Romancing the Clippers - An excerpt from THE GOLDEN AGE OF FLYING BOATS by Peter Pigott
Juan Trippe’s fascination with maritime tradition was everywhere. “The Clipper was a ship, not a plane. Time was marked by bells, the crew’s watches were set at Greenwich Mean Time, and everything on board moves according to the best merchant marine practice.”
wrote New York Times reporter Lauren “Deac” Lyman, who was a passenger in 1936. As on ships,a steward oversaw the passenger cabin,helping with customs and immigration forms, and organizing luggage. He kept smokers stocked with a steady supply of gum to help them cope with the “no smoking” rule. He made the beds, served the meals,which were prepared in advance and stored in insulated containers to keep them hot. With lunch and dinner, there were regular snacks and tea throughout the flight. On the ground, the stewards ran errands for the passengers (who probably also had servants at home) and at some stops even assisted with the docking of the flying boat — which was why it was a male occupation.
The imbibing of alcohol on all Pan American aircraft was forbidden which, given their Caribbean flights,must have been difficult to police. This was due to Chief Engineer André Priester who fought to keep pilots and passengers from alcohol. The reason was posted on his office wall: “Aviation is not in itself inherently dangerous. But to an even greater extent than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.” Alcohol was not allowed in flight on any domestic airline in North America then as, although Prohibition had ended, some states (and Canadian provinces) flown over were still “dry”. But Trippe was acutely aware that his airline’s wealthy clientele was used to enjoying cocktails before and wine with dinner. He also knew that on Imperial Airways aircraft stewards trained as bartenders assuaged passenger fears with liberal amounts of liquor. As a result, those Pan American passengers who brought their own supplies for the long flights were winked at by stewards. Trippe deferred to Priester’s anti-alcohol rule until his return to power in 1940 (after the “Sonny” Whitney interlude) when in flight bar service was begun, once out of U.S. airspace. The reciprocating engine noise apart, a Clipper flight was unforgettable. The view from eight thousand feet offered its own entertainment: lonely ships traversing the vast stretch of ocean below, a cavalcade of cloud formations, sometimes a thunderstorm, and spectacular sunrises and sunsets. At night, the moon played on the ocean while constellations danced across the sky.
Trippe had wanted sleeping space for twenty passengers, but with the M-130s’ range had to settle for a limited number of sleeping berths. The steward erected a Pullman curtain that divided the main lounge into separate dressing rooms for men and women. After putting on their pajamas, the passengers could retreat to one of the sleeping berths, which were the size of a camp cot.“The bunks were like Turkish baths”complained Helen Gierding of Orange County CA., who was traveling to Manilla to marry her fiancé and would keep a diary about her flight, “as the heat of the plane came through the ceiling.”But she slept well because of “the sound of the motors.” Eighteen hours after leaving Alameda, the Clipper would taxi up to Ford Island,past rows of naval vessels.The early morning departures and constantly changing time zones led many passengers to retreat to their berths after takeoff and reemerge for lunch. The 60-hour flight from San Francisco to Manila took six days, the $950 fare covering all accommodation and meals.