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What Prompted the Pacific Clipper's Unplanned Round-the-World Flight?

The Pacific Clipper's unprecedented journey began as a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. With wartime skies threatening, the crew faced a daring decision: fly home via an uncharted route. This odyssey tested human endurance and aviation limits. Imagine navigating the globe without GPS—what challenges did they encounter? Join us as we unveil the gripping tale of their historic flight.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 shook not only the world, but also the air above it.

When the attack occurred, the Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat then known as the California Clipper was aloft on a scheduled passenger service that had originated in San Francisco on December 2. Not wanting the state-of-the-art aircraft to fall into enemy hands, Pan Am ordered Captain Robert Ford and his crew to fly to New York, the long way around.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Pan Am's "Pacific Clipper" was forced to make an unplanned round-the-world flight in order to get back home.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Pan Am's "Pacific Clipper" was forced to make an unplanned round-the-world flight in order to get back home.

The only problem: they were 20,000 miles (32,000 km) away at the time, preparing to land in Auckland, New Zealand. After the passengers disembarked and the aircraft was stripped of all identifying markings, the Clipper flew west, on a route that was completely unfamiliar to the 10-person crew, and without the benefit of maps or radio contact.

Making 18 stops in 12 different countries along the way (including filling up with automobile-grade gasoline in Java because no aviation fuel was available), the California Clipper arrived at New York's LaGuardia Airport on January 6, 1942, after 209 flight hours. Other heart-racing moments had included dodging a Japanese submarine's guns over Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and an engine cylinder failure on Christmas Eve. The trip made the flying boat – renamed the Pacific Clipper after its arrival – the first commercial aircraft to fly around the world.

Around the world in many ways:

  • Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard made the first non-stop trip around the world in a balloon in March 1999. It took 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes for Breitling Orbiter 3 to circumnavigate the globe – all without refueling.

  • In 1887, Thomas Stevens became the first person to travel around the world on a bicycle. It was a penny-farthing (high wheeler), no less.

  • The first verified trip around the world on foot was accomplished by Dave Kunst in 1974. He recorded 14,452 miles (23,258 km) on the journey, which turned out to be more than 20 million steps.

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    • After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Pan Am's "Pacific Clipper" was forced to make an unplanned round-the-world flight in order to get back home.
      By: SDASM Archives
      After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Pan Am's "Pacific Clipper" was forced to make an unplanned round-the-world flight in order to get back home.