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It is not too difficult to imagine the sting of the salt spray on your face and feel the thump of splashing down in the warm Hawaiian waters when you see Keith Ferris’ The Clipper Arrives in Paradise . The work was presented with the “Award of Distinction” by the American Society of Aviation Artists at the group’s Exhibit 2005 held at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum in Lexington Park, Maryland. The ASAA is a non-profit organization with a membership of some of the most noted aviation artists in the world. The painting was also chosen “Best in Show” by a panel from Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

Ferris’ oil on canvas depicts one of the three M-130 Clippers built by the Glenn L. Martin Company in 1934 and 1935. The three, dubbed China Clipper, Hawaii Clipper and Philippine Clipper, flew under the Pan American World Airways banner and were the first to introduce true luxury travel to transpacific passengers. These huge flying boats became so popular with the public in the mid- to late ’30s that all three became collectively known as the China Clippers.

Ferris’ painting depicts the China Clipper just breaking the surface of the water on landing off the coast of Lahaina, Maui. The Clipper Arrives in Paradise is the result of a commission from Popular Mechanics magazine.

Ferris is known for his painstaking research. Before beginning The Clipper Arrives in Paradise he delved into his extensive files of aircraft subjects. Armed with a strong understanding of the aircraft’s design and structure, the artist applied the process he calls “perspective projection by descriptive geometry.” In essence, this is a formula Ferris uses to determine at what distance, angle and position the subject should be depicted, so that he can present the artwork to seem as if the viewer were actually looking at the real aircraft from a predetermined distance.

The first Martin M-130 was delivered to PanAm in San Francisco, Calif., on September 9, 1935. Commercial flying boats were tremendously successful in the 1930s due to their ability to land and take off on water, which eliminated the need for expensive concrete runways.

The aircraft had a wingspan of 130 feet and a length of 90 feet 101⁄2 inches. The four Pratt & Whitney R-1830- S2A5G Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines were rated at 830 horsepower each. The engines were later upgraded to 950 hp with the addition of hydromatic propellers. The aircraft’s gross weight at takeoff was 52,252 pounds.

The Martin PanAm flying boats that traversed the Pacific carried a flight crew of five, consisting of a pilot, copilot, engineer, navigator and radio operator. Three additional crew members served as passenger attendants. The Clippers became part of an era that took air travel to new heights of luxury and elegance. They carried 18 to 46 passengers at a cruising speed of 163 mph. Flying at 17,000 feet above the waves, passengers rode in generally smooth air above the weather and turbulence.

With a 3,200-mile range, the Clippers hopscotched from San Francisco across the Pacific, making refueling stops at Hawaii, Midway, Wake Island and Guam before going on to their final destination at Manila. Actual air travel time was 59 hours and 48 minutes. Fuel stops and crew rest periods stretched the total travel period to six days.

On the 8,210-mile flight from California to the Philippine Islands, travelers could sip their favorite drinks served by uniformed attendants in a lounge, feast on delicious meals in a VIP dining room and afterward freshen up in separate restrooms designated for men and women. As evening approached, 18 of the passengers were able to relax in comfort in individual overnight berths.

“You must remember in those days people were still flying around in biplanes and open cockpits,” Ferris said. “Flying was pretty basic. The Clipper was a tremendous step forward.”

The Hawaii Clipper made the first trans-Pacific Ocean flight on October 21, 1936. The airfare was $799. It is estimated that same trip today would run more than $10,000.

The first of three Martin M-130s was registered as Hawaiian Clipper, NC-14714, in March 1936. It was renamed the Hawaii Clipper before it was lost over the Pacific east of Manila on July 29, 1938. Philippine Clipper, registered as NC-14715 in November 1935, carried passengers for PanAm until it was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1942. It was destroyed when it crashed into a mountainside near Booneville, Calif., on January 21, 1943. The third and last Martin M-130 was dubbed China Clipper and was numbered NC-14716 when launched in October 1935. It was subsequently sold to the U.S. Navy in 1942 and flew in military service until it crashed at Port of Spain, Trinidad, on January 8, 1945.

The luxury and excitement of travel in the great flying boats was glamorized in the 1936 motion picture China Clipper. The film featured two of Warner Brothers’ biggest stars, Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart, in the leading rolls. Retired Navy commander and aviation enthusiast Frank “Spig” Wead wrote the script for the film, which was loosely based on the history of Pan American’s race to dominate the early Pacific air routes.

The even larger Boeing 314s that were initially delivered to PanAm on January 27, 1939, soon overshadowed Martin’s M-130 Clippers. The Boeing monsters offered the flying public even more opulence, with plush seating for 74 passengers and sleeping berths for 36.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought commercial Clipper service in the Pacific to all but a halt. Many of the luxurious flying boats were converted to troop and cargo transports for the war effort. But in their day the Clippers permanently changed the world of travel by cutting overseas journeys from months and days to just hours.


Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here