The actual route followed by the PanAM Pacific Clipper in December and January 1941-42. (From the Geology 101 exercise to become familiar with the globe.)
Daley, Robert, 1980, An American Saga, Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire, Random House, New York, 529 p.
The Pacific Clipper, Captain Robert Ford commanding a crew of ten, was in the air between New Caledonia and New Zealand when the Pearl Harbor war flash was received. At once Ford silenced the radio, posted watches in the navigator's blister in the roof of the Boeing, altered his course by fifty miles, and got out his .38-caliber revolver. But nothing happened, and two hours later he was landing normally at Auckland.
Ford, who was thirty-five years old, went directly to the U.S. consulate to wait for whatever instructions New York would send him. During the next seven days scores and scores of messages piled up, all of them in code, one of them perhaps for him, but he could not find out because the decoding clerks were overwhelmed. Many cables kept coming out garbled. Ford, watching, realized that the bottleneck, these early days of the war, was in consulates like this all over the world as too few clerks attempted to decode too many messages too fast. Ford did not have to be told how valuable his Boeing flying boat had suddenly become. Only twelve existed; only nine were still in the hands of the United States, and they were the only long-range, heavy-payload aircraft in the world. But his route back to San Francisco had already been cut off by the Japanese, whose aircraft carriers were at large in the Pacific. Manila and Wake, he learned, were under siege; Midway and Guam were partially out of commission. Canton Island--the most vital link in the New Zealand-San Francisco route--had been evacuated of Pan American personnel.
Ford's orders, when they came, were to try to get home the long way around. For Ford it was an awesome assignment. If he wanted to save himself, his crew and his flying boat, he had a 23,000-mile flight ahead of him. He would have to plot out his own route, pick unknown harbors to set down in, and find his own fuel once he got there. Servicing would be limited to the men and tools on board. There would be no navigational aids, no weather forecasts.
Attached to the Pan American station at Auckland was Bill Mullahey, former dynamiter of the Wake Island lagoon. It was Mullahey who gathered together all the maps, charts and schoolboy geography books he could find, and who huddled with Ford to plot the possible route home of a lone plane with no ground support. It would be the first round-the-world flight by a commercial plane, and the first by any plane following a route near the equator. It represented as dangerous a flight as Ford had ever contemplated.
Additional orders arrived. His first stop must be Nouméa, in New Caledonia, an eight-hour flight partway back the way he had come. He was to pick up company personnel there and fly them to safety in Australia, and after that, to keep going for as long as he could.
At l0:00 P.M. on December 15 the flight home started. Completely blacked out and in total radio silence, Ford flew through the night, coming in for his landing at Nouméa just as dawn was rising over the Pacific. The unexpected flying boat woke up the town. Ford gave company people there one hour to get packed--one small bag apiece. He took aboard twenty-two men, women and children and all the gas he could carry, and immediately took off again. The next stop, six and a half hours later, was Gladstone, Australia. As soon as all the passengers had been off-loaded, Ford sent crew members through the town looking for 100-octane gas but they could find none, and at last they went to bed. At 6:00 A.M. the next morning the flying boat, with its tanks one third empty, took off for Darwin across the Australian continent, more than eleven hours away. All day Ford looked down on land--not water beneath his hull. If something went wrong it would be impossible to land safely. A belly landing would wreck the plane; even if they all survived, their flight home would be over. All day Ford never saw a major lake or river.
Darwin, he saw when he had landed, was in a state of war hysteria. All women were to be evacuated within twenty-four hours. Air raids were expected momentarily. There were drunks either fighting or passed out in the streets. It was a night of terrific thunderstorms. On the harbor the flying boat was being gassed up even as sheets of lightning split open the sky.
It was 2:00 A.M. before refueling was completed and the men got to bed. Four hours later Ford took off for Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies. As the sun came up he looked down on thatched-roof villages, and navigated from island to island, guarding total radio silence. Suddenly, as he neared Surabaya, a fighter plane rose to meet him--and then three more. All four moved into position to blast the Boeing out of the sky. These were British fighter pilots, and they began calling the ground for instructions. They wanted to shoot the Boeing down; their voices could be heard as they discussed it. Ford's radio operator, John Poindexter, was trying to communicate with them, but was not getting through. Ford, cursing the camouflage he had ordered painted on in Auckland, could only fly straight ahead and wait.
