Miami's Dinner Key Seaplane Gateway to the Americas

By Robert C. Mikesh ©WINGS, Vol. 35, No. 10, Oct. 2005.

Landed as the world's most modern marine air terminal, the Dinner Key facility served as the pattern for Pan American's facilities at San Francisco, New York and Rio de Janeiro. Note three Pan American Sikorsky S-40 in photo.

About an hour of daylight still remained by the time I was settled into the motel and thinking of heading for the pool. Although the drive to Miami had been enough for one day, there was a strong impulse to drive a few more miles to Dinner Key at Coconut Grove south of Miami. I had not seen this flying boat terminal since World War II, and was corious to see first-hand what changes had taken place at this former seaplane base, once regarded as “The Gateway between the Americas.”

Follow Brickell Avenue and South Bayshore Drive, I soon caught the last traces of sunlight reflecting from the peaked roofs of the former seaplane hangar now next to the road. These structures were just as they were sixty years ago, but now served as housing for pleasure boats. The next left turn should take me to the Pan American Airways terminal building. Sure enough, although the palm trees along the drive were not the same, there were the familiar lines of what was once advertised as the most modern seaplane terminal in the world, capable of handling 1.500 passengers a day.

It all looked very much the same. Perhaps the evening twilight hid the subtle changes that had taken place over the year, yet there was enough light to reveal the landmarks. I remembered so well from my first visit during wartime 1943. despite the growth of high-rise buildings that had already reached the perimeter road, the original expanse of seaplane parking aprons was still untouched by moder structures.

I was prepared for many changes, but seeing ‘Miami City Hall’ instead of ‘Pan American Airways System’ lettered on the old terminal building was a shock. Situated at the edge of Biscayne Bay, this former terminal building now serves as the City Manager’s office, and is still quite modern in appearance.

It was nearly dark now. The water was dotted with bobbing red and green running-lights and I could visualize a Consolidated Commodore or a Sikorsky S-40 moored off the waterfront, with beaching crew nearby securing a Martin PBM Mariner. But that was as I recall it in 1943, when this was a hub of wartimes seaplane activity.

Now, the lights came from many boats that use the Dinner Key and Grove Key Marina. The launching ramps once used by the flying boats on both side of the terminal have been filled to after additional space for the boats. What seemed like countless fingers jutting out into the water are the slips where more than tree hundred small craft tie up. This was now a world far removed from aviation, and I wondered how many of those dwelling there in the present know anything of Dinner Key’s fascinating past.


Dinner Key terminal building
Pan American terminal Building at Dinner Key. Now serves Miami as its City Hall.

The question is frequently asked about the origin of the name ‘Dinner Key’. A ‘key’ is a reef or low island. However, landfill over the years has joined Dinner Key to the mainland. The most commonly accepted story of its name is that the island was a midday stop for boats passing between Miami and Homstead. Eventually it became known as Dinner Key, and the name stuck.

Aviation history actually began at the key before World War I. In 1914 the Navy dredged the bay and filled in around the island to provide a Naval Air Training Station. After the war, the Navy left and barnstorners moved onto the key in the early 20’s. Then came the New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Lines (NYRBA) which used the location for its Miami terminal. In 1930 Pan American acquired NYRBA and moved its inter-American operations from the 36th Street Airport —now Miami International—to the key where they would use flying boats in their Southern Division. NYRBA’s house boat was used for the new terminal. But Pan American soon outgrew their twin-engined Consolidated Commodore and Sikorsky S-38 amphibians and acquired larger four-engine transports for flying boats to add to their fleet.

This equipment consisted of new Pratt & Whitney Hornett-powered Sikorsky S-40 Flying boats designed exclusively for Pan Am. The first of these were the American Cleeper and the Caribbean Clipper, placed into service from Dinner Key in 1931. the third, named Southern Clipper, joined the fleet in 1932. initially, two of these flying boats were assigned to the flight from Miami to Barranquilla, Colombia, which included the longest over-water leg of any air line in the world, between Kingston, Jamaica, and Barranquilla. The third Clipper was assigned to the Miami-San Juan route.

