Sikorsky’s S-38: The Beauty and the Beast

Dave Paulley, who is known for Western art as well as aviation art, has an affinity for stories of the Golden Era of aviation – the late 1920s and 1930s. One of his favorite subjects is seaplanes because of their artistic beauty and the adventuresome stories they have to tell.

One plane in particular, the Sikorsky S-38, was the aircraft of choice for Pan American Airways, Inter-Island Airways and other startup airlines of that period whose routes were primarily over water. Charles Lindbergh, who was a consultant for Pan Am at the time, described the plane as a “”flying forest.”” This was because it featured a boat hull slung beneath the wing with tail surfaces that were held in place by twin booms to the wings and by braces from the stubby aft fuselage.

Paulley has used the S-38 in several paintings. One of his recent paintings, “”Hanalei Departure,”” shows a Sikorsky seaplane departing Hanalei Harbor on the island of Kauai. When Inter-Island Airways began operations in 1929, a number of Kauai residents requested a charter airplane to take them to see their island from the air, a rather interesting request, considering none of them had ever been in an airplane.

The artist has done several paintings of both the S-38 and the Sikorsky S-43 in the Hawaiian environs. It was one of Paulley’s earlier paintings that brought his talents to writer Peter Forman’s attention. Forman then commissioned Paulley to do the painting that appears on the cover of the book “”Wings of Paradise,”” and more than a dozen illustrations used in the book.

The author, an airline pilot, spent 20 years researching this book to give the reader the complete story of Hawaiian Airlines, Aloha Airlines, the commuters and the upstarts. It all began as one man’s dream – Stanley Kennedy, who, while flying submarine patrol over the North Sea during World War I in a Curtiss H-16 flying boat, envisioned providing an inter-island air service back home. His hardworking father, who had left his native Scotland for America and then Hawaii, had merged Hawaii’s struggling steamship companies into the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co.

You would think a man with a vision, whose father was president of a successful steamship company, would have no problem starting an inter-island airline. But that was not the case. In spite of the hurdles Kennedy encountered, Nov. 11, 1929, was the inaugural dedication of his fledging Inter-Island Airways with two Sikorsky S-38s. Paulley’s cover painting depicts these two planes heading eastward along the North Shore of Molokai a few hours after the ceremony.

The early morning ceremony was attended by the Territorial Governor and the president of the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce, as well as other leading citizens from the island. Even then, Kennedy was in a race against another startup competitor as to which one would start regular service first. It wasn’t the airline’s last competitor. Over the years others have tried to compete with what is now Hawaiian Airlines and all have fallen by the wayside except one, Aloha Airlines, which has been a tenacious rival since the late 1940s.

Stan Kennedy’s story, including the subsequent battles for survival of the airline he started in 1929, is told in Forman’s new book “”Wings of Paradise, Hawaii’s Incomparable Airlines.”” The story of the rivalry and their fight for financial survival is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but if you think you have had problems, wait until you read this book.

The winners in this free-for-all were the passengers, who have enjoyed increasingly faster and better service at the lowest possible price. The rivalry continues today with new upstarts who believe they can wrest the passengers’ loyalty from these two giants.

From an artistic standpoint the S-38 was a beautiful plane, but a beast? Boarding the plane was difficult. Passengers had to climb a ladder to the top of the fuselage and down another ladder into the fuselage. Often during takeoff the passengers and the crew were drenched with seawater thrown up over the fuselage. Then there was the incessant thunderous roar from the two 400 hp Pratt & Whitney engines. The S-38 could carry eight passengers, nine if someone sat on the toilet, but today a Cessna 402 commuter plane can carry as many passengers twice as fast in relative quiet and considerably more comfort.

The Sikorsky S-38 may have been a flying forest, but it was the forerunner of the flying Clippers that made trans-oceanic travel possible. The S-38 was used extensively in South America and the Caribbean, as well as Hawaii and China. This twin-engine amphibian played a key role in making the world smaller during the “”Golden Age”” of flight.

Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be contacted at 909-986-1103.


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