Flying the Atlantic

Trans-Atlantic flights are now a daily occurrence. Pan American Airways pioneered scheduled operations on this route and developed the basic flight. techniques now in general use. This, the first of three articles on PAA operations, describes the multiple flight crew and how it is trained.

Not so many months ago, the technique of transoceanic transport was still considered very much a specialty of interest only to a limited number of specialists. Today in America, outside the basic problems of mass aircraft production, no topic seems of wider aeronautical interest than this one of transoceanic flying. Every multi-engined airplane larger than an interceptor is potentially a transoceanic aircraft. In more than a half dozen bustling schools, military, naval and civilian airmen are laboring through intensive courses of instruction in transoceanic navigation and meteorology. Pilots, mechanics, engineers, technicians, are being enlisted by the hundreds in what was so recently an art with but a handful of practitioners. Forming the core of all their study are the techniques and practices developed in a decade of operating across the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Atlantic by the Pan American Airways System. The national importance of that experience was recognized recently when Pan American was enlisted by President Roosevelt in the task of forwarding aircraft across the South Atlantic and Africa to the Middle East. This general review of the application of the Pan American technique to the problems of the North Atlantic Clipper service is the first of several which Aviation will offer its readers on this subject.

On May 27, 1939, when the Yankee Clipper headed eastward on the inaugural flight of the Transatlantic Clipper service, Pan American technicians had a rather full and respectful knowledge of the physical difficulties they would encounter in their new operations.

For more than five years, Pan American meteorologists had been making special studies of Atlantic weather, had participated in field trips to Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. They had by 1939 been preparing daily transatlantic weather maps for more than two years. In 1937 five final survey flights gathered further weather data and information on landing conditions along the routes under consideration.

Using the most advanced long-range transport aircraft yet developed, it was still in 1939 impractical to negotiate the distances involved in an Atlantic crossing without one or more refueling stops. The geographical mileages between island stations available for such purposes are generally as formidable as the 2,402 miles between San Francisco and Honolulu, the longest sector of the transpacific airway. It is 2,020 miles from Bermuda to the Azores. It is 2,397 miles from New York to the Azores. It is 3,118 miles from Bermuda to Lisbon. As we shall see, it is the last of these distances which was frequently to control transatlantic operations after 1939.

Superimposed upon these substantial geographical requirements are many factors of weather and climate, more severe than any previously encountered in air transportation. Over any possible North Atlantic route strong westerly components feature the prevailing winds during all seasons of the year. One westward crossing was actually to be made in 1940 in the teeth of headwinds which averaged 41.9 miles per hour. While wind conditions are not always so difficult, the accomplishment of westward passages is always far more of a task than flights made eastward.

Added to this pattern of prevailing westerly winds are storm areas of high frequency and varying intensity. Weather in New England and the St Lawrence Valley is proverbially the most variable and storm-featured in North America. Characteristically, today's weather in these regions is tomorrow's weather over the western North Atlantic. Affecting this phenomena (unfavorably) are movements of air masses southeastward from the Greenland ice cap, and northerly from the hot, moist, southern regions of the Atlantic.

The transatlantic airway is higher in average latitude than the easternmost sector of the transpacific route. Climatologically it is far more northerly in character than would be indicated by the latitude differences. As a result almost every winter cloud formation penetrated in the course of Atlantic flying is, in all probability, the locus of icing conditions.

Fog conditions, resulting from the mixing of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream are frequent. During the months between Oct 1 and April 1, sea-swells in the harbor of Horta exceeded 3 feet on 35 days out of each hundred, and exceed two-and-one-half feet on 57 days out of each hundred. The climate of the eastern US seaboard is such that harbor ice can be expected in winter months at every available landing harbor as far south as South Carolina.

Such were the basic new air transport obstacles which Pan American faced when it began scheduled transatlantic operations in the spring of 1939. The outbreak of war in Europe in September of that year was to increase these difficulties many-fold.

