The Boy Who Thought He Saved Clipper America
By Allan E. Morton
When I was ten years old our family moved from the Tongan Islands to Idaho. For the previous six years my father, Ermel J. Morton, had been the principal of the Liahona High School on the island of Tongatapu. We had sailed from Nuku’alofa aboard the S.S. Tofua on Monday, January 28, 1957, and after stopping at Niue and Samoa had reached Suva, Fiji, on February 5th. After visiting there for a few days we took a taxi across to the other side of the island to reach the international airport at Nadi. We arrived there on the 7th after dark. From there we were to fly on Pan American World Airways to Hawaii and then on to San Francisco. My younger sister Marsha still has her ticket stub from this flight. It says we were scheduled to leave at 23:30 hours local time on Flight 842. Her ticket cost $211.50 and she was allowed 44 pounds of luggage.
Our connecting flight (probably from New Zealand or Australia) was late and it wasn’t until 2:00 o’clock in the morning of February 8th that our plane came in. We children (which includes my sisters, Lorraine and Marsha, along with my brother, Richard, and me, Allan) were too sleepy to remember much about boarding and the first part of the flight. When we awoke for the landing at Canton Island the next morning, we were told it was now February the 7th again because we had “lost a day” by crossing the International Date Line during the night. We had stopped there for refueling. This island had been a seaplane base for Pan American before the war and the landing strip had been constructed during late 1941 by U.S. forces in anticipation of a possible war with Japan. To me this was the most amazing place: a coral island shaped something like a white string of pearls in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean just barely south of the equator. Surely this was the closest thing to being in the middle of nowhere while still being somewhere on planet Earth. Equally amazing after we landed was our first daylight view of the huge plane we had arrived on. It was a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser named Clipper America (N90941) and it was painted in my favorite color combination of blue and white, no less.
After climbing down the stairs from the plane we walked a short distance across the tarmac to a building where the passengers were to wait while the plane was serviced. Nearby was a pole with many signs pointing in all directions and showing distances in miles to the great cities of the world. It seemed strange to be so far away from them or from any continental landmass. None was closer than thousands of miles away. Our father had to take a picture of my two sisters and me standing by this pole to show the folks back home.
Soon it was time to get back on the plane. There did not seem to be any hurry. As we climbed aboard I paused on the steps so my father could take a picture of me and that part of the airplane. Sometime while we were on the ground the flight crew had invited my father and me to inspect the flight deck. The multitude of instrument gauges had really impressed me. How could the pilot possibly know how to read them all? I guessed that was why they had a flight engineer and he must have been really important because they even had a desk for him. There were plenty of windows for the pilot and co-pilot to look out of and if I remember correctly one of them was open. Surely they would close it before we left or else there would be a hurricane-like wind in their faces.
As we reached our seats I asked my father if I could have the window seat. He did not seem to mind so he took the one next to the aisle. From the time I sat down my eyes were glued to the window. I was fascinated by everything about flying and was pleased that my seat was on the right side next to the number three engine. Soon the friendly stewardesses had us all situated and the door was closed. It was not long before the big propellers started turning when the engines were fired up in preparation for takeoff. As we taxied to the end of the runway it gave me a chance to look around the island. Then, while briefly parking at the end of the runway, the pilots checked the engines one last time. Finally the brakes were released and with the engines at full throttle and making a loud roar, we accelerated down the runway and were soon in the air. As we climbed above the island I could see the road around the island ring and various bushes but there did not seem to be any trees. The beach was a brilliant white, while the lagoon was more of a turquoise blue. Offshore the deep ocean was a darker blue. Soon the big plane turned to its heading for Hawaii as we began to climb towards the northeast. It was a beautiful day for flying. As we climbed up to our cruising altitude we flew through a forest of cumulus towers in a rich blue sky. I had never seen such impressive clouds before and our motion through them gave me a strong sense of three dimensions. When we reached our cruising altitude (which I think the pilot said was 17,000 feet) we were probably just crossing the equator and I was enjoying the ride of a lifetime. I was also rapidly falling in love with Pan American World Airways as it was taking me to places of overpowering beauty and providing an adventure that I could scarcely imagine. Surely this was now my favorite airline. (My previous favorite airline had been the British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines. One of their DC6’s had taken us to the South Pacific in February, 1951.)
