A Salute to the China Clipper!

ba-clipper22_PH1_0502594485_part6.jpgThere’s a case to be made that 75 years ago, San Francisco was the most interesting transportation venue in the world, however briefly.  For it was three-quarters of a century ago today that the first Martin Flying Boat took off from San Francisco Bay, bound for Manila (photo, left, from Associated Press).

That seaplane was named the China Clipper by its owner, Pan American  Airways, a name that the public applied to every other Pan Am plane that joined it on the route. Our friend Carl Nolte tells the story wonderfully in today’s Chronicle.

Nolte notes that the pilot on that first flight flew under the cables of the unfinished Bay Bridge on his takeoff. He would also have flown over numerous ferries still providing the only way to get directly between the City, the East Bay, and Marin. That made the Ferry Building one of the busiest transit terminals in the world, served by more than 800 streetcars in the afternoon peak period. (What? You didn’t think we would leave streetcars out, however tenuous the connection, did you?)

When you consider that this first China Clipper flight came just eight years after Lindbergh’s New York to Paris flight, seen as a revolution in aviation, it is a stunning testimony to the speed at which technology developed, as well as a tribute to the guts of Pan Am for inaugurating what was a risky, but visionary, service. Though almost no San Franciscan could afford a trans-Pacific flight, which was priced at almost $30,000 round trip in today’s dollars, all appreciated that it cemented their city’s role as the undisputed commercial capital of the West Coast (for at least a little while longer).

Personal note: when I was growing up in my family’s delicatessen on Market Street (“Laubscher Brothers: Famous for Fine Salads”), my great uncle, Carl Laubscher, would tell me that early in the China Clipper era, Pan Am came to him and his brothers and asked if they would supply box lunches for the passengers on the first leg of the flight. He said they turned it down, thus missing a chance to get in on the ground floor of what became the airline catering business. Thanks, Unc! 

Comments: 1

  1. A San Franciscan who made the first passenger flight was Carleton E. Morse, author and director of radio shows “One Man’s Family” and “I Love a Mystery”. Carlton took some 8mm movies and his widow, Millie, donated a DVD to the China Clipper Museum exhibit.

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