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Crew Recalls Dixie Clipper's Flight Into History

June 25, 1989|GRAHAME L. JONES | Times Staff Writer

It was early afternoon when the crowd began to gather along the shore of Long Island's Manhasset Bay.

By 1:30, several thousand New Yorkers were straining to catch a glimpse of the gray leviathan bobbing gently on the waves at Port Washington.

The giant flying boat, the words "Dixie Clipper" painted on her bow and "Pan American Airways System" on her fuselage, was about to take to the air on a journey into history.

The date was June 28, 1939, and the first aerial transatlantic passenger crossing soon would begin.

Almost half a century later there are those who remember that afternoon as if it were yesterday, men who made the flight from Port Washington to Marseilles.

Gilbert B. (Gib) Blackmore is 85 and living in retirement in Tacoma, Wash. He was second in command on the historic trip. Robert Fordyce is 80 and lives in Manhattan, N.Y. He was one of the four flight officers on the Dixie Clipper.

The youngest of a trio of crew members interviewed by The Times is Stephen Kitchell, 76, of St. Augustine, Fla. Kitchell was an assistant engineer on the inaugural flight.

'The Greatest Airplane'

The details have become a little hazy, not surprisingly, but all three have fond memories of both the journey and the Boeing 314 aircraft.

"Oh, hell, they were wonderful, the greatest airplane of their day," said Blackmore, who was a captain in 1939 but who was being checked out on that flight as a first officer.

Indeed, the gray Dixie Clipper was an imposing sight as it sat there waiting for its crew of 12 and 22 passengers to board. Weighing close to 42 tons, it was 109 feet long, 28 1/2 feet high and had a wingspan of 152 feet. The carrier seemed huge and ponderous, but was anything but.

"It was a beautiful airplane, either to fly in or to work on," said Kitchell. "A super airplane."

While Kitchell and a couple of other crew members went through their preflight checks, the Dixie Clipper waited.

Roar of Engines

First there were the ceremonies to get out of the way. Photographers busily snapped shots of crew and passengers alike; speeches were read; a band played; the passengers bid excited farewells to friends and relatives and, on the water, yachtsmen positioned themselves to see the takeoff better.

Finally, all was ready.

The Dixie Clipper's four giant engines coughed into life at 1:59 p.m. and it started to taxi across the bay. As the band played on and the crowd of 5,000 cheered, it rose into the sky, the roar of its engines drowning out the gun salutes from four yacht clubs and the whistles from the craft in the harbor.

In The Times the next morning, the Associated Press described the scene this way:

"With the ship's departure at 2:12 p.m. on a 4,650-mile flight, aviation's long-cherished dream of regular transatlantic passenger service by plane became a reality."

Well, not immediately. It would be 42 hours and 10 minutes before Capt. Robert Oliver Daniel Sullivan landed the Dixie Clipper in the French port of Marseilles. The flying boat had, after all, a top cruising speed of only 150 m.p.h., and it had to stop for fuel along the way.

Southern Route

The name Dixie Clipper was bestowed on the plane because of the southern route it flew to Europe: first to Horta in the Azores, then on to Lisbon in Portugal, where the crew and passengers spent the night in a hotel, and finally on a curving path around the Portuguese and Spanish coasts and across the Mediterranean to Marseilles. It was not allowed to fly the overland route because the Spanish Civil War was still in progress.

(Pan Am, which had started transpacific passenger service in 1935 using the famed China Clipper, had two other flying boats on the Atlantic run: the ill-fated Yankee Clipper, which usually flew the northern route via Newfoundland and Ireland to Southampton, England, and the Atlantic Clipper.

(Twenty-five minutes after the Dixie Clipper took off from Port Washington, the Yankee Clipper landed at Southampton, thereby inaugurating regular mail service between the United States and Great Britain.)

Because of the length of the journey--it took 15 hours and 55 minutes just to reach Horta in the Azores--a large crew was necessary, consisting of the captain, four flight officers, one engineering officer, two assistant engineers, two radio officers and two stewards.

Six Women Aboard

Female flight crew members were still an idea for the future, but there were six women among the 22 passengers, including, according to the Associated Press, "Mrs. Clara Adams of Maspeth, N.Y., a veteran of history-making flights (who) planned to keep on going after she reached Europe and to circle the world on regular passenger planes. She expected to arrive home in 16 days."

Most of the passengers were wealthy, well-known or both. They included C. V. Whitney, the chairman of Pan Am, railroad executive W. J. Eck, who had applied eight years earlier to be on the first transatlantic passenger flight, and Louis Gimbel of Gimbel's department store. The crew had good reason to remember the latter.

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