Why Pan Am used to be one of the world’s most legendary airlines

1970s Pan Am airlines - Clipper Freedom 747

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Before it billed itself as the “World’s Most Experienced Airline,” Pan Am started off a little more humbly — but already making the bold moves that would make the airline so legendary, it became synonymous with international travel in the 20th century.

Vintage Pan Am airlines jets

Though you won’t find his name in these articles, the legendary Juan Trippe was the driving force behind Pan-American Airways (as it was known then) obtaining the airmail contract to Latin America — which is what led to it becoming the sole American passenger service to the region.

Trippe’s determination, business sense, and lack of fear in obtaining the airmail contract before Pan Am owned even a single plane was the same that would lead to his spearheading the Jet Age with the 707, then later ushering in the Jumbo Jet era with the introduction of the 747.

Juan Trippe and Charles Lindbergh - Pan Am terminal - Miami (1929)
Juan Trippe and Charles Lindbergh – Pan Am terminal – Miami (1929)

Stagnation in leadership following Trippe’s retirement, combined with increasing competition in the post-deregulation era, would eventually doom Pan Am, which closed its doors for good on December 4, 1991.

However, these articles allow us to look back at the humble beginnings of one of the world’s most legendary airlines — still regarded so 30 years after it ceased operation. – AJW

1950s Pan Am plane flies over the Presidio - San Francisco

America to Panama air mail and passenger service on January 1st (1928)

July 28, 1928 – Jamaica Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica)

Will be largest system of international airways in the world — Call at Honduras — Time of journey two and a half days instead of five by steamer

New York, July 22 — Thirty-one giant airplanes will start flying in daily service, carrying mail, passengers and express, on January 1, 1929, between Key West, Fla., and the Panama Canal Zone.

The route is 1640 miles long, the largest system of international airways in the world, according to the officials of the Pan-American Airways, Inc, which has been awarded the United States Government air-mail contract for the route.

Pan-American airlines in the 1920s

Stops on the route are: Key West; Havana; Merida, Mex; Belize; British Honduras; Puerto Barrios, Guatemala; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Managua, Nicaragua; San Jose, Costa Rica; David, Panama; and Cristobal, Canal Zone.

Two and a half days after a passenger steps into a plane at Key West he will be in the Canal Zone, after twenty-three hours of actual flying. Overnight stops are scheduled at Merida and Managua. This time of two and a half days contrasts with five days now required by boat from Galveston, Texas, to Cristobal.

ALSO SEE: The history of TWA: The ups & downs of one of America’s fallen giants, Trans World Airlines

First Pan-Am flight - Fokker F-VII General Machado (1927)

Whole week service

Officials declare the route will be flown seven days a week. The cost of the line of thirty-one huge planes will be approximately £500,000. Each of the planes will be fitted with three motors.

Since late last year the Pan-American Airways Inc, has maintained air-mail, passenger and express service between Key West and Havana and Santiago de Cuba, and on September 1, it is anticipated, an extension will be dedicated between Miami and Key West.

Three giant Wright-motored Fokker monoplanes and two Sikorsky amphibians, one powered with a Wright engine and the other with a Pratt and Whitney Wasp motor, are now in service. Orders have been placed for six 14-passenger super-Fokker F-10 Wasp-motored planes, three to be delivered in October and three in November.

In addition, negotiations are under way, according to official announcement, with three aircraft manufacturers for a score of planes capable each of carrying at least twenty passengers. Contracts have been let for these planes but the details of their construction are not yet ready for publication.

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Extension of service

Eventual extension of the service to South America is mirrored in the fact that the company in obtaining the government airmail contract also reserved the right to extend its initial route to include Guatemala City, and San Salvador and to prolong it around the northern coast of South America to British and Dutch Guiana.

Coincident with the announcement of the new international airways system, the backers of the project were revealed to be a group of powerful and wealthy Wall Street capitalists, who banded together to make permanent the “Lindbergh trail” through Central America.

