Pan Am Clippers: The End of an Era

Sometime in the mid of the 1980s, I received a call from a man who had just been selected to be the director of the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. I suspect that he called me because the Hirshhorn is adjacent to the National Air & Space Museum, where I was Director. His question was “What “perks” do you have as a Director of a Smithsonian Museum.” I laughed and answered “damn few.” He said “What, no car, no driver, no club membershps?” And I laughed again saying “You’ll find the perks to be very limited here compared to a comparable position in academia.”

As usual, I was wrong, for there were many perks, most importantly the pleasure of meeting new and interesting people in the air and space world. But now in thinking about it, and upon seeing the above video for the first time, I shall never forget for the incredible importance of one event for the nostalgia it evoked, for the amazing people I met, for its place in history, and to be honest, for the luxurious treatment I experienced. Part of that experience was the bizarre experience of singing in a quartet with my wife Jeanne, Imelda Marcos and James Michener—of this more later.

The great event was the November 1985 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first flight of Pan American’s Martin China Clipper to Manila. The beautiful seaplane had departed San Francisco, stopping at Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, and ending in Manila. The flight was a demonstration of many things, including America’s most advanced flying boat, its ability to conduct trans-Pacific flights, the interest of the United States in the Far East, at a time when Japan was becoming increasingly aggressive, and the friendship of the American people for the people of the Philippines. At the time, of course, Pan American was the America’s premier air-line rivaled only by old-world airlines from Great Britain and Europe.

The 1935 crossing was duly celebrated, and a relatively few fortunate—and well-to-do—passengers took advantage of it until the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Fans of the Clipper fleet know that there were many other adventures, with the North Atlantic routes, and the service with the U.S. Navy and Great Britain, but that first flight occupied a sentimental spot in the hearts of all.

Sadly, the re-enactment flight was an ending, not a beginning. Pan American, like many other American airlines, was in a difficult situation, caused by a number of outside forces. It had expanded, there was now competition on international routes, it was operating a host of different aircraft; fuel prices had increased, the economy was not at its best, and its leadership was becoming a bit tired. Juan Trippe was still capable of great things, as demonstrated by his participation with Boeing in the launch of the incredible Boeing 747. Now, however, he called on others for help, including an old friend, the inimitable Najeeb Halaby. Halaby instituted some cost-cutting measures, but one of them annoyed Trippe, and he was fired.

Thus leadership eventually passed to C. Edward Acker, who had previously headed (among other important positions) Braniff and Air Florida. It was Acker’s job to pump life back into Pan American. He succeeded but sadly, the decision to end unprofitable service to the Far East came on his watch, and it was almost certainly Acker himself who felt compelled to celebrate the ending with one last commemorative flight, seen in the video.

I was fortunate enough to be included among the invitees. The list included some of the greatest names in Pan American history, with many members of the Trippe, Lindbergh and Whitney families being included. They were for the most part a younger group, very clubby and obviously having a great time. There were other distinguished members of the list, starring James Michener and his lovely, caring wife Mari. The Ackers were there of course, seated in the last row of the first class section as a mark of their modesty. Alan Boyd, the first Secretary of Transportation and later president of first Amtrak and then Airbus Industrie was on board as were many other dignitaries. My wife, Jeanne, and I felt honored to be in their company.

Members of the “distinguished guest” group were placed in the upper first class section of the beautiful China Clipper II, while the rest of the aircraft was loaded with media personnel, security, secretaries and so on. It was the first time we had flown first class anywhere, and the cream on the cake was that we were seated in a row next to Michener, who proved to be perfectly unassuming, very friendly and easy to converse with.

Naturally enough, the trip was punctuated by one celebration after another, one more elaborate than the last. It started the night before the flight in San Francisco, and would be sustained at every stop on the route—Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam and finally, Manila.

Any victim of today’s flying scene would be amazed at how well we were treated on board. Every meal was a delight, and every meal but breakfast began with a tin of beluga caviar per person. There was as much and more of anything anyone wanted to drink but things was conducted with decorum in our section. I suspect it might have gotten a bit more spirited in the “other section.”

One of the most touching things about the flight was the manner in which the China Clipper II was greeted at each landing and at each takeoff. Pan Am had built a world-wide giant, with many employees and even more retirees at each station. And at each landing, there would be a lineup of employees to greet us. Even more poignant, on each take-off there would be a line of Pan Am personnel lining each side of the runway, in a silent salute to the end of an era.

