Once Upon A Time in Manhasset Bay

by John Delach

June 28, 1939 – a clear and bright early summer’s day, a crowd of several thousand New Yorkers gathered on Manhasset Isle, a waterfront community of Port Washington to watch history in the making. The largest airplane any of the spectators had ever seen rode easily on the gentle swells of the bay while moored to a boarding gangway. The flying boat’s captain, Robert Oliver Daniel Sullivan carried official papers proclaiming him, “Master of Ocean Navigation.” This title recognized his competence to cross the Atlantic developed on several trans-Atlantic survey flights he had successfully flown.

Speeches were made, bands played as the crowd watched in wonder as Captain Sullivan led his crew of twelve men all outfitted in crisp navy-blue nautical uniforms in a “crew march” along the dock in formation and onto the airplane. Pan American Airways promulgated high discipline and spit and polish. Each crew participated in a crew march wearing their formal uniforms before every flight, even for a test flight. These were the dangerous early days of commercial flight and PAA believed this show of discipline would inspire confidence of the traveling public.

Twenty-two passengers, sixteen men and six women followed the crew inside the cabin of the Dixie Clipper where first class ruled. A one-way ticket cost $375. Four stewards accompanied these luminaries to one of the six cabins they had reserved or to the single cabin suite furthest aft in the cabin. Being 1939, none of the accommodations included cabins en suite, but the clipper had three lavatories, one forward and two aft, a separate ladies powder room. And a men’s retiring room.

The list of passengers consisted of mostly VIPs making this inaugural flight. First among equals; Elizabeth (Betty) Stettinius Tripp, wife of Juan Tripp, Pan American’s founder and chief executive. Joining Mrs. Tripp were William J. Eck, an executive with Southern Railway who had made his reservation years in advance. John M. Franklin, president of United States Lines, Torkild Rieber, chairman of Texaco who would be forced to resign months later due to his close association with Nazi Germany, Louis Gimbel the president of his name-sake chain of department stores and Mrs. Clara Adams, of Maspeth, Queens, a veteran of history-making flights. Mrs. Adams made the flight with greater ambition, her goal being to fly around the world in 16 days.

Without a doubt, the most intriguing passenger was William “Wild Bill” Donovan, FDR’s man to be our top spy during World War II. Donovan founded and ran the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. His biographer, Douglas Waller, explained: “He took Pan American Airways first transoceanic flight to Marseilles…dining on turtle soup, steaks, and ice cream and receiving a silver cigarette case to commemorate the maiden trip.” Mr. Waller noted: “Before he boarded the plane Donovan had a rigger come to Beekman Plaza to show him how to use a parachute.”

Pan American never invested in a proper terminal building on Manhasset Isle. Departing passengers lined up in front of several 4’x 8’ plywood boards mounted on wooden saw-horses inside the same hanger where they serviced their clippers. Rudimentary at best, but Pan American knew this was all temporary.

Designated Clipper Flight 120; the schedule called for a noon departure with a flying time of 19 hours to Horta in the Azores, a distance of 2,375 air miles. Following a one-hour re-fueling layover, the flight would proceed an additional 1,057 miles to Lisbon, Portugal with an ETA of 1700 hours (5 PM). Passengers would overnight in Lisbon and be back on board for a 0700 take-off for Marseilles, France.

Although the Spanish Civil War had ended in April when the Republican forces capitulated to Francisco Franco, Spanish air space remained closed forcing Captain Sullivan to fly around the Iberian Peninsula, through the Straits of Gibraltar and north across the Mediterranean to Marseilles, a ten-hour flight that covered 819 miles.

Total elapsed time including the Lisbon layover, 44 hours. The estimated total flying time was 37 hours and the distance; 4,251 miles.

On the same day that the Dixie Clipper began its epic flight another Boeing 314, Pan American’s Yankee Clipper Flight 101 under command of Captain Arthur E. LaPorte completed the first round-trip mail flight from Southampton. Captain LaPorte’ outbound flight left Port Washington on May 20th, twelve years to the day Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic. Both flights, outbound designated Flight 100 and the return flight used the northern route. The return flight stopped in Foynes, Ireland on the River Shannon, Botwood, Newfoundland and Shediac, New Brunswick before landing on Long Island Sound. Total distance, 3,411, flying time, 26 hours with three layovers lasting five hours.

At 1:59 PM, external generators brought the Dixie’s four 14-cylinder double-row Wright Cyclones to life, the first airplane engines to require the use 100-octane fuel. Stephen Kitchell, the flight engineer activated each engine’s starter motor permitting external generators to power up all four of the reluctant engines, one at a time. Each emitted a hesitant, whir-whir sound as the propeller slowly rotated until a spark caught. With a blast of black smoke, each engine caught forcing the propellers to spin rapidly creating a deafening cacophony of sound and power.

To be continued