Fate is the Hunter*

by John Delach

*With apologies to Ernest Gann, the author of the real “Fate Is the Hunter,” the greatest book ever about commercial aviation. I can think of no better title for this story.

In February of 2019, I published two pieces about Pan American’s early flying boat operations. At that time, flights originated from and returned to their transatlantic base located in Port Washington, Long Island. The first paying passenger flight ever to Europe originated from this base in late June of 1939 flown by the crew aboard the Dixie Clipper.

I noted that: Pan American’s “Port Washington operations ended the following March when the brand-new Marine Air Terminal opened at LaGuardia Field. The first flight to Lisbon left LaGuardia on March 31, 1940.”

Recently, I found a piece about that flight on the Pan American Historical Foundation’s ( PAHF) website that gives a shout out to my town, Port Washington. The piece explains that unexpectedly, the old base on Manhasset Bay participated in both the outgoing and return legs of these inaugural flights. In fact, because of curious circumstances, both transatlantic legs were flown between Port Washington and Horta in the Azores.

On that celebratory day, Captain Charles Lorber, Pan American’s veteran flying boat skipper, taxied Yankee Clipper, the Boeing B-314 Flying Boat under his command, out from the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Field into the waters of Bowery Bay as the 10,000 spectators who had gathered for this historical event looked on from the shore cheering their departure.  .

Captain Lorber lifted his charge into the sky, but little did the spectators know or the press report, that his first destination was not the Azores. Instead, it was Manhasset Bay, the old Pan American’s base where he was scheduled to have an additional 1,000 gallons of aviation gasoline pumped into the tanks of the Yankee Clipper before making the, now compromised first  passenger flight over the Atlantic from LaGuardia to the Azores.

Back in the day, operating flying boats was risky business requiring extraordinary sailing, navigating and flying skills. The pilot and flight crew had to solve all problems on the fly with a minimum of instruments. The cockpit devices provided the status of speed, altitude, direction, stability and  the status of the four engines. Other than that, they flew without any concept of electronic assistance.

The navigator used a sextant during the day to shoot the sun, and at night, to shoot the stars using a clear dome above his compartment where he could take his readings. If the sky was socked in, the pilot and the navigator had to depend on dead reckoning, an educated guess of their location and direction based on their previous experiences and their navigation training and skills..

The health and well-being of the four engines was the responsibility of the flight engineer and the radio operator was their only voice to speak to the outside world when he could.

The captain and his first officer flew the airplane, made the takeoffs and landings, kept it in the air and, also safely navigated their vessel when it became a boat on the water.

Without radar, modern means of communication or transponders, the pilot and crew had to depend on their own skills and experience to estimate where they were, who was around them. Predicting changes in weather during their 15-hour outbound flights over water was impossible and they could only react and deal with these changes.

The 2,375-mile return flight from Horta to LaGuardia Field was scheduled to take 17 hours with an ETA of 7:00 AM. The Atlantic headwinds must have been light that day as Captain Lorber arrived over LaGuardia Field at 4:30 AM, three hours early, an hour before sunrise.

Unfortunately, Lorber’s early arrival was trumped by a fog that blanketed Long Island Sound. Both of his alternative landing terminals, LaGuardia’s  Marine Air Terminal and Pan American base at Port Washington were both socked in.

Lorber’s radio operator checked the conditions at their Baltimore base, but visibility was just as bad there.

 Lorber still had enough fuel remaining for three more hours of flying time, so he decided to circle the sound. Conditions didn’t change once the sun came up over the horizon, but about an hour later, the visibility at Port Washington improved marginally,

Far from ideal, but close enough for a skilled pilot like Lorber, this Pan Am captain was able to make a successful landing on to Manhasset Bay. Once safely floating on the bay, conditions deteriorated to the extent that the normal five-minute taxi to the dock took half-an-hour.

It was almost 8 AM before the crew of 11 and their seven passengers emerged from the flying boat.

The irony of this round-trip Atlantic crossing was that they began and ended at Pan American’s old Port Washington terminal, perhaps its last hurrah?