The Plane That Had It All: The Rise and Fall Of The Boeing Clipper 314

**Update:  03/19/21 @ 16:30 UTC – Added more details about Sikorsky and Martin Pan Am Clippers **

Travel was very different in the decades before the Second World War. Flying boats offered luxuries and facilities that have not been seen since. The Boeing 314 was one of the most capable and successful flying boats. It had a glamourous but short life though. New airports and aircraft post-war moved the focus to land, with the 314 ending the flying boat era.

Boeing 314
Pan Am was the main operator of Boeing 314 ‘Clipper’ flying boat. Photo: Getty Images

The era of flying boats

What is a flying boat? Put simply, it’s an aircraft that lands and takes off from the water on its fuselage. This is different from a modern-day seaplane, which uses floats to land on water, rather than being supported by the fuselage.

Flying boats developed in the early days of aviation. Airports were not widespread, and being able to land or take-off from any large body of water opened up many possibilities. Cities loved the idea. Airports, of course, are very expensive to build, and harbors for flying boats could be used by ships as well.

The Boeing 314 was one of the last in a long history of flying boats. Early experiments began before the First World War, with American manufacturer Curtiss leading developments with its Model H flying boat. Improvements in the hull and performance lead to the Felixstowe series of boats, well used during the war.

Passenger services began in the 1920s, firstly from the UK to France and the Channel Islands, and later to British overseas territories with Imperial Airways. British manufacturers Supermarine and Short Brothers launched several models through the 1920s and 1930s.

Short Calcutta Flying Boat
The Short Calcutta launched in 1928 and was operated by Imperial Airways to several destinations across Africa and India. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia

Short launched the S23 or Empire flying boat in 1936. These first served with Imperial Airways but soon went on to serve with joint venture Qantas Empire Airways on the Sydney to Southampton route – a nine-day route that highlights this age of pioneering travel.

Qantas Empire Airways
Qantas Empire Airways offered a luxurious service from Australia to the UK from 1938. Photo: Qantas

Launching the Boeing 314 in 1939

Over in the US, Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) also developed its early international flights around flying boats. Its first aircraft came from Consolidated Aircraft, The Martin Company, and Sikorsky. These headed first to the Caribbean and South American and across the Atlantic to the UK from 1937.

We use the term ‘flying boat’ for all these aircraft, but note that there are different. The Sikorsky aircraft were amphibious (with a landing gear for ground use), where the Martin (and Boeing) aircraft were floatplanes, with fuselage-mounted sponsons providing stability (compare that to the different design of the wingtip float in the Short Calcutta image above).

Pan Am introduced the ‘Clipper’ for these aircraft. The first Sikorsky S-40 aircraft became the American, Caribbean, and Southern Clippers. And the Martin M-130s were the China, Hawaii, and Philippine Clippers. And 10 Silorksy S-42 Clippers were flown. All these three aircraft were only ever produced for Pan Am.

Martin M-130
Only three Martin M-130 flying boats were produced – all for Pan Am. Photo: SDASM Archives via Wikimedia

Pan Am’s president, Juan Trippe, wanted to take things further. He approached Boeing to discuss developing a larger flying boat with an improved range for a transatlantic crossing.

Boeing had already seen success with the all-metal Monomail for airmail services and the passenger Boeing 247 that followed it. It moved away from these designs to work with Pan Am on flying boats (Douglas soon took the lead in airport-based propeller aircraft – Boeing would return in a big way with jets later, though).

Boeing Monomail
Boeing had early success with military aircraft and the Monomail. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia

The result was the Boeing 314. A key feature from Boeing was the use of the wing design for its XB-15 bomber project. This led to a larger flying boat, with a passenger capacity of around 70 (double Pan Am’s previous models). It also had the range for transatlantic or transpacific crossing.

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12 aircraft were built – mainly serving Pan Am

The Boeing 314 first flew in June 1938, entering service with Pan Am in 1939. Boeing went on to build 12 aircraft. Pan Am purchased nine of these and BOAC three (these were originally ordered by Pan Am and transferred before completion).

Pan Am carried on its tradition of naming the aircraft ‘Clippers’ – after the 19th Century merchant sailing ships. The first six Clippers – Honolulu, California, Yankee, Atlantic, Dixie, and American were all delivered between January and June 1939.

The next aircraft – Pacific, Anzac, and Cape Town – were designated as 314A and had larger fuel tanks and upgraded engines. As some of the names suggest, these quickly went on with Pan Am to offer global service from the US.

314 Clipper
Yankee Clipper – one of Pan Am’s original aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

BOAC’s three aircraft, all 314A models, were delivered from 1941. As such, they saw mostly military service. They likewise were given names – Berwick, Bristol, and Bangor.

