Throughly enjoyed this. Thanks. Postwar my uncle set up regional feeder airlines for Trippe, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. I was impressed by this work, but one evening after a few he expanded on his work to say he was “Juan Trippe’s bagman”, yes exact words. Lots of great stories about those times are lost, I appreciate you retelling this one.
The Long Way Round: Getting home
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the crew of Pan Am flight 18602 were forced to do something almost impossible: return to America the long way round.
He looked at his watch. It was 5:54AM. Two hours to go, then. Two hours more to stay awake. This was the downside of overnight duty: no planes to manage meant it was always a struggle to keep alert, but rules were rules and the tower had to be manned at all times. It made sense, he supposed, pouring himself another cup of coffee, but with America now at war surely there were more important things for a trained air controller to…
LAGUARDIA TOWER LAGUARDIA TOWER. OVER.
The sudden burst of sound from the radio caught the controller by surprise and he scrambled to try and stop his cup of coffee from falling to the floor.
TOWER LAGUARDIA TOWER. THIS IS PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER NC18602 INBOUND
FROM AUCKLAND NEW ZEALAND. DUE TO ARRIVE PAN AMERICAN MARINE TERMINAL
LAGUARDIA IN SEVEN MINUTES. OVER.
The confused controller gave up trying and let the cup drop, shattering on the floor.
This made no sense, he thought. It was still before six and there were no seaplane flights due. Then, a new wave of confusion hit him: New Zealand was — almost literally — on the other side of the world from New York. There was no Pan Am route between those two places. No airline flew that far from the East Coast!
The internal intercom next to the radio suddenly crackled into life.
“Erm… LaGuardia… this is Flight Watch at the Marine Terminal…” The voice sounded both amused and confused. “Did ya hear that too?! Sounds like we got ourselves a surprise visitor!”
The controller grabbed the intercom.
“Yeah.. uh… What the hell are we supposed to do with him?! He can’t land in the seaplane channel in the dark! And where the hell did he pop up from anyway?!”
“I guess we’ll just have to hold him until daylight.” Flight Watch replied, sounding just as baffled as he did. “I just hope he has enough gas.”
The controller reached for the radio and thumbed it on.
AMERICAN CLIPPER 18602. THIS IS LAGUARDIA. THE SEAPLANE CHANNEL IS
CLOSED UNTIL DAYLIGHT. YOU WILL HAVE TO HOLD FOR ABOUT AN HOUR BEFORE WE
CAN CLEAR YOU FOR LANDING. OVER.
The reply came swiftly.
LAGUARDIA ROGER. NO PROBLEM. WE CAN DO THAT. OVER.
The controller paused for a second. He still couldn’t believe this was happening. If Flight Watch hadn’t heard it too then he’d have probably imagined he was dreaming. In the end he couldn’t resist. He had to ask again.
SORRY PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER 18602 BUT SAY AGAIN, CONFIRM YOUR DEPARTURE POINT. OVER.
There was a brief pause, and then the reply came over the radio crisp and clear, leaving no room for doubt.
I SAY AGAIN, INBOUND FROM AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND. BY WAY OF THE LONG WAY ROUND. OVER.
San Francisco, December 1941
To Captain Bob Ford, a veteran pilot for Pan-Am, 1st December 1941 was just a day like any other. Sure, war was raging in Europe, but for now at least the USA was staying out of it. This meant it was business as usual out here on the West Coast at Treasure Island, the place from which Pan Am’s clipper services departed on their regular scheduled flights across the Pacific ocean.
Well, almost business as usual. Ford, like most other Pan Am employees involved in the airline’s pacific trade, was aware that relations between the USA and Japan had been worsening for some time. Whilst few expected that it would come to war, even the airline itself had recognised that it was no longer impossible.
Described by President Roosevelt as “the most fascinating Yale gangster I ever met”, Trippe had spotted an opportunity to make money as the aviation age dawned and had set about building up an aerial empire. It had begun with a simple government contract to run mail to Cuba, but by the forties Pan Am had grown into a passenger and cargo carrier that spanned the world.
Trippe was a man who always believed in the financial and publicity value of constantly pushing the frontiers of aviation. Nothing represented this better than Pan American’s glamorous “Clipper” services. These stretched right across the Pacific, connecting the US West Coast to the likes of Hawaii, China and New Zealand beyond. The fleet of planes that serviced these routes consisted entirely of flying boats. They were the only aircraft with the range to get there. Even they couldn’t do it non-stop.
In order to run long-haul services then, Pan American had been forced to build a huge network of refuelling stations and bases on islands and atolls across the Pacific, and along the coasts of the Atlantic. They’d also been forced to push the very boundaries of engineering in order to build the seaplanes that would service these routes. The creative talent of aviation legends such as Glenn Curtiss and Igor Sikorsky had been commandeered by Trippe and Pan American, first to produce planes that could cross the still-vast distances required at all, and then to make them larger and larger in a constant quest to increase the number of passengers, mail and cargo that could be carried.
The seaplane that Captain Ford took command of that day represented the apex of that collective development. Over 100ft long and with a wingspan of over 150ft, the Boeing 314 was (and remains) one of the largest aircraft ever to take to the sky. It could carry up to 74 passengers and a crew of 11, and was one of the few planes with enough range to fly all of the long legs required to island hop from San Francisco to Auckland.
“Hold dinner for me”
This particular Boeing 314 was the California Clipper and Ford’s crew was largely his usual one. There was one exception — his radio officer, Jack Poindexter. Poindexter was actually Chief Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s Pacific division, and thus these days more likely to be found back in the office than on the planes. California Clipper had been fitted with some new radio equipment though and Poindexter wanted to see it in action. So when he discovered that the California was short a second radioman for the first leg of her trip (the short hop to Los Angeles) he had volunteered to come along.
“I’ll be a little late tonight.” He’d told his wife on the phone. “But hold dinner for me.”
This last minute change aside, all preparations went to plan and soon the California Clipper was airborne and heading for Los Angeles.
Poindexter had just called his wife to let her know he had arrived in LA and would shortly be heading back when he saw Oscar Hendrickson, the California Clipper’s Flight Radio Officer, heading his way. Instantly he knew it was bad news.