As the plane droned on towards Honolulu, for some reason I could not take my eyes off the view out the window. For me there was just too much to see and the idea that I was perched high above the Pacific Ocean with only about 10 inches of airplane between me and the water far below was most intriguing. I think my father was a little surprised that I was so interested in all that was happening and that I had not said much to him. My mother, Lena who was about seven months pregnant with another sister, Annette, was sitting nearby with Lorraine and Marsha and my younger brother, Richard.
After a while I began to notice that the number three engine seemed to be turning from a silver color to black. At first this didn’t seem to bother me too much, but as it got darker and darker I begin to wonder why this was happening. My young mind could not seem to come up with an explanation and it was probably some time before I began to wonder if maybe something was wrong. But how could this be? The propeller was turning so smoothly and the engine sounded just the same as it always had. Surely if there was something wrong the flight crew would know about it as they had so many gauges to keep track of these things. Yet I seemed to be the only one on the plane who knew something unusual was happening. Finally I asked my father if he knew why the engine was turning black. He immediately looked outside the window and said something to the effect of: “This is not good. The engine must be losing oil.” He then pushed the button to call for a stewardess and one soon came in answer to his call. He had her look outside and when she saw the oil-covered engine, she quickly left to visit the pilots on the flight deck.
Moments later the engine started to slow down and the captain came on the intercom and said that due to mechanical problems they were going to have to shut down one of the engines and feather the propeller. He further said that they were going to have to dump most of our fuel and return to Canton Island for repairs. By now I was beginning to get scared because I did not know if such a large plane could fly on three engines or not. I had recently read an account of the ditching of the Clipper Sovereign of the Skies in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California in the October 29, 1956, issue of Life magazine. I was surprised that my father seemed to have no fear so I asked him what he thought was going to happen. He was convinced that everything would be all right and he could not believe we would have to land in the ocean. Was this due to his confidence in Pan American World Airways (the “World’s Most Experienced Airline” according to one of their advertisements) or was there some other reason? Near his feet was his briefcase containing the manuscripts of two books that he had translated from English into the Tongan language. “How could the work of six years be lost in a few minutes by ditching into the ocean?” he asked. I was surprised by his answer as I saw no connection then between his work of translation and whether the airplane could fly or not. Years later, though, I came to realize that my father had escaped many difficult situations by what seemed to be only a song and a prayer. He had great faith in good things happening and they usually did. Now I prize this example of a very positive can-do attitude to get through difficult situations myself.
We knew we were headed back to Canton Island as the plane made a large turn to the southwest. Soon we landed on the island and were taken off the airplane along with our luggage. The Pan Am people were very kind to us and tried to make us as comfortable as possible while explaining that we would probably be on Canton Island for awhile. Soon a large crane was driven up in front of engine number three and mechanics removed the cowling to inspect the engine. Meanwhile I was wondering if anyone was going to thank me for alerting them to what must be a very serious problem, or else why was the engine being removed if nothing had gone wrong? Nobody seemed to even know that I had anything to do with our safe return. It seemed foolish to think a kid could save an airliner, and even if I had they probably would not want to admit to it as they should have been looking after things better. But what would have happened if I had not been vigilant in looking out the window? My father had not been looking out the window that much. (Later I found out while inspecting a C97 in Tucson, Arizona, that the flight crew could not have seen the number three engine from the flight deck either. The C97 I inspected was a military tanker version of the Stratocruiser.) So when would they have first noticed the problem without my help? Why had the flight engineer not spotted this problem with his gauges? Had he been dozing off because of a lack of sleep from the previous night? Did they not have red warning lights? (The C97 I inspected did not seem to have any). What would have happened to the engine if all the oil had leaked out of it before they noticed the problem? Would the engine have frozen up? Would the propeller have spun off? And if so, would it have crashed into the airplane where I was sitting? (My father’s photos later showed that our window was lined up nearly directly opposite the propeller.) There were so many questions in my young mind and so few answers.
To keep the passengers happy the Pan Am people invited us to go swimming in the lagoon during the afternoon. My sister Lorraine and I gladly accepted the invitation. For supper the stewardesses helped cook some thick steaks and provided a fine meal that my family enjoyed. My sister Marsha was more impressed by the cinnamon toast they provided, however, as she had never tasted it before. To keep us kids from getting too bored they gave us a pile of comic books to read. About dark they took us to the outdoor theater where we saw a Red Skelton movie under a starry sky. I think we sat on coconut logs, although there weren’t many coconut trees on the island so it makes me wonder were they got the logs. That night my father and I slept on cots next to each other in some old barracks that had been used by U.S. forces during the war. All the men and boys slept in one open area and the women and girls in another.