To give maximum publicity to what were referred to as “giants of the air”, Charles Lindbergh—famed aviator and close personal friend of pan American’s President, Juan Trippe—was at the controls for these inaugural flights. Designed to carry from 38 to 45 passengers, the S-40 normally took 16 people and a large cargo of mail, which remained the main source of revenue for all the airlines in those early days.

Improvements quickened again for Dinner Key when Pan American constructed a steel waterfront bulkhead, raised the whole terminal area to eight feet above sea level, and added 13 acres of sorrounding land area. The beach facility increased to 43 acres in all. The building of this marine air base required the excavation of a channel one mile long and 700 feet wide, and proved a history-making task for the Congressional Rivers and Harbor Committee. For the first time ever, the Committee approved an appropiation expressly for dredging a navigable channel for seaplanes, and Dinner Key soon became the world’s busiest commercial seaplane base—a model for those that followed in Rio de Janeiro, New York and San Francisco.

Pan American terminal
Revolving in the main lobby of the Pan Am terminal was this huge globe showing in striking colors the earth's geographical features and world air lines. this was a steel ball, 31 feet in circunference and weighed 6,500 pounds.

Three hangars, and engine overhaul shop and antenna poles for radio telegraph rose on the key, and on March 25, 1934, the gleaming white terminal building was dedicated. Approached by a palm-lined driveway and surrounded by landscape grounds, the terminal building inmediatelly became a free stellar attraction for Miami’s winter tourists. Visitors to the airport averaged 25,000 a month, and in one year a peak of 90,000 was reached in a single month.

In 1934, passengers passing through the terminal totaled 24,214, but by 1940 the figure had reached 77,248. although is was capable of handling 1,500 passengers a day, the most people terminal building saw in a single day was 600. a large part of Pan American’s 95,526 Miami Passengers in 1941 arrived or departed from Dinner Key marine terminal. Clipper travelers to the exotic Spanish Main were looked upon with envious fascination by the thousands of spectators who lined the observation decks to watch simultaneous departures and arrivals at the four canopied gangways. In the dining room, the cocktail bar, and on the promenade deck, world travelers and tourists moved in a modern cosmopolitan atmospere, while visitors in the terminal waiting room watched radio operators flash messages to Clippers in the air and in distant ports. A ten-foot, these-and-a-half-ton world globe became known to thousands as the trademark of Dinner Key in those days, and that icon now resides only a few blocks away in the foyer of the Miami Science Museum and Planetarium.

In 1935 the heavy 1,250-pound landing gear from the S-40s were removed, making these amphibian into pure flying boats, and the 575-hp Hornets were replaced with 660-hp engines, resultin in a better performance and a designation change to S-40A. Despite this 15-percent increase in power, the speed of this wind-resisting S-40s increased by 5 mph. However, the lightened machines could now take 40 passengers on their daily service from Miami to Havana and back. However, the advent of the DC-3 landplane at the end of the 1930s relegated the S-40As to strictly freight transport.

Sikorsky S-40s - 1932
The total fleet of Sikorsky S-40s --the American Clipper, Caribbean Clipper, and Southern Clipper fly Pan American's aerial salute in 1932 over the well defined skyline of downtown Miami, Florida, home port for Pan American's Southern Division.

Just at the trend was shifting to land-base passenger planes, which lessened the stature of the Dinner Key marine terminal. World War II broke out, and the adjacent U.S. Coast Guard facility on the key, in existence since 1932, was taken over by the Navy. Activity increased in a variety of ways. Coast Guard seaplanes such as Vought Sikorsky OS2U Kingfisher took off on relentless submarine patrols. The Navy brought in Catalinas and Mariners to supply U.S. bases for hemispheric defense in the Caribbean and Latin America. An enormous Navy hangar was constructed on the facility for maintenance of these flying boats, and Pan American continued to fly long over-water routes under government contract.

