Updates on the Hunt for the Samoan Clipper

by Russ Matthews

West of Tutuila rsz



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July 17, 2019

UPDATE: 0046 Hours: Yesterday started early (at 0600) with one of the highlights of the expedition so far, when our promised “special guests” joined us for a lively conversation. Pan Am Historical Foundation Chair Ed Trippe and Ocean Exploration Trust President Dr. Robert Ballard called our operations team in the field on board E/V Nautilus via satellite! They had spent the day together at OET’s “Inner Space Center” on the University of Rhode Island Narragansett campus before dialing in to the “Science Party Line.” I was able to brief them on the progress of the expedition and then give our streaming viewers the opportunity to hear Ed and Bob share their unique perspectives on the search and its significance. It was almost complete overload for me as I could have easily spent the entire morning talking to either one of them. The time seemed to fly past and practically the entire control van had a chance to contribute to the discussion. Communications Director Samantha Wishnak was so pleased she promised to put the whole exchange on Youtube for anyone who missed it live.

Search Incs Michael Brennan AirSeaHeritages Russ Matthews

SEARCH, INC archaeologist Dr. Michael Brennan (l) and Air/Sea Heritage Foundation President Russ Matthews in the control van aboard E/V Nautilus for the Samoan Clipper expedition. (Photo credit: Devon Chivvis Creative)

Over the rest of the day we finished the Southern section of our initial survey grid and have set course to complete the Northern portion. Dr. Mike Brennan was able to run the data collected up until now through a special processing software and reassess most of the targets we marked for possible further investigation. Most of them appear to be naturally occurring features. I know everyone (myself included) would like them to be traces of Samoan Clipper, but this is still helpful information. We can now confidently continue with the scanning and cover new ground rather than sacrifice precious time revisiting false leads. Even so, we intend to image a select number of targets utilizing the side scan sonar from a different angle as we transit to the North.

moon rising over EV Nautilus A frame

Photo shows the moon rising over E/V Nautilus’ A-frame (note the cable paid out to Argus down below).

I expect the remaining section of the original survey area will be completed by tomorrow. Barring any major discovery, we will shift our attention to another sector. Mike and I are in agreement that we should focus our effort to the Southwest. Archival information indicates that wreckage and oil from Samoan Clipper drifted generally to the Northeast… meaning we need to go in the opposite direction if we want to track it back to its origin. — Russ Matthews

July 16, 2019

UPDATE:1950 hours: There’s a story about that Ed Musick was asked by Pan Am’s Publicity Director Wiliam Van Dusen to broadcast some “good copy” for the newspapers during the inaugural China Clipper run to Manila. The taciturn and publicity averse Musick asked what he wanted him to say and the PR man suggested “something about the sunset over the Pacific.”  Several hours into the flight, Pan Am radio in San Francisco recorded a message that read: “SUNSET 6:39 HOURS”

I won’t be that brief, but the investigation has intensified and is keeping us pretty busy. Argus has been scanning the seabed for the better part of a day. Our revised East-West track lines have worked well and the wind has moderated with mostly clear skies. We passed over the crash coordinates provided in the Bureau of Air Commerce accident report and have so far marked approximately 31 targets for possible further analysis… though, nothing that appeared to be obvious aircraft wreckage. Frankly, nobody reasonably expected that Samoan Clipper would be precisely where the 1938 searchers estimated. Their work put us in the neighborhood and we now we need to do the careful work of scouring the surrounding area. I still feel it must be close by.

Rainbow Waters American Samoa 07 16 19 rsz

Interesting observations:

> Someone noted that the date of Samoan Clipper’s loss, January 11, can also be rendered as “1-11”… and that the Search for Samoan Clipper is Nautilus’s one hundred eleventh expedition, the official OET designation of which is “NA 111”

> A passing rain squall created a spectacular rainbow between the ship and the island this afternoon. I can’t help wondering what is waiting at the end of it.