Pan-American Airways, Inc, is a subsidiary of the Aviation Corporation of the Americas, which is composed of men affiliated with leading aviation groups, including National Air Transport, Wright Aeronautical Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Fairchild Aviation Corporation, Stout Air Services, Colonial Air Transport, Transcontinental Air Transport, Keystone Aircraft Company, and Aircraft Development Co.

Pan Am Fokker Tri-Motor, 36th St. Depot. 1928
Pan Am Fokker Tri-Motor, 36th St. Depot. 1928 – photo by Gleason Waite Romer

Pan Am: America’s first international air passenger route — to West Indies (1929)

Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana) – January 15, 1929

Fast trains of Atlantic Coast Line and Florida East Coast Railway connect at Miami with giant planes of Pan-American Airways for Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Porto Rico.

Miami — The joint train to plane service of the Florida East Coast Railway, the Atlantic Coast Line and the Pan-American Airways, Inc, brings Havana, Cuba within 46 hours of New York City, and effects a comparable saving of time between Havana and other cities of the United States.

It is the first international train and plane route in America. Passengers from any point in the United States can be routed to Miami by rail, thence by plane over the Pan-American Airways system direct to the Cuban capital and through Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic to San Juan, Porto Rico.

The first aviation passenger station to be built in the United States is that of the Pan-American Airways, at Miami. The station possesses all the facilities of any modern depot, and in addition, customs offices.

Pan Am America's first international air passenger route - to West Indies (1929)
Amelia Earhart, fifth from left

As an example in time saving: passengers board the “Palmetto Limited” of the Atlantic Coast line at 7:10 in the evening, arriving in Miami, via the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville at 7:15 the second morning 1-1/2 days out from New York. They are transported direct to the Pan-American Airways’ airdrome, where they have breakfast, and in 45 minutes they are winging their way to Havana, 261 miles away, arriving in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

The mystery of Amelia Earhart: She disappeared on her 'round-the-world flight, and was never seen again

Vintage Pan Am – Pan American World Airways tourism poster for Hawaii (1950s)

Vintage Pan Am - Pan American World Airways tourism poster for Hawaii

ALSO SEE: Hawaii-bound Pan-Am plane crashed into the ocean in 1957, killing 44 – and we still don’t know why

Pan Am flights to Europe in the 1950s

Vintage Pan-American Airlines - Luxurious air service (1950)

Vintage Pan-American Airlines - Clipper fares to Europe (1950)

Pan Am airlines - Europe only a dream away (1956)

Pan Am - Jet travelers across the Atlantic (1958)

ALSO SEE: See a vintage ’50s airplane safety card for a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser

Now Pan Am adds the DC-8 to world’s largest, fastest over-ocean jet fleet! (1960)

This month, another brilliant star of the stratosphere — the DC-8 Jet Clipper* — joins the great Pan American Jet fleet… the largest, fastest, and most powerful fleet of overseas passenger jet aircraft in the world.

With the addition of the big over-ocean version of the DC-8, Pan Am’s Jet Clipper fleet will become more than ever the first choice of international travelers.

In little over a year Pan Am’s Jet Clipper fleet has made aviation history — opening up jet routes around the world, serving 5 continents in between, and providing a pattern of one-plane jet services from the US unmatched by any other airline in the world!

No other airline offers so impressive a selection of US-built Jets: Boeing 707s and Intercontinentals and Douglas DC-8s — all at your service on the world’s most experienced airline. For your next flight, see your Travel Agent or any of Pan American’s 66 offices in the U.S. and Canada.

Pan Am adds DC-8 to their over-ocean jet fleet 1960 (1)

Pan Am adds DC-8 to their over-ocean jet fleet 1960 (2)

ALSO SEE: Looking back at Delta Airlines, the planes that were ready when we were… until they weren’t

Some travel times:

