RogerBW's Blog

The Long Way Home, Ed Dover 20 June 2021

1998 non-fiction. A Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper was en route from Noumea to Auckland when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. They were instructed to make their way back to the USA as best they could.

This was the first (near-)circumnavigation of the world by a flying-boat, via Australia, Trincomalee, Bahrain, Khartoum, LĂ©opoldville (Kinshasa), and across the South Atlantic to Natal in Brazil, then north to New York. For most of the way they were beyond the reach of Pan Am, and reliant on the goodwill of British facilities.

Clearly there was a lot of excitement, but this book, written based on Dover's own experience working on Clippers, interviews with two surviving members of the flight crew, and whatever documentary evidence could be amassed, is much more about competent people doing things competently without making a fuss about it. Have to run the engines on 90-octane gasoline rather than the 100-octane they were built for? Yeah, we can do that, and we have some idea of when we can get away with backing off the power and when we can't. Exhaust stack broke off? Well, the wing might catch fire from being in the exhaust stream, but we can't get parts to fix it this side of the Atlantic…

There was a large crew, but most of them don't come over as having much in the way of personality; this is after all an account of actual events turned into a narrative, rather than a story, and even if people were nervous or uncertain at the time that didn't make it into the story that got told fifty years later. For my taste there isn't enough technical detail, but my taste is quite unusual.

It's a surprisingly thin book, only about 56,000 words; I'm sure one could make more of a narrative out of it. With my role-playing head on, I'd love to run this situation as a series of adventures (it fits quite neatly into a setup on which I've already done some of the work); there's no direct conflict, which makes it more complicated, but there's tension, taking chances with what the manual says you can get away with, and moderately heroic engineering.

This is great fun, but I couldn't help thinking that it felt like the notes from which someone could write a really interesting piece of fiction more than a great document in itself.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 09:17am on 20 June 2021

    Is the rarity and value of the aircraft itself considered? There were only ever 12 Clippers, and each one was precious.

    The same is true of the Short Empire boats. One of those made a forced landing on an river in Africa, and a large temporary dam had to be built to allow it to take off again. We don't usually go to that much trouble to salvage modern aircraft.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:25am on 20 June 2021

    There was certainly some thought given to making sure the Japanese didn't get hold of the aircraft, which would obviously have some degree of strategic airlift value.

    Some summaries of the events talk about the possibility of destroying the aircraft to prevent this from happening, but the book itself doesn't mention that possibility.

    The sealed orders were basically to go radio-silent and land at the nearest company base, then wait for more detailed instructions. The ones that made it to Auckland were:

    NORMAL RETURN ROUTE CANCELED STOP PROCEED AS FOLLOWS COLON STRIP ALL COMPANY MARKINGS COMMA REGISTRATION NUMBERS COMMA AND IDENTIFIABLE INSIGNIA FROM EXTERIOR SURFACES STOP PROCEED WESTBOUND SOONEST YOUR DISCRETION TO AVOID HOSTILITIES AND DELIVER NC18602 TO MARINE TERMINAL LAGUARDIA FIELD NEW YORK STOP GOOD LUCK STOP

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 12:57pm on 20 June 2021

    Those orders are pretty clear. Presumably the crew already had means to get fuel, oil, and other supplies on PanAm's credit?

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:19pm on 20 June 2021

    Well, at company bases they did. Elsewhere, such as at Trincomalee, it seems to have been more a matter of "although we are temporarily out of touch, you know the company will pay you back eventually".

  5. Posted by John P at 12:04am on 22 June 2021

    Intriguing. There's more about it here: https://www.panam.org/pan-am-inspirations/634-saga-of-the-pacific-clipper

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