The ground station asked if the flying boat bore identifying marks. After a moment's hesitation, one of the fighters closed in overhead. The pilot radioed that he could discern part of an American flag on the top of the wing.
"Stay on her tail," ordered the ground. "If she gets even a little way off the normal course, shoot her out of the sky."
Later in the officers' mess Ford and his crew chatted with these pilots. The young pilots, after several recent air raids, had gone up eager to shoot something down. The Boeing had been very, very lucky.
Ford wanted no repetition of this. The world was tense, and no one between here and Europe had ever seen a Boeing flying boat before. He was worried about itchy trigger fingers. He wanted messages sent ahead. He wanted everyone to know he was coming. He wanted to buy 100 octane aviation fuel also, but there was none on Java, only automobile gas. Having no choice, he took it, though the next leg of the journey would be the longest flight any of them had ever made, almost twenty-one hours across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon.
On the afternoon of December 21 Ford ordered the anchor hauled up, and he turned the flying boat into the wind, all four engines roaring. He used his last tank of aviation fuel on takeoff, then switched to auto gas. Very soon the engines started to pop and spit.
All afternoon the Boeing flew west, crossing the Java Sea, passing through the Sunda Strait. Below now in the night was the Bay of Bengal. Ford worried about his engines, and he worried about missing Ceylon altogether. If he got lost over India, he might run out of fuel before he could sort himself out. He had no charts. All he had was the latitude and longitude of his destination. So he stayed beneath scud and broken clouds, looking for lights for as long as the night lasted, looking for land after that. He was so low that he flew right over the top of a Japanese submarine. Its crew was on deck enjoying the fresh air. As the Japanese ran for their deck gun, Ford added full power and pointed his nose up toward clouds. The engines knocked and missed. The clouds approached too slowly, but at last the flying boat disappeared into them and was safe. A little later Ford spied Ceylon ahead, and then he was over Trincomalee, where no Boeing had ever landed before, and he was trying to pick out a path amid the harbor craft.
For one day following this nearly 21-hour flight, Ford and his crew rested. On Christmas Eve, about two thousand pounds overloaded with aviation fuel and with engines still knocking, they took off for Karachi, and thirty-four minutes out of Ceylon No. 3 engine blew, with oil pouring back over the wing. Ford threw the plane into a 180-degree turn, returned and landed. Once safe in the harbor he and copilot John Henry Mack looked at each other. That engine had lasted them all the way across the Indian Ocean plus only 34 minutes. Their "safe" 21-hour crossing had been that close.
Ford's flight engineers, Swede Rothe and Jocko Parish, tore down No. 3 engine. When they came to No. 6 cylinder, they found that ten of the sixteen studs holding the cylinder on had broken off. The studs themselves could be replaced from spares, but the job could not be done without a special tool, and they did not have it. Parish went across the harbor to a British warship, borrowed some cold rolled steel and the warship's lathe, made the tool he needed, and went back to the flying boat and to work. Repairs took the rest of Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day. On December 26 Ford lifted the flying boat off Trincomalee harbor for the second time. The plane climbed so slowly in the still dawn air that fourth officer John Steers thought he could almost feel the palm fronds brushing the bottom of the hull.
All that day they flew across India, past terraced gardens, past a castle on top of a mountain, past villages and lakes and eroded country, landing about 4:00 P.M. in Karachi, where they went to the Carleton Hotel and soaked in deep tubs. Afterwards they changed a piston in one engine, took on 3,100 gallons of fuel, and on December 28 flew along the northern coast of the Gulf of Oman, then across the Persian Gulf to Bahrain, only 8 hours 9 minutes in the air--no problem, an easy day. Ford thought Bahrain the hottest and dampest place he had ever been to. When he came out of the hotel in the early morning, the gutters were running with dew as though from a shower of rain. But he was more concerned about his engines. Again there had been no high-octane fuel. Again he had been forced to top up with automobile gasoline.
