First PanAm Airmail 1938

Pan American Airways planned a regular trans-Pacific airmail service between Auckland and San Francisco, a distance of 6,900 miles. A survey flight was made in March 1937 by Pan Am's chief pilot: Ed Musick.

The first official New Zealand air mail to the United States was on 2 January 1938. The plane was the Sikorsky S-42B flying boat, Samoan Clipper and the pilot again was Ed Musick. The S-42B had arrived in Auckland on 26 December, but no official airmail was carried on the flight from America. The next day the Short S23 Empire flying boat Centaurus arrived in Auckland from Sydney on a survey flight.

Initially, it had been announced that the mail for the USA would close on 19 December although this date was extended [1].

postcard back

This postcard is addressed to the USA. It is franked with stamps to the value of 2s 3d as the rate for postcards was half the letter rate.

The cachet shows December 1937, but the flight was delayed from 30 December to 2 January due to bad weather.

PanAm 38

The cachet was normally applied in red, but appears in purple on a few covers and there is also a black cachet. 25,000 letters were carried.

The plane left Auckland on 2 January, arrived in American Samoa on 1 January (having crossed the International Date Line), in Kingman Reef (an uninhabited atoll where a schooner waited with supplies) on 2 January and then Honolulu (Hawaii) on 3 January. There the mail was transferred to a Martin 130 flying boat on the Pan Am FAM 14 Manila - San Francisco route and arrived in San Francisco on 6 January.

Mail was addressed to Samoa and Hawaii as well as to the US.

PanAm 38
PanAm 38 back

Some very attractive covers were produced for this flight. This cover to Los Angeles has a map showing the Pan American trans-Pacific routes as well as a photograph of the Sikorsky S-42B flying boat.

The rate to the both the US and the UK was 4s 6d. A backstamp was applied on arrival in San Francisco on 6 January.

registered back

The next cover is registered and carries an extra 3d stamp for the registration fee. It is on a specially printed cover that Pan Am produced for the flight.

There are two San Francisco backstamps, one applied on January 6 when it arrived in the registered section of the post office and the second on January 7 when it was transferred to the main office to await collection.

Purple cachets

registered back

This example is also registered with a 27 December postmark in Wellington and is addressed to the UK. It is an example of a cover with a purple cachet.

It has the same San Francisco transit mark on 6 January as the previous cover and also a receiving mark in Highgate, London on 20 January. It would have been carried to New York by air and from there to the UK by sea.

It is franked with 4s 10d which includes a 3d registration fee plus 1d air mail fee from Wellington to Auckland.


Postcard to Canada franked with 2s 5d and so appears to be overpaid by 2d presumably in the mistaken impression that a 2d surface rate to Canada was required in addition to the postcard air mail rate of 2s 3d. An unusual feature is that as well as the normal San Francisco transit mark at 12.30pm on 6 January, it has a second transit at 1.30pm. Only part of that transit mark appears and it includes the word Ferry. That is of interest as early mail from New Zealand that was flown from San Francisco had the cachet Ferry Station.

Postage Due
Not paid for internal air mail

Normally use of the internal air mail was optional, but was required for mail being sent from Wellington or the South Island to connect with this flight at Auckland.

The next cover is postmarked in Timaru on 27 December and would have been sent from Timaru to Christchurch by train before being flown from Christchurch to Auckland on 28 December.

It is franked with 4s 6d and so has a T 20 centimes and a US Charge to Collect 4 Cents handstamp because it is not franked with the required extra 1d for the Christchurch - Auckland internal air mail.

Most examples of a purple cachet have postmarks from Wellington or its surrounding area although the last two are unusual as they are postmarked in Auckland and Timaru respectively [7].

Black cachets

The following cover to San Francisco is signed by Captain Edwin C Musick who captained the Samoan Clipper on this flight from New Zealand to Hawaii. It has a black cachet.

black cachet
black back

The cover was backstamped on arrival in San Francisco.

