At the dawn of commercial aviation, Pan Am was a leader in the development of International Flight Routes. Some of their first planes were Sikorsky S-42B’s or what was commonly known as the Flying Boats.
Edwin Musick had been with Pan American from the very beginning when, as “pilot number 1” he flew the fledgling airline’s first scheduled airmail flight from Key West to Havana on 28 October 1927 on a Fairchild FC-2 floatplane.
He would go on to lead nearly all of Pan Am’s expanding routes to the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific. At one time, Musick held more records and honors than any other active pilot including the 1935 Harmon Trophy which recognized him as “the world’s outstanding aviator.” He was known as a pilot’s pilot.
On the morning of January 11, 1938, the Samoan Clipper shoved off from the Pan Am dock at Pago Pago, where at 05:32 (local time) Musick throttled up and lifted off for the final leg of his last survey journey to New Zealand.
Things went wrong pretty quickly as they had an oil leak in engine #1 and the crew, led by Captain Musick, decided to turn back to Pago Pago. Since they were filled with fuel, they knew that before landing they would need to do a fuel dump.
At 07:59 the plane was sighted over Apia (in what was then the New Zealand-administered trust territory of Western Samoa) and headed in the direction of Tutuila (the main island of American Samoa) 75 miles away.
Another radio contact was received starting at 08:27 informing the PAA station that Musick would be dumping fuel to lighten his now underpowered and still heavily laden ship before attempting to land in the severely restricted waters of Pago Pago harbor just a short distance ahead.
After 08:35 all contact was lost with Samoan Clipper and her crew.
Within hours, reports reached Pago Pago that “native fishermen” had spotted smoke off the NW coast of the island. A US Navy plane was dispatched to search the area and quickly sighted an oil slick that “appeared to be coming from the ocean floor.” The minesweeper/seaplane tender USS Avocet (AVP-4) sailed from Pago Pago and was vectored to the scene some “12 miles north of Tapu Tapu Point” (the western-most tip of Tutuila Island).
Shortly after first light on 12 January, Avocet’s crew spotted the tell-tale sheen of fuel mixed with assorted debris floating on the surface. A ship’s boat was launched to collect what they could. Recovered items comprised mainly small, charred pieces of “flooring, partitioning, books, papers, interior wall parts, and the navigator’s drift target tray.” Most telling and heartbreaking of all was a tattered Pan American Airways officer’s jacket with its distinctive winged “PAA” logo identified as belonging to Samoan Clipper’s radio officer, T.J. Findley.
The position of these finds was recorded and preserved in a Bureau of Air Commerce accident report (dated 1 April 1938) that concluded the loss of the Samoan Clipper was probably due to “fire and explosion associated with the dumping of fuel, the precise cause of ignition being undeterminable.” Speculation focused on a static charge, engine exhaust or a spark from the electrically driven flap actuators as they were engaged before landing, but without any opportunity to closely examine the main body of wreckage, the exact reason for the destruction of NC16734 was reluctantly left a mystery.
A renewed search for Samoan Clipper began in early 2014 with a white paper co-authored by Russ Matthews (President and Co-founder of Air/Sea Heritage Foundation), noted maritime archaeologist Dr. James Delgado, and aviation historian Lonnie Schorer (A New Hampshire resident, who lives just down the road from us.) The Air/Sea Heritage Foundation, began this expedition to locate, identify, and document the wreckage of Samoan Clipper, a Pan American Airways Sikorsky S-42B flying boat lost off the northwest coast of Tutuila, American Samoa in January 1938. If successful, the resulting survey will characterize an archaeological site with major significance to aviation and American Samoan history, determine the final resting place of pioneering Captain Edwin C. Musick and his 6-man crew, plus investigate the wreckage for evidence as to what lead to their fate.
They have not had a lot of luck. I think part of me believes that the plane, and the remnants of the crash, are probably sitting well below the seafloor, some 10,000 leagues or so under the sea.
I would like for the Samoan Clipper to be found. Like the Titanic, so much could be learned from that day, so long ago.
I want to note that I have gotten information for this Blog entry from the “Pan Am Heritage Foundation” as well as “The Air/Sea Foundation”.
As always I am interested in this due to Jack’s history as a Flight Engineer, First Officer and then Captain for Pan American World Airways.