By Robert C. Mikesh ©WINGS, Vol. 35,
No. 10, Oct. 2005.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Charles M. Dugger
©2004 information systems
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.