That news was that Harry Strickland, the second radioman meant to join the California Clipper here at LA, had been taken to hospital with suspected appendicitis. Poindexter instantly knew where this was going. Pan American regulations were that no Clipper flight could go ahead without two radiomen — a necessity given the 15–18 hour flight legs involved. With no relief crew available at LA that meant Poindexter was the only man who could take his place. Despite having brought no spare clothes or money, he was going to have to go all the way with them to New Zealand.
“I just got through talking to my wife! ” He protested, although he knew it was in vain. “Now she’ll be really tee‘d off!”
“Do you have a better idea?” replied Hendrickson, apologetically.
Poindexter didn’t, and when the California Clipper took to the sky that afternoon he was sitting at its radio desk next to Hendrickson. With the late afternoon sun glinting off her metallic grey hull, the flying boat turned and headed towards Pearl Harbour.
Somewhere out there in the Pacific, a Japanese battle fleet was doing exactly the same thing.
Honolulu and beyond
The California Clipper arrived at the Pan Am marine facility at Pearl Harbour on 3rd December, completing the longest leg of its outbound flight in the process. There they were joined by one more member of the crew — John Mack, who would be Ford’s First Officer for the rest of the journey.
Pearl was a popular stopover spot with the Clipper crews. The hotel facilities were comfortable and the presence of the US Navy on the Island meant there was plenty of things to do too. Bob Ford was also a keen surfer and kept a board stashed at the Pan Am facility there. Soon he was out riding the waves while the rest of the crew relaxed, playing volleyball, cards or sunbathing. All the crew, that is, with the exception of Poindexter, who was soon out in Honolulu trying to find somewhere to buy a couple of spare shirts.
“Jesus H Christ!” Shouted Eugene Leach, tearing the headphones from his head and pushing himself back from the radio desk as if trying to escape the enormity of what he’d just heard.
It was now 7th December, the California Clipper having left Pearl three days before. The plane was now on the final leg of its journey to Auckland, having stopped off as planned at Canton Island, Fiji and New Caledonia on the way.
Leach was a fellow Pan Am radioman who had joined them at New Caledonia. He wasn’t rostered to be part of the crew, but his own flight had experienced issues. In return for passage to Auckland he’d offered to help Poindexter and Hendrickson man the radio for the final leg of the trip. He’d been listening for local signals coming out of Auckland when he’d picked up the news.
“The Japs have attacked Pearl Harbour!”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No! No!” Leach insisted, “Just now… they bombed Pearl Harbour! No joke man!”
Seeing the expression of horror on Leach’s face soon dispelled any doubt in Brown’s mind. And then the reality of what this meant hit him: if the Pacific was no longer a friendly sea then they were cut off. They had no route home.
Brown headed towards the cockpit to warn the Captain. Ford took the news quietly and calmly.
“You’re sure about that? You better confirm it.”
Leach was already attempting to do exactly that and soon he had managed to lock onto the long-range signal from the Pan Am ground station in Noumea, New Caledonia, from whence they had just departed. The station was broadcasting morse code on a constant loop, itself a bad sign, and the translation left no room for doubt.
PEARL HARBOUR ATTACKED. IMPLEMENT PLAN A.
For a moment there was silence on the flight deck. Then Ford reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a sealed brown envelope, breaking the spell. He was the only member of the crew to whom the last part of the coded message made any sense. It meant it was time to break open the envelopes that he, and every other Clipper Captain, had been secretly issued on every flight for a number of weeks now — since Pan Am decided to prepare for a war.
Inside, Ford found he had new orders.
To: Captain, PAA Flight 6039 — SFO-LAX-HNL-CIS-SUV-NOU-AUK and return flight 6040.
From: Division Manager, Pacific Division
Subject: Special instructions to avoid hostile military activity.
Pan American Airways, in cooperation with the Chief of Staff, United States Army, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet Operations, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State, has agreed to place its fleet of flying boats at the disposal of the military for whatever logistical or tactical purpose they may deem necessary at such time as hostilities break out between the United States forces and the military forces of the Imperial Japanese government.
In the event that you are required to open and read these instructions, you may assume that hostilities have already occurred and that the aircraft under your command represents a strategic military resource which must be protected and secured from falling into enemy hands
Ford read on. Plan A, for the California Clipper, meant continuing on to the nearest friendly Pan American base known to be unoccupied by the Japanese, doing everything possible to avoid any contact with enemy forces. This meant continuing to Auckland.
Ford had been a Navy pilot before joining Pan American. He knew exactly what to do. They needed to get away from their regular route — it was the first place any Japanese forces would sweep — and find a new path to Auckland. Rod Brown was dispatched to the map table to do so, and Leach was ordered to shut down the radio. From now they would continue in radio silence.
This done, the rest of the crew were filled in on events, and all lights were extinguished. Finally, Ford unlocked his flight case and pulled out his .38 revolver. He strapped it to his hip.
The California Clipper’s war had begun. And she was a long, long way from home.
The Long Way Round: From Auckland to India
Stuck on the wrong side of the world in WW2, the crew of the California Clipper gambled everything on circumnavigating the world.
Note: If you’ve not read the first part of this story, you’ll want to start here.
Auckland, 14th December 1941
Since arriving at Auckland a week earlier, Bob Ford had settled into a regular morning routine. Every day he would wake early and eat breakfast. He would then stroll over to the American Consulate message centre to see if orders for the California Clipper and her crew had finally arrived.
The Consulate was a scene of organised chaos, the only route for messages in and out of Auckland for the Americans — military and civilian alike. Ford had just begun to make himself comfy in his normal spot in the waiting room when a clerk recognised him and thrust a piece of paper into his hand. Ford read it, and then immediately wished that he hadn’t.
Security: Top Secret
To: Captain Robert Ford
From: Chief, Flight Operations Pan American Airways System Chrysler Building New York City, NY
Subject: Diversion plans for NC18602
Normal return route cancelled. Proceed as follows:
Strip all company markings, registration numbers, and indentifiable insignia from exterior surfaces. Proceed westbound soonest your discretion to avoid hostilities and deliver NC18602 to Marine Terminal LaGuardia Field New York.
Back at the Pan American offices in Auckland, Ford showed the message to station manager Bill Mullahey and to the crew of the California Clipper.
“They don’t ask much do they?” Said Mullahey, with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He was right. In one short message Ford and his crew had been asked to do something that no commerical flying boat had ever done before — fly west from Auckland back to the USA. Rod Brown summed up the thoughts of the crew.