In addition, having been denied permission to overfly Arabia, he had been obliged to file a flight plan skirting the entire peninsula, adding hundreds of miles to today's journey. However, as soon as he had taken off and climbed above a solid undercast, he steered straight across the Arabian Desert, navigating by the sun only. The undercast broke just as he overflew the Great Mosque at Mecca. At ten thousand feet the engines were popping and sputtering, but they kept pulling. Later Ford steered out across the Red Sea, and then into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Late in the afternoon the Nile came into view. He followed it to where the Blue and the White Nile met. The river looked filthy and yellow. He put down on the water below Khartoum and went ashore, leaving his two engineers to check over all four engines as best they could.
But later, as Ford roared down the Nile on takeoff, part of an exhaust stack blew off No. 1 engine. Although the flying boat gained altitude, this made No. 1 very much noisier than the others, and it constituted a fire hazard as well. But there were no spare flying-boat parts in Khartoum, no way to repair it if they landed. Grimly Ford pointed the Boeing southwest toward Leopoldville and the Congo, and kept on going. Below now was rolling open country with a few native villages from time to time, and some rocky ranges of low hills. Then the country turned into jungle, and navigation was by dead reckoning, Ford and his navigator trying to match rivers to their maps. The Congo was coffee-colored when they saw it. It looked sluggish, but wasn't. Ford, as soon as he landed, felt the flying boat caught in a six-knot current. That was late New Year's Day. He opened the hatch and stepped out into a moist blanket of heat.
The next morning he and his crew were back on board early. They had taken on 5,100 gallons of aviation fuel weighing some 33,660 pounds. The day was hot. Not only was the temperature very high, but there was no wind--and just downstream began the cataracts. A worried Ford revved his engines as high as they could go, and headed downstream. He would have to drive the Boeing downstream, taking advantage of the six-knot current but heading straight for the cataracts, hoping to lift off out of this glassy calm before going over the edge. But the flying boat was so heavily loaded that it would not lift. An average takeoff would have lasted thirty seconds. This one took ninety-one. Just before entering the rapids, the hull broke contact with the river--barely. Ford held the throttles wide open because beyond the cataracts came the gorges of the Congo--a new problem. The flying boat was so heavy that Ford couldn't make it climb. It was down in the gorges. The wings were deformed from the overload of fuel and the ailerons wouldn't move, and Ford was skidding all of his turns. To hold the engines wide open any longer than a minute was to risk burning them out, but three minutes had now gone by, and still Ford couldn't throttle back. Still he held full power until at last the Boeing had cleared the gorges and begun to climb.
After dropping back to cruising power, Ford listened to his engines for a while. They sounded all right, so he pointed the nose of the Boeing due west toward the South Atlantic and Brazil.
All through the afternoon and night the Boeing droned on, and at about ten the next morning those aboard her sighted the coast of South America far ahead. It was nearly noon when they landed. They had been in the air 23 hours and 35 minutes and had covered 3,100 nautical miles.
For four hours the Boeing lay on the water at Natal. It was refueled, and the exhaust stack on No. 1 engine was wired back in place. Two men in rubber suits and oxygen masks went through the plane spraying it with insecticides, and when Ford and his crew came back on board, all their maps and petty cash--the currency of the various nations passed through en route--were missing. They took off. The repaired exhaust stack blew off immediately, and No. 1 engine hammered all the rest of the way north to Trinidad, where they landed about 3:00 A.M. the next day, after 13 hours and 52 minutes from Natal--a total of more than 40 hours of steady going from Leopoldville. In Trinidad, feeling they were almost home, they went to bed. Most of them slept around the clock.
Then they filed back on board for the final leg of the first flight around the world by men who had not started out to do so. New York was still nearly 16 hours away.
At six minutes to six on the bitter-cold following morning, January 6, 1942, the control officer on duty at LaGuardia field was shocked into instant alertness by the voice that came over his loudspeaker, by nineteen words that announced one of the epic achievements in the history of aviation. It was Ford's voice, and it pronounced in matter-of-fact tones the following message: "Pacific Clipper, inbound from Auckland, New Zealand, Captain Ford reporting. Due arrive Pan American Marine Terminal LaGuardia seven minutes."
When it landed, water splashed up onto the Boeing's wings and froze solid. The hawser on the buoy was like a chunk of ice. But Captain Ford and the Pacific Clipper had made it home.