Moving away from permanent structures, this next book takes us full circle back to my story of the Golden Gate Bridge and the historical photograph that hangs on the wall in our home. China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats tells the story of the building of these flying boats and their too short history. I learned about this book while reading the author’s credits of another book I read, SKYGODS: The Fall of Pan Am written by Robert Gandt.
This book told the story of how that Sikorsky S-42 came to fly through the incomplete Golden Gate Bridge in 1935.
It interwove stories of aviation legends Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes with Juan Tripp, head of Pan AM and influential advocate for the flying boat. Wanting to ensure the delivery of a flying boat, Tripp would play the major airframe competitors at that time—Sikorsky, Boeing, and Martin—against each other to ensure timely delivery of his planes for the maiden flight of the China Clipper
Set in an age before airports and airplane passenger service, the flying boats offered a record-breaking fast transportation option for anyone near a body of water since that was all that was needed for landing and take off. World War II and the recognition of strategic value in land-based airstrips sadly cut the life of these graceful planes short. But these planes paved the way for the rise of commercial aviation even though the very success of land-based aviation would mean the demise of these glamorous, water-based planes. This is vividly seen captured in a photo from the book of a Boeing 314 sitting at anchor at New York’s La Guardia airport with a Douglass DC-4 overhead taking off on a flight to Europe.
In spite of the flying boat’s short life, for me this story painted color on to that 75 year old sepia photograph of the Sikorsky S-42 soaring past the Golden Gate with the romance of this early age of aviation, details invisible to the eye.
Reading these two books by Robert Gandt prompted me to seek out more books on the building of airplanes. Interestingly, I have my wife to thank for finding a book I never would have discovered. Being an avid estate sale shopper, she found Howard Hughes and his Flying Boat by Capt. Charles Barton, USN (Ret.). I don’t know what she paid for this book and I don’t know if she realized it at the time but the original owner (name illegible) bought it in Long Beach, CA in 1983 and the composite flight crew photo inside the cover is autographed by Howard Hughes’ Crew Chief, C. Jucker.
Many books have been written about the life of the reclusive and eccentric Howard Hughes, but this book mainly focused on the building of the Spruce Goose. This huge plane measured 320 foot wingtip to wingtip and was powered by eight propeller driven engines. To put this into perspective, you could park a modern day DC-10 under each wing.
Hughes’ vision was to build a troop transport that could carry 750 troops along with provisions and a Sherman tank. The motivation for this plane was to transport military personnel for the war effort in Europe via air thus avoiding transit by sea, which was vulnerable to German U-boats attack prevalent in the Atlantic at the time. And since metal was sorely needed for war weapons, Hughes chose to build with laminated plywood. Sadly this story as so many, fell prey to the political maneuvers of war time congressmen and only one such plane was ever built and never used for its primary purpose.
After reading this book, I recalled a recent trip from Long Beach, CA to Catalina Island and seeing a large white dome behind the Queen Mary ocean liner. Thanks to a travel brochure that was wedged among the pages of the book, I now knew that hiding inside that huge dome was the Spruce Goose.
I was excited to think that on my next trip to Los Angeles this November, that I could pay a visit to the Spruce Goose in its home where it was moved after its once and only flight in 1947. Sadly in searching for photos of the Spruce Goose for this post, I learned that it had been moved to McMinnville, OR in 1992. So visiting this plane won’t be a nice side trip on a previously planned trip; it will have to be a special trip just for the Spruce Goose.
Frustrated by not being able to easily visit the Spruce Goose, I read another aviation story, one about the building of the 747, the largest commercial airliner (at the time) that was designed and launched when I was a teenager.
For this book, I chose 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation written by Joe Sutter (with Jay Spenser). Joe, chief engineer at Boeing and now known as the “Father of the 747,” tells his story from his humble beginnings as the son of a meatpacker through all of his engineering projects. Ironically, he has his wife Nancy, a native of West Seattle, to thank for taking the Boeing job over a more lucrative offer at Douglass Aircraft because at the time she was pregnant with their daughter and didn’t want to move away from the Seattle area. But beyond just keeping Joe close to home, Nancy helped Joe endure the pressures of building the first ever-jumbo jet.
While it was Boeing that built the first jumbo jet, it was Juan Trippe, head of Pan Am and father of the China Clipper, who ultimately pushed for it being built. As he did in the flying boat days, Trippe played Douglass, Lockheed, and Boeing off of each other to compete for this new plane. Overcoming the technical and engineering challenges were just part of the process; meeting the demands of Pan Am’s head just added to the frustrations. But Joe was successful and the 747, with its distinctive camel back hump, is one of the most easily recognized airplanes today.
This year I had a chance to visit the Boeing plant in Everett, WA on a planned vacation to the Seattle area. The scale of the plant is immense, although looking out from the third floor viewing area; it is hard to judge the scale until you see a worker next to one of the planes. At the time of our visit, there were six 747s in various stages of assembly in the U-shaped assembly line. While the tour guide was particularly proud of showing off the assembly of the most modern airliner, the 787 Dreamliner, I was still nostalgic of the 747s being built, the airplanes I grew up with. It was satisfying to see them still being built over 40 years later.
While for many of these building books I have been able to travel to see the protagonist of the story, there are others awaiting future excursions…