Traveling in style

Pan Am’s Clippers were noteworthy not just for their size and range but also for their onboard comforts. Flying boats had developed into luxurious forms of travel. Travel, of course, was very different to today and had evolved from the upper end of ocean liner transport. Passengers were treated well, with a range of facilities and excellent service – ‘economy‘ travel as we know it today came later.

Boeing 314 Clipper
Passengers boarding a Pan Am Clipper. Photo: Getty Images

Passengers were accommodated in armchair-style seating, with tables, across a series of separate compartments (six standard compartments and one deluxe). Nighttime use was limited to 40 passengers instead of 70, with the compartments converted to provide full-length sleeping berths.

Boeing 314 dining
The dining room onboard the Clipper (this is actually Franklin Roosevelt’s Birthday onboard). Photo: Getty Images

Bathrooms were yet to be shrunk – offering plenty of space, stools and makeup areas in the ladies’ bathroom and a separate urinal for the gentlemen.

There was a separate dining room with fixed tables and seating. Food is described as being from four-star hotels, served in style by white-coated waiters. There were certainly no plastic or disposable accessories!

This video from Pan Am gives a great look inside the 314 and some glimpses of the luxurious onboard service.

Wartime service

The 314 was a success not only in passenger service but also for military use. Soon after its launch, the Second World War began. With passenger travel on hold, the 314s switched to transporting military personnel and cargo. They saw service to both the European and Pacific battlefronts, including transporting supplies to the Soviet Union (where its range was beneficial).

Ownership of the Clippers transferred to the military, and they were repainted. But they continued to be operated by Pan Am’s civilian airline crews.

Wartime service also saw one of the most famous Boeing 314 uses – as the first Air Force One presidential transport (although it predated the use of the callsign). In 1943, Dixie Clipper took President Franklin Roosevelt to the Casablanca conference.

One of BOAC’s aircraft, Berwick also made history. It carried Winston Churchill back to the UK in 1942 after a US stay.

BOAC Clipper
BOAC Boeing 314 ‘Berwick,’ seen in military use in Nigeria. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia

Aircraft out of service by 1951

Despite their romantic appeal today, the flying boats had their problems. Speed was a big limitation. They could cross oceans, but only at around 155 miles per hour – almost four times slower than a Boeing 777 today. And long journeys added frequent stops to this.

The Second World War brought changes that quickly saw the demise of the flying boats. Many new airports had been built around the world. This made many longer routes possible without a water landing. Much use had been made of land-based aircraft during the war, with popular aircraft like the DC-3 leading the move to new modes of operation.

Without having to accommodate water landing, aircraft could focus more on aerodynamics and speed. Jet aircraft would soon take this further and leave the flying boats far behind.

Douglas DC-3
Aircraft such as the DC-3 dominated post-war travel; jets were not far behind. Photo: Getty Images

Scrapping the 314s

Some of the aircraft had a short post-war life – but none survived long. Pan Am and BOAC retired them and moved on to other aircraft. The planes that had survived the war went on to other airlines but saw minimal service. By 1952 they had all been scrapped.

  • Honolulu, Yankee, and Atlantic Clippers never made it back into service.
  • Pacific Clipper was sold to Univeral Airlines and used for parts.
  • Cape Town Clipper was sold to American International Airways in 1947. It was recommissioned as Bermuda Sky Queen but sank the same year after ditching on a flight from the UK to the US.
  • Startup airline World Airways bought four Pan Am Clippers (California, Dixie, American, and Anzac) and the BOAC Clippers. They saw use for cargo around the Americas but were all scrapped by 1952. World Airways retired them all in 1951, with just Bristol sold on, but it sank moored in Baltimore before it re-entered service.

In recent years, there have been plans to recover the remains of two sunken 314s – Honolulu and Cape Town Clipper (which became Bermuda Sky Queen). US-based Underwater Admiralty Sciences has been trying to secure funding since 2011 (as reported by The Seattle Times), but this is still to happen.

For now, the best chance to see a Boeing 314 is with a reconstruction of Yankee Clipper at the Foynes Flying Boat Museum in Ireland.

 Foynes Flying Boat Museum
The replica 314 at the Foynes Flying Boat Museum. Photo; Lukemcurley via Wikimedia

Not the end of flying boats

The decline of the 314 marked the end of the flying boat as the dominant long-haul option. But it was not the end of them completely. Smaller flying boats were still useful for remote locations or island access. Aquila Airways continued to operate Short flying boats from the UK until the late 1950s. Ansett Australia continued service longer, as did some operators in the Americas.

These days, seaplanes with floats under the fuselage are common. These are different from flying boats in that they do not use the fuselage for buoyancy. Some smaller floatplanes and amphibious aircraft though can still be found.

chalk's-flying-boat-getty
Chalk’s Ocean Airways operated the Grumman Mallard amphibious aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

The Boeing 314 is a great historic aircraft – reminiscent of the stylish and adventurous days of flying and an important technical achievement for Boeing. Feel free to discuss this further in the comments. 

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