Why I’m not watching “Pan Am”

Not even the sexy promo shots -- of 707s, that is -- tempt me. Plus, a veteran of those storied days dishes dirt

Topics: Ask the Pilot, Pan Am, Air Travel,

Readers are asking what I think of the new ABC series “Pan Am.” The heavily hyped show, set in 1963, debuts Sunday at 10 p.m.

What I think is that it’s a cool enough idea for a series — I’m a little surprised it hasn’t been done already — but that I’m not going to watch it.

I’m not going to watch it because my feelings are hurt, not having been invited aboard, as it were, as a technical advisor. And also because … well, because it’s a TV show, not a historical documentary, and I’d be liable to find myself sitting there grumbling at the screen, pointing out inaccuracies and taking the whole enterprise a little too seriously.

I do like those sexy shots in the promos, though. Of those sleek old 707s, I mean, and of JFK’s now decrepit Terminal 3, the former Pan Am “Worldport,” sparkling and elegant again through the magic of special effects.

The most storied and influential franchise in the history of commercial aviation, Pan American World Airways ceased operations in 1991 after years of heavy losses and decline — the last straw, perhaps, being the terrorist bombing of Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988.

This was an airline with a network spanning six continents, and that once sold tickets for a proposed service into space. Its circular, blue-and-white logo was a global icon — only the frilly script of Coca-Cola was better known across the planet — and its headquarters was an 800-foot Manhattan skyscraper designed by Walter Gropius.

But does the ABC series accurately portray the glamour and thrill of the Jet Age? For what it’s worth, I work with some people who were pilots and flight attendants for Pan Am, and they’re a little snarky about the endeavor.

I spoke with Tom Bunn, a retired captain who today runs the SOAR fear-of-flying program. He was hired by Pan Am in 1965 and flew 707s and 747s for the better part of 20 years (moving to United Airlines in 1986 with that carrier’s acquisition of Pan Am’s Pacific network).

“When we got the first 747SP, I remember finding a note on the crew bunk,” Bunn says, referring to the short-bodied, long-range variant of the 747, designed specifically for Pan Am. “The note said, ‘It’s already been done.’ This was a reference to the ‘eight mile high club,’ as the SP could do 43,000 feet.



“On layovers in Africa there was little supervision and little communication other than through short-wave radio. Our layovers at Roberts field in Liberia were essentially a three-day party — the steaks, wine and caviar appropriated from the first-class galley.

“The flight attendants had a glamorous life in the ’60s, working trips to London to get their hair done; to Paris for perfume; to Rome for designer clothes. In general they dated only first-class passengers. We had several who were from wealthy European families and spoke three, four, even five languages fluently.

“We also had a purser and his wife who pimped out flight attendants in Beirut. A story went around that the purser’s wife, after working a presidential press charter, was asked by Bobby Kennedy to spend a weekend with him. According to the story, she phoned her husband asking for advice, and was told, ‘Do it!’ They bought a house in the Hamptons the following year. Some say there was a connection.

“I remember another notorious purser who seemed to be able to get away with anything. One time there was a passenger who refused to put away his carry-on. She went over to him, put one hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Sir, there are two places you can shove that bag, and one of them is under the seat in front of you.’”

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Do you have questions for Salon’s aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

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