Flying boats dominated the early international service in passenger air travel. In the 1920's and 30's, few runways existed that could land large aircraft yet for most international routes it was necessary to find several cities along the way where a plane could stop for the night. Aircraft of the period couldn't reach the altitudes of today's passenger aircraft, maxing out airspeed at about 200mph and frequent stops were needed to refuel. The answer was the float plane which could land in any sheltered harbor, a particular benefit for crossing the Pacific Ocean to Asia. It was the Martin Ocean Transport or M130 aircraft, illustrated here by Millard Sheets, that would make it a reality.
Pan American Airlines founder Juan Trippe was keen that his company be the first to launch a trans-Pacific passenger air service. As the unofficial United States flag carrier or national airline, Pan Am was seen as representing America to the world and the company's role in opening up international air trade routes was vital to U.S. national interests.
Trippe sent his requirements for range and payload to the Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore, Maryland who designed and built three M-130 flying boats, each costing $417,000 (about $7.3M in today's dollars). To the public, these ships were the "China Clippers", a name that became a generic term for Pan Am's large flying boats– first the Martin M-130 and the later Sikorsky S-42 and Boeing 314.
Trippe named all Pan Am's international aircraft "Clippers" linking them to the maritime heritage of the 19th century clipper ships who once carried cargo and passengers across the sea. Crews of the "Clippers" wore naval-style uniforms and adopted a set procession when boarding the aircraft. Trippe himself was a U.S. Navy pilot and was great-great-grandson of U.S. Naval Lieutenant John Trippe, Captain of the 1803 schooner U.S.S. Vixen and fought in the First Barbary War.
Pan Am's Clippers were the most famous flying boats to take to the skies. Pan Am initiated trans-Pacific airmail service on 22 November 1935, and began carrying passengers in October 1936. The flying boat service between San Francisco Bay and Manila Bay required about 60 hours of flying time over six days, with intermediate stops at Honolulu, Midway Atoll, Wake Island and Guam.
Given the monumental importance to American business and technological innovation it's easy to see why Fortune Magazine chose to feature Pan Am, Trippe and the new tran-Pacific air route in their April 1936 issue. A multi-page spread features many photos of the M-130 aircraft, ports of call, Pan Am's executives and some great watercolor illustrations including this work by Millard Sheets.
This is the best of three watercolor paintings Sheets did for the article, and shows the China Clipper landing at Pan Am's air base in Honolulu. While many today are familiar with what it looks like to fly into Hawaii's paradise landscape, few were fortunate enough to do so in the 30's. Sheets portrait is of dark volcanic peaks surrounded by lush tropical greenery all next to a crystal blue ocean. The illustration must have tempted many of the elite able to afford the trip, and perhaps this idyllic view made the multiple stops on Pacific islands more glamorous and exciting.
Sheet's depiction of the aircraft was masterful. Light touches of shading and spare line work define the plane's graceful structure. An innovation of the M-130 was the use of fuselage mounted seawings or sponsons rather than the more typical wing-mounted floats or pontoons. This gave the plane greater stability and allowed it to float higher in the water. It also gave the aircraft a refined sloping silhouette that the artist captures perfectly, making the plane appear to float lightly over the sea.
The M-130 could carry 46 passengers in daytime configuration, but in its more typical overnight service it provided sleeping accommodations for up to 30 passengers in three 10-berth compartments, with a 16-seat dining room/lounge compartment located amidships. The article also included detailed diagrams of the M-130's interiors along with photos of Pan Am's Clipper flight crews in action.
The inauguration of ocean airmail service and commercial air flight across the Pacific was a significant event for California, the US and the world. The China Clipper departure point is a California Historical Landmark, located in what today is the Naval Air Station in Alameda.
The China Clippers were featured in several 1930's films including one that was a thinly disguised version of Juan Trippe's life story and the founding of Pan Am. Only three M-130 aircraft were ever made. Two survived to be used by the US Military in WWII, though by the war's end all three were no longer in service.
This painting is a great piece of aviation history showing a vital chapter in the growth of international travel.
We were fortunate to find an original of the April 1936 Fortune Magazine in which this painting appeared. The magazine will be included in the purchase of the painting.
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