It’s time for my next 4 hour watch in the control van. We’re working our way south of the reported crash location now and into some prime search area. I’ll wrap up at midnight and be back again at 0600 to hopefully speak with some special guests. -- Russ Matthews

Russ Matthews and Dede Marx from Search Inc on watch on EV Nautilus
From front to back: SEARCH, INC Archaeologist Dede Marx, Air/Sea Heritage  Foundation President Russ Matthews, Ocean Exploration Trust Science Manager Suna Tuzun


July 15, 2019

UPDATE: Nautilus left the dock a little after 0800 this morning, retracing the route of USS Avocet (AVP-4) “en route to a point 12 miles north Tapu Tapu Point to search for Samoan Clipper (NC16734).” It was a thrilling moment to finally be on our way and feel a rolling deep sea swell lift the ship as soon as we made the turn to exit the inner harbor .. a good reminder of why the clipper had to use the restricted landing area despite its other hazards.


USS Avocet (AVP-4) “en route to a point 12 miles north Tapu Tapu Point to search for Samoan Clipper (NC16734).”

USS Avocet (AVP-4) “en route to a point 12 miles north Tapu Tapu Point to search for Samoan Clipper (NC16734).”


Pago Pago sunburst rsz 07 15 2019

Pago Pago Sunburst

The trip around Tutuila’s west end went by quickly and we were soon rounding the headland at Tapu Tapu Point to starboard. Once in the lee of the island, Nautilus was sheltered from a Southeasterly swell and the ride smoothed out considerably. We made a dash to the North and covered the distance to the start of our first plotted search line in what seemed like the blink of an eye (especially after the long, drawn out process of getting here).

Using dynamic positioning, Nautilus held station while the Argus ROV was prepped for launch. A passing rain squall swept over the area, but the crew carried out the entire evolution with great skill despite the weather and got the vehicle in the water without incident. By 1120 Argus was diving for the seabed to hunt for signs of Samoan Clipper like a bloodhound on a very long leash.

During the deep descent, I took the watch leaders’ seat in order to answer some of the questions already flooding in from people watching on the livestream. They were varied and thoughtful and showed that there strong interest building in the mission. I did my best to answer queries and provide more background with my colleagues in the control van. Everyone had insightful comments and relevant experiences to share. I’m actually looking forward to what I can learn from all of them over the next several days.

Argus reached the seabed around 1400 hours and I surrendered my chair to Mike so that he could bring his considerable sonar expertise to bear. He’s spent a lot of time finding things on the bottom of the ocean (including from Nautilus) and it was time to let him do his thing.

We started with a 2 mile long run headed “downslope” of our search area headed roughly Northwest. This run was intended to be a “working up” period .. evaluating the performance of the sonar, getting familiar with the subsea landscape and dialing in our techniques. It was a great relief to find that the underwater slope is quite gentle... and a very pleasant surprise to discover that the downward looking Argus camera can actually see the bottom. This is big as it means our survey has no middle gap of data in the “nadir” between sonar transducers. Much of the terrain is flat and sandy, though there do appear to be a number of rocks strewn about, as can be expected from such a volcanically active area. We’re still confident that manmade metallic objects will stand out readily against this background. A stiff breeze from the east is pushing up to “crab” the ship using dynamic positioning and has cut our projected speed. The plan is now to run the next lines into/with the wind, which should increase our overall speed and reduce some of the “stretching” effect on the sonar return.

Aboard the Nautilus July 15 2019

Aboard E/V Nautius July 15, 2019

This too is a part of exploration. Having the persistence to do repetitive, attention intensive work without constantly second guessing yourself helps make the prospect of discovery even sweeter. We will keep at it and hope you will all stick with us. -- Russ Matthews


July 14, 2019

07/14/19 UPDATE PART 3: On board Nautilus. The ridge behind me is where Musick would have to approach to land in the harbor. -- Russ Matthews

Russ Matthews Onboard Nautilus  07 14 19

On the EV Nautilus, July 14, 2019: Russ Matthews, Samoan Clipper Expedition leader and Principal investigator @airseaheritage foundation


Samoan Clipper on Pago Pago approaching over the ridge, from Jon Krupnick Collection
Samoan Clipper on Pago Pago approaching over the ridge, from Jon Krupnick Collection 


07/14/19 UPDATE PART 2: Exactly as I had hoped, our flight path took us over Apia and then across to Tutuila where the unpressurized de Havilland Otter flew low along the southern coast, giving everyone on board a spectacular view of Tapu Tapu Point and the waters beyond where we will soon be searching for Samoan Clipper (I have to admit, a few of the nervous fliers in our group did not seem to fully enjoy my impromptu history lesson about following so closely in the ill-fated Musick’s wake).

