Remembering when boats learned to fly Aviation: The China Clipper, built in Middle River, was once the largest plane anyone had ever seen. A model of it will soon hang at BWI.

Way Back When

September 19, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On Friday morning, Sept. 25, state transportation officials, aviation historians, two retired Pan American Airways pilots and other invited guests will look to the ceiling of the Gov. William Donald Schaefer International Terminal at Baltimore Washington International Airport and recall the balmy days of aviation when the famed China Clipper was the largest plane in the world.

The gathering will dedicate a large model of the storied plane that launched Pan American's trans-Pacific service in 1935, a plane designed, built and tested at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. plant in Middle River.

By the early 1930s, Pan American was expanding its over-water commercial operations and began successfully and safely flying routes to the West Indies and South American mainland.

Juan T. Trippe, Pan Am president, began to envision trans-ocean service and turned to Martin to design a plane that could span oceans yet be profitable to operate.

Guy Lee Bryan, chief designer of the China Clipper, came up with an airplane that was 90 feet, 7 inches long with a wing span of a 130 feet.

The M-130, its official Martin designation, weighed about 26 tons, was 25 feet high and was powered by a quartet of Pratt & Whitney 800-horsepower Wasp engines that propelled the plane 130 miles an hour. With a 3,000-mile nonstop cruising range, the Clippers carried 43 passengers and a crew of seven.

Martin was contracted by Pan Am to build three flying boats at a cost of $417,000 each: The China Clipper, Philippine Clipper and the Hawaiian Clipper. They were also known simply as Flying Clippers Nos. 7, 8 and 9.

"It was an elegant craft capturing the aesthetic imagination and evoking the memory of the ships which gave the Clipper flying boats their names," wrote R.E.G. Davies, curator of air transport, Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum, in his book, "Pan Am: An Airline and its Aircraft."

However, there was doubt among senior Martin engineers as to the feasibility of building such a craft. "It can't be done. Such a ship can't be built, much less fly," they said.

"They will fly," said Glenn L. Martin.

On Oct. 9, 1935, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, chairman of Pan Am's technical committee, flew his black and red mono-coupe from North Haven, Me., to New York, where he picked up Trippe. He was flying him to Baltimore, where Trippe was to accept delivery of the China Clipper. Anxious to avoid crowds, the famed aviator watched the ceremonies from behind windows of the Martin plant.

Declining Trippe's offer to fly the plane on its first passenger-carrying voyage, Lindbergh told The Sun, "Those boys are going to fly it across the ocean -- let them take it on its maiden trip," referring to the plane's regular crew.

"The huge ship was trundled out of its hangar early this morning and groomed for the flight to the Capital," reported The Evening Sun. "The name China Clipper is lettered black over the Pan Am insignia on her silver bow."

What greeted the 38 passengers was something whose interior was part ship and part Pullman car.

"The interior of the ship is divided into a galley, a lounge, three sleeping compartments and lavatories. The interior walls are gray and the upholstery in the compartments and the lounge is green. ... When the chairs in the compartments are made up into berths, they are draped with a black and white Scotch plaid linen," said the newspaper.

"Giant silver wings yesterday afternoon lifted America's greatest flying boat -- the China Clipper -- from the waters of the Chesapeake to write the initial chapter in a new epoch of maritime transportation history," reported The Sun.

As the crowd onshore focused its attention to the plane, its giant engines roared to life, with Capt. Edwin C. Musick, the airline's chief test pilot, at the controls.

Glenn L. Martin sat in his car with his mother watching his creation spring to life.

A reporter approached and asked, "Is there any doubt about her flying?" he asked.

"I'm interested in those ducks," he said pointing to a flock of ducks skimming above the surface of the water.

"They don't worry about flying," he said.

The big plane's takeoff was reported in detail: "Under the stub wing gasoline tanks the water churned, furrowed by the corrugations on the bottom of the lower wings. Faster and faster the enormous craft raced over the surface of the bay,the engines high above bursting into a thunder sound. Inside the compartments, however, the noise of the unleashed power of the motors was diminished so greatly by the soundproofing that persons sitting opposite one another could engage in normal conversation."

Eighteen seconds later as the shoreline flickered past the windows, "the Clipper was rising from its own foaming wake. Swiftly the plane swung skyward, climbing steadily in a great circle over and past Fort Carroll. ... Westward were the towers of downtown Baltimore, dwarfed to insignificance by the height at which the plane flew."

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