First official airmail flight to San Francisco

2 January 1938

The first official New Zealand airmail to the United States left Auckland for San Francisco on Pan American Airways’ Samoan Clipper. The Sikorsky S-42B flying boat was piloted by Captain Ed Musick.

Musick, Pan Am’s top pilot, had flown the first survey flight from San Francisco to Auckland in March 1937. Thousands of intrigued spectators had watched the aircraft arrive at Mechanics Bay, heralding what they hoped would be a regular air service between New Zealand and North America. 

The flight was postponed on 30 December because of bad weather. It took off on 2 January carrying 25,000 items posted by New Zealanders. After crossing the International Date Line, Musick arrived in Pago Pago, American Samoa, on 1 January. He then landed at Kingman Reef, an uninhabited atoll 1700 km south of Honolulu, Hawaii, and was met by a schooner with supplies. On 3 January the Samoan Clipper arrived in Honolulu, where the mail was transferred to a Martin 130 flying boat on the regular Manila–San Francisco route. This arrived in San Francisco on 6 January.

Disaster struck on the return trip. Shortly after taking off from Pago Pago on 11 January, Musick reported an oil leak in one of his engines. In an attempt to ensure a safe landing, he tried to lighten the plane by dumping fuel. Tragically for Musick and his crew, fuel vapours collected in the wing structure, causing a fire and explosion. There were no survivors.

At the time of his death, aged 43, Musick was the world’s most famous pilot. He had appeared on the cover of Time magazine and achieved a number of early commercial aviation firsts. As a result of the accident a regular service between Auckland and San Francisco did not go ahead until 1940.

In 1939 a long-range radio station began operating on Te Waiarohia, the headland on the eastern side of the Tamaki River, which was renamed Musick Point in the pilot’s honour.

Image: Sikorsky S-42B flying boat