A Kirkland-based nonprofit wants to recover the Honolulu Clipper, Pan American World Airways' "flying boat" which sank in the South Pacific in 1945.
Deep in the Pacific Ocean lies an estimated 18 tons of history — a “flying boat” credited with being among the first aircraft to bring the people of the world closer by reducing overseas travel time.
The flying boat is one of only 12 Boeing 314 Flying Clippers made, although there were some Clippers made by other companies. The Clippers flew for little more than a decade before planes with extended flying range and more destinations with runways made the water-landing aircraft obsolete.
Today, a Kirkland-based nonprofit wants to retrieve the two that remain. One is submerged in the North Atlantic and the other in the South Pacific.
Underwater Admiralty Sciences (UAS) hopes to find someone to underwrite the estimated $8 million or more needed to retrieve the Honolulu Clipper, which sank in the Pacific in 1945, 530 miles northeast of Hawaii and at a depth of 18,000 feet.
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UAS specializes in recovering submerged cultural artifacts, using new technology that makes such retrievals possible, says the nonprofit’s president, Mark Allen.
The first step is to find the exact location of the plane, then use a miniature, remote-controlled submarine fitted with a camera to determine its condition.
“It’s like a game of poker,” said Bob Bogash, a retired Boeing engineer helping with the project. Bogash, a volunteer at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, has been responsible for obtaining most of the museum’s restored planes and would like to see a Clipper in the collection.
Allen and the director of UAS, Bob Mester, got the idea of rescuing the Clipper after Capt. Jeff Johnston, an Alaska Airlines pilot and consultant to the group, approached then with the idea.
Johnston loved the plane’s Art Deco style.
“You could get up and walk around. It had a salon where people could come and play cards and converse … the glamour of it all.”
The B-314 had 22 square feet per passenger, compared with 6 feet per passenger in coach seats in commercial jets today, according to the UAS team.
Boeing’s B-314 flying boats, which were rolled out in 1939, weren’t the first in Pan American World Airways’ Clipper fleet, but they were considered by many to be the ultimate in Clipper luxury.
The Sikorsky and Martin companies made the first 16 Pan Am Clippers, but they differed from Boeing’s planes.
“It was the space shuttle of its time,” Allen said. It carried 72 people, had a dining salon, dressing rooms, separate men’s and women’s bathrooms and sleeping berths.
The Clippers were designed to land behind a breakwater, making it possible to take passengers to destinations that didn’t have runways able to accommodate commercial aircraft.
It took 18 hours to fly from San Francisco to Honolulu. Flying to China was also possible, by stopping for refueling and letting passengers spend the night in Hawaii and the Philippines.
Finding investors and strategizing economical ways to find and recover the plane are only part of the project.
The rest is the human story, and UAS has collected first-person accounts of those who flew, or flew on, the Clippers.
Among them is Diane Jorgenson, of Port Angeles, whose father, Capt. Sannis “Robby” Robbins, was the pilot who flew the Honolulu Clipper when it had to ditch in the South Pacific.
Father and daughter
Robbins was an experienced pilot who learned to fly in a Fairchild 71 in the Alaskan bush. Jorgenson would sometimes fly with him then and also when he flew the Clipper.
“I’d climb into the (Clipper’s) wings. They weren’t hollow. They were filled with all kinds of pipes and wires and were really very interesting,” she said.
During World War II, the Clippers were used to transport troops. On what would become its final flight, when the starboard engines quit, the Honolulu Clipper had 13 Navy officers aboard who were being flown back to San Francisco.
First Officer Wally Reed, now 93 and living in Santa Rosa, Calif., was in charge when the first sign of a problem occurred.
“There was a vibration, a noise and the airplane made a little jerk to the right,” Reed recalled. “I took the search light and watched the engines. … I could see them jerk a little bit.”
He told a crew member to get Robbins, who was on a break. Flames began shooting from the engines and the plane began losing altitude. Robbins sent a mayday call and they began tossing out mail, baggage and fuel to make the plane lighter.
In the dark and using only the landing lights and an altimeter, Robbins landed the Clipper in a trough between the waves. There were no injuries or damage to the plane, and the passengers were rescued four hours later.
Over a number of days, a troop transport ship and later a seaplane tender tried to tow the Clipper. But in high seas, the Clipper rammed into the tender. A starboard wing tip broke off, and an engine snapped off and tore through the Clipper’s bow, Reed recalled.
Since a plane of its size drifting aimlessly on the ocean was considered a hazard to navigation, a decision was made to sink it. After having flown 18,000 hours and countless passengers, and opening new possibilities in the world of aviation, the Clipper submitted to 1,300 20-mm explosive shells and sank.
Now, UAS wants to bring it back.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org