Since Pan Am had crews well experienced with over-water navigation, the Army and the Navy contracted with Pan Am to train navigators for their respective service air crews. Until now, with the advent of the long range B-17s and B-24s and the Navy’s mission extending beyond coastal patrol, there was no need for aerial navigators. For actual navigation flights away from the classrooms, Pan Am used their now-obsolet S-40s and Commodores based at Dinner Key. By the end of 1943 this navigation training mission was fulfilled and these aircraft were finally scrapped, but the high-pitched whine of the Sikorsky S-40, dubbed “Skyhook,” was a sound never to be forgotten. The S-40’s basket-weave of struts and wires was a far cry from the graceful gull-winged Martin Mariner that often replaced them, taking heavily-boxed cargo for some southern destination. Although not displaying any technical novelties, the Sikorsky S-40 was still an important aircraft because, by carrying a large number of passengers, it showed the direction in which the design offices should be working in under to produce an aircraft that was an economic proposition.


Now the waterfront and the hangars are quiet by comparison—and yet, they seem ideally suited to the yashts that have replaced the flying boats. I found a feeling of quiet satisfaction on the drive away from Dinner Key that night, for although the aviation era ended when the terminal was sold in 1946, its newer role as Miami’s City Hall and Marina has kept it very much alive. A metal marker stands in front of the former terminal bearing a brief history of the key. Few first-time visitors to this once active air facility would give much thought to the real meaning of its driveway’s sign bearing the name, “Clipper Circle”.


Recollections of Dinner Key
Charles M. Dugger ©2004 information systems technology, inc.

Dinner Key

The Dinner Key base consisted of the terminal building (now the Miami City Hall) and the two hangars nearest the entrance drive. The hangar nearest to the road was Hangar A and the other was Hangar B. There were no other buildings there except the Coast Guard seaplane hangar about 50 yards to the east. Pan American (we were not allowed to call it "Pan Am") was flying three Sikorsky S-40 and eight Sikorsky S-42 flying boats.

The first S-40 was delivered in 1931. They had a crew of 6, a range of 900 miles, cruised at 115 miles per hour and carried 38 passengers. The S-40's were NC 80V, NC 81V and NC 752. The first S-42 was delivered in 1934 and had a range of 1200 miles cruising at 150 miles an hour. The S-42's were NC 822, NC 823, NC 15373, NC 15374, NC 15375, NC 15376, NC 16735 and NC 16736.

Three old Commodore flying boats, NC 668M, NC 669M and NC 670M, were operational but not used in scheduled service. They began service in 1929 and were acquired at the takeover of the New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Airline (NYRBA) and were the first of Pan Am's flying boats. Now used only for pilot training flights, these planes had a range of 1,000 miles, carried 22 passengers and had flown as far as Rio de Janeiro at 108 miles per hour. One of the Commodores, NC 668, crashed in Biscayne Bay September 24, 1944 while on a test flight, killing inspector Al Hall. Failure to remove a control lock allowed the control to be pulled back, letting the plane take to the air but it couldn't be pushed forward to level off, causing it to stall and fall in. One of the sailors of the Navy's VR-6 Squadron, then stationed at Dinner Key, pulled the men out. He happened to be nearby in a Navy launch. By 1944 these Commodores had been adapted for navigational training and Pan Am trained hundreds of young Englishmen to serve as Royal Air Force navigators.

One S-38 and one S-41 (an improved model of the S-38) were kept flyable but tied down in back of the hangars. These small planes were all that were left of Pan American's first fleet. The S-38s were amphibians and seated 8 passengers. They flew 110 miles per hour and pioneered the routes through the Caribbean islands and South America. The S-38's were so successful that Pan American commissioned Igor Sikorsky to design a much larger plane, and the four engine S-40 Clippers were the result. Only three were built, NC 80V, NC 81V and NC 752V. These S-40's were a great success but were rather slow and had a limited range, but they were ideal for the shorter flights to Mexico, the Bahamas and Havana after the arrival of the faster S-42's. Pan American again submitted specifications to Sikorsky for a faster, longer ranged, plane and he designed the S-42. The first S-42, NC 822, broke all the existing world records for speed, range, load and altitude.