Tapu Point from the air Update 07-14-19 3.52PM

Tapu Point from the Air

Soon we were safely on the ground, having travelled back across the International Date Line and hence “back in time” (landing nearly a full day before we left). But, even as I reset my watch, it occurred to me that what we’re doing is a form of time travel. Every step brings us closer to the events of 11 January 1938 and to the place where the tangible evidence of what happened that day has remained undisturbed for more than 81 years.

A short bus ride brought us from the airport to the harbor .. and then suddenly, as if by magic, there was Nautilus. After 5 years of dreaming and effort, it hardly seems real .. but, it is. As I type, she’s tied to the pier in sight of the old Pan Am Clipper base with her bow pointed toward the ridgeline where Ed Musick made repeated hair-raising, wind whistling approaches to land in the calm, but narrow waters alongside.

Mike and I have been assigned to cabin 16. It’s a bit of a homecoming for me in that this was my berth during the 2016 mission to USS Independence. However, it is also special because this is Dr. Ballard’s cabin when he is aboard. I realize what a rare opportunity it is to be in this chair now myself, working with the incredible team he’s assembled on the ship intended to carry out his vision to explore the world’s oceans. We couldn’t ask for better partners in the search for Samoan Clipper.

The afternoon was a whirlwind of familiarization training and mission planning. Provisions are stowed, gear is prepped and the crew is eager to depart. Tomorrow morning we will get underway. -- Russ Matthews

07/14/19 UPDATE PART 1: One more flight to go. About 20 of us are gathered at tiny Fagalii Airport outside Apia, waiting to make the 35 minute island hopper jump to Pago Pago where Nautilus is docked.

SF Examiner Headline Samoan Clipper with Musick January 12, 1938

 San Francisco Examiner Front Page, January 12 1938

It strikes me that we are now following even more directly in Musick's footsteps. Samoan Clipper was sighted over Apia shortly before the accident, as Captain Musick apparently scouted the harbor as an alternate landing spot while burning off some of his excess fuel. This would be the cause of some confusion and false hopes in the ensuing days as reports of the plane being seen at Samoa were hopefully interpreted to mean it had set down safely nearby.

Our flight may pass within view of Samoan Clipper's ultimate resting place as we wing our way east and draw closer to realizing our ultimate goal. -- Russ Matthews


July 13, 2019

We’ve skipped over July 12 (and the International Date Line) to arrive on the shores of Samoa. We’re here and the preparations continue. Others are arriving from all around the world and all walks of life, bringing a variety of invaluable skills and experiences to run the expedition.

Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) rotates science crews in and out through the entire field season, so people are both coming and going. I ran into Megan Cook, an old friend from my last time aboard Nautilus during the 2016 USS Independence (CVL-22) mission.She came the long way this time, visiting some well known spots (like Honolulu) and less celebrated (like Kingman Reef), though all of it instantly familiar to students of Pan Am Clipper lore.

Samoan Sunset 13 July 2019 by Russ Matthews on the Search for Samoan Clipper

Megan tells me that the most recent six day run was devoted entirely to mid-ocean hull mounted multibeam surveys, which left the ROV crews free to devote themselves to prepping Argus for phase 1 of our Samoan Clipper search plan. She assures me that the sonar transducers are in place and all that remains is to attach the specially designed stabilizing fin. It seems the crew is just as eager as we are to get started!

This afternoon was marked by a brief but intense series of rainsqualls that passed through, peeling water from the clouds in sheets. Fortunately, the waves and the wind strength appear relatively calm and the forecast is promising. We’re optimistic for the expedition, knowing we can run operations 24/7 in some pretty severe weather conditions.

The rains ended for the day around sunset and we were treated to a great view to the West. Of course, our destiny is hopefully waiting for us in the East. We leave to join Nautilus in Pago Pago tomorrow.

More to come. --Russ Matthews


July 11, 2019

UPDATE: The team has assembled in Los Angeles and we are waiting at the gate to depart for Samoa by way of Honolulu. It seems entirely appropriate that our journey should begin here as this is the town where a teenaged Ed Musick learned to fly more than 100 years ago! 

In a career that spanned "from crate to Clipper" he helped transform Aviation from the exclusive domain of daredevils and stunt fliers into the modern air transport industry. An especially vivid example of his role in forging that path was the first flight survey flight from California to Hawaii in 1935. At the controls of a Sikorsky S-42B, appropriately dubbed Pan American Clipper, Musick tackled the longest over water route in the world, a staggering 2,400 miles of empty ocean, and made it routine.

