Why avgeeks are marking Pan Am’s final flight, 30 years later

Dec 4, 2021

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Pan American World Airways, known as Pan Am and “The World’s Most Experienced Airline,” ceased flying thirty years ago this week, on December 4, 1991.

But to avgeeks everywhere, the carrier that was founded in 1927 and was for many years the country’s largest international airline, still holds cult status for a long list of pioneering “firsts,” its iconic branding, the celebrities it carried, and its Jet Age style.

While the anniversary of Pan Am’s final flight may be a sad occasion to make note of, it also presents an opportunity to look back at the carrier’s history and role in aviation history.

That’s what they’ll be doing this weekend at the Pan Am Museum on the third floor of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, NY. To mark the occasion, the Pan Am Museum is unveiling a new timeline exhibit of the airline’s rich history: “The Pan Am Saga – from its beginnings in 1927 to Its Slow Demise and Eventual Fall in 1991.”

New timeline exhibit Pan Am Museum
The Pan Am Saga is a new timeline exhibit at the Pan Am Museum (Photo courtesy of the Pan Am Museum Foundation, Inc.)

In advance of the exhibit opening and the anniversary of Pan Am’s final flight, The Points Guy spoke with Linda Freire, a former Pan American flight attendant, and co-founder of the museum, about some of the airline’s milestones, amenities, and role in history and popular culture.

“We carried a lot of celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Marilyn Monroe. We also brought The Beatles over from England. It wasn’t a British Airline, it was Pan Am,” says Freire. Pan Am airplanes were also featured in James Bond movies, Indiana Jones movies, and the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, which tells the real story of Frank Abagnale who never piloted a Pan Am airplane but made an impression by impersonating a Pan Am Captain. “The branding department did a great job,” said Freire.

The Beatles leave London for New York on Pan Am Flight 101 for a 10 day tour of the United States of America. Left to right: George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

“Beyond the pop culture and the brand mystique, Pan Am was indelibly interwoven throughout the history of the last century,” says Freire, with cameo and starring roles in many events. “A Pan Am jet carrying press and important dignitaries always accompanied Air Force One from the Kennedy Administration until the last year of Pan Am’s existence in 1991. So, when Presidents Nixon and Bush went to China, there was a Pan Am plane. When President Kennedy was assassinated, there was a Pan Am plane, and our crew, there. And in 1975 it was Pan Am that played the instrumental role in Operation Babylift, which brought more than 3,000 infants out of South Vietnam.

Pan Am’s signature inflight experience – and ads promoting it – are also indelibly etched into aviation history, from the elaborate meals to the premium in-flight service.

Pan Am French Restaurant ad
(Photo courtesy of the Pan Am Museum Foundation, Inc.)

“Pan Am developed and did it with a great sense of style and panache. Even when I was flying, in 1980, we cooked lobster thermidor, we made roast beef and carved it in the cabin at passengers’ seats,” says Freire. “And the appetizer tray always had a selection of beluga caviar.”

And of course, there is a very long list of Pan Am “firsts” and achievements over a more than 64- year history. Among them:

Pan Am was the first American airline to operate a permanent international air service (1927), the first American airline to use radio communications and carry emergency lifesaving equipment (1928), and the first airline to develop and use instrument flying techniques (1929).

Luxury as advertised aboard Pan Am flight, circa 1953 (Photo courtesy of the Pan Am Museum Foundation, Inc.)

In 1947 Pan Am was the first airline to operate a scheduled commercial round-the-world service and in 1966 Pan Am was the first airline to order the Boeing 747. In 1970, Pan Am was the first airline to operate the 747 in regularly scheduled service.

“We may be celebrating a bittersweet anniversary that’s somewhat emotional,” said Freire, “but the airline was iconic, and we don’t want its history – or its role in history – to be forgotten.”

Pan Am Consolidated Commodore (Photo courtesy of the Pan Am Museum Foundation, Inc.)

Bonus resources for Pan Am fans

The latest episode of the Pan Museum podcast features Ed Trippe, son of Pan Am founder Juan Trippe. Find previous episodes here.

1960 Pan Am Caribbean ad bag
1960 Pan Am Caribbean ad bag (Photo courtesy Pan Am Museum Foundation, Inc.)

Over on The Airchive, Chris Sloan is featuring Pan Am memorabilia and ephemera all week.

Featured image courtesy of the Pan Am Museum Foundation, Inc. 

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