Within all previous concepts of transoceanic flight technique, it was obviously desirable to recruit every possible source of meteorological information which might bear upon Atlantic weather. Before the start of its services, Pan American had spent a number of years in organizing just such a transatlantic weather service. In conjunction with the US Weather Bureau, it had arranged for complete daily reports from land stations covering the entire North American continent, and for corresponding reports from US vessels plying the Atlantic and the collection of data from European vessels in the western half of that ocean. Through working agreements with the air transport companies of Great Britain, France, and Germany, it had arranged to secure complete reports from those nations on the weather of the Eastern Atlantic and Western Europe. The outbreak of war drove all European shipping from the seas, or silenced their radios. It cut American-flag sailings down to the operations of a half-dozen vessels. It made absolutely impossible any question of securing information from the belligerent governments.

Pan American had likewise based its plans upon the expectation of extensive summer use of the northern transatlantic route via Newfoundland and Ireland;

upon the use of long-range direction finding radio stations located at key points on the airway and operated either by Pan American or cooperating European governments; upon the availability of alternate points of landing on the coast of Europe, in England, Ireland, Canada and Newfoundland. The outbreak of war and President Roosevelt's Neutrality Proclamation prevented the realization of such air transport advantages.

Finally, the outbreak of war and particularly the identification of US interests with those of Great Britain in that war completely changed the character of the transatlantic airway in its relation to the national welfare. In transport terms it changed the objective of this enterprise from that of rendering a gradually improving commercially-adequate service, to that of carrying, in the public interest, the largest quantities of mail cargo and the greatest number of passengers physically possible with the equipment available. Air mail loads presented for passage (and Pan American has never failed to accommodate all mails so presented) quickly grew to ten times the average size ever estimated as to-be-expected either by the airline or US governmental authorities. Individual mail loads actually upon occasion reached as high as 13,000 pounds. Despite the fact that passenger loads of thirty-three passengers have been carried on eastbound trips and thirty-five have been carried on westbound flights (both in addition to mail), demands for passenger accommodations for a long time remained so great that the compilation of each passenger list became a matter of so much of traffic bookings as of selecting those passengers whose crossing would be of the greatest national interest.

To offset this formidable array of difficulties, the chief asset available to the Pan American Airways System was an experience of almost ten years in transoceanic flying across the Caribbean and the Pacific. Out of this experience it evolved an extensive and highly developed doctrine of practices designed to bring to each of the many phases of transatlantic operations the concentrated lessons in operations in other ocean areas. The effectiveness of this Pan American technique in two and one half years of transatlantic operations can be set forth entirely within the statement hat during that period Pan American's Clippers had, by September 5, 1941, completed 433 scheduled flights without a "serious incident" of any kind and in absolute safety to passengers, personnel, and cargo.

The technique itself can be set forth in several different ways. For our purposes here, we shall treat it as divided into

  1. the use of a highly trained Multiple Flight Crew;
  2. a highly developed system for the Scientific Control of Flight; and
  3. the development of what is called the Quick Turn Around system of maintenance to achieve a maximum utility for a limited number of aircraft.
    The second and third of these items are to be treated in detail in subsequent issues of Aviation.

The Multiple Flight Crew was first conceived for the four-engined Sikorsky Flying Boats developed for the transcaribbean service. Operations over comparatively large distances in the tropics from early in Pan American history determined the use of code rather than voice radio. To handle the comparatively heavy work of such code equipment, the smallest Pan American crew is fixed at three members: a pilot, co-pilot, and a radio operator. With the coming of four-engined equipment, a flight engineer was added to this crew to watch over the precision controls and complex adjustments of the power plants.

As Pan American's flying stepped up to the scale of Pacific distances, the Company's operating technicians analyzed the sum total transoceanic flight assignments into six prime requisites:

  1. expert direction of the flight
  2. piloting
  3. navigation
  4. control and care of the power plants
  5. maintenance of communications
  6. passenger service.
Not only must each of these tasks be performed perfectly but the crew must be so constituted that adequate relief watches (approximately 50% of total flight time) can be enjoyed on long flights by each crew member. Added to this was the obvious desirability that there should be enough versatility in the training of these men so that the emergency incapacity of any one or several of them could not threaten the safety of the flight. Upon delivery of the Boeing-built Clippers and the inauguration of transatlantic service, the standard crew which mans a Clipper in Atlantic (or Pacific) service consists of eleven men each as fitted for his constituted duties as his painstaking selection and organized training can make him.

