A Tribute to an Airline Gone By and the Women and Men Behind the Cockpit
Pan American Airways was the airline of choice for the White House press corps during its eminence as the largest international
U. S. air carrier before collapsing on December 4, 1991.The reason: Pan Am was always there when you needed them and when it was tough going. Many journalists breathed a sigh of relief when the big blue ball logo was sighted at an airport. Sometimes it was to take you home or at least somewhere out of where you didn’t want to be. Sometimes it was to put your precious film in the hands of a friend, probably a flight attendant, knowing that the package would make its way back to New York. Yes, we did that often before the cautious times that we live in today.
The flight crews on the Pan Am press charters were generally the same as on the civilian flights and they did what all Pan Am flight attendants do: they gave the best service they possibly could. Sometimes it got a bit dicey. I remember a lead flight attendant, (purser) standing in the plane’s door to prevent customs officials of a country from entering the aircraft. They were attempting to prohibit several journalists from continuing on the flight because they had written unfavorable stories to the country—the journalists continued their flight. There were hundreds of stories like this.
Last week Pan Am flight attendants gathered in Savannah Georgia for a reunion. What other company’s employees would hold a reunion 24 years after the company ceased to exist? Al Topping, the Pan Am station manager in Saigon in 1975, told how he adopted 300 Vietnamese babies in order to get them out of the country during the days of the fall of Vietnam. Pamela Bolrgfeldt Taylor, a PAA purser, told of how the Pan Am flight attendants had volunteered for the dangerous mission to get the Pan Am employees out on that last flight.There were other stories about the flight attendants who volunteered for a flight to rescue Pan Am employees on the last days of Americans in Tehran in 1978.
There were stories about the early days of Pan Am and how its founder, Juan Trippe, and Charles Lindbergh developed the navigation systems for the Pan Am routes in South America. There were exciting stories about Pan Am clipper planes during World War II, but the stories the flight attendants looked forward to most were those told by Frank Abagnale Jr., who impersonated a Pan Am pilot, traveled all over the United States and was the true-life inspiration for Leonard DeCaprio’s role in the movie, “Catch Me If You Can.”
The three-day reunion was a tribute to interesting men and women who flew as flight attendants and pursers of Pan American Airways. The journalists in the White House press corps, especially the photographers, will continue to be the largest fans of these bright, interesting icons of American history.
By Dennis Brack (A White House photographer who was there and married one.)