Pearl Harbor: The Harrowing Tale of How One Plane Flew Across the World to Get Home

by Samantha Whidden
(Photoby: GHI/Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

During the 80th anniversary of the attack on U.S. naval base Pearl Harbor, historians took a look back at how the Pan Am Flight Flight NC18602 crew completed the dangerous mission to complete the first around-the-world commercial flight in order to get to safety. 

According to the Washington Post, Pan Am Flight NC18602, which was a Boeing 314 that carried 74 passengers, was near Pearl Harbor on December 2, 1941. This was just days before the infamous attack on the naval base. The commercial airliner’s crew was set to make a stop in Auckland, New Zealand. It would be returning to San Francisco on December 10th. 

Unfortunately, the flight to San Francisco through Honolulu was notably interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th. The event, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt marked as “a date which will live in infamy,” not only forced the U.S. to officially enter World War II. It also forced Poindexter’s crew to make a historical and dangerous detour from their original scheduled flight plan. 

Historians revealed to the media outlet that instead of going back east, the commercial airliner crew avoided the chaos that the Pearl Harbor attack caused by going in the complete opposite direction. They flew without any charts or support from Pan Am. In doing so, they were shot at twice and even escaped getting blown up. They also saw a submarine up close.

In avoiding going back east, the crew flew went more than 30,000 miles. The airliner went through a total of five continents and cross the equator four times. They were only able to use celestial navigation and an atlas that was obtained from a New Zealand library. 

Historians Recall Details About Pan Am Flight Adventure After Pearl Habor

F. Robert van der Linden, a curator of Air Transportation and Special Purpose Aircraft at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum revealed to the Washington Post that flying around the world following Pearl Harbor and during the conflict caused by the war is astounding. “They didn’t get lost. And they had only one engine problem. Which they fixed. These planes were beautiful. But they were hard to fly.”

Also speaking about the post for flights on the Boeing 314 airliners, van Der Linden stated tickets for a one-way flight from San Francisco to Hong King was $760. This would be nearly $15,000 today. “If you got on an airplane like this then, you’re flying premium first class with a suite in an airliner today. There were nearly as many crew members on these flights as passengers. [This was] to ensure comfort and safety.”