Pan American Airways “Pacific Clipper”, a Boeing Flying Boat, had just completed it’s flight from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand on Dec 7, 1941 when the news reached them that the USA was at war with the Japanese. This meant that they could not return across the Pacific the way they had just came, so they started out on an odyssey to the west crossing Asia, Africa, the South Atlantic Ocean, to South America and finally north to their home base in New York City.
At this juncture of their flight they have just crossed the Red Sea, entered the airspace over Sudan and then turned north to Khartoum.
Late in the afternoon they raised the Nile River and Ford turned the ship to follow it to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, just below Khartoum. They landed in the river and after they were moored the crew went ashore to be greeted by the now familiar hospitality of the Royal Air Force. Ford’s plan was to continue southwest to Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo and begin their South Atlantic crossing there. He had no desire to set out across the Sahara; a forced landing in that vast trackless wasteland would not only render the aircraft forever immobile, but the crew would certainly all die in the harshness of the desert. Early the next morning they took off from the Nile for Leopoldville. This was to be a particularly long overland flight and they wanted to leave plenty of daylight for the arrival. They would land on the Congo River at Leopoldville and from there would strike out across the South Atlantic for South America.
Late in the afternoon they raised the Congolese capital of Leopoldville. Ford set the Boeing down gently onto the river and immediately realized the strength of the current. He powered the ship into the mooring and the crew finally stepped ashore. It was like stepping into a sauna. The heat was the most oppressive they had yet encountered; it descended on them like a cloak, sapping what energy they had left.
A pleasant surprise awaited them however, when two familiar faces greeted them at the dock. A Pan American Airport Manager and a Radio Officer had been dispatched to meet them and Ford was handed a cold beer. “That was one of the high points of the whole trip”, he said.
After a night ashore they went to the airplane the next morning prepared for the long over-water leg that would take them back to the western hemisphere. The terrible heat and humidity had not abated a bit when the hatches were finally secured and they swung the Clipper into the river channel for the takeoff. The airplane was loaded to the gunnels with fuel, plus the drum of oil that had come aboard at Noumea. It was, to put it mildly, just a bit overloaded. They headed downstream into the wind, going with the six-knot current.
Just beyond the limits of the town the river changed from a placid downstream current into a cataract of rushing rapids. Ford held the engines at takeoff power and the crew held their breath while the airplane gathered speed on the glassy river. The heat and humidity and their tremendous gross weight were all factors working against them as they struggled to get the machine off the water before the cataracts. Ford rocked the hull with the elevators, trying to get the Boeing up on the step. Just before they would enter the rapids and face certain destruction, the hull lifted free. The Pacific Clipper was flying, but just barely.
Their troubles were far from over, however. Just beyond the cataracts they entered the steep gorges; it was as though they were flying into a canyon. With her wings bowed, the Clipper staggered, clawing for every inch of altitude. The engines had been at take-off power for nearly five minutes and their temperatures were rapidly climbing above the red line; how much more abuse could they take? With agonizing slowness the big Boeing began to climb, foot by perilous foot. At last they were clear of the walls of the gorge and Ford felt he could pull the throttles back to climb power. He turned the airplane toward the west and the Atlantic. The crew, silent, listened intently to the beat of the engines. They roared on without a miss and as the airplane finally settled down at their cruising altitude Ford decided they could safely head for Brazil, over three thousand miles to the west.
They landed in the harbor at Natal just before noon the next day after being airborne over twenty hours,. While they were waiting for the necessary immigration formalities to be completed, the Brazilian authorities insisted that the crew disembark while the interior of the airplane was sprayed for yellow fever. Two men in rubber suits and masks boarded and fumigated the airplane.
Late that same afternoon they took off for Trinidad, following the Brazilian coast as it curved around to the northwest. It wasn’t until after they had departed that the crew made an unpleasant discovery. Most of their personal papers and money were missing, along with a military chart that had been entrusted to Navigator Rod Brown by the US military attache in Leopoldville, obviously stolen by the Brazilian “fumigators”.
At 3 AM the following morning they landed at Trinidad. There was a Pan Am station at Port of Spain and they happily turned over the Clipper for servicing and refueling, while they got some rest.
The final leg to New York was almost anti-climactic. Just before six on the bitter morning of January 6th, 1942, the control officer in the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia was startled to hear his radio crackle into life with the message, “Pacific Clipper, inbound from Auckland, New Zealand, Captain Ford reporting. Overhead in five minutes”.
In a final bit of irony, after over thirty thousand miles and two hundred hours of flying on their epic journey, the Pacific Clipper had to circle for nearly an hour, because no landings were permitted in the harbor until official sunrise. They finally touched down just before seven, the spray from their landing freezing as it hit the hull. The Pacific Clipper had finally made it home.
The significance of the flight is best illustrated by the records that were set by Ford and his crew. It was the first round-the-world flight by a commercial airliner, as well as the longest continuous flight by a commercial plane and was the first circumnavigation following a route near the Equator (they crossed the Equator four times.) They touched all but two of the world’s seven continents, flew 31,500 miles in 209 hours and made 18 stops under the flags of 12 diffferent nations. They also made the longest non-stop flight in Pan American’s history, a 3,583 mile crossing of the South Atlantic from Africa to Brazil.