Picturing Pan Am

A gallery of images, in honor of the iconic (and defunct) airline’s 90th birthday.

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Happy passengers deplane from the Pan American Airways Boeing 314 "Honolulu Clipper" in a 1939 brochure. PAA offered weekly service between San Francisco and Hong Kong via Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, and Macao.

Why does the name “Pan Am” still resonate more than a quarter-century after the company’s 1991 demise? The airline got its start in 1927, when the brilliant Juan Trippe, already experienced with running various charter companies, merged his group with two others to create Pan American Airways and establish a mail route between Key West and Havana, Cuba. With this act, writes historian Ron Davies, Trippe “embarked on a career that was, within barely a single decade, to build on a 90-mile route to Cuba to fashion the largest and most influential airline in the world.” The company would go on to connect South America and the United States by air; establish commercial routes across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans; and create the jet age as we know it.

Just in time for the 90th anniversary of Pan Am’s founding, two wonderful books have been published that document the airline’s history and legacy. The first, Pan Am: History, Design & Identity (Callisto Publishers), is a breathtaking, oversized coffee table book, beautifully designed and featuring more than 900 illustrations. The $900 book (yes, you read that right) explores Pan Am’s publicity, advertising, and design strategies, including examples of brochures, posters, and other advertising materials. As publisher Matthias Hühne writes in the preface, “The illustrations provide insight into the different designs and methods from the late 1920s to the late 1980s, and highlight the shifting focus of Pan Am’s campaigns and the evolution of its corporate design strategies.” The book includes a collection of rare Pan Am posters that Hühne acquired in 2014; “along with other promotional materials, they shed light on historic concepts of travel and technological process.”

The second book, Pan Am—Personal Tributes, compiled by Jeff Kriendler and James Patrick Baldwin (Pan Am Historical Foundation), is just that: An insider’s look at the airline from those who worked there. In addition to a history of  Pan Am (which you’d expect) the book also includes the esoteric: an interview with artist Milton Hebald, who sculpted the 15-foot bronze signs of the zodiac that graced the façade of the Pan Am building at JFK; a reminiscence from an employee who worked at Pan Am’s Counter Vanderbilt, the largest ticket counter in the world;  and a mournful remembrance from a flight attendant who flew aboard the White House press charter the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Readers will learn about flights behind the Iron Curtain and Pan Am rescues of American citizens stranded by wars, revolutions, and earthquakes. The airline even had a waiting list for passengers interested in future trips to the moon. (More than 200 people were issued “First Moon Flights” Club membership cards, one of which is reproduced in the book.)  

To see just a few highlights from Pan Am’s long history, see the slideshow below.

Pan American ordered new Fokker F-10A tri-motors in 1929, similar to this one owned by the Richfield Oil Company. In the Pan Am publicity photos, staff posed as passengers, since there was no money for advertising, writes Ann Whyte in Pan Am—Personal Tributes. The staff members were given a flight over New York City to thank them, plus one dollar each.
In this circa 1931 photograph, passengers wait to board a Sikorsky S-40 Clipper, an amphibious flying boat. The S-40 could carry 38 passengers and, at the time, was the largest airplane ever built in the United States. PAA founder Juan Trippe was enamored with all things nautical; author Jaime Baldwin notes in the book Pan Am—Personal Tributes, that in keeping with maritime lore and custom, a senior pilot was called “captain,” and a co-pilot was the “first officer.” Speed was calculated in knots, time in bells, and a crew’s tour of duty was a watch.
In 1931, Pan Am developed specifications for flying boats with a range of 2,500 miles. “Six manufacturers were asked for bids,” notes Jon Krupnick in Pan Am—Personal Tributes, “but only two—Sikorsky and Glenn Martin—submitted proposals. Pan Am shocked the aviation world by accepting both bids—three from Sikorsky at $242,000 each and three Martins at $430,000 each—with delivery promised for 1934.”
The Boeing 314 was the ultimate in transoceanic elegance. Twelve were built for Pan Am; trans-Atlantic passenger service was introduced in 1939 and was scheduled twice-weekly, weather permitting, notes Boeing historian Michael Lombardi in Pan Am—Personal Tributes. The flight from New York to Marseille took about 23 hours, and a one-way ticket was $395, or about $6,500 in today’s dollars. When World War II began, three 314s were sold to His Majesty’s Government, notes Lombardi; the remainder of Pan Am’s fleet was purchased by the U.S. War and Navy departments. None survive today.
After World War II, Charles Lindbergh worked for Pan Am for a dollar a year, writes Kathleen Clair in Pan Am—Personal Tributes. “He refused to take a salary but he said that he would submit an expense report. On his first trip to Paris he came back and handed me a bill noting, ‘Here’s my expense account.’ It was a car rental bill for a Renault and I asked, ‘Well, where’s the hotel bill?’ He said, ‘Well, uh, uh, I slept in the Renault.’ He was used to twisting up in small places, you know.” (Posed in front of a Pan American Airways Sikorsky S-38, left to right: two unidentified PAA staff, Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Betty Trippe, Juan Trippe.)
Pan Am offered “President Special” service on its New York-London route; this 1950 poster reflects the opulent meal service passengers would receive in the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser’s forward stateroom.
A crew poses by the Boeing 707PA, the second 707 built. Pan Am advertised the 707 with the tagline: “Jet Clipper Magic: Half the time—Twice the comfort.”
Pan Am made the 747 possible. Former Pan Am president and COO Dan Colussy writes in Pan Am—Personal Tributes, “[T]he design of the 747 already existed when [Juan] Trippe first heard about it.... Trippe was nearing the end of his storied career, and he wanted to go out as a visionary. What intrigued him was the sheer size of the 747, so he told [Bill] Allen [president of Boeing] he would order one as a test. Allen responded that was not good enough. Boeing could not even think about beginning production until it had at least 25 orders at $20 million per airplane. ‘Okay,’ said Trippe, ‘I’ll take 25 of them.’” Here, 747s under construction, in 1968.
The recession of the 1970s, the oil crisis, and a soft travel market spelled disaster for the company. To build its domestic routes, the company acquired National Airlines in 1980. In order to survive an additional decade, writes Gerry Gitner in Pan Am—Personal Tributes, the company looked for ways to rejuvenate the fleet while spending as little cash as possible. As part of a deal leasing a dozen A300B4-200s for transcontinental and Caribbean operations, Pan Am also acquired four A310s. “The A310 could be flown by a two-person cockpit crew and had the capability to operate on North Atlantic routes, such as New York-Paris/Geneva. Pan Am could thus compete on thinner North Atlantic routes with airlines operating the newly introduced Boeing 767…. While all these transactions did not prevent the ultimate demise of Pan Am as an operating entity, they did provide…the company the room to endure for another decade.”

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