CNAC and the Consolidated Commodore

Consolidated Commodore

The Consolidated Commodore is the plane Moon Chin flew during the Hankow evacuation in October, 1938 (China’s Wings, Chapter 14), and he’s quite possibly the last Commodore pilot alive.

An all-metal monoplane flying boat originally designed to meet US Navy patrol plane specifications, the Consolidated Commodore cruised at 108 miles per hour, and it entered service for New York-Rio-Buenos Aires (NYRBA) line in 1929 and 1930. Only fourteen Commodores were built, and they were used in regular service during the early 1930s, predominantly in the Caribbean and up and down the coasts of South America, but their haydey was over by 1935. The major airlines removed them from front-line service and replaced them with a higher performing seaplanes. Pan Am crated up two of their lumbering, fuel-inefficient, twin-engine Commodores and shipped them to the Philippines, hoping to use them to establish an inter-island subsidiary that would feed traffic to their transpacific line. Unfortunately, Harold Bixby couldn’t secure the necessary permissions from the Philippine government, and the two flying boats languished in their shipping crates.

They were still in their crates in Manilla in late 1937, after China’s catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Shanghai, as the Japanese were driving toward the Nationalist capital at Nanking (China’s Wings, chapters 8, 9, and 10). Colonel Lam Whi-shing was CNAC’s managing director at the time, and although Bond never wavered in his desire to remove Colonel Lam and all Chinese Air Force influence from CNAC, circumstances forced Bond to work much closer with Colonel Lam through late November and early December, 1937. Bond’s respect for Colonel Lam grew as a result.[i]

CNAC desperately needed airplanes in late 1937, and Bond tipped Colonel Lam to the existence of the two Pan Am Commodores languishing in Manila.[ii] CNAC could use the old flying boats on the Yangtze above the Japanese occupation. Bond and Colonel Lam flew to the Philippines in early December to examine them.[iii] Colonel Lam decided to buy the airplanes. He also realized that Bixby would have a hard time finding another buyer – few places in the world besides China could profitably employ such obsolete aircraft. Bond begged conflict of interest and stepped back to watch the two men haggle, Pan Am v. CNAC.

In the end, Colonel Lam bought both airplanes, one spare pontoon, a pair of propellers, two extra T2D1 Hornet Commercial Aircraft Engines, and other miscellaneous airplane, engine, and radio parts for U.S. $78,000 (just over one million modern dollars),delivered to Hong Kong and assembled by Pan Am, an especially fine purchase considering the $4,000 cost of shipping the planes and spares to Hong Kong.[iv]

Here are the two pages of the purchase agreement:








CNAC Commodore anchored off Chungking’s Sanhupa Airport in 1938
The sunken Commodore. Note the undamaged Loening floating off the Commodore’s left wingtip

Beginning in early 1938, CNAC used the Commodores to good effect plying the Yangtze above Hankow.

The sunken one below was damaged by an unexpected storm that struck Chungking overnight in the third week of April, 1938. Sledgehammer winds tore rooftops and felled walls in the hilltop city. Down at river level, night was blackness and chaos and torrents of wind-driven rain. The storm wrecked twenty-five junks and drowned their crews. Eighty and ninety mile-per-hour winds gusts flogged the nine planes on Sanhupa Airport or anchored in the river beside it — five of which belonged to CNAC: a DC-2, a Stinson, a Commodore, a Dolphin, and a Loening. The furious storm overwhelmed efforts to secure them. A little Beechcraft owned by the Chinese Army blew two thousand feet across the airport like a tumbleweed, and it would have gone into the river except for the  intervention of a hut in the shack village at the northeast corner of the island. The Beechcraft smashed the hut, but it tangled in the wreckage and blew no further. CNAC’s DC-2 was parked next to the passenger shed. A gust slammed the Douglas into the structure and collapsed the shed onto the airplane’s tail. The Stinson flipped onto its back. The Commodore and the Dolphin were anchored next to each other in the river. The windstorm smashed them together, dragged their anchors, and blew them aground. Rocks on the river-bottom punched holes in their hulls, which was probably fortunate since both airplanes flooded and settled to the tops of their hulls without being swept away. Their high wings kept their engines above water level.