It is perhaps more proper to refer to the men who handle the transoceanic Clipper as a Captain and his crew of ten. The Captain of a Clipper is responsible at all times during a trip for the safety and well-being of the person: and goods carried, for the safety and conduct of his crew, for the safety of his aircraft, and for the completion of his mission in accordance with his orders. The Captain's normal station is the left-hand pilot seat, which he occupies during all takeoffs, approaches to airports, landings, during emergency conditions, and at times when he is serving his watch at the controls. While in flight, the Captain supervises the remaining crew members to determine that they are properly carrying out their duties and responsibilities. The Captain prescribes the speed, track, and altitude of the aircraft.

The First Officer is second in command after the Captain and alternates with the Captain as the senior officer on watch. The First Officer' s station is the right-hand pilot seat. In the absence or incapacity of the Captain, he automatically assumes complete command. The Captain delegates to him detailed responsibility for the management of the crew and for the handling and documentation of the aircraft at all ports. He is responsible for the proper loading and unloading of all cargo. Prior to departure, he makes a general inspection of the aircraft which includes a check of its air controls, a check of the ship's documents, an inspection for stowaways, and a final verbal or written report from each responsible Flight Officer.

The Second Officer is responsible for the safe and efficient navigation of the aircraft. He is responsible for the complete complement of navigation instruments and equipment aboard the aircraft. This involves ascertaining that complete equipment is on board prior to each flight, as well as care of the equipment during the trip. He records in the Aircraft Log the record of navigation procedures and operations statistics.

The Third Officer, who is a pilot in training, assists and/or relieves the other officers in the performance of their duties. Prior to departure, the Third Officer assists the First Officer in the preparation of the Weight and Balance Manifest. He personally supervises the actual loading of the aircraft in preparation for the First Officer's final inspection. Also prior to takeoff, he ascertains that all hatches and bulkhead doors are closed and so reports to the Captain. Immediately after takeoff, he conducts a visual examination of major external structural components and reports his findings to the Captain. Prior to landing, when required, he receives a report from the Steward that fly spray has been used in the cabin and prohibited vegetable matter jettisoned. He handles the bow mooring line when casting off and mooring. During flight, he serves primarily as relief for the Navigation Officer.

The Flight Engineer is responsible for the mechanical condition and mechanical operation of the aircraft. He is responsible for the loading of fuel and oil in amounts specified by the Captain. He personally measures the fuel and oil aboard before each departure. Prior to departure, he personally participates in the inspection and/or serving the aircraft to which he has been assigned. He familiarizes himself with the mechanical history of the aircraft since his last contact with it. During flight, he maintains the sections of the Log pertaining to the mechanical condition of the aircraft.

The Radio Officer is responsible for the efficient utilization of the radio equipment aboard the aircraft. He maintains the sections of the Log pertaining to the radio equipment.

The Flight Steward is responsible for the efficient handling of passengers, passengers' baggage, mail and express en route. He is responsible for all ship' s papers pertaining to mail, express, baggage, and the clearance both of the aircraft and the persons aboard. He is responsible for the proper care of passengers' baggage from the time he receives it at point of origin until he delivers it at point of destination. He arranges for the receipt and proper discharge of all express, and likewise for the receipt and discharge of all mail. He is responsible for the procurement, storage and service of all foodstuff used aboard the airplane. He is personally responsible for the cleanliness and attractive appearance of all passenger quarters aboard the aircraft, including the galley and toilets, and for the equipment and supplies necessary for passenger service. He contributes to the comfort and pleasure of the passengers, including the direction of organized recreation. He advises passengers with respect to hotel accommodations, taxi service, time of next departure, and other details essential to their convenience.

