The Greatest Flying BoatWhen Juan Trippe turned his eyes towards the Atlantic, and even while the Martin Clippers were going into service in the Pacific, Pan American engineers prepared specifications for a flying boat capable of carrying large loads on longer equivalent ranges. Not that the Atlantic segments were longer: but the severe headwinds could make the equivalent ranges longer.
Boeing won the design competition and signed a contract with Pan Am on 21 July 1936 for six Boeing 314s. It outstripped all rivals in size, with twice the power of the Martin M-130. The 14-cylinder double-row Wright Cyclones were the first to use 100-octane fuel. The finest flying boat to go into regular commercial service, the Boeing 314 weighed 40 tons, and the first batch cost $550,000 per aircraft.
Boeing 314 in maintenance bay at LaGuardia, c.1940
At first, Boeing had problems with the single vertical stabilizer. It tried a twin-tail arrangement, and finally settled on the three fins which became a feature of the design. Originally due for delivery on 21 December 1937, the first B314 was not handed over to Pan American until 27 January 1939, It was placed into service on the Pacific almost immediately. Even then, further modifications were necessary, but the 314 finally got rid of its bugs and was ready for its final test, the North Atlantic.
For the record, the Boeing 314 Yankee Clipper inaugurated the world's first transatlantic airplane scheduled service on 20 May 1939. Under the command of Captain A. E. LaPorte, almost a ton of mail was carried from Port Washington to Marseilles, via the Azores and Lisbon, in 29 hours. The same aircraft, commanded by Captain Harold Gray, opened the northern mail service to Southampton on 24 June.
Captain R.O.D. Sullivan had the honor of carrying the first scheduled passengers across the North Atlantic on 28 June with the Dixie Clipper. Twenty-two privileged persons had the option of paying $375 one-way (about $4000 in today's money) or $675 return (say about $7000 or $8000, or twice Concorde levels). The Yankee Clipper opened the northern passenger route on 8 July, carrying 17 passengers at the same fare.
The whole operation had been carried out with admirable precision, the result of disciplined operational procedures, carefully refined and perfected over Pan American's years of ocean flying experience.
Other airlines could only marvel at the accomplishment, now being carried out as routine, on a mission which only a year or two previously would have been regarded as an adventure.
The outbreak of the Second World War in Europe on 3 September 1939 curtailed Pan American's opportunity to build on its success. The northern route was abandoned after only three months, on 3 October. Subsequently the Boeing 314s continued flying all over the globe, maintaining especially the Atlantic crossing by the central route, or via Brazil and West Africa. They made many important flights during the war, in support of military operations as far afield as southeast Asia. But they were overtaken by the progress made in developing long-range land-planes, and the last Boeing 314 was soon retired in 1946. The last remaining Boeing 314 was scrapped in 1952.
The Boeing 314's service life was all too short, considering its importance as a technical landmark in aeronautical achievement. A few months before the war, a few months after, and sporadic missions in between - a modest record, statistically. But on one occasion, in January 1942, the Pacific Clipper made a 31,500-mile flight around the world. The B314 flying boat put up all kinds of records, but none could compare with the establishment of the North Atlantic service in 1939 in the epoch-making series of inaugural flights which were, perhaps, Pan American's greatest contribution to air transport in all its distinguished history.