Dec 1937: Surprise visit by Samoan Clipper

map of Hauraki Gulf
Captain Musick’s Samoan Clipper sought shelter at Islington Bay, just 7km from the peninsula that would be named in his honour.

By Neil Sanderson
9 Sept 2019

Isobel awoke to the noise, a mechanical roar that came from the distance but was loud enough to shatter the stillness of the late December morning at her family’s bach on Motuihe Island.

Isobel’s older brother, Ralph, had awakened too.

“It was a terrific noise,” Isobel recalls. “It was frightening, and we couldn’t make out what it was.”

As they ran outdoors, Ralph grabbed his camera and 14-year-old Isobel picked up hers, a Box Brownie.

“I think it was probably a new toy at Christmas, and I didn’t go very far without it.”

They set off, along with Isobel’s eight-year-old niece Pat, in the family’s dinghy, searching for the source of the strange and menacing sound. Ralph pulled on the oars, propelling the dinghy northwest towards Islington Bay, between Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands, about a kilometre away.

It was a route they often followed during their summer holidays on the Hauraki Gulf.

Isobel is now 95 years old and lives in the Auckland suburb of Pt Chevalier. In a recent conversation with journalist Michael Field, she had no trouble remembering that day in late 1937.

It was about 6.30 in the morning, Isobel says, as Ralph rowed their little boat into Islington Bay. The mysterious noise had stopped, but there could be no doubt about its source.

Isobel and Ralph were astounded to see the majestic Pan American Airways flying boat Samoan Clipper, its four giant propellers at rest, tied to a mooring near the head of the bay.

Samoan Clipper moored in Islington Bay
Samoan Clipper moored in Islington Bay, Dec 1937. Photo: Isobel

Flying boats had not yet become a familiar sight in Auckland, and this was only the second visit by a Pan American aircraft. Samoan Clipper had landed in Auckland on Boxing Day in fine weather, delighting huge crowds that turned out to welcome the crew. The plane was a Sikorsky S-42B, 20 metres long, with a wingspan of almost 35 metres.

Samoan Clipper moored in Islington Bay, Dec 1937
Samoan Clipper moored in Islington Bay, with Rangitoto in the background, Dec 1937. Photo: Isobel

“We were absolutely awestruck,” says Isobel. “It was just something we’d never seen before – as close as that. It was amazing.”

Approaching the flying boat Samoan Clipper in Islington Bay, Dec 1937
Approaching the flying boat Samoan Clipper in Islington Bay, Dec 1937

Ralph manoeuvred the dinghy close enough that the youngsters could speak with a man standing in the forward hatch of the flying boat. He told them that the weather in Auckland was expected to turn stormy, so they had decided to taxi over from Mechanics Bay to seek shelter.

Crew member standing in doorway of Samoan Clipper
One of the Samoan Clipper’s crew spoke with the young people in the dinghy.

The Clipper was under the command of renowned aviation pioneer Edwin C Musick and there were six other officers in the crew.

Isobel doesn’t know which of the crew spoke to them, and she believes the flying boat stayed in the bay for three or four days.

“Mr Johnson was the owner of Johnson Blue Motors, associated with Shorter Rental Cars, and Shorter had the franchise for ferrying the crew from plane to shore, as in those days there was no slipway at Mechanics Bay. Needing a safe anchorage, the Bay was a natural choice, as the crew was able to stay at the Johnsons’ bach.”

Isobel says one crew member stayed aboard the flying boat at all times, for security.

She and Ralph visited Islington Bay often during the summer months at the bach, so encountered the crew a few times during their short stop-over.

“These airmen were heroes, as this was one of the earliest flights from overseas. They were all charming and friendly.”

It was the Clipper’s second visit to Auckland, surveying a trans-Pacific airmail route, and it would carry the first New Zealand airmail to the United States when it departed from Mechanics Bay a few days later.

There would be no more visits by Samoan Clipper, however. Just a few weeks after the surprise visit to Islington Bay, the flying boat exploded over the Pacific Ocean, after taking off from Pago Pago bound for Auckland. All aboard perished and the wreck was never found, although some small items from the plane were recovered by searchers.