Sock’s Clippers and their 24-hour run
This majestic beast is a Consolidated P2Y-1, coded “10-P-1” denoting it as the command plane of LCDR Knefler “Sock” McGinnis, of patrol squadron VP-10F, as it peaks over the Hawaiian coastline, en route to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, near the end of the nonstop formation flight from San Francisco, USA, 10-11 January 1934. But more on that later.
The U.S. Navy fell in love with seaplanes back in the days of Glenn Curtiss and, by the end of WWI, had numerous models in regular service around the country, chief among them being the Curtiss H.16 and Felixstowe F5L. By the 1920s, the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia were making what they termed the PN flying boat, variants of the F5L with a massive 72-foot wingspan and a pair of Cyclone 9-cylinder single-row radial engines.
In 1925, in a show of force of the Navy’s ability to respond quickly to attacks on far-flung Pacific bases at a time when Japan was starting to flex serious muscle, two PN-9’s tried to fly from San Francisco to Honolulu– 2,400 miles.
I mean that is a big distance. Especially just 20 years after the Wright brothers first flew.
To put it into perspective, it is only 1,000 miles by air from Berlin to Moscow and 1,100 from New York to Miami. Even going cross-country, from Charleston, South Carolina to Los Angeles is 2,200. The 2,300 miles from Pearl Harbor to San Fransisco is serious.
The thing is, the trip didn’t work out that well and, though heroic, did not prove the point. One aircraft was forced to land 300 miles outside of San Francisco and had to be towed back while the second flew 1,341 miles and ran out of fuel and, after fashioning sails (not making this up) blew into the Hawaiian Islands nine days later on the incoming tide.
The crew of 4 rigged a sail of wing fabric and attempted to sail to Hawaii. They were found by the submarine R-4 when less than 20 miles from shore. Still, the 1,341 miles flown by the PN-9 was a new distance record for seaplanes.
Then came civilian attempts.
The ill-fated Dole Air Race (aka the Dole Derby) from California to Hawaii in 1927, started off with 18 “civilian” crews trying for the prize and only two made it. The lucky ones that didn’t crack up near the California coast. The unlucky ones, including early aviatrix Mildred Doran, were never seen again.
The winner of the $25K Dole prize? Two Army Air Corps pilots (!) who made it to Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu in 25 hours and 50 minutes in the “Bird of Paradise,” a converted Fokker C-2 tri-motor. The gauntlet had been thrown down.
A couple of years after the PN-9 debacle and while the Dole racers were risking their lives, Consolidated Aircraft built the huge Commodore, a flying boat designed for long-range clipper service for Pan Am and others. With a 100-foot wingspan, the aluminum-hulled parasol wing monoplane could carry as many as 32 passengers on short hops and half as many on 1,000-nm+ legs.
One thing led to another and by 1931, the Navy ordered 23 of the big Commodore variants of their own, powered by two Wright R-1820-E1 engines, dubbed P2Y-1’s. The first 10 of these boats, capable of carrying three machine guns for self-defense and up to 2,000-lbs of bombs, were delivered to Patrol Squadron 10, float (VP-10F) at Norfolk in 1933 and soon embarked on a series of epic long-distance flights.
The most important of these was when six Consolidated P2Y-1s set a record for flying in formation from San Francisco to Honolulu– in 24 hours and 35 minutes, erasing the sting of the PN-9 affair of the 1920s and the Army-flown tri-motor of the Dole race.
Newsreel footage of VP-10’s P2Y-1 boats attempting the SF to Pearl run in January 1934:
They made it without sails, as a unit, flying all night. In doing so, they established three world records. The flight bettered the best previous time for the crossing; exceeded the best distance of previous mass flights; and broke a nine-day-old world record for distance in a straight line for Class C seaplanes with a new mark of 2,399 miles (3,861 km).
The 30 crew members of the assembled aircraft were celebrated on arrival.
The reign of the P2Y was to be short-lived, with the Hawaii record the highlight of their service. In 1935, the first Consolidated PBY Catalina flew and the next year set a distance record of 2,992 miles with ease.
In all, only about 75 P2Ys were built in all variants and were replaced by 1941 with the famous and imminently capable PBY-1 Catalina, which it inspired.
The P2Y’s giant formation seaplane jaunt, however, was commemorated in “Record-Breaking Flight, 1934” a 1999 oil painting by artist Morgan Ian Wilbur, which portrays the boats in all their full-color peacetime livery.