Pan Am Clippers in Ireland

The glamorous era of the original transatlantic flights.

transatlantic clipper ship
War cast a shadow on the brief period of the Clipper’s service.Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-111417

I’ve been both a pilot and sailor going on 25 years, but only in the past five years have I taken to regularly crossing large bodies of water on the wing and under sail. Our “small world” gets a whole lot bigger when one traverses the great expanses of salt water that make up 71 percent of the planet’s surface. Living and cruising aboard Windbird has given me a keen appreciation of life on and under the oceans, but I’m not enough of a graybeard mariner to fancy myself at home while at sea; I often rather feel like a trespasser in a vast foreign realm. Landfall, then, is a highly anticipated event, one that carries promises of safety, accomplishment, and the sentimental pull of hearth and home. I feel this attraction even when making ocean crossings at work, insulated from the danger and discomfort of sea travel by the modern miracle of an aluminum cocoon whisking through the upper atmosphere.

Today, I am in the right seat of a Boeing 757, head pressed against the side windowpane, eyes peering downward into a cauldron of cloud and spray. Every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of the frothing North Atlantic in the morning gloom—apparently little changed from the 2,600 miles we crossed in the night. And then, miraculously: a curling breaker, a blast of spume, a gnarled extrusion of wave-battered ­granite, and a petulant crown of ­improbably verdant, windblown grass. Land. Larger breaks in the undercast reveal two of the smaller Aran Islands, followed by the cliff-pocked coastline of County Clare, Ireland. We are cleared to descend to 6,000 feet via the MOMIN3D arrival, and we soon break out of a stratus layer to find the gently rolling hills and patchwork fields of Ireland spread magnificently before us. This is only a little north of where Charles Lindbergh spotted landfall on his way to Paris. If the Emerald Isle is a sight for sore eyes to us, to him it must have seemed heaven itself.

Ironically, the New York to Shannon, Ireland, route is one of the “hard” Atlantic crossings at my airline. This is not because it is long, but because it is short and, therefore, one of our few two-pilot crossings with no rest breaks en route. The 757 too is less preferred for transatlantic work because of its slightly smaller ­cockpit than the 767 and a general bias in favor of airplanes with “heavy” appended to their call sign. After the parking checklist is complete, my ­captain yawns, rubs his eyes, and ­proclaims his readiness for a five-hour nap and a Guinness—in that order. Not me: I have plans, and I’m hitting the ground running. I change out of my uniform and rent a small ­hatchback. After 45 minutes of wrong-side ­driving, I enter the nondescript ­village of Foynes on the south bank of the ­broad-shouldered River Shannon. If you missed the small museum to the side of the main road out of town, as I did the first time past, you’d have no idea of Foynes’ important role in aviation history. It was here that the very first transatlantic airline passengers stepped onto European soil.

The conquering of the Atlantic is often told as a struggle of fits and starts from Louis Blériot to NC-4 to John Alcock and Arthur Brown, and ultimately to the victorious Lindbergh, with a lot of death and disappearance along the way. But the reality is that, even after “Lucky Lindy’s” landmark 1927 flight, it was another 15 years before ­transatlantic flights were anything ­approaching routine, and then largely because of the demands of global war. In the meantime, there was still plenty of death and disappearance, not to ­mention disagreement over the best and safest means of spanning the ­distance. For a while, many believed that the solution was the flying boat.

transatlantic clipper ship with american flag
The museum in Foynes helps pilots witness the history of transatlantic flight.Clyde H. Sunderland / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-111417

Juan Trippe was one of these believers. By 1930, his Pan American Airways had already connected North America with the Caribbean and Central and South America with a fleet of Consolidated Commodore and Sikorsky S-38 flying boats. Many parts of Pan Am’s route structure were over remote areas not much more hospitable than the North Atlantic, with basic to nonexistent airfield facilities—but plenty of rivers, bays and lagoons from which to operate. The development of the Sikorsky S-42 and Martin M-130 allowed Pan Am to ­pioneer service across the vast Pacific in 1935. The Atlantic was a tougher nut to crack, more for political reasons than technical. The problem was that the British government quite insisted on reciprocity as a condition of granting route authority, but their flag carrier, Imperial Airways, did not yet possess a flying boat with the necessary range and useful load. Nevertheless, both Pan Am and Imperial undertook a number of survey flights in 1937, using the S-42 and the Short S.23 Empire, respectively. These ­established Botwood, Newfoundland, and Foynes, Ireland, as the endpoints of the North Atlantic flying-boat route.