Sikorsky S-42
Sikorsky S-42 near the hangars

In the late afternoons, people would gather on the observation deck atop the Dinner Key terminal to watch the Clippers arrive. It was usually crowded, especially on weekends. The Clippers did not fly at night and the schedules were arranged to have the planes arrive late in the day so they could be serviced, cleaned and ready to fly again in the morning.

A Sikorsky S-42 Clipper would appear through the clouds, in the far distance, and slowly descend, skim over the water and settle upon it lightly. While keeping almost flying speed it would swing around toward shore, riding high on the water like a speedboat until it approached the buoy.

This buoy was a float attached near a noose at the end of a heavy line. The float must be caught by the flight engineer with a grappling hook, from a small hatch just in front of the cockpit. The line was pulled in and the noose was placed over a bow post. The ship was then pulled by a windlass into position at the loading dock where the passengers disembarked and entered the terminal through a canopied passageway into the lower level of the Dinner Key terminal to go through US Customs.

The ship was then pulled clear of the dock and the beaching crew, six men in swim trunks, maneuvered the beaching gear into place. The gear consisted of two sets of double tired wheels, each attached to a floatation tank, one for each side of the ship. They were locked in place by a socket at the top and pins at the bottom. Another was locked on at the tail. This one had a fork with a steering bar at the back so the ship could be steered while being towed. The ship was then pulled up the ramp tail first onto the paved apron by a big caterpillar tractor and then hosed down with fresh water. The inspection crew went aboard, and began their work while the ship was being towed into a hangar for servicing.

The first thing an inspector did was check the ship's log, where any malfunctions or problems during the flight were entered by the captain. They then visually inspected the entire plane, made notes of anything that needed attention and retired to the office to type up work sheets. These were called "discrepancies" and were hung by clipboard on the nose tow ring for the shop foremen to look over and assign crews to make the repairs. Each work item must be signed by the mechanic upon completion of the job, and must be approved by an inspector.

A large workstand, made to straddle the nose of the ship, was pushed into place. Stairways on each end of the workstand gave access to a platform that extended across and under all four engines. A narrow trap door in the floor was opened which allowed the 3 bladed propellers to be turned. The stands were equipped with compressed air hoses and nozzles that sprayed mineral spirits to wash down the engines, and there were sinks for washing oily parts. The engine cowlings were removed and all engine work required was completed and inspected. While this was being done the interior was vacuum cleaned and all litter removed. Sections of the interior flooring were removed and the bilges were inspected for leaks caused by loosened rivets.

Instrument men were working in the cockpit and the riggers checked all the control cables and pulleys. The cleaners wiped down the entire exterior with mineral spirits, as there was always some oil blow-back from the engines. The fabric and equipment men inspected the upholstery and replaced any soiled or damaged cushions and added clean antimacassars. A metal worker was usually bucking rivets in the bilge and must be stepped over by everyone. Often a painter, with his spray gun and hose, was touching up the apple green paneled interior. He was mighty unpopular.

There was a lot of traffic in and out of the plane. When all the work was finished and inspected the plane was then towed out to a tie down and the engines were run up and checked out. Then it was gassed up and oiled, and was ready to depart the next day.

In the morning the engines were run up again before the ship was towed into position at the head of the ramp. The loop of a heavy line was placed over the ship's bow post. This line ran out a hundred yards, or so, and through a pulley that was secured to a large ship's anchor, then back to a windlass on shore. Another line was fastened to the tail ring and was kept taut by the caterpillar tractor as the ship was slowly let down the ramp until it was afloat. The beaching crew removed the beaching gear and the ship was positioned at the loading dock. A boarding ladder was rolled into position and the entrance hatch was opened. Just behind it the cargo hatch was opened. (Both of these were on top of the fuselage on the S-42 clippers.) A mail truck was standing by and now the mail bags, cargo and luggage were stowed in the cargo compartment, with the steward overseeing the loading.