“Christ Skipper,” he said, “that’s a helluvah route. Where the hell are we supposed to get gas and service?! And we don’t have nav charts beyond Auckland!”
Brown was right. To get back the California Clipper would have to carve out an all-new route for flying boats from Australia to the East Coast of America. Years before, when the Pacific route had first been charted, it had been done in careful stages, with fuelling ships and stations carefully planned and placed months in advance, using a flying boat specially prepared for the purpose and with a bountiful supply of maps and charts.
The crew of the California Clipper had none of that — all they had was whatever they could scrounge up at Auckland and a commercial flying boat which, by the end of the trip, would have had to fly longer and further in a single trip than any Boeing 314 had ever managed before. They would be flying blind, and they would have to push themselves and — more crucially — their plane well beyond the limits of knowledge and safety. Nonetheless, they realised that they had to try.
Auckland Library. 20,869 miles to go
The librarian raised her eyebrows.
“Let me get this straight.” She said, slowly, her eyes passing across the four slightly sheepish men in Pan Am uniforms standing before her. “You want to see every single map, marine chart and atlas we have in the library?”
“Yes please.” Replied Bob Ford, glancing uncertainly at Mullahey, the Pan Am station chief at Auckland. This had been his idea.
“Also any geography textbooks. Stuff that might have information about winds or currents.” Added Rod Brown, helpfully.
“We need to work out how to get back to America.” Explained Johnny Mack with a smile. Ford had a growing suspicion that Mack might be enjoying this.
The librarian raised her eyebrows again.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Soon the four men were busy at a table, poring over the entire geographic contents of Auckland public library. After several hours of plotting, calculations and guesswork a possible route began to emerge.
The first stage of the journey was relatively straightforward — head right across to the west coast of Australia. This was not without risk as it involved taking the California Clipper across an awful lot of land (never a nice thing to do if your plane has no landing gear). It was the second stage of the journey that was the tricky one though, because the crew were faced with a difficult decision — to make a straight run for Africa, or cut north-west towards Java and India and then head to Africa from there.
It was a difficult choice. The first option was obviously more direct, but it meant pushing their Boeing 314 to the very edge of her fuel limit. Just one bad piece of navigation, storm or headwind and they would be lost at sea. The second route would increase the chances of finding somewhere to fuel and rest up with friendly Dutch or British forces, but it also meant cutting through an area that was now a war zone.
Either way, reaching Africa wouldn’t be the end of their problems. from the east coast of Africa they would have to fly across land again to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo. The good news was that Ford had heard there was a Pan American facility on the river there, which would hopefully be able to provide them with fuel. The bad news was that they would absolutely need it. Because from there, they would have to attempt a mammoth (but unavoidable) 3,550 mile cross-Atlantic flight to the Pan American base in Natal, Brazil. It wasn’t as far as the proposed hop from Australia to Africa, but it was still over the stated range of a Boeing 314. If they survived that trip, from there they could hop up the coast to New York itself.
Ford and his crew evaluated their options. In the end they decided that the need for fuel meant they’d have to risk the north-westerly option. They would attempt to go via British and Dutch territory and pray that they beat the Japanese to it.
“Okay, if we’re all agreed let’s get on with it.” Said Ford. “Now let’s get back to the dock and see how that paint stripping job is coming along.”
Whilst Ford, Mullahey, Brown and Mack had been busy at the library, the rest of the crew had been stripping paint — an effort to remove all obvious signs that they were an American plane. It was hard, slow work, they explained to Ford upon his return, but they’d been making good progress.
As they were talking, however, another message arrived from Pan American — this one marked urgent. The Japanese threat in the Pacific was increasing and the company were worried about their station staff in New Caledonia. California Clipper’s departure was now a matter of urgency — they must depart tomorrow, and they must stop off and evacuate all Pan American staff and their families from Noumea on their way to Australia.
This caused problems for Ford. There were a number of spare engines at Auckland which he had been determined to dismantle and take with them for parts — without them any kind of failure en-route would almost certainly mean the end of their trip (or worse). There simply wasn’t time to both dismantle those engines and finish stripping all markings from the plane though. Ford now faced a choice — rescue the staff of New Caledonia, or increase his own crew’s chances of survival and of remaining anonymous in the face of the enemy.
Ford looked his flying boat up and down and made a decision. The next morning, laden with spare parts but still sporting the remains of a large American flag on the top of her wing, the California Clipper left Auckland and began her long journey home.
Gladstone, Australia. 18,784 miles to go
Although the evacuation from Noumea had gone to plan and they had reached Gladstone without a hitch, Ford was worried.
“Nothing?” He said, looking at Johnny Mack and Flight Engineer Homans “Swede” Rothe.
“There’s not a drop of 100 octane to be had.” Said Rothe, with a sigh. “It’s either take a chance on using auto gas or try and make it to Darwin on what we have left in the tanks right now.”
The Boeing 314 was a magnificent aircraft, but its size and range came at a cost. It was the first commercial aircraft that required 100 octane fuel to run — something that previously only high-performance racers and military aircraft had needed. In peacetime this hadn’t been an issue — Pan American kept plenty of 100 octane at all its bases and stations for the flying boats to use — but the California Clipper was now flying into the unknown. And as Mack and Rothe had discovered, there was no guarantee they’d be able to get the stuff at the places they were now passing through.
Ford performed some mental calculations and made some decisions.
“Darwin it is.”
Darwin, Australia. 17,235 miles to go
The eleven hour flight to Darwin had been a quiet one. Rod Brown and Jim Henricksen had spent most of the journey scouring the makeshift charts they’d copied or liberated from Auckland Library — an attempt to learn as much as possible about their route and the destinations they would be landing at. The second part was important, because they lacked the relevant radio frequency guides for this part of the world so it was entirely possible they’d have to land at each of their stopovers blind. For a flying boat the size of the California Clipper this was risky business. If they struck a piece of debris, a hidden sand bar or a reef during landing, then at best it would rip through the hull like a tin-opener and destroy the plane. At worst it would flip the flying boat as it tried to land, killing the whole crew almost instantly.
