British Airways used to proclaim itself the world’s favourite airline, but for me it was always Pan Am that made the going great, as its commercials asserted.
Now, I see, there is to be a television series called Pan Am. I’m sure it will be a travesty but I’ll probably watch the first episode anyway, just to rekindle old memories.
I fondly recall Pan American World Airways – to use the full title – which twice flew me round the world on press junkets back in the Seventies when I was working as a financial journalist for Reuters. I had got to know Pan Am’s public relations crew, and often went drinking with them in a bar at the top of what was then the Pan Am building, which straddles Park Avenue in New York City. The Helicopter Club, I think it was called, because helicopters flew airport shuttles from the flat roof of the building, until one tipped over and a falling blade, still, rotating, killed a couple of pedestrians.
One of my junkets took me across the Pacific to Australia in the company, among others, of John Glenn, the first astronaut to circle the earth. I enjoyed his acquaintance immensely and once treasured (it has long disappeared) an autographed note from him. He wrote, poignantly, “I really enjoyed flying round the world with you, John.”
It was Pan Am that took me on my first trip to Hong Kong, at the height of the Vietnam War, when the place was awash in American servicemen enjoying a bit of R&R. Boy, did they know how to enjoy! I remember getting into a bit of trouble myself that time.
I also once flew with Pan Am to Warsaw on the first scheduled flight by an American carrier to Poland. The country was still under Communist rule but Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement were just beginning to stir things up. I did a bit of non-political stirring myself, the details of which are not suitable for this readership.
I once, at some event, met Hollywood actress Maureen O’Hara, whose husband had been a Pan Am pilot. I never got to fly with her, sadly.
Pan Am gave me my best journalistic scoop. One evening, while drinking with the PR crowd at the Helicopter Club, I inadvertently eavesdropped on a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. The gist of it was that Pan Am had decided not to buy Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic jet liner.
“You won’t report that, will you,” Bryce Miller, Pan Am’s head of PR pleaded. “I can hardly ignore the fact that I heard it,” was my unhelpful response.
The decision was to be reported less than 48 hours later, I’d understood. Miller and I did a deal. I could phone the story in, but without attribution, quoting anonymous aviation sources. TWA, Pan Am’s chief rival, had made the same decision, Miller confided, rounding out the story. The British and French governments had been hoping to sell the plane to the Americans to help recoup its costs.
My lasting regret is that the timing was poor for a scoop. The time difference made it too late to catch the London morning newspaper deadlines. By the following day, the British press, tipped off by Reuters, had jumped all over the story. The papers carried it under the bylines of their own reporters, or as revealed by ‘our own aviation correspondent’.
I’m over it now, just.