First Transpacific Airmail Flight

The China Clipper's trans-pacific flight was the product of one man's vision, Pan Am President Juan Trippe. Trippe was a man with a mission, and the mission was to blaze a network of international air routes that would gird the globe. But Trippe needed an instrument to put his idea into effect, and that tool was Pan American Airways.

Founded by Trippe in 1927, the company was truly "Pan American" as it extended service throughout Latin America and forged pioneering links between the United States and its neighbors to the south.

Blocked by political problems from developing service across the Atlantic to Europe, Trippe turned his attention to the Pacific. In 1931, Trippe and his chief engineer, Andre Priester, issued a challenge to the aircraft industry-they wanted a large, long-range seaplane capable of transoceanic flight.

The Glenn L. Martin Company of Baltimore, MD., took up the gauntlet. Martin and his engineers huddled and sweat over hundreds of sketches, mulling over everything from wing design to color schemes for passenger cabins. Pan Am placed an order for three flying boats late in 1932. The result of all this trepidation, inspiration, and perspiration was the Martin M-130.

Pan American China Clipper
The first arrival of the Pan American World Airways China Clipper at Sumay, Apra Harbor, Guam, on October 13, 1935. The China Clipper carried the first transpacific airmail.
First Airmail Letter
A letter carried on the Transpacific Survey Flight Number 4 (October 5 to October 24, 1935) and sent by Jr. Flight Officer H.R. Canaday to friends in Coconut Grove, Florida. Signed by the crew: ROD Sullivan, JH Tilton, M. Lodeesen, W.T. Jarboe Jr., F.J. Noonan, Harry R. Canaday, V.A. Wright


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Meanwhile, Pan Am's trailblazing Pacific leaps were being planned with infinite care. The first leg of the journey would also be the most daunting: 2,400 miles of open ocean between the California coast and Hawaii. After that, the distances were also great but less formidable: Honolulu to Midway Island, 1,260 miles; Midway to Wake Island, 1,320 miles; Wake to Guam, 1,500 miles; Guam to Manila, 1,600 miles and, finally, Manila to Hong Kong, 600 miles.

By November 1935, Pan American Airways had invested $925,000 in developing a Pacific route, a considerable outlay for the time. But all the effort was rewarded when the first M-130, the China Clipper, lifted off on the historic first flight.

On October 21, 1936, just over a year since China Clipper's ground breaking jaunt, Hawaiian Clipper started the world's first transoceanic scheduled passenger flight across the Pacific to Manila. In the spring of 1937, regular mail-and-passenger service began to Hong Kong and Macao.

Of the three-ship fleet of Martin M-130s, the China Clipper was the most famous, in large part due to its notable 1935 first flight.

Eric Niderost is a California-based writer and historian.