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.’”

- – - – - – - – - – - -

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

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>