Simanaitis Says

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IGOR SIKORSKY thought big. His 1914 Bolshoi Baltisky was the world’s first four-engine airplane, with a huge wingspan for its time, 88 ft. 7 in. (a modern Boeing 737’s is 93 ft.). Forced out of Russia by the 1917 revolution, Sikorsky emigrated to the U.S. and, in 1923, formed the Sikorsky Manufacturing Company. By the 1930s, his company was one of the world’s foremost manufacturers of amphibious flying boats, aircraft that became known as Flying Clippers.


The most famous of Sikorsky Flying Clippers, the S-42. Image from The Flying Boat Forum.

The name Flying Clipper came at the suggestion of Juan Trippe, CEO of Pan American Airways in 1927. Sikorsky’s S-34, which crashed during testing, led to the S-36 and S-38 amphibians used by Pan Am in its Caribbean and Latin American routes. However, each of these aircraft carried no more than 10 passengers.


Pan Am Sikorsky S-40 Caribbean and Latin American routes, 1931. Image from Fly Away.

Sikorsky’s S-40 was a larger amphibian, carrying as many as 38 passengers (perhaps 44 only in ad hype). Its midsize sibling S-41 could seat 15. Their ranges, however, were no better than those of their predecessors, around 900 miles. This was fine for island hopping, but unsuitable for long-distance non-stops.

Again, Sikorsky thought big. On the S-40’s inaugural flight, he and Pan Am technical advisor Charles Lindbergh used the back of a menu in the aircraft’s lounge to sketch out desirable characteristics for a next-generation Flying Clipper: a 2500-mile range, even in the face of a 30-mph headwind, at a cruising speed beyond the era’s 120 mph.


S-42 three views. Image from The Flying Clippers.

The S-42 first flew in 1934, with a total of 10 built exclusively for Pan Am. Innovative features included an all-metal construction using duralumin, hydraulic flaps to reduce speeds of takeoff and setdown, and an early application of variable-pitch propellers.


The flight deck and a passenger cabin of the Sikorsky S-42. Images from The Flying Boat Forum.

The S-42 certainly met its design criteria. Its prototype lifted a payload of more than 16,000 lb. to 16,000 ft. Later, the S-42 climbed to a record altitude of 20,047 ft. with more than 11,000 lbs. payload. In Pan Am tests, an S-42 set eight world records for speed, payload and altitude. It carried an equivalent weight of 32 passengers and 2000 lb. of mail on a 1242-mile circuit at an average speed of 157.5 mph.


“All aboard for South America,” 1934. Image from Clipper Flying Boats.

The S-42 christened Brazilian Clipper was put into service in 1934 on Pan Am’s Miami/Rio route. Leaving Miami in the morning, the Brazilian Clipper would fly 1031 miles to a first overnight in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Other overnights were in Port of Spain, Trinidad (another 635 miles); Belém, Brazil (1200 miles more); and Recife, Brazil (yet another 1055 miles); to arrive in Rio de Janeiro (a final 1165 miles) on the afternoon of day five.


The S-42 Pan Am Clipper II passes over a work in progress, the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, 1935.

In 1935, a survey flight of the Pan Am Clipper II flew from Alameda, California, near San Francisco, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a distance of 2400 miles. It confirmed that the S-42 could be used on a transpacific route, provided it swapped some of its passenger accommodations for added fuel.


Pan Am extended its transpacific service to Hong Kong and Macao, north to Beijing, south to New Zealand. Image from Aero Digest, June 1937.

[Note: The following paragraph was corrected May 16, 2015, 10:25 a.m. Pacific time. Though a Sikorsky S-42 was used for Pan Am’s transpacific survey, it was not used on the airline’s inaugural service across the Pacific.]

On October 21, 1936, another Pan Am aircraft, the Martin M-130 Hawaiian Clipper, inaugurated Pan Am service from San Francisco to Manila, Philippines. The trip took six days, with five legs, its longest San Francisco/Hawaii, a total of some 60 airborne hours and 8200 miles.

The fare to Manila in 1936 was $950. Figure $16,000 in today’s dollars (whereas today’s air fare is around $1300). Among the first passengers were Wilber May, of May Company department stores, and Clara “First Flighter” Adams, who also flew maiden flights of the Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenberg and other famed air transportation.

And, don’t you know, Clara Adams simply must warrant more research.

For another tidbit of S-42 history, check out a Chevrolet relationship in “Cheep!”. On a note of sadness, one of the 10 Sikorsky Flying Clippers was destroyed on the ground by a Japanese bombing at Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, on December 8, 1941. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Ivan Berger
    May 16, 2015

    In his autobiography, Sikorsky recalled a dream he had as a young man in Russia, of walking down a wood-paneled corridor like that on a railway sleeper car, then realizing it was not a rail car but an airplane aloft. Decades later, walking through a finished Clipper, he realized it was the same corridor he’d dreamed of.

  2. Mark Jhorr (@mnztr1)
    May 16, 2015

    Dennis, I would love to see your thoughts on the ShinMaywa US-2 flying boat. I was looking at the specs of this plane and they are quite frankly, supernatural.

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