1938: Crew of Pan Am’s ill-fated Samoan Clipper

Captain Edwin Musick leaders four of his six officers ashore in Auckland, 26 Dec 1937
Captain Edwin Musick leads four of his six officers ashore in Auckland, 26 Dec 1937. At far left is Radio Officer Thomas Findley and beside him Flight Engineer John Stickrod. They would be with Captain Musick on 12 Jan 1938 when Samoan Clipper crashed, killing all aboard. Photo: NZ Herald

Additional material from the Evening Post, 13 January 1938, p 14



(By A.A.H.)

Captain Edwin C Musick, commander of the Samoan Clipper, was Pan-American Airways’ senior and chief pilot, and an airman whose name was known and respected in every part of the world. Tragically, this flight to New Zealand and back to Honolulu was to have been possibly his last flight as pilot in command, for he suggested, in a conversation at Auckland a fortnight ago, that he would probably go ashore to an administrative position, though he might revisit New Zealand in the Boeing Clipper on her first run south.

Captain Edwin C Musick
Captain Musick

He was a great man, with a personality which could not be hidden by his extreme reluctance to have any part in the public side of pioneering or regular commercial flying. He has been described as “solemn, taciturn, almost gloomy,” but that was far from the fact. He did not like speaking — in public, that is — but he did like talking, quietly and seriously when the talk was on serious subjects. He had a humour and a friendly attack in conversation which, to those who knew him after the work of the flight and the fuss were over, showed the description “gloomy” to be absurd.

Captain Musick was in his early forties. He learned to fly in 1911, so he was entitled more than most men to his honours as a pioneer. Between 1911 and 1913 his flying was that of the enthusiast, but from 1913 until this final tragedy flying or flying management had been his everyday work. During the war years he was instructor to United States Army Air Force pilots, some of whom are today members of the Pan-American service.

After the war he joined Aeromarine Airways, one of the first commercial airline companies of the United States, and took their first flying-boat over the run between Nassau, in the British Bahamas, and Havana, Cuba. That was in 1921. Later he operated a service on the Great Lakes, and again largely laid down the organisation and made the opening flights of the Philadelphia and Washington service.


In 1927, Mr Juan Trippe organised a small airline to operate between Havana and Florida, a distance of only 93 miles, and to this service he gave the ambitious name of Pan-American Airways. Juan Trippe took Musick with him, as a man who knew the changing weather of the Caribbean Sea, flying-boats, amphibians, and men. The service expanded as Juan Trippe had believed it would. Trippe was a visionary with a practical and clever mind to ensure that his visions expanded as he wished; Musick, as his chief pilot and daily adviser, gave visions application.

Out of the Havana-Florida service grew, in a few years, the immense organisation of Pan-American Airways and associated companies — the American counterpart of British Imperial Airways — with regular services by flying-boat or landplane, centralised always about Miami and the Caribbean Sea and West Indies, in the far north over Alaska; to the south through Mexico, the Central American States, down the Andes on the west, and through Brazil and the Argentine (in association with Grace Airways) to circle the greater part of the South American Continent. In the East, Pan-American Airways operated regularly over some thousands of miles on the China coast, with a spur line running far inland; here the ownership was officially national, with 51 per cent of the capital subscribed by the Chinese Government, but the service was Pan-American.


Five or six years ago the most ambitious of ocean flying proposals was put forward by Juan Trippe and his flying associates in the 9000-mile crossing of the North Pacific from San Francisco to Manila and (later) to Hong Kong. Preparations for this first great ocean service were continued by surface survey, and by meteorologists and radio men for almost four years before the first flying-boat set out on the longest stage, to Honolulu. Several times this 2400-mile crossing was made before the next stage was flown, and Captain Musick made aviation history on one of these flights by turning back to San Francisco when more than half-way across. He stated simply that he thought it wiser: and that was accepted.

Captain Musick did not take the first North Pacific Clipper, a Martin flying-boat, right through; that was done by Captain Culbertson, who was his second in command when the Samoan Clipper arrived at Auckland at Christmas time; but each stage of the North Pacific he knew well.

His flight to New Zealand in March last year was over a route planned by American Airways for throwing, in conjunction with Imperial Airways, still another girdle of transport speed about the world. He arrived at Auckland then, as on the second flight, quietly, anxious above everything to avoid, if he could, the public reception, and, when unable to do so, he gave full credit to the men he had with him and the completeness of the organisation behind them.


His record of flying over those many years was without a mark. The distance which he had flown in one type of machine or another has been estimated at probably a million and a half miles, and he had never had a serious accident; no passengers in a plane piloted by Edwin C Musick had suffered injury. It is tragic indeed that such a record should have ended in disaster so complete.

Musick did not speak of that record: if he had he would have waved it aside with more references to his men and the organisation and what is expected of those who engage in commercial aviation, simply to get the job done safely. But whatever he thought of himself, others thought differently. In 1935 he was awarded the Harmon Trophy, given annually to the world’s most outstanding aviator, and he also received in that year the national award for the most outstanding aviator in the United States.

He was a splendid man, solemn perhaps in public because he disliked that sort of thing so much, but with a bright eye and a friendly feeling to those he worked with and to the peoples of countries to which he flew, for he, in common with airmen who are doing real work in bringing fast communication, had a firm belief in the power of the air, directed peacefully, for the welfare of mankind. He had been long in the air and did, he said in Auckland, look forward to settling down ashore with his wife and young children in California.



Captain Cecil Sellars, who was Captain Musick’s first officer, is another of Pan-American Airways’ most- experienced pilots, and one of the trio of flying men known throughout America — Musick, Sellars, and Wallace D. Culbertson.

Captain Culbertson was first officer under Captain Musick on the Christmas week flight. His place was taken by Captain Sellars, and the intention was that Captains Culbertson and Sellars should thereafter take command on alternative flights, Captain Musick returning to base duties in California.

Captain Sellars had had charge of Pan-American flying-boats in the Far East for about seven years and was making his first flight in the South Pacific. He and Captain Culbertson (formerly in command of the North Pacific China Clipper) had long worked in association.

Mr J Stickrod, the engineer, was a member of the survey flight crew in March and of the Christmas flight. Mr. Findley was the radio operator also on the last visit to Auckland, but the other members of the crew, Messrs Brunk, second officer, FJ Mac Lean, navigator, and JA Brooks, flight mechanic, had not visited New Zealand.


(Received January 13, 2.30 p.m.)
NEW YORK, January 12.

Captain Musick pioneered most of the oceanic lines for Pan-American Airways, and was the company’s number one pilot. He had over a million miles of flying to his credit, and was reputed to hold more world records than any other pilot. Among these were ten records established in the Brazil service on a routine test flight of 1250 miles non-stop, and all records of speed and load for various distances up to 2000 kilometres. Messrs. McLean and Findley were also veterans of the Pacific service. Messrs Brunk, Stickrod, and Brooks were also experienced, but not over the Pacific. Captain Sellers was noted for having been General Chiang Kai-shek’s pilot in 1936, when he flew Madame Chiang to Sianfu with ransom money for her husband’s release from opposing forces.

Navy officers at Washington are interested in the position of the wreckage found. It is conjectured that currents may have swept the wreckage far from the point where the Clipper crashed, but there is also a possibility that the ship flew past Pago Pago before it crashed.

Continued: Tributes to Captain Musick and his crew