The worst of the storm broke overnight. News of the disaster prompted William Bond to fly up from Hong Kong. The airport he reached in the afternoon was a wind-blown shambles. Miscellaneous debris fluttered in dying breezes. Wind had collapsed all four of CNAC’s shacks and scattered their contents. Bond threw himself into the recovery, and he found it a comfort to be confronted with concrete problems and obvious solutions. A steady rain nagged the salvage efforts, made even more difficult because Chinese Army pressgangs had recently stripped Chungking of coolie laborers, and those few who had escaped involuntary enlistment were busy building air raid shelters. Bond and the ground staff had a devil of a time with the sunken flying boats. They couldn’t just drag them ashore, because the rocky riverbed would shred the hulls. Swift, chest-deep current raced past the two flying boats, but eventually the mechanics were able to raise the wrecks enough to slide beaching gear beneath the sunken planes and haul the protected hulks ashore with thick hawsers and brute manpower.

Bond assessed the storm’s damage when the flying boats on solid ground. The collision of the two flying boats had torn a hole in the leading edge of the Dolphin’s left wing and bent its right pontoon. The Commodore was in much worse shape. Aside from several holes in its hull, the trailing edge of its elevator was mangled and torn, its left pontoon was holed and flooded, and both of the struts that braced the pontoon against the hull were bent and ruined. The collapse of the passenger shed onto the DC-2’s tail had torn the right elevator and snapped its hinge bracket. The right aileron was torn and the wingtip badly dented. CNAC had a spare wingtip and elevator stored in a cave above the Chungking airport, and Bond ordered an aileron flown north from Hong Kong and a hinge bracket “borrowed” from the wreck of No. 24 in Ichang. The engines and controls of all the damaged and flooded airplanes would have to be drained, dried, and thoroughly tested. Bond guessed it would take a week to repair the DC-2 and the Dolphin, three weeks to get the Commodore back into service, and a month to fix the Stinson, his lowest priority.

The Loening Air Yacht

The only undamaged airplane was CNAC’s Neanderthal Loening. Like a piece of ancient shoe leather, it had weathered the tempest without a scratch. [v]

Next, I’ll post about efforts to recover the world’s only known Commodore wreckage from the bottom of a lake in Canada.

For my other posts and pictures related to the Consolidated Commodore, click here.

2011 05 17 cover mock up v2

Here’s a nice YouTube slide show of Commodore photos with period music

[i]Bond’s growing respect for Colonel Lam: Bond, William L., Wings for an Embattled China, pp. 161 says so specifically; the tone also changed in Bond’s contemporaneous correspondence.

[ii] The two Consolidated Commodores: Bond, William L., Wings for an Embattled China, pp. 161; Bixby to Colonel Lam Wei-shing, December 3, 1937, WLB.

[iii] Bond and Colonel Lam went to the Philippines to examine them: Bond to Kitsi, November 22, 1937, WLB; Bond was in the Philippines on December 9 and 10: Florence Allison to her mother, written from Manila, December 9, 1937; Florence Allison to Ernie Allison, December 12, 1937; both in NAW.

[iv] Bond claims that Colonel Lam bought both airplanes for $29,000 total in Wings for an Embattled China, pp. 161, but the actual purchase agreement between Lam and Bixby, dated December 3, 1937, is in WLB, and cites the figure given ($78,000 U.S. for the total purchase, planes and spares); CNAC Chief Mechanic Oscar C. Wilke escorted the Commodores’ shipping crates from Manila to Hong Kong on December 14: Florence Allison to Ernie Allison, December 12, 1937, NAW.

[v] The storm in Chungking: Bond to Bixby, written in Chungking, April 24, 1938, WLB; photos of the damage provided to the author by Shirley Wilke Mosley, daughter of CNAC chief mechanic O.C. Wilke.



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