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Wings Over Manila

Jan 16, 2022 | Tales from the Philippines

In August 1936 the Warner Brothers film ‘China Clipper’ was released starring Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart. It was inspired by the life of American aviation pioneer Juan Trippe founder of Pan American World Airways and capitalized on public excitement generated by the first commercial transpacific airmail flight the year before. The China Clipper was a four-engine flying boat that took off from San Francisco on November 22nd  1935, flying via Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam to deliver Chinaclipper2 218x300110,000 pieces of mail to its destination in Manila. The mail bags were symbolically transferred from a stagecoach to the flying boat and Trippe announced:

‘Captain Musick, you have your sailing orders. Cast off and depart for Manila in accordance therewith.’

On arrival in Guam the Captain discovered the arrival celebration in Manila was scheduled two days later. Someone in the public relations department had confused the international date line and they were forced to delay flying the Guam to Manila leg by one day. On Friday 29th November 1935, watched by a crowd of 100,000, the China Clipper circled the city before landing in the bay where she was tied to a floating pier. A welcome arch was set up in Luneta park followed by a ticker tape parade and Manila Hotel banquet with the table arranged in outline of the flying boat.

The China Clipper was the first of three Martin M-130 flying boats delivered to Pan Am followed by the Philippine Clipper and the Hawaiian Clipper. Collectively they were known as the China Clippers.

Within a year Trippe extended his route first to Macao and then to Hong Kong after landing rights were negotiated. The route is recalled by the Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel’s 30th floor China Clipper lounge reserved for guests flying between the rooftop helipads and Hong Kong’s  Chek Lap Kok airport.


Pre-1941 the civilian side of Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airfield had its own seaplane terminal, jetty and ramp.

In the 1930s flying by China Clipper was the height of luxury comparable to train travel on the Orient Express with prices to match. A one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong cost US $950 but included silver service dining and the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, General Douglas MacArthur, Major General Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers and various Hollywood stars.

RoutemapIn 1975 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the historic flight a memorial plaque was erected on the seawall near the Manila Hotel. The Manila Hotel was built on reclaimed land opposite the old walled city of Intramuros and opened on July 4th 1912. General Douglas MacArthur was the most famous occupant but the hotel and his penthouse suite were set on fire by the Japanese during the battle of Manila and only retaken by U.S. troops fighting floor to floor.

The hotel has another link with aviation history in the Far East. In 1946, according to legend, a wartime pilot Roy Farrell was drinking in the hotel bar with a bunch of correspondents when he came up with a name for his fledgling airline – Cathay Pacific Airways.


Pan Am’s commercial flying boat era ended with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. By the end of December 1941 all of their pacific bases apart from Honolulu and Macao were occupied by Japanese troops and the remaining flying boats requisitioned by the Navy. Advances in aircraft design saw plans to operate the Atlantic and Pacific routes after the war shelved in favour of the land based, four-engine, propeller driven Douglas DC-4. Of the original clippers nothing remains today apart from photographs and models; the Hawaii Clipper disappeared en route from Guam to Manila in 1938, the Philippine Clipper crashed in Northern California in 1943 and the China Clipper crashed in 1945 in Trinidad & Tobago. Although operational for only a short period the China Clippers caught the public’s imagination during the depression and came to represent a golden age of travel. They were the most luxurious planes ever to fly, crossing the Pacific in six days rather than three weeks by ocean liner.

The boom in airfield construction during the war caused a worldwide decline in the use of seaplanes. Both floatplanes and flying boats are however still flown in remote areas such as Alaska and the Caribbean usually in specialist roles. The Philippines, an Manilabay

Manila Bay

archipelago of 7107 islands, has a few seaplane routes with Air Juan the first commercial seaplane operator. Their terminal is located at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex within sight of the Manila Hotel across the bay.

ClipperhotelIn the Poblacion area of Makati, housed in a restored Art Deco building, is the small, boutique Clipper Hotel. Rooms are designated as cabins, decorated with vintage style travel posters and there is a Pan Am bar on the ground floor.


A short walk from the Clipper Hotel, along Makati Avenue, is the Ayala Triangle Gardens another important site in the history of Philippines aviation. The Ayala Triangle gardens is a two-hectare public garden in the Makati Central Business District owned by the Ayala Corporation. It was once part of the 42-hectare Nielson Field, Manila’s pre-World War II  airport. The airport was decommissioned in 1948 and the runways converted to roads forming the Triangle’s boundaries: Ayala Avenue along its southwest, Paseo de Roxas along the north-northeast and Makati Avenue to the east-southeast. At each corner of the triangle is a statue dedicated to a Filipino hero: Benigno Aquino Jr., opposition leader to President Marcos, Gabriela Silang, leader of an independence movement from Spain and Muhammad Kudarat, a Mindanao Sultan who fought the Spanish. Overlooking the gardens are banks, hotels and office buildings including the PBCom Tower – the country’s tallest office building, the Ayala Center, the Peninsula Hotel and the Somerset Olympia which houses the Old Swiss Inn, a restaurant first opened in 1946 on Roxas Boulevard.



The Ayala Triangle Gardens today.