Brown and Henricksen weren’t the only ones worried. The lack of 100 octane at Gladstone had made Swede Rothe realise just how careful they were going to have to be with their fuel. Not just on this leg of their journey, but on the whole trip. Swede and John Parrish, the California Clipper’s Second Engineer, spent most of the flight to Darwin carefully calculating the best balance of fuel mixture, propeller speed (in rpm) and manifold pressure to maximise their limited fuel supply. Both men knew that the Boeing 314 was a hungry aircraft if you let her be, so they needed to be economical without doing anything that might risk overheating the engines or adversely affecting her flying.
For the rest of the crew — from Captain Ford to the two Flight Stewards Barney Sawicki and Verne Edwards, busy downstairs trying to work out how they were going to feed everyone on the journey — just the fact that the California Clipper was flying over land was enough to put them on edge.
Nonetheless, the flying boat made it through her flight over Australia unscathed and made an orderly landing in Darwin harbour on 17th December. As soon as they were secure, Ford sent Mack, Brown, Parrish and Fourth Officer John Steers ashore to try and secure some 100 octane.
The scene that greeted the four as they disembarked at the dock was one of pure chaos. Darwin was in the midst of an invasion scare. Worse, the arrival of the first freighter full of beer in months had resulted in a temporary breakdown of military order.
“What the hell is this about?!” asked Johnny Mack of the harbourmaster, who had confirmed that there was 100 octane available, but that it would need to be ferried out to the California Clipper in jerry cans.
“We’ve had one air raid already and there’s no telling if or when the Japs might take a notion to move onshore here.” He shrugged. “They sure wouldn’t get much of a fight out of these blokes!”
His comments focused the four men’s minds on the urgency of the task at hand. Whether the Japanese invaded or not, more air raids were likely and the California Clipper was a huge, sitting duck out in the bay. It was vital they get out of Darwin as soon as possible. They begin the slow process of ferrying the precious 100 octane out to the flying boat and pouring it, can by can, into her vast fuel tanks.
This was a painfully slow task, one that was made even slower by the weather, which flipped between clear skies and torrential rain. When it was clear, fuelling could proceed — with the crew maintaining a nervous watch on the horizon for any signs of Japanese bombers. When it was raining they had to cover the tank inlets to avoid contaminating the fuel with water and take cover inside the plane. Finally, by 2AM they were finished. With sunrise, and their departure, just four hours away, the exhausted crew headed to their bunks to try and grab some sleep.
As the day dawned, the California Clipper climbed back into the sky once again.
Surabaya, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). 15,951 miles to go
Commandant Colonel Koenrad was in the squadron operations room at the Royal Dutch Naval Air Station at Surabaya when an unknown contact was reported by his combat air patrol.
He stifled a groan. The Japanese had been attacking the island almost daily, their bombers destroying irreplaceable planes and supplies on the ground whilst the escorting fighters gradually bled his limited air forces dry. Both Koenrad and his men were frayed and frustrated.
Maybe this, though, was good news — whatever this aircraft was, it was alone. Was it friendly? It seemed unlikely. Perhaps, he hoped, the Japanese thought his command was so wounded that their bombers could come in unescorted now. If so, they were wrong. Koenrad and his airmen were still determined to fight. He scrambled three fighters to intercept.
“Uh-oh” muttered Steer, from the left hand pilot seat of the California Clipper. “Eleven O’Clock. Closing fast. Looks like a fighter plane!”
“Friend or foe?!” Asked Johnny Mack from the seat next to him, craning his neck to try and see the incoming fighter.
“Can’t tell from here, but he’s sure coming on like a bat out of hell. What do we do?!”
“Skipper!” Johnny Mack shouted. “Better get up here quick!”
Bob Ford raced forward, motioning Steer out of the pilot seat and taking his place. The Captain had been afraid of this ever since they’d left Darwin. If it was the Japanese they were sitting ducks, so he hoped it was the Dutch. Even if it was though, without the relevant radio frequencies they had no way of contacting them and letting them know they were friendly. Ford had raised this fear with the harbourmaster at Darwin, who had promised to try and get a message ahead to the Dutch at Surabaya, just to warn them that California was coming. Unbeknownst to Ford, that message had never got through.
Down on the ground meanwhile, Koenrad was pondering events. He signalled the patrol aircraft which had first made contact.
DO YOU SEE ANY IDENTIFYING MARKS?
It was clearly a flying boat, he now knew, but whose? It seemed to be without markings. Surely it was the Japanese? The patrolling pilot certainly thought so and was asking, repeatedly, for permission to shoot it down. The three interceptors Koenrad had sent racing towards its position were also asking the same thing. But something made Koenrad hold back. He reiterated his orders to hold fire, and told them to take another look.
On the California Clipper itself the situation was getting tense.
“Three more fighters incoming!” Warned Johnny Mack.
“Nothing to do but continue straight and level.” Replied Ford with more confidence in his voice than he felt. “We sure as hell don’t want to startle them with any sudden change of course.”
On the ground Koenrad was getting impatient. The flying boat was getting near the base and he needed to make a decision. Suddenly his radio crackled into life.
AMERICAN FLAG PAINTED ON THE TOP SURFACE OF THE WING. PLEASE ADVISE.
In bizarre fashion, Ford’s decision to abandon the efforts to disguise the California and save the Pan Am staff at New Caledonia had also saved the plane too. Koenrad made his decision.
MAINTAIN POSITION. LET HIM PROCEED.
“And of course, that area is heavily mined”
After the scare with the fighters Ford was just happy to have landed outside the harbour without incident. Still, he had expected more of a welcome than this. At both Gladstone and Darwin their arrival had been greeted by the sight of a boat racing out to meet them from the harbour. As Ford looked out of the cockpit window, however, all he could see here was a man standing on a patrol boat parked some distance away in the inner harbour waving at them.
“Shall we follow him in?” Asked Johnny Mack.
Ford nodded. “Just proceed slowly.”
Trying to be as unthreatening as possible, Mack taxied the plane towards the inner harbour. Having passed the threshold the boat finally approached and signalled that they should moor up to a buoy. Having done so, Ford hurried downstairs and opened the door.
“Ahoy Captain.” The armed Dutch officer in the boat called out in English. “Please come aboard. You will have to report to headquarters.”
“Okay.” Replied Ford. “But I must leave my crew on board for now.”
“That will be satisfactory.”
Ashore, Ford found himself explaining the situation to Commandant Colonel Koenrad.
