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How Flagship Pan Am Lost Its Wings


By Robert Gandt

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William Morrow and Company, Inc

326 pp., $23

Soaring aloft over land and sea, the pilots of Pan American World Airways exercised as much power as the mightiest captains of sailing vessels of old; "skygods" they were, in their imperial military-style uniforms. Lesser airmen, for rival carriers, stood in awe at their presence. Pan Am, after all, was for all practical purposes the international flagship of the American aircraft industry - a corporate symbol of the United States.

But Pan American is now gone - swept away by a series of incredible corporate blunders, as well as the global competition that overtook the entire commercial airline industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Robert Gandt is a former Pan Am pilot who also happens to have the pen of a poet. "Skygods" is a captivating book that vividly recreates the glory of not just Pan Am, but the brashness, risk-taking, and high-octane energy that characterized US commercial aviation in the 20th Century.

Pan Am's history dates back to the late 1920s. The airline came under the control of a distinguished scion of Yankee gentility with a very un-Yankee-like name, Juan Trippe. The "Juan" was based on the name of a maternal aunt, Juanita. Trippe was able to get his early planes into the air by combining government mail contracts with commercial air transportation. And Trippe used the sea lanes of the world as runways, with the introduction of the Boeing Clipper, considered by many aviators to be the greatest flying boat ever built.

While other carriers were buying propeller-driven aircraft after World War II, Trippe was working with builders to develop long-distance jets. The Douglas DC-8 and the Boeing 707, both introduced by Pan Am, revolutionized international travel, cutting flying time by hours and sending Pan Am's profits soaring. In the 1960s, Trippe wanted an even grander jet. Boeing responded by building the 747. But the costly 747, alas, represented the beginning of the end for Pan Am.

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The plane, considered an aeronautical masterpiece, came on line against the backdrop of global oil embargoes, resulting in upward pressure on fuel prices, several world economic downturns, airline deregulation in the US - which led to the creation of a number of new, no-frills carriers - and finally, the Gulf war, which momentarily brought a halt to overseas travel by Americans fearful of terrorism.

Along the way, Pan Am had a number of terrible accidents. In part, the crashes occurred because Pan Am's route system took its jets into areas of the world lacking modern electronics systems. Although travelers on the sleek Pan Am jets of the 1960s and 1970s didn't know it, says Gandt, Pan Am flight crews were often putting their planes down at badly-maintained overseas airports through a combination of grit and guesswork.

In the early 1980s, Pan Am finally got its long-sought domestic routes by winning control of National Airlines, a somewhat scruffy carrier based in Miami. But merging New York-based Pan Am and National proved almost impossible, given differences in corporate culture.

The final blow came four days before Christmas, in 1988, as the Pan Am clipper "Maid of the Seas" exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in a terrorist bombing. Horrified Americans shunned Pan Am.

"Skygods" is a worthy tribute to the men and women of Pan Am, and what - for all of its corporate miscalculations - may have been America's most innovative airline.

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