At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of the second day the new engine had been installed and we boarded the Clipper America again for our flight to Honolulu. This flight was uneventful. As we approached Honolulu after dark and my younger brother Richard could see the lights below he asked my father if this was where he was going to buy him a toy truck. When we landed it was raining lightly and the soft breeze felt good when we got off the airplane. My parents’ friends Patrick and Lela Dalton met us at the airport and we stayed with them for a few days while we vacationed on Oahu.
On the evening of February 12, we left Honolulu on the Clipper Intrepid. It was one of those new fast DC7’s that took us overnight to San Francisco. Again I sat by the window; and I remember thinking the next morning as the coastline of California came into view “So this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. If I am going to live in America now I need to learn to become brave like my father.” I was not sure I had ever been brave before.
Although these events happened over 49 years ago, they remain vivid in my mind. Recently I have taken the time to read through some of my father’s journals and papers and was surprised to note that although the story of this incident is recorded, nothing is said about the stewardess coming to look at the engine and then conveying this information to the pilot. He just wrote: “Allan called out to me: ‘Daddy, look!’ I looked out the window where he was pointing near his seat and saw that oil was coming out of the engine next to the plane and was covering everything with black oil. In about a minute’s time, the pilot announced over the intercom that one of the engines was failing and that he would have to (return to Canton Island).” My memory of his calling for the stewardess seems just as vivid as any part of this experience and at that time in my young mind it seemed like I had saved the plane. Yet nobody, not even my father, seemed to realize this. But had I really? Had the flight crew been watching this problem for some time and it just turned out they announced it to the passengers after the flight attendant made it known to them that some of the passengers were following the problem also? But why would they wait until then to shut down the engine and turn back? Perhaps they had a gauge that showed the total amount of oil remaining and it was well within their limits to operate the engine. I guess I will never know. It would be interesting to see the flight log and determine how long after takeoff the problem had occurred. But this record probably does not exist anymore. So how could I ever know the names of the crew and are any of them still alive? If some of them are still alive, perhaps they might have some answers, especially the captain or one of the stewardesses. I have probably waited too long to find out now, as too many years have passed. By searching on the Internet, however, I have been able to find out a few more things about this Clipper America (There were at least five Pan Am Stratocruisers with this name over the years). It probably weighed about 65 tons and was made by Boeing Aircraft Co. in 1949 for the American Overseas Airlines. While they flew it, the plane was called Flagship Great Britain, but later when it was sold to Pan American they renamed it Clipper America, and then later changed its name to Clipper Australia. It was lost in an airport accident in Tokyo on July 9, 1959, when it had to make a belly landing due to landing gear problems. There were no fatalities.
If the flight had not been late leaving Nadi, we might have refueled and taken off in the dark and I could not have seen the leaking oil. Third was that fact that my father realized what the problem was. This was something most boys would expect their fathers to know but in looking back on this event I realize it was very unusual for my Dad to have known this so quickly because he was not very mechanically minded. (My father spent most of his life as a college professor and a newspaper reporter. In 1962 he obtained a PhD from Indiana University in Linguistics.) It was just a few years ago while studying his writings and journals that I realized why my father knew what was happening. During the early part of 1942, just after the United States had entered World War II and when he must have been concerned about his future prospects, he and his stepbrother Bent Johnson had taken an airplane mechanics course at a local vocational school. As part of the course work they had overhauled a small airplane engine and afterwards the instructor took them for their first airplane ride. His certificate for the course stated that he had completed 224 clock hours of training and instruction. No doubt he had then learned the importance of oil for a piston engine. I had known about his taking this class and had always thought it was a waste of his time as he never did anything with this experience. On this day in 1957, however, knowledge of aircraft engines became very important to him and the rest of us on the Clipper America. If he had not taken that class, I am quite sure his response would have been very different when I pointed out the oil leak. I think he would have said something like this: “Don’t worry about it. The pilots have gauges that tell them if there is a problem. It is their responsibility and they are trained to take care of it.” And fourth, the Pan Am stewardess who believed my father and thought it was important to convey this information to the captain. Any break in this sequence could have left us to the unknown result of waiting until later to see what would have happened. And who will ever know what this result would have been for sure?
For me, my gratitude for the good things that came to us that day continues. I have long since stopped wondering if anyone will ever thank me for discovering the oil leaking out of the number three engine of Clipper America that day long ago. I have also come to realize that being safe on the ground with my family at Canton Island was far more important to me than being thanked for helping to save a million-dollar airplane.