“You were very fortunate that the radio was working today, because most of the time it is not.” Koenrad commented. “Without direct orders from me it is highly likely that our fighters would have shot you down.”
“That’s understandable.” Replied Ford with a wry smile.
“And of course,” Koenrad added, almost as an afterthought, “we were very concerned when you landed outside the breakwater. That area is heavily mined.”
Ford went white.
The fuel problem
“Swede,” Ford said with concern as the patrol boat carried the men ashore for breakfast, “they can only give us 90 octane gas.”
The Dutch had been more than welcoming to the air crew once they had discerned their identity, providing them with food, spare parts and supplies. There was one thing Koenrad insisted they couldn’t spare, however, and that was any of his precious 100 octane.
Swede had been dreading this moment ever since they’d struggled to find supplies at Gladstone. It wasn’t just that the Boeing wasn’t designed to fly on regular petrol , it was that no-one had ever even tried. There was simply no telling what would happen if they attempted it. If they put 90 into California she might fly okay, or all her engines might overheat and blow up. Nobody knew.
At the very least, Swede was certain that it would cause power problems — probably pre-detonation and backfires. Not only could these damage the engines but they might prove fatal during takeoff or landing. That was if there would be enough power to take off at all. What choice did they have though?
“The lower sea wing tanks are down to one third and the outboard mains are just about dry.” He mused aloud. “I suggest we transfer all the remaining 100 octane to the inboard mains where we can reserve it for takeoff and landing. Load the 90 octane into the other tanks. We’ll try to use it only for en-route cruising.”
“My guess is that we’re going to need some of those spare engine parts we’ve got onboard,” he added with a sigh, “before we get back to company territory.”
The next day, loaded with fuel on which no Boeing 314 had flown run before, they departed on the longest leg of the journey so far — the 2,500 mile flight to Trincomalee in modern Sri Lanka.
En-route to Trincomalee. Approximately 14018 miles to go
Every time it happened the California shook, as if in a violent storm. And Swede flinched.
“Backfiring on number three!” Johnny Mack shouted.
“Back off the mixture Swede!” Ford ordered.
Rothe quickly moved the fuel mixture controls towards the rich end of the range. They’d been trying for hours to find a 90 octane fuel balance on which they could run. They simply couldn’t afford to run the mixture too rich all the way — not only did it eat hugely into their precious fuel supply but it was pushing the engine temperatures dangerously over the red-line. The trouble was that every time he tried to lean the mixture out the violent backfiring would start.
“Okay,” Sighed Ford, “Let’s regroup and try again. We want a setting just under where the backfiring starts. Have you got a feel for that yet Swede?”
Swede was pretty certain he now had. “Aye Skipper, but those head temps aren’t coming down any.” Swede was concerned. His instruments showed that the engines were running just below the red line, but they were also having to fly far lower than the crew would like.
“As long as we can control the backfiring and they’re running smoothly, let’s go for it.” Ford sighed. “We’ll just have to stay at this altitude.”
Meanwhile, back from the cockpit Rod Brown had his own problems. Using the rudimentary atlases and charts they possessed he had so far managed to plot a decent course, but as night fell they passed the northwestern end of Sumatra, their last positive landfall between here and Trincomalee. From here on out it was all maths, magnetism, stars and dead reckoning.
By morning they had been airborne for almost 19 hours, flying on Swede’s careful balance of 90 octane and on Brown’s ‘guestimated’ route. They knew they should be nearing land, but the layer of low-lying cloud beneath them was a problem.
“We’d better start heading down.” Said Ford. “I don’t much relish the idea of missing the island and having to backtrack while our fuel reserve gets used up.”
Swede eased back on the mixture and they slowly felt their way down. Soon they were flying a mere 300 feet above the waves. They began to look for land.
A little later, as they neared the coast, Johnny Mack yawned. It had been a long flight and he was looking forward to both sleep and a breakfast. Ahead, out of the cockpit, the sea was calm and unbroken. Unbroken, he noticed, apart from…
“Hey Skipper.” He remarked with a frown. “What do you suppose that is, there, dead ahead? A whale maybe?”
Ford squinted, following his First Officer’s gaze to the object on which they were closing fast. Suddenly his eyes flew wide.
“Submarine!” He shouted.
By now the conning tower was visible, a Rising Sun painted on its side, men running towards the large gun on its foredeck.
“Swede!” Ford bellowed, “Full rich! Full power!”
“They’re aiming that thing at us!” Mack warned.
“Max climb! Let’s get the hell out of here!” Ford cried.
With the sluggish Boeing 314 resisting the change, Ford and Mack hauled back on the yoke desperately seeking the cloud cover above. They blazed directly over the submarine mid-climb, the deck gun below swinging round as it began to track them through the sky. After what seemed to the crew like an eternity, they finally broke through into the clouds. It was just in time. A bright flash from below illuminating the clouds around them. The men braced for impact. Luckily, it never came.
An hour later the California Clipper was down and secure at Trincomalee, to the relief of everyone on board. To a man though, they knew that they were still a very long way from home.
The British, Ford decided, were a strange race. On the one hand, they had welcomed his crew to Triconmalee, a little, battered, corner of their Empire with open arms (luckily the Dutch, unlike the Aussies, had managed to phone ahead). On the other, they simply refused to believe that a civilian aeroplane could properly identify a submarine.
It didn’t matter that the California Clipper had flown right over the damn thing. Hell, Ford thought, it didn’t matter that it had taken a shot at them. As far as the British were concerned, unless one of their own pilots had seen it, it didn’t exist.
This particular element of Imperialist pigheadedness aside, however, Ford had to admit that they had been more than accommodating. His crew had been fed and billeted, and the California Clipper refueled. In fact practically the only person who hadn’t rested was Ford himself. The British had insisted that Ford simply had to attend a dinner party that night. They wouldn’t tell him who was hosting. They just politely insisted that their commander was hugely impressed with both Ford and his crew’s achievements so far and that he really should attend.
The British, Ford mused as they waited in the drawing room of the commander’s residence, seem to do everything politely. They probably even apologised during invasions. Maybe that was how they’d got away with doing so many of them.
Ford was broken from his daydreaming by Rod Brown, standing next to him in the cleanest uniform he’d been able to muster. Rod was there because Ford had decided that if he was going to have to go to a dinner party he was damn well not doing it alone. Sometimes rank had its advantages.
“I think our host is coming” Rod muttered.
She was indeed, sweeping into the room just as Rod finished speaking.
“Captain Ford!” Said the elegantly dressed woman with a smile. “So good of you to accept our invitation!”
Before Ford and Brown could muster more than a basic greeting their host launched into an apology. She was Lady Caldecott, she explained, wife of the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Andrew Caldecott. The Governor had been fascinated by the California Clipper’s quest and had been desperate to meet the men involved. Unfortunately duty had called him away. To Ford’s relief, although he tried to disguise it, the dinner party would be a far more low key affair than originally planned.
Lady Caldecott did have one request though— the Governor wasn’t the only one who had been fascinated by their journey, their teenage son had too. Would Ford and Brown perhaps spend a few minutes talking to him about it?
This was something Ford was more than happy to do. Ford and Brown spent an hour regaling the boy with stories of their adventures so far.
Christmas Eve 1941. Trincomalee. 13518 miles to go
As Bob Ford pushed the throttles to maximum for takeoff the engines briefly stuttered, and Swede winced slightly. The good news was that the British had been able to top up their dwindling supply of 100 octane. The bad news was there was still some regular 90 octane in the tanks.
To begin with, takeoff went as planned. Soon, however, the banging started again. Swede had hoped that the enrichment from the newly-loaded 100 octane would counteract the poor qualities of the 90 but it seemed they’d still have to do some careful balancing.
“We’ll probably have to put up with that until the fuel flow purges all of that 90 out of our system.” Swede shouted forward to Ford and Mack in the cockpit.
“Okay Swede.” Ford acknowledged, swinging the plane towards Karachi.
Half an hour later they were on course and the banging seemed to have subsided. Ford was just about to switch out of the pilots chair when suddenly a huge explosion rocked the plane, which lurched hard to the left and threw Ford clear out of his seat.
“What the hell?!” Shouted Johnny Mack, fighting to right the plane on his own.
“Number three has lost oil pressure!” Shouted Swede from his station. Mack lunged for the controls to shut it down.
“Parrish!” Ford shouted, clawing his way back into his seat to help Mack. “Get up to the observation dome and see if you can make out what’s happened!”
John Parrish rushed to the rear and climbed the ladder to the observation dome through which Rod Brown had been taking astral measurements a few nights before. It didn’t take long to work out that engine three was gone. Blown by the bad fuel mixture and now streaming oil.
Thanking their lucky stars that they were only half an hour out from Trincomalee, the crew of the California Clipper turned their wounded plane around and limped back to Ceylon.
Christmas in Ceylon
Jack Poindexter smiled and laughed with the rest of the crew as the men of the RAF sang songs and raised toasts to absent friends and family. With the help of the RAF at Trincomalee, the crew had managed to strip down and repair the California Clipper’s broken engine in near-record time. They were now ready to resume their flight in the morning, and in the meantime the RAF had insisted that the crew of the seaplane would celebrate Christmas with them — together they would all raise toasts to their families far, far away.
As the night grew darker, however, and the songs sadder and more wistful, Jack couldn’t help but admit he was taking it harder than most. All he could think of was his wife and family back home. Whilst the rest of the crew had at least had time to prepare for an extended absence from their families — albeit not one quite this long — Poindexter had not had that luxury. Here he was, on the wrong side of the world, armed only with a couple of spare shirts and the memory of apologising to his wife for the fact that he was going to be late home for dinner. Worse, wartime secrecy meant that he had not been able to talk to her since. Pan American had at least made sure that she knew he was still alive, but as far as she, or indeed as far as any of their families knew, they were still trapped in Auckland.
That night, as he spent Christmas Day in an RAF mess hall in Ceylon, Poindexter swore that one way or another he would make it home to her.
Karachi, India. Boxing Day 1941
After the drama of the last week, the flight to Karachi had been relatively easy. ‘Relatively’, of course, was the key word. Before Australia, the thought of flying for nine hours over land would have filled the entire crew with dread. By the time they had to do it in India, however, it seemed almost routine.
The landing at Karachi went smoothly and soon the crew were taking advantage of their presence in a major city. Not least by finally each enjoying a decent bath. All of the crew reported to the California Clipper the next day feeling relatively refreshed. It soon became clear, however, that plane herself was beginning to show her own signs of strain.
“Parrish and I were checking the engines earlier.” Swede explained to Ford. “During one of the routine prop checks we hit what looks like a stuck propeller pitch control piston. We’ll have to change it.”
The Captain looked up at his command. The California had done well to get them this far, but there was still an awfully long way to go. She needed rest and repair as much as they did. She would get it today, Ford decided.
“We depart tomorrow.”
Bahrain. 11027 miles to go
“There’s no 100 octane again.”
Swede’s news didn’t entirely surprise Ford. The flight to Bahrain had been straightforward, but on arrival it had been immediately clear that the British airfield in Bahrain was nowhere near as well stocked as those in India.
As always, there seemed to be plenty of 90 octane available, but after practically losing an engine to inferior fuel at Trincomalee Swede, Ford’s Chief Engineer, made it clear he was not overly keen to repeat the experience.
“It’s either that,” Ford pointed out, “or sit here for the duration.”
Swede sighed. “Yeah I know. Well, we’ve nursed these mothers this far. I guess we can do it again.”
The next morning the California Clipper was once again airborne. But this time on a mix of 100 and 90 octane fuel.
New Year’s Eve 1941. Khartoum. 9,647 miles to go
Fourth Officer John Steers stood at the front of the boat as they carefully surveyed this particular stretch of the river Nile. They’d landed at the RAF facility here the day before and, once again the RAF had fallen over themselves to be helpful. Not only had they confirmed that they could supply the California Clipper with the 100 octane they so desperately needed, but they had also confirmed that they had maps and charts as far west as Leopoldville. Rod Brown had been delighted — the makeshift mix of atlases and charts he’d used since Auckland was no longer needed, for this part of the journey at least.
If they could reach Leopoldville then the crew knew that they’d at least be back within company territory. They now knew for certain that the Congo Pan Am base Ford had heard talked about existed, but it was both small and very new — one that had barely been established by the outbreak of war. It was company territory nonetheless, and that meant fuel was guaranteed and — just as crucially — it would have all the route maps they could wish for.
To get there though meant getting out of Khartoum and that was easier said than done. Landing had been relatively easy —or at least as easy as landing a flying boat, without any charts, on the river Nile could be. Leopoldville was 1,800 miles from Khartoum, however, and that meant taking on a fair bit of fuel. Now masters of the unplanned landing and departure, Ford and his crew had quickly spotted that the additional weight required pushed the California Clipper’s takeoff distance beyond the length of the channel marked out in the Nile as cleared for seaplanes.
That was why they’d sent Steers out in a boat with a couple of willing RAF men — to find a long enough stretch of river from which the flying boat could launch.
By the afternoon Steers had done exactly that. He’d found a channel about three miles long that was free of all possible obstructions. He returned to Ford and shared the good news.
The next morning, New Year’s Day 1942, saw the California Clipper racing down the Nile with a full load of fuel. It was a textbook takeoff. Ford eased her up off the river, rocking her back and forth until she finally broke free from the waves.
“What the hell is that?!” Ford shouted from the cockpit. “Swede! What gives?!”
“Don’t know Skipper!” The engineer replied. “All gauges show normal.”
Once again John Parrish was sent back to the navigator’s dome to check. He was soon back up front with a report.
“Number one has lost the aft section of its exhaust stack” He explained. “The exhaust plume is streaming out right over the wing surface.”
Ford cursed. “Swede, can we fly this way?”
Swede Rothe shrugged. “I guess. Engine gauges are good. We’re not losing any power.”
“It jacks up the fire odds,” He continued, after a moment’s thought, “if we’re lucky it shouldn’t affect the engine performance though. Just makes it damn noisy.”
Ford thought through the options. They had no spares left on the plane, and there wouldn’t be any back in Khartoum. To him, that meant there was only one choice.
“Post a man in the navigation dome and keep a constant fire watch on that engine. We go on.”
Leopoldville. 7,833 miles to go
“Skipper,” Said Swede, after careful thought, “I’m not sure she’ll fly.”
Ford considered his Chief Engineer’s words carefully. They’d landed at Pan Am’s nascent base at Leopoldville the day before. Like Khartoum it meant landing on a river — the Congo, but this had gone fine. They’d also been able to refuel with 100 octane.
The problem, however, was the distance the California Clipper would have to cover if it was to complete the next leg of its flight. Natal, in Brazil, was the nearest practical point of landing on the other side of the Atlantic, but it was 3,480 miles away and there were no possible stopping points in between — just an awful lot of ocean. The maximum posted range of a Boeing 314 was about 3,600 miles. Once factors such as wind, weather and navigation issues were taken into consideration, that left them frighteningly short of leeway.
And therein lay the problem. One way to mitigate the risk of falling short and ending up in the sea was to overload on fuel, of course. If they did, they would stand a good chance of making it. But that also brought it’s own risk — whether they’d be able to get airborne at all.
“It’s possible to load as much as 5,100 gallons of fuel onboard.” Explained Swede, running through the numbers. “But that would put us 2,000 pounds over gross weight.
“If we were taking off in a cold climate with real low temperatures I’d say it would be no problem,” the engineer continued, “but this damned heat plays hell with density altitude. We’d need a helluvah long takeoff channel to get off.”
Ford thought about it.
“There’s not really any high terrain to clear after takeoff round here.” He pointed out. “Be honest. What do you really think?”
Swede shrugged. “I honestly don’t know Skipper.”
Ford thought carefully for a while. Finally he made a decision.
“You get those tanks topped brimful. We’ll get out of this hell-hole as soon as you’re done.”
When they had landed the day before, both Ford and Mack had noted the strong current in play in the Congo river — at least six knots by their estimation. Now, taking Swede’s reservations on board, they decided to try and use that current to their advantage. Mack taxied the California Clipper upstream and they prepared to make a take-off run. It was now or never.
Ford threw the throttles forward to full power and the flying boat’s engines roared into life, sending California racing down the Congo in the 100 degree heat. Ahead of them, in the distance, both Ford and Mack could just make out the start of the Congo gorges — a network of cataracts, waterfalls and rapids running through a maze of canyons at the end of the river.
The guidelines for the Boeing 314 stipulated that the absolute maximum time it could spend at full power for takeoff was 90 seconds. Without thinking about it, Ford, Mack and Swede all began mentally counting up towards this total.
20… 30… 40… The California Clipper raced down the Congo but refused to break free of the water. The broken exhaust hammered and howled, the rapids drew nearer and nearer, and the engine gauges pushed further and further into the red. The overloaded seaplane still refused to break free from the water.
50… 60…70… All eyes on the flight deck were fixed on the gorges ahead now. They were barely 1,500 yards away. The airspeed indicator crept over 70 knots and Ford rocked the flying boat, desperately trying to break her free from the river as he’d done in Khartoum.
“Ninety one seconds!” Swede suddenly shouted, his eyes locked on the engine gauges, their needles pinned in the red.
“Keep those throttles open!” Ford shouted back.
“We’re red-lining!” Swede shouted again, as the plane he’d grown to love began to shudder violently, as if howling in pain. “We could blow at any time!”
Ford refused to answer. Just as the flying boat seemed about to hit the gorges he gave one final, desperate, heave on the yoke and she finally broke a few inches free from the water. The California Clipper flew forward over the rim of the gorge. Without the benefit of the ground effect that had allowed her to break free of the surface, she immediately plunged down into the rocky defile below, curving out just above the water once again. The plane was now racing along just a few feet above the water through the narrow rock walls of the Congo valley.
With her engines still red-lining, the California Clipper screamed in agony. 100… 110… 120.. 130… every second at full power was an extra inch of height, but it was also a step closer to critical failure.
“Rate of climb ten feet a minute!” Mack shouted over the sound of the aircraft’s distress, his eyes locked on the dials in front of him.
“Mack!” Ford shouted to his co-pilot. “Turn ahead!”
Ford’s eyes had remained firmly focused forward and he’d spotted that the canyon they were flying down was about to make a shallow turn. They wouldn’t clear it before they got there.
“Roger!” Mack cried, “We’re still marginal for a stall but we can bank!”
Ford nodded and waited for the point at which he’d need to begin a gradual turn. Then, to his horror, he discovered that the controls wouldn’t respond.
“What the hell is wrong?!” He bellowed, as the canyon wall loomed ever closer. “Swede?!”
Quick as a flash, the engineer suddenly realised what was happening.
“It’s the extra fuel in the wing tanks!” He shouted back over California’s screams, “It’s bending the wings! The aileron cables must be trapped!”
Without thinking, Ford lunged for the rudder pedals. He would later say it was pure instinct. Whatever it was, it almost certainly saved both plane and crew because it worked. It slewed the aircraft round just enough and she cleared the canyon wall by a whisper.
140… 150… 160… 170… California had now been at full power for twice as long as the Boeing 314 was rated for. Every second seemed like an eternity to her crew. She howled and shuddered, as if trying to pull herself apart. Every twist in the canyon also forced Ford or Mack to pull the aerial equivalent of a hand break turn, pounding the pedals in order to avoid a crash.
Then, finally, as if she were determined to make one last lunge for freedom, the California Clipper ripped free of the canyon and climbed slowly into the sky.
“Shut her down!” Yelled Ford.
Swede Roche lunged for the engine controls, bringing the aircraft back down to normal cruise climb. He looked at his watch — rated for no more than 90 seconds at full power, she’d been at it for more than three minutes. Swede couldn’t resist it, he leant down and stroked the deck.
“Good job baby.” He whispered. “Good job.”
In the cockpit, for the final time, Bob Ford and Johnny Mack turned the California Clipper to the west. If they survived this leg, then they knew they were as good as home. If.
“Let’s not do that again.” Said Mack, beads of sweat running down his face.
Natal, Brazil. 4352 miles to go
It was Jim Hendricksen and John Steers who were in the pilot seats when they finally sighted the coast of Brazil. It was 9am and they’d been airborne for about 20 hours.
“Land ho!” Shouted Steers. “Looks like some sort of island!”
As the others raced up to the flight deck Steers reached for the charts they’d taken from Leopoldville.
“Bingo!” He shouted with a smile, “They’re the Fernando de Noronha Islands!”
Brown, arriving in the cockpit, took the map from him and measured the distance to Natal.
“Head 240 degrees,” he confirmed, “and 200 miles and we’ll have Natal in our sights.”
Swede Rothe leant back in his chair, crossed his arms behind his head and smiled. “According to my fuel curve we ought to hit the water at Natal with just under two hours reserve. Give that man a cigar!”
Ford and Mack appeared from below where they’d been eating breakfast. The others filled them in as they took over the controls.
Three hours later the California Clipper landed in Natal. She had been in the air for 23 hours and 35 minutes. It was a new world record for a Boeing 314.
As the crew disembarked at Natal the Pan American station manager handed them all a beer. Bob Ford swigged his down in one single gulp.
“Best damn beer I ever had.” He remarked with satisfaction.
Johnny Mack laughed, and did the same.
After Natal, the last two legs of the flight home passed quickly. The crew were on Pan Am territory now, far from the chaos of war. The departure from Natal had been uneventful, although their jury-rigged attempt at a new exhaust cowl for engine one had blown off on take-off.
Not that it really mattered, Ford thought. They had filled California with fuel she couldn’t stand, run her hotter than she was rated and flown her farther than any Boeing had ever been without maintenance before. She hadn’t let them down. She was a tough old bird, and he couldn’t help but be proud of her.
As they finally approached the east coast of the US, Ford looked around the cabin — at Mack, Swede, Poindexter, Brown and the rest — and in that moment realised what they’d all done. He could see from their faces that all any of them cared about now was finally getting home to their families. In a few days though, he suspected (and hoped), that for each of them it would finally sink in.
By flying from San Francisco to Auckland, and then from Auckland to New York, the California Clipper and her crew had become the first commercial plane to circumnavigate the world.
With America now at war, Ford realised, it was entirely possible that few people would ever hear about that. The California Clipper was a precious military asset now, her location and actions fiercely guarded secrets.
Her crew would know though, and that was all that mattered.
“Coming up on New York Skipper.” Said a subdued Johnny Mack from the seat next to Ford. “‘Bout time we said hello don’t you think?”
California’s Captain turned to Poindexter, who Ford had figured damn well deserved to have the radio desk for the final approach.
Poindexter beamed and gave Ford the thumbs up. The channel was open and Ford began to speak.
LAGUARDIA TOWER LAGUARDIA TOWER. OVER.
And then, for the first time in the entire journey, Captain Robert Ford of the California Clipper found himself lost for words.
“Skipper?” Prompted Johnny Mack, quietly.
Then it came to him, and Ford smiled.
TOWER LAGUARDIA TOWER. THIS IS PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER NC18602 INBOUND
FROM AUCKLAND NEW ZEALAND. DUE TO ARRIVE PAN AMERICAN MARINE TERMINAL
LAGUARDIA IN SEVEN MINUTES. OVER.
And somewhere, out there in the distance, a coffee mug shattered.
Hard as it may be to believe, everything you have read in this series of articles is true.
The library, the fuel problems, the submarine, the exploding engine, the incredible takeoff from the Congo river — all of it.
Ford was right to suspect that the incredible achievement of the California Clipper would largely go unnoticed. In peacetime it would have been front-page news across the country — not least because Trippe, ever the publicist, would have wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to have Pan American front and centre in the news. But America had just been jolted into war. It was focused on military heroes now, not civilian ones.
Over the next few years Ford and his crew would be split up, doing their own bit for their country in various flying roles. Pan American would commemorate their achievement by renaming the California Clipper to the Pacific Clipper, but even that clue to its remarkable achievement was short-lived. The aircraft was retired in 1946, when the golden age of the Clipper came to an end. Ford and the majority of the California’s crew survived much longer, but they rarely spoke about what they had achieved.
I think it’s unlikely that Captain Ford met Lady Wavell, and the “boy” Ford and Brown talked can’t possibly have been the younger Archibald Wavell, who was 25 years old and serving on his father’s staff in 1941. Lady Wavell would have been at Flagstaff House (now Teen Murti Bhavan, the Indian Prime Minister’s residence) in Delhi, not slumming around…
Ah! That makes sense! Thanks!
I’ve always struggled to rationalise Ford’s account of that meeting with the timing. Caldecott would definitely make more sense. I’ll see if I can find contact details for Andrew Caldecott and see what he thinks.