Once Upon a Time on Manhasset Bay

by John Delach

Part Two

Someday a Clipper flight will be remembered as the most romantic voyage in history.

                                                                                                 Clair Boothe Luce 1941

June 28, 1939 on board Pan American’s Boeing’s B-314 flying boat Dixie Clipper:

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 of 100-octane fuel. Stephen Kitchell, the flight engineer switched on each engine’s starter permitting external generators to power up each of the reluctant engines. One by one, they emitted a hesitant, whir-whir sound as the propeller slowly rotated until a spark caught. With a blast of black smoke, each engine caught allowing the propellers to spin in response with a deafening cacophony of sound and power.

Captain Sullivan, his co-pilot, Gilbert Blackmore and Flight Engineer, Kitchell, sailed their charge north through Manhasset Bay and out into Long Island Sound. Sullivan turned his craft into the wind as Kitchell, gave the engines their richest fuel mixture possible. Sullivan and Blackmore performed their pre-flight check-list, set the flaps and steered their boat on a take-off path through the waters of the sound. As the Dixie Clipper accelerated, it ceased to be a boat and morphed into an airplane as it broke free from the sound’s suction to soar into the sky.

The B-314 didn’t have a cockpit. Instead, it featured a flying cabin located above the forward cabins and its massive wings. The captain sat in the left seat, the second pilot (co-pilot) in the right seat. Going aft, a spiral staircase on the right (starboard) led to the passenger deck. A large navigator’s table occupied the left (port) side.  The radio operator and the flight engineer sat facing their equipment further aft. The rear led to a door leading to the navigator’s observatory.

Life on board moved at a leisurely pace. Betty Tripp recorded the following in her diary:

“At dinner…everyone was in high spirits and we enjoyed gay and interesting conversation. The tables were set with white tablecloths. The dinner was remarkable and beautifully served. Some contrasted this trip with the days of sailing ships which took two or three months to cross the ocean…yet we were crossing it in twenty-four hours. Captain (R.O.D.) Sullivan came down from the control room to smoke a cigarette and visit with the passengers. He was grand, patient to answer questions and inspired real confidence by his cool cheerful manner. Everything seemed so routine and matter-of-fact that we almost lost sight of the fact that this was an airplane flight to carry passengers to Europe.”

The menu began with the choice of a Martini Cocktail or a Clipper Cocktail. (A bracing mix of apple brandy, lime, grenadine plus a dash of absinthe.)

Appetizers included Canapes Pate De Fore’s Gras, Chilled Celery, Crystalized Ginger or Mixed Olives. Main courses included Steamed Spring Chicken, Roast Prime Ribs and Baked Virginia Ham. Desserts: Neapolitan Ice Cream and Pound Cake. Dinner was served on PAA China brandishing the airline’s logo.

Emily C. Dooley a reporter for Newsday with her feet firmly planted on the ground pointed out the inadequacies of the B-314 in a 2011 piece about this flight:

“While the planes were luxurious, with dressing rooms, a dining room and lounge – even a honeymoon suite – the flights were not. Planes at that time were not pressurized, the trips were long. ‘Many passengers fell sick from turbulence,’ said Atlanta resident, Dan Grossman, a former pilot on ClipperFlyingBoats.com.”

Me thinks MS Dooley doesn’t get it. Pre-war passengers didn’t know any better. Despite this fling boat’s limitations, it was state of the art for airplane travel in 1939. Beyond that simple fact, I’d venture a guess that many of today’s seasoned air travelers would gladly go back in time for the opportunity to experience a clipper flight in a New York Minute.

On that day almost 80 years ago, Port Washington achieved a significant place in aviation history, but the world was on fire. Less than six weeks later, World War II began forcing Britain and France into mortal conflict with Nazi Germany. America remained a neutral nation as flights were restricted to the southern route truncated in neutral Lisbon.   

Port Washington operations ended the following March when the brand-new Marine Air Terminal opened at LaGuardia Airport. The first flight to Lisbon from LGA left on March 31, 1940. After the attack on Pearl Harbor Uncle Sam requisitioned all twelve Boeing B-314 Clippers for military use. Pan American continued to operate the Clippers but stripped of most romantic trappings.

By the time of Japan surrendered in August of 1945, the era of the flying boat was over, and Juan Tripp retired all the B-314s in 1946. Most were sold to airlines operating in South America where adequate runways were still scarce. Removed from Pan American’s T.L.C. they didn’t last long, and none survived.

Juan Tripp moved on to iconic piston powered land airplanes like the DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7, the Lockheed Constellation and the Boeing Stratocruiser, airplanes that populated the world’s post-war airlines until the birth of the jet age in the late 1950s.

Those heady days of romance, those survey flights, the commercial service to Bermuda beginning in 1937 and those inaugural trans-Atlantic flights: all originated from Manhasset Bay

Amazing! Still, it all happened as if in a blink of the eye of aviation history.