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Pan American Clippers: the Golden Age of flying boats — a book I’ve read

6 June 2010

Pan American Clippers: the Golden Age of flying boats

Pan American Clippers: the Golden Age of flying boats, James Trautman, 2007, ISBN-13 978-1-55046-476-4, 272 pp.

I borrowed this book from my county library so that I would, once and for all, learn about the famous Pan American Airways (PAA) Clipper flying boats. I can happily say that this book accomplished this objective and so much more. The author — James Trautman — also illustrates the man behind the airline (Juan Trippe), explains the logistics required to support trans oceanic flight of mail as well as first class passengers, and has absolutely crammed the book full of historical photographs.

I learned much about the Clippers, including the Trippe family connection to the sailing clippers of the previous century, and more about the local connection for me to those majestic flying boats — Dinner Key* in Miami.

The book had so many old photos of the Dinner Key facility I was easily able to identify the existing hangars as well as ramp, along with the old Pan Am terminal (now Miami City Hall). The hangars now serve as part of a marina but one smaller building is a Fresh Market store. I went into the Fresh Market, also getting a nice lunch sandwich, and had a look around. One can see the architecture of a hangar built in the 1930s, that of efficient if austere metal construction but there is no obvious explanation present in the structure. There are two clues of airliners there, but they are hung on a wall without context.

But, back to the book! Trautman describes the history, adventure and tragedy that made up the PAA experience in the 1930s. Many died during WW II working for PAA but under military control on military missions. Since Pan Am pioneered trans oceanic travel, including meteorology, it should not have surprised me to learn that PAA trained military pilots in long distance flying — but it did since I had not seen mention of this before. Although ignored as dry, business and wars are not done successfully without logistics and training. Pan Am Airways had expertise in both as can be read in this book.

Adventures are nicely related as are the tragedies such as the loss of the Philippine Clipper and the death of pioneering aviator Edwin Musick. Edwin Musick should be the subject of book as he led the way into so much of what we take for granted today. No mention is made of PAA acquiring Aeromarine Airways, Inc. to get its first international route, between Key West FL and Havana Cuba — a small detail, though, and not meant to be disparaging as the amount of information in the book is immense and it is related to the reader in an excellent fashion.

Persons part of the clipper history are addressed completely as are the various facilities built across the Pacific Ocean to support the PAA routes. Also discussed is the impact of the PAA clippers in the media including films. Nicely done, as well, is the detailing of what remains of this part of the Golden Age of Aviation. One item in particular caught my eye, the ten foot diameter globe that was designed for the Dinner Key Terminal in Miami, which was moved to the Miami Museum of Science (though updated, as noted by the author). I looked it up in May 2010 and indeed it is large and it is updated to now reflect the ocean’s bottom including the spreading ridges and subduction trenches. As a geologist I immediately recognized the correctness of the oceanic floor features and knew that the information about these features had not been collected until after WW II, two decades after the days of the clippers. So … the globe has been updated to educate us about what we know of the world today but it has lost its art deco context and, most disappointingly, credit for the current globe is given to those who modernized it with no mention of the original makers or the original history of it — as a science person I found that to be distasteful and somewhat like tomb plundering.

Another globe was discussed, too. It had been part of the Treasure Island Terminal in the San Francisco / Oakland area but now resides in the San Francisco Airport Museum**. I saw this globe, one cannot miss it when walking by the front window of the museum within the International Terminal of the San Francisco International Airport. I saw it and missed it at the same time as I did not take the time to read the sign that was part of the display as I was eager to photograph the large models of the Pan Am Clipper flying boats. Next time I am back there …

Thanks to this book, I now have an overview of Pan Am’s Clipper service, how PAA affected history in WW II as well as today — and detailed knowledge of the Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing aircraft used on the many and long overwater routes.

* a photo of the former Dinner Key terminal building, now Miami City Hall, is included in the Building & Ships in Aviation’s History page

** a post on this museum will appear soon

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