The British search for a design with the range to cross the Atlantic yielded one of the more interesting experiments of the interwar period, the Short-Mayo Composite. This consisted of a S.20 Mercury floatplane mounted on top of a much larger S.21 Maia flying boat. The two aircraft took off together using the combined power of their eight engines and separated once airborne; the smaller S.20 had enough fuel and performance to fly great distances. The combination was successfully tested and, in 1938, actually flew the first commercial nonstop flight across the Atlantic, an airmail route from Foynes all the way to Montreal. Ultimately, it was rejected as too ungainly and dangerous for passenger service, as were various aerial refueling schemes. Eventually, the Short S.26 was developed for Imperial Airways, but in the meantime, the Brits reluctantly gave Pan Am permission to start unilateral service.

Thus in 1939, Pan American Airways inaugurated the world’s first passenger-airline service across the Atlantic Ocean, using the airplane that would soon become an icon of the short-lived golden age of flying boats: the Boeing 314 Clipper. The first service was actually via a southern route from Baltimore to Marseille, France, by way of the Azores and Lisbon, Portugal. The northern route from New York to Southampton, England, followed a week later on July 8, 1939. The great Clipper ships carried up to 36 ­passengers in sumptuous luxury—at a round-trip price of $12,000 in today’s dollars. The once-weekly flight departed Long Island on Saturday morning and arrived in Southampton by Sunday afternoon; the longest segment from Botwood to Foynes took 12 hours. On arrival in Ireland, the lumbering Clipper would taxi to its mooring in the lee of Foynes Island, where it was met by a launch that ferried passengers and luggage to the quayside terminal. Today, his building is the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum.


Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing


Europe erupted into war less than three months after Pan Am began service, and the airline shortened its transatlantic routes to terminate in neutral Lisbon and Foynes. Imperial Airways found its brand-new Short S.26 flying boats and crews impressed into the Royal Air Force, and after Pearl Harbor, the United States military followed suit with Pan Am’s Clippers. Foynes remained as busy as ever as the flying boats shuttled a steady stream of diplomats, leaders, and military men and materiel across the Atlantic. But this traffic was increasingly surpassed by new land-based bombers, fighters and transports that flew great distances as a ­matter of course, a development made possible by the plethora of long concrete airfields constructed around the world for their use. By the end of the war, the flying boat was utterly obsolete, and of the 12 iconic Boeing Clippers built, none survived past 1951. The Foynes Flying Boat Museum, however, does have a replica B-314 fuselage, and the cavernous interior gives a good feel of the audacity of the undertaking and the glamour of the era.

Browsing the museum’s ­interesting collection of flying paraphernalia donated by long-passed Pan Am pilots and passengers, I am struck by just how much of that distant era resonates for a modern airline pilot. Standardization, flight manuals and checklists were born on Pan Am Clippers. Their complex global operation gave us the first professional training department, crew bases and chief-pilot offices. The naval officer’s dress uniform in which Pan Am bedecked their Clipper crews (dark-blue, double-breasted suit coat with gold sleeve stripes, service cap, epaulets and wings) became the standard across the industry and is still in use at many airlines today, including mine. The very terms captain and first officer, and the command structure that they denote, were passed from maritime tradition to aviation via the Pan Am Clipper ships.

The museum visit does not take long, and it is such a lovely day that I can’t resist driving another 120 ­kilometers away from the ­layover hotel—fatigue be damned—to the ­seaside village of Dingle. Here, I gaze out over the sparkling bay where my wife’s maternal ancestors once tended the lighthouse that warned stormbound mariners away from the rocky cape. Even on a rare sunny day with light wind, the impassive Atlantic sends heavy rollers crashing ashore. I feel a wave of unearned pride: I have crossed this ocean today, and I will cross it again tomorrow, and though I will do so with relative ease and comfort, I cannot help but feel myself the heir of a rich inheritance bequeathed by so many who came long before. The reality is that every pilot, not just those of us who make our living crossing oceans in aluminum cocoons, has inherited this rich heritage. If you happen to find yourself on the Emerald Isle, do take a moment between villages and castles and pints of Guinness to pop into Foynes and celebrate the innovative, ­courageous aviators who, in a few short years, made such giant strides toward ­connecting our great watery world.