Consolidated Commodore
Consolidated Commodore arriving to Dinner Key

The flight crew, pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator and radioman in their blue uniforms and white visored caps marched out and went aboard. They were followed by the passengers who were helped aboard by the steward. The hatches were battened down and the flight engineer appeared through a small bow hatch in front of the cockpit windshield, ready to cast off the bow line. The pilot started the number one engine, (outboard on the left wing) then each of the others in order. The engines were run up, one at a time, to check the magnetos and the oil pressure.

At a signal from the pilot the lines were cast off and the ship taxied out about a quarter of a mile and headed into the wind. The takeoff run could be as much as a mile, as the ship must rise to the step before reaching takeoff speed. (The step is a jog in the bottom of the hull to break the surface tension) The ship rose slowly, trailing water as it climbed, heading into it's course and was soon lost to sight. Later, Pan American built a new, much larger hangar (hangar C) east of hangar B and a modern engine overhaul shop just beyond it and vacated the old engine shop at the 36th Street airport.

The Pan American terminal had a fancy restaurant on the observation deck. The lease required them to maintain a small restaurant in the basement to serve the employees. They served the simplest sort of food, such as boiled potatoes, cabbage and a bit of ham for a low price, but it was obvious that they didn't encourage patrons. It was called "The Bilge", and only a few of us gave them our business. I was once served a boiled, unpeeled potato garnished with a big boiled spider.

They were soon notified that the Star of Texas had been torpedoed and sunk just south of Cuba. They found an apartment on Copacabana Beach and bought some things from a family that was returning. Mom hired a maid who spoke some English and she did their grocery shopping. The apartment had no window screens, and bugs flew in at night. No problem, the maid got a bowl of water, stood on a chair and held the bowl under the light. The bugs soon flew into the reflection and were tossed out the window. Mom and dad served their time, and were mighty glad to get back home.


World War II - Navy training at Dinner Key

As World War II approached, Pan American became involved in government contracts that required the operation of land planes, for which large hangars and facilities were built on the 36th Street side of the airport. This was the old Pan American Field (now Miami International Airport) where the company started. These facilities were for the maintenance of Douglas DC4's (C-54s) for the Ferry Command. The old original Pan American terminal building was in use and served during WW II.

At this same time Pan Am was operating three Boeing StratoClippers, (Comet, Rainbow and Flying Cloud) from the Municipal airport, also called Amelia Earhart field, located on Lejeune Road, just south of the Opa-Locka Naval Air Station. At the time, the runways at 36th Street were too short for these planes. As the war accelerated, the Opa-Locka Naval base became so large and busy that it was necessary to close down the nearby Municipal airport, which made it necessary to lengthen the runways at 36th Street. To do this the part of Red Road that crossed the west end of the airport was closed permanently.

Many large airports had now been built at strategic locations to fill wartime needs and the larger, faster, landplanes, with longer range, had made the old Clippers obsolete. Most of the mechanics were transferred to 36th Street from Dinner Key, as wartime restrictions on travel and other things limited the use of the flying boats. One old Clipper, (it is my recollection that it was the S-42, NC 823) was taken by the Navy and became the first flying boat in the Naval Air Transport Service. Squadron VR-1 was flying C-54's, so VR-1 S (service detachment} was established for flying boats, but there was no one qualified to maintain the Sikorsky, so it was necessary to recruit pilots and a crew from Pan Am to do the job. Those who volunteered were given various ratings and sent directly to Norfolk Naval Air Station with no indoctrination or military training of any kind. This led to all kinds of problems when we realized that we were REALLY in the Navy and found that our military duties came first. But our misadventures in the Navy is another story.

The Sikorsky had to be stripped of all aluminum paint and it was given the standard Navy dark blue paint job with light underparts. The plush Pan American interior was left intact. It was designated as a RS-5 machine and given the bureau number 37852. The ship was used primarily to bring nickel ore from Nicaro, Cuba needed for the development of jet engine rotor blades, but we didn't know that at the time. It flew all day and we serviced it all night.

