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Boeing's Model 314 Clipper Flying Boat

HistoryLink.org Essay 3253 : Printer-Friendly Format

During the 1930s, transoceanic travel was beyond the capability of all but a handful of aircraft. The solution was offered by giant dirigibles such as the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg and by ever larger "flying boats" -- multi-engine airplanes with boat-like hulls. The most elegant and successful of these was Boeing's Model 314, which first flew in 1938 and operated through World War II. The last of a dozen aircraft built was destroyed in 1951.

A Most Luxurious Airliner

The noble 314 Clipper with its flying boat hull, protruding sponsons and triple vertical tails was very different from today’s sleek jet airliners with their tubular fuselages and swept back wings. While contemporary airliners provide high speed and efficiency, the Clipper conjures up thoughts of adventure and the elegance of a bygone era. It was the first to open the Atlantic Ocean to scheduled airline service in 1939, filling a void left by the tragic end of the pioneer Zeppelin airship service, which began in 1928, and was stopped in 1937 by the loss of the Hindenburg.

Youthful Pan American Airways (PAA), formed in 1927, had by 1939 become the world standard airline, and was unique in providing both trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic scheduled service with the 314. It also offered the only non-stop services exceeding 2,000 miles (also with its Martin China Clipper flying boats). PAA purchased a landplane for its first airplane, the Fokker Trimotor, and became the motive force for the development of the large passenger carrying flying boat and very luxurious long-range airline service.

Boeing’s Clipper for PAA is perhaps the best remembered of its early aircraft, and it evokes a quick smile from the aviation fan and average person alike. Sadly, none of the 12 magnificent Clippers built survive today.

The first trans-Atlantic air service was initiated by Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei of Germany on October 11, 1928. Its non-scheduled, seasonal mail and cargo service between Germany and the United States first used the giant hydrogen gas-buoyed dirigible Graf Zeppelin. Up to 20 passengers could ride along, paying $461 for a one-way ticket for a trip requiring 80 to 100 hours of flying time. This luxury service (including staterooms, dining room, lounge, piano, observation deck, smoking room) continued until May 6, 1937, when the dirigible Hindenburg crashed at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The Voyage of the Clipper Begins

Shortly after placing the Martin China Clipper into service during 1935, PAA president Juan T. Trippe asked the aircraft industry for a higher capacity, longer range flying boat airliner with less payload limitations than the Martin. Boeing discussions with PAA began that year, with the result that PAA ordered six aircraft from Boeing for $4.8 M on July 21, 1936, and optioned six more.

The order for luxury airliners demonstrated that the aviation industry, airlines and manufacturing, was prospering and advancing in the 1930s Great Depression. Later PAA ordered six improved 314A’s on October 1, 1939. Wellwood Beall, engineer and salesman, originated the 314 design which was similar in basic configuration to the earlier Martin M-130 China Clipper, but was a state-of-the-art, high performance, luxurious ocean-spanning airliner that was reliable in service and very popular with passengers and crew.

Test pilot Eddie Allen flew the Boeing 314 NX18601 Clipper on its first flight on June 7, 1938, from the waters of Puget Sound, in Seattle and remained aloft for 38 minutes. Ironically, on the same day in southern California, the Douglas DC-4E landplane airliner prototype also made its first flight.

Despite its commitment to flying boats, PAA was among five sponsoring airlines of the DC-4E in 1936, but before it flew opted out due to high costs and projected performance shortfalls. In 1937, PAA ordered the smaller Boeing 307 landplane long range airliner. PAA briefly considered flying the 307 across the north Atlantic, but never did. The Douglas was similar in configuration to the later Lockheed Constellation including triple vertical tails. Complex systems and high maintenance costs cancelled DC-4E production, but the simplified, unpressurized single vertical tail C-54 Skymaster/DC-4 was built in quantity during and after World War II.

Boeing was busy with several other projects in addition to flight-testing the 314 from Lake Washington, east of Seattle, Washington. On June 22, 1938, 15 days after the 314 flew, Boeing and PAA publicly announced the follow-on model 326 giant flying boat airliner. It was so large that tugboats were to be used during harbor maneuvers. None of the model 326, nor any of four competing designs in the 1937 PAA contest for a flying ocean liner capable of crossing the Atlantic non-stop with 100 passengers flying in pressurized comfort above the weather, was built.

Six months after the 314, the 307 Stratoliner flew on December 31, 1938. It operationally introduced cabin pressurization and power boosted control surfaces to airline service in 1940, beginning with PAA, which ordered four. Flight-testing of the B-17A Flying Fortress with turbo-supercharged engines led to the first production high altitude bomber, the B-17B, during 1939.

Transatlantic Air Travel

Within a year of its first flight, PAA began 314 scheduled transpacific passenger and mail service on March 29, 1939, with flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong. The Atlantic Ocean was next with the first scheduled airplane passenger service from New York City to Europe beginning on June 28, 1939. The 314 ushered in a new era of transatlantic travel -- scheduled airline service providing an Atlantic ocean crossing in less than a day (weather permitting). Fuel stops were made in Eire or the Azores, depending upon final destination.

