When Aviation Was on Top of the World

There’s no shortage of long lingering camera views in ABC’s new television show Pan Am, which airs for the first time Sunday September 25th and which I was allowed to preview recently.

Sony Pictures Television / Patrick Harbron

Views of what you ask? You know, the schtick that evokes the glory days of aviation, sleek and shiny airframes, smooth and super cool flight crews. The two vie for camera time in the hour-long pilot (cool your jets, “pilot” is TV speak for the first episode).

I can assure you there’s enough visual candy in this show to make it appealing beyond the airplane geek, the travel nut and the romantic which already encompasses a whole lotta’ people.

Emirates flight crews now and Pan Am then

But as I noted in my recent story in The New York Times,  the presumed popularity of Pan Am speaks to something bigger than the inherent sexiness of the subject matter. This show reminds us of a time that couldn’t be more different than today – a time when flying in an airplane was being on top of the world.

We can talk about passengers dressing up for the flight; the ladies in hat and gloves, the men in suits and ties.  We can talk about the times when it was perfectly acceptable for Pan Am to advertise its new Boeing 707 with a campaign slogan that the 707 “had the legs for long-haul flights”.

Photos courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation

We can talk about the service. When I was little and I took a trip to New Jersey to visit my grandparents, a big paper teddy bear was tied around my neck and the flight attendants spent their time doting on adorable me.

Candice Adams Kimmel, had a similar experience. On a flight to visit her granny when she was four, the stewardess gave her the job of handing out the chewing gum to other passengers before takeoff. (Offering gum or candy was standard – an attempt to prevent ear discomfort from the cabin pressurization.)

Najeeb Halaby pins wings on Candice Adams Kimmel

Heavens, she was thrilled. She went home and played stewardess. “I put my teddy bears in my red wagon, I put my navy blue church hat on sideways so the peak was on  my forehead and I pulled my wagon with my teddy bears in it around the yard.”

She looked fetching that day in 1968 when Pan Am executive Najeeb Halaby pinned silver wings on the lapel of her uniform and she was off to see the world from the elevated position of stewardess, and not just stewardess, but stewardess on the first global airline, the standard by which all other airlines were judged.

Few airlines today will match the standard that Hollywood is serving its viewers in the weekly program Pan Am.

Mike Vogel plays Capt. Dean Lowery Sony Pictures Television / Patrick Harbron

Mike Vogel, the actor who plays Capt. Dean Lowery is certainly too young to remember any of the glorious details from the time when flying was fun, but someone has briefed him.

In an interview yesterday at the studios in Brooklyn where the television show is filmed he made it clear that he “got” the significance of Pan Am in the history of commercial aviation.

“The thrill of the flight was more important than whatever destination they were going to,”  he said. Then he added, “You’ll never get back to this. You’ll never return to these days.”

I’ve been hyped about the show ever since Candice told me about it in July – all the while unconvinced one hour once a week is sufficient tribune to the glorious past.

Photo courtesy family of Robert Evans

So I was delighted this August when a relative passed along to me, the private memoirs of a her late father, Pan Am Capt. Robert Evans. I spent two days immersed in the book which I found to be a treasure trove of the adventures of flying. Evans was a pioneer, experiencing it all, the thrill and the boredom, the fear and the power.

Capt. Evans’ first trans-Pacific flights were on the Boeing 314 a flying boat with four pilots and two flight engineers. Imagine a trip from San Francisco to Auckland, three days of flying with two overnight stops one in Hawaii and one on the tiny atoll of Canton. Passengers and crew stayed in hotels established by Pan Am that probably  looked like this one in Guam.

Photo courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation

In command of a Boeing 747 departing New York he had an experience presaging the Miracle on the Hudson, when a seagull, yep one single seagull, gutted one of the mammoth airplane’s four engines. After dumping fuel and returning to the airport, he was astonished to see the engine’s “entire central workings completely wiped out. There were no compressor blades to see – or block your view looking through the engine. They agreed” he wrote of the mechanics that day,  “they had never seen such a drastic condition before.”

Boeing 747 image from a Pan Am menu circa 1980

Photo courtesy Pan Am Historical Foundation

Holy smokes, the stories Capt. Evans could tell. Or Candice, or the thousands of other Pan Am employees who will probably be glued to their television sets on Sunday.

This is the beautiful show that, like the beautiful Helen of Troy, will unleash a thousand lips. Those of us who didn’t live the Pan Am life, will be lucky indeed if we are are within hearing range of some of those tales.


See my other post on this subject at FLYING LESSONS






  1. Posted on September 27, 2011 at 1:13 pm by Anne Lang

    Loved the show! I was a TWA Stewardrdess who married a Pan Am Third officer (Navigator), in 1956. We had five children and spent the next 30 years showing them the World. We climbed the Career Ladder with him and were so proud of each rank. I remember quizzing him for his “Six month checks which were very stringent. He became a 747 Captain and I felt I had earned the honer with him, Pan Am was a very close knit family and no matter where we ventured we felt safe knowing a Pan Am office was close by. Our family lived in Hong Kong for two years and we loved every minute of being with other PAA families on a much more intimate basis. We partied together and vacationed in exotic places like Bali. By the way we All loved the first show. Such Nostalgia….

  2. Posted on February 25, 2012 at 4:24 pm by Cyrene Wells

    I was delighted to find the photo of the 747 crew on Google Images, along with your article. I’m the stewardess to the far right. What a time it was! Before this shot was taken I’d done a short pre-inauguration tour with the 747 to Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Houston–which included a buzz of the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1970. I’ve just completed a coming-of-age memoir about my time with Pan Am. You wouldn’t happen to know of any eager literary agents out there, would you? Publication will be an uphill challenge. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks.
    Cyrene Wells

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  4. Posted on April 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm by Wilma A. Evans

    Dear Christine,
    My name is Wilma Evans. I am mother of Gail Young who originally told me how to explore your blog about Pan Am including the picture of my husband, Robert Evans, Gail’s father and a former pilot for Pan Am Airway. I have very much enjoyed your stories about Pan Am and your comments about my husband’s biographical book about his Aviation Career. Thanks for writing and sending your blog. I have shared it with my friends and relatives.
    Wilma Evans

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