Black cachets also exist on covers to American Samoa and to Hawaii. These cachets are not mentioned by Walker [1] or in the second edition of Stapleton [3]. Auction descriptions often use this omission to suggest that the cachets are rare. However, the reason for the omission is that they were part of the Pan American Archive and did not appear on the market until after Pan American went bankrupt in the 1990's [4]. They are described by Krupnick [2] and in the 3rd edition of Stapleton [6], but I have not seen an estimate of how many exist.

Another unusual feature of these covers is that they are often franked with a pair of 2s second pictorial stamps that are invariably perforated 14-13x13½ which is the rare variation of the 13-14x13½ perforation and which only exists on single watermarked paper [8].

To Samoa


The first leg of the 1938 Auckland to US flight was to American Samoa. The rate was 6d.

The example cover is addressed to Apia in Western Samoa. It was flown to Pago Pago in American Samoa and carried from there to Apia in Western Samoa by sea.

Apia back

The plane crossed the international date line. Although the letter left Auckland on 2 January 1938, it arrived in Pago Pago on 1 January. This is shown on the backstamp.

I have seen a registered cover with a further backstamp in Apia on 6 January.

post card

Purple cachet

This postcard to Samoa is franked with 4d which presumably includes the inland airmail fee from Wellington to Auckland in addition to the postcard rate to Samoa of 3d [1].

It has a purple cachet. According to Walker [1], covers with a purple cachet "although not rare, ... are extremely scarce". Krupnick [2] suggests that they are more common with about 10% of the cachets being purple. The lack of items for sale in auctions suggests that the number is less than 10%.

Black cachet

There are three different black cachets: to American Samoa, to Hawaii and to United States of America. They were applied by Pan Am to their own long covers. This cover has the Samoa black cachet, as well as the normal red cachet, and is addressed to Pago Pago.

black cachet

To Hawaii


This cover is addressed to Hilo in Hawaii. It was carried on the Auckland to Hawaii leg of the first 1938 Auckland to US airmail.

The cover has stamps to the value of 3s 6d although the rate to Hawaii was only 3s 0d.

Hawaii back

The journey from Samoa to Kingman Reef was on 2 January and from Kingman Reef to Hawaii on 3 January. The date of arrival in Hawaii is shown on the backstamp.

purple cachet

Purple cachet

The example cover has the cachet in purple. It was flown to Hawaii and then returned to New Zealand by sea.

Hawaii back

It is postmarked in Lower Hutt which is near Wellington. The cover has stamps to the value of 3s 1d. The rate to Hawaii was 3s 0d and the extra 1d was for the inland air fee to Auckland.

Black cachet

There are three different black cachets: to American Samoa, to Hawaii and to United States of America. They were applied by Pan Am to their own long covers. This cover has the Hawaii black cachet and is addressed to Honolulu.

black cachet

Disaster on return flight

Captain Ed Musick, and all the crew, were tragically killed a fortnight later (11 January 1938) on the return flight to New Zealand. The S42B had developed an oil leak after leaving Pago Pago in American Samoa. They attempted to return to Pago Pago and dumped fuel to lessen their load so that they could land. Unfortunately, the fuel ignited and the Samoan Clipper blew up. An article, including newspaper clippings, has been published in Air Mail News [5].

That terminated the proposed regular service and it was not restarted until 1940.

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All scans were made by the author. Information on this page is taken from:
[1] Airmails of New Zealand, volume 2 (1986) compiled by Douglas A Walker, published by the Air Mail Society of New Zealand
[2] Pan American Pacific Pioneers, J E Krupnick, PH Publishing, 1997.
[3] The New Zealand Airmail Catalogue, (2nd Edition, 1994), James Stapleton, published by the Air Mail Society of New Zealand.
[4] L Giles, The Kiwi, vol 53, p28, March 2004.
[5] J van Beveren, The Loss of the Samoan Clipper in 1938, Air Mail News, vol 47, pp 123-127, August 2004.
[6] The New Zealand Airmail Catalogue, (3rd Edition edited by Mike Shand, 2009), James Stapleton, published by the Air Mail Society of New Zealand.
[7] G Schmidt, The Mail Coach, vol 29, p 211-215, June 1993.
[8] R Odenweller, A Rarity Made More Common, The Kiwi, vol 64, p152-153, September 2015.