It will be seen that each of these officers is necessarily a specialist in discharging one of the primary requisites mentioned above — piloting, navigation, engineering, communications and passenger service. To each of these officers is assigned a capable assistant who relieves him at stated intervals. Thus, the typical Clipper crew is rounded out by a Third Officer who is a junior pilot in training and who serves primarily as relief for the Second Officer at the navigating table. The Fourth Officer is also a junior who assists the pilot officers in both flight and ground duties. An assistant flight engineer, an assistant radio officer, and then an assistant flight steward, whose duties are obvious from their titles, fills out the complement.

To train these men, each for his particular duty, Pan American long ago developed a program of step-by-step assignments to duties of increasing complexity and has required the organized pursuit of correspondence courses and classroom work in many subjects. The Captain, for example, is invariably a veteran of many years' experience on Pan American's overland as well as overseas routes. In addition, he has qualified himself through research and study for the Pan American rank of Master of Ocean Flying Boats. This means that he has not only successfully demonstrated sound judgment throughout his flying career and is an expert in all phases of piloting but that he has also mastered the principal elements of aeronautical engineering, engine and airplane mechanics, navigation, meteorology, and radio. He must hold the equivalent of a Master Mariner's ticket. He has further qualified himself in those phases of international law, marine law, and business administration required in the performance of his duties.

In each Clipper crew, the Captain, the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Officers must all be qualified pilots, trained navigators, and expert enough in radio and engines to take over those assignments, if necessary.

Each of Pan American's transoceanic divisions operates well-equipped training centers in navigation, meteorology, and instrument flying where new airmen are indoctrinated and all flight officers are required to report for periodical reviews of new material and checkouts of ability.

Several of these schools are playing a direct part in the defense program. At the Miami base alone, a school operated by Pan American for the US Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force, has been engaged for more than a year in teaching transoceanic and long range navigation and meteorology to cadets in those services. Present enrollment in the twelve-weeks course is approximately 300, equally divided between British and American cadets, and the overall program calls for the training of at least 500 British and 2,000 Americans by the summer of 1942. Pan American training facilities have been used to indoctrinate military and naval mechanics and technicians in the maintenance of large aircraft and in the duties of flight engineers. In several instances, British crews assigned to take over American equipment have been put through special courses of instruction in these Pan American training centers.

From the outset, the Atlantic Division was very materially strengthened through its ability to recruit its crews in a large measure from Pan American's Pacific and Eastern (Caribbean) Divisions.

Atlantic is different

A point which must be made, however, the fundamental difference required by the character of Atlantic operations in the service-training of Atlantic crews. Crews in the Pacific, for example, settle down to the process of learning the detailed crossing techniques and the landing problems of a single airway laid out across a finite number of bases each completely equipped with every piece of radio or other equipment which Pan American can devise to help in their operations. Atlantic weather and climate, changing requirements of war time regulations, Pan American efforts to discharge its task of carrying the maximum cargo and passengers between the two continents, has caused a shifting of routes far beyond anything called for by any previous type of air transport flying. For example, a Captain who has been in Atlantic service since the start of that airline, has possibly been called upon to make crossings: New York-Horta-Lisbon-Marseilles; New York-Newfoundland-Ireland-Southhampton; New York-Bermuda-Horta-Lisbon; New York-Bermuda-Lisbon; Lisbon-Bolama-Belem-Trinidad-Puerto Rico-New York. On westward journeys he perhaps has had to seek an ice-free US terminus as far south as Miami.

It is reported from the LaGuardia field base that transatlantic flight personnel sometimes refer to the shifting nature of their route assignments as "transatlantic barnstorming." It was pointed out recently by a Pan American official, however, that the experience has resulted in a flexibility of technique and a versatility of training which may well prove of very distinct advantage as future events perhaps result in further modifications of the transatlantic service.

This article was originally published in the October, 1941, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 40, no 10, pp 48-49, 184, 186.
The original article includes 5 photos.
All photos by Pan American Airways.