Feature Story

Romancing the Skies

The Boeing 314 Clipper has come to symbolize a time when the romance of air travel was a grand adventure. Even its name, “Clipper,” invokes images of tall ships crossing the seas.

This majestic giant skimmed over the waters of Elliot Bay and took to the skies above Seattle, U.S.A., on its first flight 75 years ago. It was the world’s largest production commercial airplane at the time and would become the ultimate airplane in transoceanic elegance. Like its descendant, the 747, the Clipper was crowned “Queen of the Skies.”

The Clipper story begins with Wellwood Beall, a Boeing engineer who went to China in 1935 to finalize a contract for the sale of ten Boeing P-26 fighters and was asked about transpacific air travel.

He was quoted as saying: “It will be 10 to 15 years before that sort of thing is commercially practical.”

Later, on the long boat trip back from the China, Beall began to regret that statement. Upon his return to Boeing, Beall saw the work being done on the giant wing for an experimental airplane, later known as the XB-15. At the time, it was the largest plane in United States and the large wing sparked the inspiration for an ocean-spanning flying boat.

Beall drew up the design for the flying boat at home, working at his dining room table. In July, 1936, his efforts paid off. Pan American Airways presented Boeing a formal order for six and an option for six more of the airplanes known as the Model 314 Clipper.

Early in flight test program, engineers determined that the 314 did not have enough lateral control and the airplane’s single tail was eventually replaced with a new triple-tail design.

Following certification, and after a shakedown flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong, the Clipper entered service, flying mail across the Atlantic. In June, 1939, regular passenger service began.

Passengers on the Clipper were treated as if they were in a luxury hotel. Although the plane could accommodate 10 crew and 74 passengers, most overnight flights carried fewer than 30 passengers. The 314’s interior included a separate honeymoon suite known as the “Deluxe Compartment,” with fully set dining room tables, a bar, a full-service galley, and passenger compartments with plush chairs, sleeping berths and vanities.

However, the 314 was introduced as war clouds gathered over Europe, making the Atlantic routes covered by the Clipper a vital military lifeline. Of Pan American’s 12 Clippers, three were used by the British Overseas Airways Corp. (BOAC) and the rest were drafted into service with the U.S. military. One of those military Clippers served as the first “Air Force One,” transporting Franklin D. Roosevelt from Miami to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco in January, 1943, where the U.S. president met with Winston Churchill to discuss war strategy.