New York–London: 6 hrs. 25 min.
New York–Caracas: 4 hrs. 25 min.
Miami–San Juan, PR: 2 hrs. 10 min.
Los Angeles–Tokyo: 17 hrs. 35 min.
New York–Bermuda: 1 hr. 45 min.
New York–Karachi: 21 hrs. 25 min.
New York–Munich: 11 hrs. 20 min.
San Francisco–Hong Kong: 24 hrs.
Los Angeles–Fiji Islands: 12 hrs. 55 min.
Boston–Paris: 6 hrs. 20 min.
San Francisco–Sydney: 18 hrs. 50 min.
Los Angeles–Sydney: 18 hrs. 20 min.
New York–Brussels: 8 hrs. 20 min.
San Francisco–London: 11 hrs. 45 min.
New York–Hamburg: 8 hrs. 50 min.
New York–San Juan, PR: 3 hrs. 25 min.
Paris–Rome: 1 hr. 40 min.
Portland–Honolulu: 5 hrs. 40 min.
New York–Dusseldorf: 9 hrs. 15 min.
London–Hamburg: 1 hr. 20 min.
New York–Dominican Republic: 3 hrs. 15 min.

The first one has our name on it: Pan Am’s 747s (1970)

The fact is, the world’s first 747s will be flying the world’s most experienced airline. To London, Paris, Hawaii, Tokyo, all over the world.

And you’re welcome to join in the fun on the big plane where the big thing is comfort. With two aisles throughout. A double-deck section up front, complete with upstairs lounge, that’s in a First Class by itself.

Vintage Pan Am 747 plane in the sky

And three living room-size Economy sections. Each with its own galley, movie system, and full complement of stewardesses. And seats almost as big as First Class. And for all that, it won’t cost a penny more than ordinary planes.

Tell your Pan Am Travel Agent you want to fly the plane that’s a ship, the ship that’s a plane. On the airline that makes the going great. Pan Am’s 747. The plane with all the room in the world.

Pan Am 747 plane (1970)

Pan-Am plane at the Idlewild – JFK airport

MORE: See the stunning space-age TWA Terminal at JFK airport as it looked in the ’60s (before it became a hotel)

Pan-Am plane at the Idlewild - JFK airport

Pan Am – Number one in the Pacific (1977)

How we started as number one in the Pacific and why we still are.

In 1935, Pan Am was the first airline to fly across the Pacific. We started with one flight, on our famous China Clipper. For years, it was the only way to fly to the Orient and South Pacific. 42 years later, many frequent travelers still consider it the “only way” to fly there. Probably because we fly to more than 15 major cities in the Orient and South Pacific. And totally to more places in the Pacific from the U.S. than any other airline.

Fueling a vintage Pan-Am jet airplane

Not to mention that every flight across the Pacific is a comfortable and spacious 747 or 747 SP. (Which also means there’s plenty of room for your cargo.) And because we have so many non-stop flights, no matter where you live in America you’re probably just one stop away.

MORE: How (and why) the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made history

The only non-stop to Hong Kong. We have 3 non-stop 747 SPs a week from San Francisco to Hong Kong. And 2 times a week our flights continue onto Bangkok. (There’s also daily one-stop 747 service from New York and San Francisco.)

3 non-stops a day to Tokyo. We have the only non-stops to Tokyo from New York and Los Angeles: We also have a non-stop every day from San Francisco and another flight from Los Angeles which makes one stop in Honolulu. And once you arrive in Tokyo we have continuing service to Osaka or Hong Kong. Or we’ll arrange convenient connections to most other major cities in the Orient.

Pan Am - Number one in the Pacific (1977)

We like flying 747s as much as you do (1977)

Pan Am's 747 jets (1977)

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 (1988)

Photo and text courtesy of the FBI

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 sent a shock wave around the world

A few days before Christmas in 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, bound to New York from London and carrying mainly U.S. citizens, was blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie.

In all, 270 souls perished. On board the aircraft were citizens of 21 countries, including 190 Americans. On the ground, 11 residents of Lockerbie were killed when the plane’s burning wings plunged into a quiet neighborhood just after dinner.

Mothers and fathers, grandparents, children as young as 2 months old, and college students returning home from a study abroad program lost their lives in what was the largest terrorist attack in American history until 9/11. [ Read more here ]

Pan Am Flight 103 nose in a field after bombing and crash (1988) - FBI photo

NOW SEE THIS: Look back at the early days of American Airlines – doing what they did best

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