Alameda Celebrates the China Clipper

Courtesy Alameda Naval Air Museum

The China Clipper graces the sky over San Francisco's skyline on its Nov. 22, 1935 maiden voyage. Notice the Coit Tower, built in 1933, in the background.

In the 1930s Alameda boasted three airports: the San Francisco Bay Airdrome on the site of today's Alameda Community College. Benton Field on the present site of the former Alameda Naval Air Station's "Big Whites"; and Alameda Airport near the Alameda Mole, the terminal for Southern Pacific's Alameda-San Francisco ferry and its famous "Big Red" trains.

Pan American Airways chose Alameda Airport as the base for its trans-Pacific flight operations. Pan American created a harbor it christened "Pan American Lagoon" using 11 sunken destroyers, an old sailing ship and a merchant ship. The lagoon served as a sheltered harbor for the launching of Pan American's seaplanes as well as a place to harbor yachts.

On March 31, 1935, Pan American's Alameda base took delivery of its first "Clipper" seaplane. Beginning on April 16, 1935, Pan Am conducted survey flights across the Pacific. Seventy-five years ago next Monday, on Nov. 22, 1935, Pan American's China Clipper made its inaugural flight from this lagoon.

This Saturday, Nov. 20, from 1 to 3 p.m., the Alameda Naval Air Museum, Building 77, 2151 Ferry Point at Alameda Point will commemorate the 75th anniversary of that first flight, too often described on posters, postage stamps and other memorabilia as a flight from San Francisco. However, history should acknowledge that Pan American Airway's starting point of its trans-Pacific route and its first flight were not in San Francisco, but in Alameda.

The Alameda Naval Air Museum offers excellent insight into the history of that period. The museum has early photos and other memorabilia commemorating the flight. In the museum's "Ready Room," there is a frequent screening of the 1936 movie China Clipper, with actor Pat O'Brien prefacing his radio messages with "Calling Alameda — China Clipper — calling Alameda." The museum is open most weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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