I read a fascinating book last week called Pan American Clippers: The Golden Age of Flying Boats by James Trautman. It’s about a forgotten age of air travel, when men were men, adventure was waiting around every corner, and the world was a much larger place.
It was the decade before World War 2, the early days of aviation. Air travel was still a luxury within reach of a select few. Crowds turned up to watch the big planes land and take off. And routes over both oceans were only just being pioneered.
All of this would change and commercial aviation would take an amazing leap after the war years, but for one brief decade the skies were a truly romantic and adventurous place to be.
Nothing symbolizes this era like the giant flying boats. Passengers were used to traveling by ship — they liked to get up and walk around, to dine at tables in a special salon, to sleep in fold-down bunks, and to have a stand up cocktail at a proper bar — and these enormous flying boats were designed with that in mind. Every customer was a first class customer. No one was herded about like a sheep.
Flying boats filled a niche at a time when airstrips were uncommon, and the vast empty stretches of the Atlantic and Pacific could not be crossed in a single bound. Flying from San Francisco’s Treasure Island to Manila on the China Clipper was a 5 day journey, with refueling stops in Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam. From Manila passengers could take connecting flights to Macao and Shanghai. Luxury hotels were built in each of these remote outposts, treating overnighting Clipper passengers to a level of service they were accustomed to back home.
The war years changed all that, of course. Runways had been built all over the place, and larger planes capable of much greater ranges — including trans-Atlantic flights — had been developed. Speed took precedence over comfort; the destination trumped the importance of the journey. The world no longer needed these giant flying boats, and they quietly drifted off into the haze of memory and black and white films.
But at their height, the Clippers seemed to be everywhere, appearing on posters and in luxury ads for everything from cigarettes to Goodyear rubber, and touted as “the most romantic planes ever built.” You could be forgiven for thinking the skies were full of them. In actual fact, only 28 had ever been built (the best remembered being three Martin 130’s and the twelve Boeing 314’s that are the most widely depicted face of the Clipper). Despite their cultural importance, not a single Clipper was saved for an aviation museum. Nothing remains of this golden age, save for a few precious memories on newsreels and fading photographs. It’s a romantic era of our past that we’ll never get back.
My own obsession with flying boats began in 1982. I was 10 years old, and a short-lived television show called Tales of the Gold Monkey had just hit the airwaves. The story was set in 1938, in a South Pacific rife with intrigue between colonial powers gearing up for war. Each episode focused on a little twin engined Grumman Goose flying boat based on the fictional backwater island of Bora Gora. There was an ex-Flying Tigers pilot called Jake Cutter, a drunken mechanic, and a one-eyed dog, backed by supporting characters that included an American spy posing as a lounge singer, a French territorial administrator and bar owner with a checkered past, and a German spy posing as a missionary priest, who spent most of his time “blessing” the island girls. Jake’s nemesis was often a Japanese princess and her fierce samurai henchman. It was fun, the characters were stock and one-dimensional, and it brought to mind old-time serials and cliffhangers. It also made me realize, at 10 years old, just how cool it’d be to get a Goose of my own and fly around the South Pacific having adventures.
The series was released last month on DVD after 15 years of lobbying by a core group of obsessive fans. I’m 5 episodes in and, yes, it’s as cool as I remember.
By some strange coincidence a company called Antilles Seaplanes has also resurrected the Grumman Goose. They’ve taken the original design of that amphibian workhorse, installed new turboprop engines, composite materials, and advanced avionics, and are about to start selling this plane again. A new era of flying boats is pretty unlikely. But it does resurrect my old goal…
I think flying around the South Pacific having adventures is a rather worthwhile dream, don’t you?