Pan Am Pilot Ed Musick and Gooney on Midway

Pan Am Pilot Ed Musick and Gooney on Midway (Photo: PAHF Collection)

At this moment, I'm just one of thousands of people taking one of what must be dozens of scheduled flights to Honolulu from this airport alone. It's incredible to think that this minor miracle now repeats itself every day. A lasting legacy of Ed Musick and the Samoan Clipper crew. -- Russ Matthews


July 5, 2019

In just TEN DAYS from now the search for Samoan Clipper will begin in earnest and I find myself looking back at the more than five years of effort that has led to this point. We’ve learned a tremendous amount in that time; a wealth of information about the circumstances that contributed to the fateful accident, details of the construction of the airplane, and clues to where it may ultimately be found. However, in pouring over all of this data, one particularly poignant realization stands out above all others; that for the people of Pan American Airways, this tragic incident was not merely business, it was family.

 Service for Heroes San Francisco rsz


Inexpressable Regret PAA Radiogram January 16 1938 rsz

Most of them would have their worst fears substantiated on 16 January 1938 through a Radiogram (preserved at the University of Miami Special Collections Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records) addressed to “All Departments” which states, “It is with inexpressible regret we must confirm to you the loss of NC34 with its entire crew in the vicinity of American Samoa.” Just a few simple words separated from us by eighty-one years, but the sense of grief is somehow still raw and palpable. So professional were PAA’s staff that they would carefully conceal that sudden and shocking pain from their passengers.

Our Deep Sorrow rsz

The following day (17 January 1938), Division Manager Clarence M. Young sent instructions via another Radiogram to conduct a private tribute while noting that “no person outside of the company may be informed and no publicity given to this program. Stop. It is intended solely as an effort on the part of those of us who have been privileged to be associated with Captain Musick and the members of his crew to express in some measure our deep sorrow and our knowledge of the great loss which has befallen not only ourselves but the entire air transportation industry throughout the world.”

Memorial Cover Samoan Clipper rsz

A week later, on 24 January 1938, the public was finally permitted to observe their mourning and join in paying respects to the fallen fliers at a packed memorial service on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco, Pan Am’s Pacific “company town.” Musick’s fellow pilots came dressed in suits, honoring his standing policy never to appear in uniform when not on duty.

What I find equally remarkable is the revelation that this sense of bereavement for seven “of their own” is still keenly felt among the Pan American family to this very day. The connection to those veterans, relatives, and admirers who built, sustained and preserved the PAA legacy remains undiminished by time and distance.

I, along with my Air/Sea Heritage Foundation team and our partners at Ocean Exploration Trust, are honored and humbled to be welcomed so warmly into that extended Pan Am family by people like Jon Krupnick, Linda Freire, John Hill, Ed Trippe & Doug Miller  of the Pan Am Historical Foundation (and the two retired PAA pilots who turned up especially to greet us last week)... plus so many others who have generously given of their time and efforts as well as the numerous Facebook posters offering kind words of support and encouragement for the project across the wide variety of organizations that have shared our story.

I’ll be working closely with THE PAN AM HISTORICAL FOUNDATION IN THE COMING DAYS to bring you regular updates on our progress as the expedition approaches and gets underway. I hope these posts will be shared amongst a wide range of social media feeds and that readers will likewise continue to contribute their thoughts, memories, and insights on Musick, Samoan Clipper, and the great Pan American flying boat era as we go forward.  

Together we will write the next chapter of this story, give it to the world, and hopefully bring a sense of closure for all of the family members, near and far.

Russ Matthews
President, Air/Sea Heritage Foundation


Link to Articles related to Ed Musick & the Pioneering Efforts of the Samoan Clipper

> Searching for the Samoan Clipper: Story of the July 15-20th undersea hunt off American Samoa for Pan Am's S-42B piloted by Ed Musick in 1938, by Russ Matthews, President & Co-Founder of Air/Sea Heritage Foundation

> Back To Auckland

> What We Owe Ed Musick

> A Pan Am Great - Captain Edwin Musick

> A New Route Down Under

> Pioneers - Kingman Reef

> The Magnificent S-42s



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