November 16, 2012
Needless End For Trail-blazing Pacific Aviator
WHEN America's Pan American Airways decided in 1937 that the time was right to look to opening-up a commercial flying route from San Francisco across the South Pacific to Sydney in far-off Australia. it's founder Juan Trippe knew he had just the man to pioneer the route for them.
That was his Chief Pilot, Captain Edwin Musick who had already done such a job to Hong Kong two years earlier, embracing a circuitous route via Honolulu, Midway and Wake Islands, and Guam.
But the South Pacific decision was to prove a fatal one for the popular Captain Musick, who was somewhat of a living contradiction. On the one hand his extraordinary feats had made him arguably the world's best-known commercial pilot at the time, while on the other he was inordinately shy, cringing at publicity and facing crowds of admirers.
In those days with no airstrips on which to land on islands in the Pacific for refuelling and rest-breaks, Juan Trippe planned to use S-42 Sikorsky flying boats, that he dubbed "Clippers" after the clipper-ships that once sailed the routes he would follow, "landing" them at remote outposts.
But even in 1937 Britain eyed the South Pacific's sunny islands for its own Imperial Airways – and so banned Pan American from using Fiji (then a British colony) as a vital re-fuelling point.
Undeterred, Juan Trippe decided to test-out a route that would involve stops in Honolulu, a remote atoll called Kingman Reef 1700km south of Hawaii, Pago Pago in American Samoa, and ultimately Auckland rather than Sydney.
He outlined his plans to his Chief Pilot, who despite his quiet personae had actually begun his aviation career as an aerial barnstormer at American county fairs, billing himself Monsieur Musick, The French Daredevil.
Edwin Musick set to planning the South Pacific route in meticulous detail, just as he had the Hong Kong route in 1935 – and which had won him the prestigious Harmon Trophy for the aviation feat of the year, and put him on the cover of Time magazine.
On their first survey flight Captain Musick and his crew had no problem with Honolulu, while at Kingman reef – a mere pin-point on the map but large enough for drums of fuel to be stored there – a special radio ship had been anchored off-shore to relay directions to the Pan Am flying boat.
The mountains surrounding Pago Pago harbour, however, proved more challenging, rising between 490m and 650m, and causing Musick to comment later that landing there "had been like landing in a darned teacup" – harsh words indeed for the normally reticent Chief Pilot.
Hundreds upon hundred of canoes surrounded the flying boat when it came to a halt… and large as that crowd was, it was nothing to what greeted the flying boat on its arrival in Auckland in December 1937: 40,000 people lined the harbour to watch the historic event.
Captain Musick made another survey flight, and it was decided that just one more should be undertaken in January 1938 before beginning commercial operations.
It was a catastrophic decision: American authorities had just discovered that should S-42 flying boats need to dump fuel in emergencies, some of that fuel could be swept back into cavities in the wings, making them akin to flying bombs.
So a ban was put on the dumping of fuel by passenger-carrying S-42s until a solution to the problem was found… but because Captain Musick's survey flights carried no passengers, no one thought to tell him of the ban.
On January 11 1938 just after taking off from Pago Pago, Captain Musick's S-42 (named Samoan Clipper) developed an oil leak, so he decided to return to Pago Pago – dumping fuel along the way.
He had radioed his decision to authorities in Pago Pago, and when he neither arrived nor responded to radio messages, a sea search was organised: a US Navy ship later that day found the charred remains of the Pan American Clipper floating in a vast slick of oil.
Several items of clothing and personal possessions were also found, but no trace ever of Captain Musick and his six crew.
It would be 10 years before Pan American would finally fly commercially to Auckland, and ten more again to Sydney; the airline collapsed in bankruptcy in 1991.
 PIONEERING Pan Am S-42 flying boat in Honolulu's Pearl Harbour.
 AVIATOR extraordinaire, Captain Edwin Musick.
 PAGO PAGO Harbour: Captain Musick described it as "like landing in a darn teacup."
 MUSICK Point, Auckland was named after the pioneering aviator.
(Photos: US Aviation Museum Archives and Tourism Auckland)