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Across the Pacific

A Moreno/Lyons Production

Across the Pacific is a two-hour documentary about one of the great milestones in aviation history: the 1935 crossing of the Pacific Ocean by a Pan American Airways flying boat known as the China Clipper. Funded in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and produced by a team of award-winning producers, writers and directors, the program will combine dramatic re-enactments, interviews with biographers and other scholars, and films and photographs drawn from the rich archival record about Pan Am and the early years of commercial aviation. The film is intended for national primetime broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel in 2017.

The China Clipper’s take-off from San Francisco Bay in November 1935 was one of the most-anticipated, most-listened-to events in history to that point. Broadcast live over nine radio networks reaching millions of listeners on four continents, it was a forerunner of the rocket launches from Cape Canaveral a quarter century later. People everywhere sensed this was a pivotal moment in human history, for if the Pacific could be crossed, there would be no place on earth that could not be reached by airplane. The world would suddenly be smaller.

But as with the space program, the real drama in this story is not in the flight itself; it’s in the effort it took to reach this point. The Clipper’s maiden voyage was the culmination of eight years of explosive innovation and growth, involving hundreds of men and women, both famous and unknown. Like the NASA engineers and astronauts who would later put a man on the moon in less than a decade, these earlier aviation pioneers built new aircraft, invented new technologies and overcame innumerable obstacles. They had begun in 1927 with a single, 90-mile airmail route. Now, inconceivably, they stood at the water’s edge, poised to conquer the final frontier of flight by hop-scotching across 8,700 miles of the mighty Pacific. How did they do it? That is the story of this film.

Across the Pacific is built around three fascinating characters:

Pan Am’s brash young chief executive, Juan Trippe, whose business acumen, political instincts and legendary foresight allowed him to build the world’s largest airline by age 35.

Igor Sikorsky, the Russian émigré who designed most of the flying boats that fueled Pan Am’s meteoric rise in the 1920s and ’30s. Though these odd aquatic aircraft may seem like nostalgic curiosities today, they played a critical role in the early days of commercial flight, particularly overseas.

And an unsung radio engineer named Hugo Leuteritz, who invented the navigation systems that guided Pan Am’s planes safely to their destinations. To cross the Pacific, Pan Am needed navigational methods that would allow its pilots to find their way unerringly across thousands of miles of trackless ocean. Leuteritz, before almost anyone else, realized the secret lay in radio – a technology that would be at the heart of virtually every navigational technique developed since the 1930s.

Across the Pacific is a production of Moreno/Lyons Productions, a Boston production company formed by Aida Moreno, the creator and original Executive Producer of the long-running PBS hit Antiques Roadshow; and Stephen Lyons, a producer-writer on “Forgotten Genius,” NOVA’s Emmy Award-winning biography of the African American chemist Percy Julian. Moreno/Lyons recently completed The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, a three-hour primetime PBS series about the human story behind the Periodic Table. On Across the Pacific, Lyons will team with Kirk and Lisa Wolfinger of the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning Lone Wolf Documentary Group. Also producing is Doug Miller of Pelican Films, a filmmaker and researcher who has been digging into the Pan Am story for many years.

With a production grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a financial commitment from the Smithsonian Channel and additional funding from other sources, we need to raise only $100,000 more before we can go into production.

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