Nielson Field was named after a New Zealander, Laurie Reuben Nielson, a businessman and aviation enthusiast who convinced a group of investors to finance an airport on land leased from the Ayala Corporation. In July 1937, Nielson Airport was inaugurated and Philippine Air Lines (PAL) first flight took off in March 1941 for the short flight to Baguio. Due to the threat of war with Japan commercial flights were suspended in October 1941 and the airport requisitioned by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). During the war extensive damage from bombing was caused by both the Japanese and Americans but international flights resumed in 1946 until 1948 when the airport relocated to its present site adjacent to Nichols Field in Pasay.


Nielson Field 1940s.

Nielson3 (2)

The former control tower now the Blackbird Restauarnt.

The control tower of Nielson Airport was designed in Art Deco style to resemble an airplane from above and along with the passenger terminal was preserved as the Nielson Tower. This is the only low rise, pre-World War II structure still standing in Makati. It was the home of the Filipinas Heritage Library until 2014 when it became the Blackbird Restaurant offering high end dining and cocktails inspired by the China Clipper’s menus.

On February 15th 1946 PAL resumed domestic operations with five Douglas DC-3s until the last one was retired in 1978. Post war the market had been flooded with surplus transport aircraft and the DC-3 helped many airlines to get off the ground. The distance from the Manila Hotel to Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) is around 10 km passing along the waterfront promenade of Roxas Boulevard and through the Ermita and Malate districts. During the American and Commonwealth period they were wealthy residential areas but few of the pre-war mansions survived the devastation of the battle of Manila in 1945. Casa Tesoro built in 1901 was originally a vacation home for the landed gentry and still stands on Mabini St. In 1995 the building was renovated and rented out to antique shops and a bar – the Dakota Cabin Café Bar with its retro-aviation theme and airline memorabilia.


The Dakota Cabin.

In addition to surplus aircraft and jeeps which became the ubiquitous jeepneys, U.S forces left behind a huge quantity of Marston matting that was re-purposed as fencing. Marston matting or pierced steel planking (PSP) was used by Army engineers and Seabees (CB’s, Construction Battalions) to construct temporary runways during the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific. It is still a common sight in the provinces and can even be spotted in the backstreets of PSPPoblacion close to the Makati Central Business District.


The Philippines is a predominantly Christian country with over 80% of its population professing allegiance to Catholicism and the oldest church – San Agustin in the walled city dates from 1607. On a taxi ride to NAIA the driver passes by Our Lady of the Airways Parish church located on Chapel Road near the airport’s perimeter fence. The church with its distinctive red belltower and aircraft propeller offers prayers for safe flights and welcomes returning visitors. NAIA the main international gateway to the Philippines is named after Senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. who was assassinated at the airport in 1983. He was opposition leader to President Marcos and his wife Corazon Aquino eventually became President of the Philippines. The airport moved from OURLADYOFTHE AIRWAYSNielson Field to this present site adjacent to the Villamor airbase in 1948. Villamor airbase is the headquarters of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) previously known as Nichols Field when it was occupied by the USAAF. The PAF Aerospace Museum is located within Villamor airbase and has an outdoor aircraft park that includes a Douglas AC-47A Skytrain and a Grumman SA-16A Albatross, an amphibious seaplane used for search and rescue



Since 1981 the sandy coloured NAIA Terminal 1 has provided most travellers with their first and last visual impression of the country. It was designed by the architect Leandro Locsin in what became known as the ‘brutalist’ style. Locsin had made his name with the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969 and was the favoured architect of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The brutalist style is characterised by a lack of decoration, bare building materials and exposed, unpainted concrete resembling piled up jenga blocks. It is hard to understand what Imelda Marcos a self professed lover of beautiful things saw in a style whose drab, mildewed cement buildings dominate much of the city. The first sensory impression for visitors is the smell once the aircraft door opens. The unique odour of Manila is a combination of diesel, cooking oil, grease, burning rubbish, exhaust fumes and millions of closely packed bodies stewed together in tropical heat and humidity.

First impressions count and travellers today might be surprised that in the 1930’s Manila was often called ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ until the outbreak of war. William Manchester, an American historian wrote; ‘Of allied capitals in those war years only Warsaw suffered more’. Intramuros was gutted and most of the surviving Art Deco buildings torn down to be replaced with condominiums and shopping malls. The city has never fully recovered and makeshift squatter shacks of scrap wood, cartons and tin roofs known as barong-barong exist alongside the malls and gated communities. Manila is like one of those huge junk shops filled with the unwanted and unloved bric a brac of house clearances. The owner is happy to let you browse and rummage for the odd gem but knows the value and drives a hard bargain. Any thematic exploration of the city’s history requires patience and multiple attempts; there is no subway system, no hop-on, hop-off sightseeing buses only taxi drivers without the knowledge and taxi meters that don’t work. Jeepney routes are hard to fathom and walking only a few blocks leaves the urban explorer drenched in sweat tempted more by an air-conditioned Robinsons department store than another old ruin.

Since 1934 the National Historical Commission of the Philippines has installed more than 1,500 cast iron plaques throughout the country to mark historical landmarks including the Nielson Tower and Nichols Field. This list is a useful starting point to identify and unlock the jumble of sites scattered throughout Manila, a handful of which are true gems and worth the sweat.







About The Blog

About Blog In March 2020, after 28 years in Hong Kong, I moved to Penang as a base to travel in the region. The Covid 19 pandemic ended that plan and I spent much of the time re-reading books I had collected over the years. The only new book I bought was ...
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