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Pan American Airlines

1939 – 1945

San Francisco’s First International Airport

Excitement about Pacific progress, improved technology, and some help from the Navy prompted Pan American Airways to begin flying its revolutionary new Pacific route from coastal California to Hong Kong. They initially chose Alameda as the West Coast base for their Clipper flying boats, then moved to Treasure Island in 1938 for the GGIE, making it San Francisco’s first international airport – the only time the island achieved its planned purpose.

Pan Am’s Clippers took off and landed on water in Clipper Cove, the narrow inlet from the Bay between TI and YBI, from 1938 until approximately 1945. During the fair, passengers and crew walked from Building 2 to the floating dock to board the aircraft.

Pan Am's Clippers were not only the first commercial aircraft able to fly long distances across the Pacific, but also were quite luxurious. The first Pan Am airplanes included the China Clipper, Philippine Clipper, and Hawaii Clipper, named after Pan Am destinations. The trip to Manila took 5 days and was very expensive (about $2000 for a one-way ticket—in 1935). The Clippers carried 74 passengers at most, but they could have their own private bedroom. The planes island-hopped, landing overnight to refuel and check the engines while the passengers slept in hotels.

California Clipper flying over Treasure Island in 1939 (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Pan Am Clipper plane landing in Clipper Cove on Treasure Island (Treasure Island Museum Collection)


The Clippers at War

As World War II was brewing, the U.S. Navy assisted Pan Am in building facilities on Oahu, Midway, and Wake Island. The bases were first used by commercial Pan Am flights, but were turned over to the military once war was declared, and Pan Am equipment and staff served the government. By the end of WWII, the flying boats were obsolete.

J.P Wittlig, route map, 1937. Pan American Airways. Route across Pacific, with time-zone changes. (SFO Museum)

"Coronado" transport aircraft operated by Pan Am loads cargo at the Pan American Airway dock in Clipper Cove in 1943. Note the Marine Corps poster on the railway express agency truck at left. (National Archives)

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