of a sailing-master.
posted by CHoldredge at 5:34 AM on July 14, 2014

16k isn't actually so much more than one way first class jfk-hkg today.

Wow. I didn't believe you even one little bit, but I looked around and it is indeed possible to spend that much (and ridiculously, even far more) on a first-class New York to Hong Kong flight.

One difference, maybe, is that today, first-class is mostly a giveaway prize airlines dangle before their customers in order to encourage brand loyalty. The average fare actually paid is much less than the listed fare.

I don't know how that stuff worked out in 1936. Which was the middle of the Great Depression, come to think of it.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:47 AM on July 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just think of the mileage. . . .
posted by Danf at 7:04 AM on July 14, 2014

Well also for your 16k you were getting room and board for seven days. I could probably find you 100 resorts that are more than that a day. And I'd guess the Amanresorts demo would be not dissimilar from who was flying in 1936

Also don't forget full freight business class NY-LON is like 6k roundtrip - and that's for like 6 hours in the air.

Some airlines are actually pretty restrictive about first class upgrades. Although I agree - there are a lot of corporate deals. IIRC back when I was doing NY-LON a few times a month I think I was auto upgraded to First every few trips.
posted by JPD at 7:42 AM on July 14, 2014

Danf: Just think of the mileage. . . .

Nah, they's still probably only credit your account with the frequent-flier miles of your original ticketed flight. Bastards.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:19 AM on July 14, 2014

Anybody find details about the hotel accommodations they had on Wake and Midway? I'd wonder if they were luxury or barebones.
posted by montag2k at 10:16 PM on July 14, 2014

« Older Seven roses later ... each rose opens like an...   |   Eloise: An Update Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments