Clipper Ships of the Sky: The great flying boats that shrank the world 1931-1946

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I have never really had any interest in the Clippers, although they were a big part of aviation’s coming of age. I just skipped over that era of aviation history,  but I was aware of the art deco posters that romanticized the big flying boats and their exotic ports of call.

Recently, someone sent me an email with several photos dedicated to the men and women of this era. I was blown away when I really started looking into this chapter of our heritage.

I can’t cover all of it here, but I would like to call out the highlights and a couple of the more obscure details.


First these guys had some series guts setting out across vast oceans with extremely crude, almost non-essential navigation capabilities. The communications, what little they had, was even worse. Finding little specs of land out in the mighty Pacific isn’t for the unskilled or the faint of heart. They essentially developed their own long-range navigation techniques.


It began in the early 1930s with a vision by Juan Tripp, the famous leader of Pam American Airways (PAA). A short 8 years after Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic,  Pan Am launched out across the Pacific with passenger service eventually reaching all the way to Hong Kong. Those flying boats where amazingly large. Starting with the Sikorsky S-40, then the Sikorsky S-42, which did the inaugural flight, moving a year later to the Martin M-130 in 1936.

But the flying boat that most of you think of from this era is the truly grand Boeing 314, this machine represented the pinnacle of luxury and technology at the time.

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Back in the 1930s large runways were in short supply, especially in that part of the world, so the flying boat made perfect sense.

Did you know that the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was a Pan Am Clipper pilot before turning to writing?

Also, PAA wasn’t the only one in the game, the predecessor to British Airways also had flying boats serving the far east from Europe.


Pan Am had 28 flying boats in all. The largest segment of these being the Boeing 314. If you consider that the only way across the Pacific was by boat, these airplanes represented a quantum leap in technology. Able to deliver passengers all the way to Hong Kong in a few days versus weeks.

Unfortunately this era with short-lived as the Pacific became a war zone in 1941, but the advancements made by PAA would help us in the this theatre as they continued to fly until 1946 in support of the war effort.

Pan Am Clipper

After the war, all those long runways out there negated the need for the flying boat, and technology had left them behind for sleeker and faster airliners.

My hats off to the men and women that made those journeys so long ago and helped shrink our world.

Pan American Clippers: The Golden Age of Flying Boats – Amazon
The Pan Am Clipper – The History of Pan American’s Flying-Boats 1931 to 1946 – Amazon
The Long Way Home – Amazon
China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats – Amazon

by Brent Owens

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