We soon moved back to Dinner Key where the Navy used Hangar A and flew to Great Exuma Bahamas, Guantanamo Bay Cuba, San Juan Puerto Rico, Coco-Solo Naval Base Canal Zone and other places, carrying personnel and cargo. I flew quite often. I threw out the sea anchors, caught the buoys, relieved the flight engineer, gassed up, tied down when pulled ashore and stayed aboard all night when we anchored out.

The Navy also took the S-40, NC 81V, stripped out the entire interior, painted it aluminum and used it to check out newly graduated pilots who had never flown a four engine plane. 81-V was not painted in navy colors, and bore no insignia, but it was designated as a RS-4 machine with bureau number 37654. I flew in 81-V as flight engineer. We took off, circled and landed cross wind, and down wind with and without flaps. Sometimes these young pilots hit so hard that toggle switches would flip off. They were bored to death with this old slow, lumbering plane, and had to be held back from pulling the wings off her. The last record in my log of these old Clippers is July 16, 1943. They had been replaced by a fleet of Martin PBM's. I don't know what happened to these two Navy Clippers as I was transferred to another squadron.

The Navy built a small base at Dinner Key, called a "Naval Facility", and our first squadron was re-commissioned the 6th squadron (VR-6). It was deactivated shortly after Germany surrendered in Europe, and the personnel was transferred to the Pacific. I understand that some of Pan American's S-42s were sold to mining interests in South America and the others were scrapped. It made me sick to see the hull of one of them being used as a houseboat on the Miami River. The other two old S-40 Clippers, 80-V and 752-V and the Commodores were all scrapped.


Thus died the original sea-going Pan American Airways, a casualty of World War II. It was reborn as a new and completely different airline at the 36th Street Airport, now the Miami International Airport.


Miami International Airport History

Fokker F-7 at Pan American Field.

In the fall of 1928, Pan American Airways procured a block of land from the Seminole Fruit and Land Company along the south side of NW 36th street in Miami Springs. The field was called the Pan American Field. It was also the beginning of Miami International Airport.

The airport consisted of a terminal building, two hard surfaced runways, concrete aprons and two hangar buildings. The terminal was the first modern passenger terminal built in the United States. The high domed roof structure of glass and stucco was the first truly elegant airport passenger terminal built during a time when other airport passenger facilities were merely small rooms attached to the sides of aircraft maintenance hangars. Miami's first terminal incorporated a separate waiting rooms for arriving and departing passengers, offices, a restaurant, pilot's facilities, customs, immigration and a public health office. Within a year, Miami had become the number one port of entry by air.

On September 15, 1928, the first scheduled flight, a Pan Am twin-engine Sikorsky S-38 amphibian aircraft: piloted by Captain Edwin Musick took off from Pan American Field loaded with 340 Ibs of mail and two passengers. The aircraft headed south, bound for Key West where its mail and passengers would be transferred to a Fokker F-10 for the final leg to Havana. Two months later when Pan Am received delivery of three Fokker F-10 aircraft, the flight from Miami became direct to Havana.

The official dedication ceremony was held on January 9, 1929. The day was highlighted with the departure of a Sikorsky S-38 piloted by Charles Lindbergh to inaugurate regular mail and passenger service to San Juan. Miami became the third official airport of entry in the U.S.

A third runway with connecting taxiways and a third hangar were constructed in 1930.

With the acquisition of NYRBA Airlines, Pan American became mainly a flying boat airline and began shifting the majority of its flights to Dinner Key seaplane base. Pan American Field was then used mainly as an overhaul and maintenance base until Eastern Air Lines moved its operation from Miami Municipal to Pan American Field in 1934, followed by National Airlines in 1937. This marked the beginning of a major multi-airline airport, which then became known as the 36th Street Airport.

By 1945, numerous other airlines were using the 36th Street Airport and its size had been expanded significantly, stretching from Red Road to LeJeune Road. On September 14, 1945, the Dade Board of County Commissioners implemented Chapter 22963, Laws of Florida, to enable them to act as a Port Authority. Negotiations were promptly started to purchase the airport from Pan American Airways. The first Airport Revenue Bonds ever issued in the United States were used for this purpose.


By Clipper Connection ©2009

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