In early December, 1941 a Pan Am fly boat commanded by Captain Robert Ford and his crew of ten had almost completed their scheduled flight from San Francisco across the Pacific to Auckland, New Zealand. As the radio operator scanned the airwaves, he caught an AM radio station broadcast with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor—which they had left only three days before. Shortly thereafter, a Morse Coded message (their only long range form of communication) instructed them to “Implement Plan A” a Top Secret, sealed document all Pan Am captains had carried in the preceding months. Once opened, they realized that their world had changed. The arrival in Auckland was uneventful, but that would be their home for more than a week, until further instructions were received. Now they learned that it was no longer possible to return along their normal routes. The crew was directed to remove any identifiable markings from the aircraft, maintain radio silence, under no circumstances allow the aircraft to fall into enemy hands, and proceed west to Laguardia, New York. At the time, the company had no routes established “to the west” until reaching the Atlantic, off the coast of Africa. They also had no charts, weather, radio frequencies or other information any pilot, GA or airline, would want to undertake such a trip. They were literally, in uncharted territory!
What follows is an adventure, which I found fascinating on several counts. The story is chronicled in the book, The Long Way Home, Revised Edition, by Ed Dover. Based on interviews with surviving members of the crew, and illustrated with flight logs and photographs of the aircraft and crew members, it was written in 1999 and revised in 2007. A Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s flying boats from 1942-1948, Dover knows first-hand the technologies and procedures of the day. He transports you back to a time when a combination of dead reckoning, celestial navigation fixes, and drift sights— augmented with a new low-frequency direction finder— were their tools to navigate the 2,400 nautical miles from California to Hawaii. While not a typical GA aircraft at 82,500 pounds pushed along by four 1,600 horsepower radial engines burning 100 octane avgas, the Boeing 314 flew in the same part of the atmosphere most of us do today. So as they encountered a cold front on the way to Hawaii, Captain Ford descended to 500 feet to get below the cloud bases. I found the story to provide enough information for those of us that are pilots to have a good sense of their operating conditions, while still making the narrative read like a mystery novel. To avoid robbing anyone of the opportunity to enjoy the story themselves, let me just say that when they took off to cross Australia, Indonesia, India, to the middle East and over Africa, it is an adventure! To give you a clue—before leaving New Zealand they went to the local library and borrowed some atlases to select a route… To help follow the story, I fired up Google Earth and reconstructed the route, for my own “situational awareness.”
View Boeing Clipper route around the world in Google Maps
I have a personal connection to this story. My great uncle, Captain Gordon George, flew the flying boats for Pan Am in this same time period. His career started as a Navy pilot flying seaplanes before joining the airlines, eventually retiring from the Boeing 707. As a young pilot, I enjoyed his stories of this period. He described encountering 80 and 100 mile an hour winds enroute across the Pacific, only to have dispatch not believe them. Their credibility improved when the jet stream was “discovered” by the meteorological community, and it was recognized that there are bands of winds that reached those velocities. I also remember his saying at the time he retired from Pan Am that flying had become little more than “being passed from one air traffic controller to another,” and that in his mind, “that wasn’t really flying” After reading this book, I have a better understanding of the world that he operated in, and what he meant by the statement.
For a look at the start of true global aviation, in a time that seaplanes were the norm, and a global network of land-based airports was still in the future, I recommend this book. Aviation, adventure and a war story all wrapped into one. My thanks to Ed Dover for taking the time to research and share this rich journey with us!