The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is well known to all of us. But other things happened that day as well which are not nearly as well remembered. Such was the case for the Pan American Flight NC18602. Pearl Harbor would send its crew on the unexpected adventure of a lifetime.
Captain Robert Ford was the pilot of the Boeing 314 Flying Boat called the Pacific Clipper. Ford was licensed as a Master of Ocean Flying Boats and he would need every skill he had honed over the years, and then some, to accomplish what he and his crew would be asked to do.
The Boeing-made Pacific Clipper was nearly as big as the Boeing 747 would be decades later. It had a 152-foot wingspan and weighed 84,000 pounds fully loaded with fuel, passengers, and crew. Its Wright Cyclone engines could produce 1,600 horsepower, and it was built for luxury. The 74 passengers the plane could carry were served gourmet meals in the plane’s dining room that were cooked in a full kitchen, and they could enjoy sleeping quarters with turn-down bed service. The Pacific Clipper’s normal route was to cross the Pacific and back again with San Francisco being her origin and final destination point.
Flight NC18602 left San Francisco on December 1, 1941, for Honolulu. The next day, December 2, the Pacific Clipper took off from Honolulu headed for Auckland, New Zealand. She would have a stopover and refuel at Cantu Island, then head for Auckland. As they were approaching Auckland on December 7, Ford’s radio would crackle with an emergency bulletin informing him about the attack at Pearl Harbor. Ford and his crew’s world was suddenly turned upside-down. What would they do now?
Pan American had been prepared for the possibility of war breaking out. They had handed Capt. Ford a “top secret” letter before Flight NC18602 left from San Francisco. Ford was told that, if war broke out, he was to follow the instructions in the letter. The message was this: if the crew could not deliver the Pacific Clipper to the American military due to attack or imminent capture, they were to destroy the aircraft.
Ford and his crew would be in New Zealand for a week before receiving further orders from Pan American. Instead of heading back across the Pacific as usual, because of the current situation, they were to fly west with a final destination in New York City. But that meant that everything from that moment on for Ford and his crew was unknown, except for their orders to get the plane back to NYC, or, if in danger of being taken by the Japanese, to destroy it.
At that time, with most of the world caught up in the turmoil of the early part of WWII, this was like asking Ford and his crew to find a way to land on the moon. He would have to accomplish this feat with no charts and mostly no support from Pan American or, for that matter, anybody else. He and his crew would have to use their flying skills, maps, and a simple compass, to fly over seas and lands that were then affected directly or tangentially by the ongoing war. They were on their own. They would have to use their imaginations and every ounce of their skill to do this.
Ford was able to get a one-time $500 advance from the Pan Am ticketing office in Auckland, and, with that, he would have to purchase the necessary food and fuel supplies for the Pacific Clipper along this unexpected, unplanned, and uncharted round-the-world trek. Though a handful of circumnavigation flights of the globe had been accomplished before by solo pilots, it had never been done by a commercial plane and certainly not one of this size. The crew stripped all of the Pan Am markings off of the Pacific Clipper and, on December 17th, they took off from Auckland and headed for Australia.
They would have several close calls, both with allies in the Royal Dutch East Indies Army Air Force, who had already been in dogfights with Japanese planes, as well as with Japanese forces. With no training in such matters, they had to make up plans as they went. For example, they flew with absolute radio silence and flew straight courses with no sudden deviations in order not to attract any undue attention.
Of course, flying boats have to land on long open stretches of calm water. When they landed the big plane in Java, they landed in the middle of an area of water that had been planted with mines. How they missed those mines and being destroyed could only be due to a miracle or blind luck.
Ford had to refuel the Pacific Clipper there, and there was a shortage of aviation fuel, so he had his reserve tanks filled with gasoline. He planned to take off with the aviation fuel and then switch to the gasoline in mid-flight, as the low-octane gasoline burned hotter and could cause damage. It did. One of the engines would blow a piston just after the Pacific Clipper took off from a stop in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and they had to return there to repair the engine, which Ford and his crew did on their own. They were in the sky again the next day and headed west for the Arabian Peninsula.
They would be shot at as they flew over Mecca on the 29th of December. They unwittingly had flown over the mosque, an internationally respected “no-no,” and people had come out of the mosque with long rifles, firing at the Pacific Clipper as it flew over.
Next stop was Khartoum in Sudan, then Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in the Belgian Congo, where they had to find a landing area on the Congo River. Then they set out on the longest open sea stretch of the trip (3,500 miles) to Brazil. From there, it was a short stop in the Caribbean to refuel and then landing at their final destination, La Guardia Airport in New York City.
They had done it! The adventure included a total of 209 hours in the air and had taken them over 31,500 air miles around the world. Though they did not land in San Francisco, historians have recorded the unplanned flight of the Pacific Clipper, (Flt NC18602) as the first circumnavigation of the globe by a commercial airliner.
In the early days of December 1941, Capt. Robert Ford and his crew thought that they were just going on another regular flight carrying passengers to far distant locations across the Pacific Ocean and back. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. Ford and his crew accomplished what they were asked to do with skill, determination, and grit.
The adventure of the Pacific Clipper, piloted by Capt. Robert Ford, was one of those unplanned accidents of war. The attack on Pearl Harbor turned a routine job into a round-the-world mission, made up on the fly, so to speak, commissioned by the Pan American company.
The world was suddenly aflame with a war. Ford and his crew could depend only on luck and their wits. They did it, and they did it well. They did it with the same kind of American courage, gumption, and creativity that would be brought by our troops as well all over the world in that terrible conflict. I think we can safely say that the crew of the Pacific Clipper were full members of the Greatest Generation.