It provided the ultimate in luxury airplane travel in its day, un-matched even today in sheer elegance. The air conditioned and heated cabin had: five passenger compartments, a sit-down dining room with china and linen service, a bar, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, a galley, a honeymoon suite and sleeping berths. First class fare (the only choice) from New York to Marseilles, France, was $375 each way.

PAA nautical theme bestowed the crew with maritime ratings and uniforms. A master crew position, equivalent to a ship’s captain, was in overall command. His desk (without flying controls) was on the port side of the control cabin, third behind the (first) pilot and the navigator. With operating experience, this position was later eliminated. Trippe borrowed and copyrighted the term Clipper from the New England-built sleek and fast sailing ships of the 1850s. The 314 was the fourth PAA airplane to bear the Clipper appellation.

The British Short S.26 G-Class flying boat airliner was the only direct competitor to the 314. It was a larger, more powerful development of the S.23 C-Class Empire flying boat, designed expressly for transatlantic service. World War II prevented the start of airline service, and the three aircraft built were taken into the Royal Air Force for patrol duties.

In 1941 British Overseas Airways Corporation purchased three 314A's from PAA (prior to delivery and probably under pressure from the U.S. government) for $1 million each, to establish rapid transatlantic communications. These exported aircraft, plus the Martin M-156 sold to the USSR, were the only overseas sales of new, U.S. built, large passenger-carrying flying boats.

During World War II. the 314’s flew high-priority passengers and cargo for the U.S. and U.K. military services. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill (he had a short stint at the co-pilot’s controls during a flight home) were among those carried. Roosevelt was flown to the Casablanca Conference, to meet with Churchill and Stalin, on January 14, 1943, thus becoming the first in-office president to fly, and the 314 Dixie Clipper the first presidential airplane. Additionally, clandestine missions were flown in support of the war effort.

End of an Era

PAA flew its last Clipper service in 1946, bringing an end to the golden era of the passenger-carrying flying boat, which had begun less than 20 years earlier. The majestic flying boats were replaced by the more utilitarian and faster Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation landplanes. In 1951, the last existing Clipper, 314A NC16808/G-AGCA Berwick was raised, then scrapped, after sinking in the Baltimore, Maryland, harbor.

314 Clipper Flying Boat Facts

  • Introduced regularly scheduled transatlantic airplane passenger service -- Pan American Airways 314 Dixie Clipper on June 28, 1939, from New York City to Marseilles, France.
  • Greatest passenger capacity (74) airliner in-service in 1939.
  • Most powerful in-service engines (Wright R-2600 1,500 hp) in 1939 -- typical was 1,100 hp.
  • Longest range (5,200 miles ferry) operational airliner and airplane (314A) in-service in 1941.
  • First in-service widebody fuselage (12.5 feet/150 inches overall) airliner -- not exceeded until the Boeing 747 (21.33 feet/256 inches) of 1969.
  • Upper deck control cabin/cockpit -- a concept again used by Boeing in the 747.
  • First spiral staircase used by Boeing; similar staircases were later used on the Stratocruiser and 747.
  • First airplane sold for a million dollars each.
  • One tough airplane -- the Honolulu Clipper required 1,300 rounds of friendly 20mm cannon fire from the USS San Pablo before sinking. The abandoned aircraft was damaged after a forced landing due to engine failure, and was considered a menace to navigation.
  • First U.S. presidential airplane -- the Dixie Clipper ferried Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference during World War II, on January 14, 1943.

Sources:
Boeing Archives. Boeing 314 Maintenance Manual; Bob Lamson/Boeing 314 test pilot; The Seattle Daily Times, June 23, 1938; Edward Jablonski, Sea Wings -- The Romance of the Flying Boats (1972); Kenneth Munson, Flying Boats and Seaplanes (1971); Maurice Allward, Seaplanes and Flying Boats (1981); The Wartime Journals Of Charles A. Lindbergh (1970) Instruction Book for Wright Cyclone 14 Aircraft Engines, Wright Aero. Corp., 1943. Boeing/Douglas Division Archives. Seattle Museum of Flight Technical Library Archives; (www.Boeing.com); (www.air-transport.org).


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Boeing Clipper over Seattle, 1930s
Postcard


Boeing 314 Clipper lifts off from Elliott Bay, Seattle, ca. 1938
Courtesy Boeing Archive


Cutaway diagram of Boeing 314 showing flight deck and navigator's perch



Boeing 314 Clipper navigator taking a celestial sighting from seaplane's dome



Boeing 314 Clipper on the waves, 1930s
Courtesy Boeing


Pan American Airways poster of the late 1930s featuring the Boeing 314 Clipper.



Dixie Clipper (Boeing B314) completes first transatlantic passenger flight, New York to Lisbon, Portugal, June 29, 1939.
Painting by John T. McCoy, Courtesy Boeing


 
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