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The Incredible Story of Pan American Airways

Across the Pacific

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The Story

Across the Pacific is a three-hour documentary series about one of the great milestones in aviation history: the 1935 crossing of the Pacific Ocean by a Pan American Airways flying boat known as the China Clipper.

The  China Clipper’s  take-off from San Francisco Bay in November 1935 was one of the most-anticipated, most-listened-to events in history to that point. Broadcast live over nine radio networks reaching millions of listeners on four continents, it was a forerunner of the rocket launches from Cape Canaveral a quarter century later. People everywhere sensed this was a pivotal moment in human history, for if the Pacific could be crossed, there would be no place on earth that could not be reached by airplane. The world would suddenly be smaller.

But as with the space program, the real drama in this story is not in the flight itself; it’s in the effort it took to reach this point. The Clipper’s  maiden voyage was the culmination of eight years of explosive innovation and growth, involving hundreds of men and women, both famous and unknown. Like the NASA engineers and astronauts who would later put a man on the moon in less than a decade, these earlier aviation pioneers built new aircraft, invented new technologies and overcame innumerable obstacles. They had begun in 1927 with a single, 90-mile airmail route. Now they stood at the water’s edge, poised to vault the 8,700 miles of the mighty Pacific.

The Characters

1938_Bachrach photo for JTT portrait cop

Pan Am’s young chief executive, Juan Trippe, whose vision, business acumen and political instincts allowed him to build the world’s largest airline by age 35. Starting in 1927 with a single airmail route from Key West to Havana, by 1935 he had grown Pan American Airways into a global powerhouse spanning oceans and continents.

Charles Lindbergh profile with helmet, u

Charles Lindbergh, an unknown airmail pilot whose 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic

Ocean electrified the world and, overnight, made him the world’s most famous aviator.  Hired by Juan Trippe as a technical advisor to the fledgling Pan Am, his celebrity brought instant credibility to the airline as it struggled to overcome aeronautical and political challenges to its growth.

Igor Sikorsky.jpg

Igor Sikorsky, the Russian émigré who designed many of the flying boats that underpinned Pan

Am’s meteoric rise in the 1920s and ’30s. These classic aquatic aircraft played a critical role

in the early days of commercial flight, allowing air service to international destinations years before terrestrial aiports became commonplace.


And an unsung radio engineer named Hugo Leuteritz, who invented the navigation systems that guided Pan Am’s planes safely to their destinations across thousands of miles of trackless ocean. Leuteritz, before almost anyone else, realized the secret lay in radio – a technology that would prove to be the foundation of aerial navigation from the 1920s until today..

How did they do it – and how did it change the world? That is the story of this series: Across the Pacific is built around four fascinating characters:

Special Thanks


American Public Television

Pan Am Historical Foundation

Virginia Public Media



National Endowment for the Humanities

Margaret C. Zockoll

Jim Zockoll and family

The Ambrose Monell Foundation

The Freeman Foundation

Wyncote Foundation

Thomas W. Haas Foundation

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