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It was the height of the “Roaring 20’s” and the promise of aviation ignited the imaginations of people around the world. Pan American World Airways, more commonly known as Pan Am, was born in the Fall of 1927 in a whirlwind of corporate horse trading and a scramble to meet a Post Office deadline: fly 250 pounds of mail from Key West (Florida) to Havana (Cuba) by October 19th, or forfeit the Foreign Air-Mail contract. Thanks to a last minute and very fortuitous charter, the deed was accomplished and an unparalleled adventure in commercial aviation began – one that would last over six decades (right until its collapse on December 4th, 1991).
The first small planes gave way to ever larger craft, spanning ever longer distances. As the 1930’s began, Pan Am’s small fleet of land planes was complemented by newer, bigger and faster flying boats – the famous “Clippers”, named after the 19th century clipper ships. Pan Am soon became the principal and largest international air carrier in the United States, credited with many innovations that shaped the international airline industry.
In 1940, Pan Am began using the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first pressurized airliner in service and the first with a flight engineer in the crew. These “Clippers” were the only American passenger aircraft of the time capable of intercontinental travel. To compete with ocean liners, the airline offered first-class seats on these flights. By wearing naval-style uniforms and adopting a set procession when boarding the aircraft, the style of flight crews also became more formal. In 1942 the airline became the first to operate a route circumnavigating the globe and in 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to fly abroad. Pan Am was also the launch customer of both Boeing 707 & 747 and it was one of the first three airlines to sign options for the Concorde (which it eventually did not purchase).
At its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pan Am advertised under the slogan, the “World’s Most Experienced Airline”. At its height Pan Am was well regarded for its modern fleet and rigorously trained, experienced crews: a Pan Am Captain would normally begin his career years earlier as a radio operator or mechanic, steadily gaining his licenses and working his way up the flight crew roster to navigator, Second and then First Officer. It was not unusual for a Captain to make engine repairs at remote locations, to navigate solely by the use of a compass while judging drift from sea currents by day or by the position of the stars at night, to use dead reckoning and timed turns, making successful landings at fogged-in harbors by landing out to sea, then taxiing the plane into port… Cabin staff were multilingual and usually college graduates, hired from around the world, frequently with nursing training. Pan Am’s onboard service and cuisine were delivered “with a personal flair that has rarely been equaled”.
Pan Am was a cultural icon of the 20th century! One of the most famous images in which a Pan Am plane formed a backdrop was The Beatles’ 1964 arrival at John F. Kennedy Airport aboard a Pan Am Boeing 707. The airline (and its famous Worldport) appeared in a lot of movies, notably in several James Bond films and the blockbuster ‘Catch me if you can’ – based on the memoirs of con artist Frank Abagnale Jr who masqueraded as a Pan Am pilot for 4 years… ABC also released a television series based on the lives of a 1960s Pan Am crew. Long after the airline ceased to exist, the Pan Am brand still stands for Luxury, Glamour, Fashion, Lifestyle, Adventure and Unlimited Possibilities…
IATA PA – ICAO PAA – Callsign “Clipper”