At each stop we were escorted to either luxurious busses or to a line of limousines, one per couple, and whisked to a center where there were speeches of welcome and of course a party that night. We stayed in luxurious suites at each hotel, including the famous Royal Hawaiian, and each room was inundated with flowers, fruit baskets, etc Each stop had its own aura, too. Stopping at Midway, considering the momentous battle, seeing the relics of that fight, and of course, admiring the famous “gooney birds” was tremendous. Wake Island was very meaningful, for one got an immediate sense of how small the island was and how vulnerable it must have been for its defenders. Guam was the scene of a huge celebration, and the introduction of something that characterized dinner meals for the rest of the trip. At each seat at each table, along with the beautiful table ware, linen, crystal wine glasses and so on, would be a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch.

The arrival at Manila was the most celebrated of course, and limousines whipped us to our suites in the top floors of the Manila Hotel, where to our surprise, every guest room was guarded by armed sentries. It was both comforting and unsettling.

The first night was a huge gala event, presided over by Imelda Marcos, famous later for her collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes, but at that time the de facto head of the Philippine State. Her husband Ferdinand was very ill, and Imelda was running things, trying to stave off what was now inevitable, the indictment of the Marcos regime for corruption.

Imelda was at the head table as the entertainment went on, starring Philippine traditional bamboo dances, and the master of ceremonies pleaded with her to sing just one song. Imelda declined forcefully, but eventually was persuaded. When she stood up to sing, a curtain opened, and an orchestra and chorus worthy of a Broadway musical was there to back her up in several numbers. And she sang very well.

We had a private audience with Prime Minister Marcos and Imelda the next day. He was obviously in very bad shape, eyes bulging, just able to converse, while she bore the brunt of the conversation. It became clear to me, at least, that one of her motivations was to win Jim Michener over to her side, and perhaps get him to write a favorable story on the regime. That never happened.

That night we were invited to a big party on the Philippine presidential yacht moored in the Manila harbor. It was a big white painted vessel, luxurious in every detail, and manned by a huge crew, some of whom seemed to know Imelda very personally by the way they interacted. Imelda was the perfect host, and after dinner, led the entertainment, singing, etc. I was startled when she came to me and took my hand, pulling me and Jeanne out to center stage. Then she did the same to Jim Michener, and we were tasked to sing as a quartette. It was Imelda and Jim and Jeanne and I, and the song was, fortunately, perhaps the only one I knew – “You are My Sunshine.”

To say that it was surreal is an understatement. But she carried it off well, simultaneously singing, directing the band and running the ship. Needless to say, the return flight home was like a regular airline flight, still luxurious, still friendly, but with everyone, including the Micheners and the Ackers, obviously ready to get back to reality. There was only one crisis—on the trip back, they ran out of beluga caviar and had to serve (sneer sneer) sevruga.

Of the whole trip, the thing I’ll remember most, always, was not singing with Imelda Marcos. It was instead the sight of those sad, proud, Pan Am employees lined up at the side of the runway and saluting each time as we took off. They said better than any of the speeches we’d listened to that a tremendous era was ending, and that they were proud to have a part in history. I would be great if somehow the American air transport industry could pull itself together, start making a profit and start treating passengers as friends and clients and not cattle.

6 responses to “Pan Am Clippers: The End of an Era

  1. Thank you for any other great post. Where else may anybody get that type of information in such an ideal way of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I’m on the look for such info.

    • Thank you for the kind words, I appreciate them. I particularly like “ideal way of writing”, it strokes my ego. What kind of presentation are you going to make and to whom? Just as an aside have y ou seen the current British Airways commercial? It is superb. All the best

  2. Pan Am’s legacy to this day is the professionalization of commercial aviation, and the technological innovations in aircraft and navigation that made long-distance overwater flight possible in the 1920s and 30s. The inability to gain approval for a domestic feeder network and the legacy costs of competing in a deregulated industry in the 1970s and 80s all played a part in Pan Am’s demise. The airline deserves to be remembered for more than just providing a venue for a kitschy TV show.

    • Matt you are right on all couonts; it was a magnificent airline and pressed the frontiers of fllight all during its existence. The kitschy TV show is just as you say, kitschy, but it may spur a few people born after the Pan Am hey dey to look into it. All best wishes

  3. I was United’s corporate historian in 1960 and got free standby travel passes on Pan Am for my family to attend my Dad’s funeral in Manila. We flew to Honolulu on United with emergency positive space tickets and connection to Pan Am on standby basis (United wasn’t flying to Manila then). The flight was full, the gates were closed on us and we were stranded in Honolulu for three days before we got a flight to Manila. Can’t recall if Pan Am was still flying the Martin Clippers, or had switched to Douglas DC-7s. Many years later, I became close friends with PAL’s p.r. director and flew to Manila in first class cabin. They had sculptured ice on the fruit cart, Black label scotch, caviar and steak for inflight meal. Another class act. I pity today’s “road warriors”.

    • It was wonderful flying in those days, Adrian, no flip-flops, no shorts, no grouchy flight attendants (and reasonably so; they have a tough job nowadays_Deregulation made it possible for a lot of people who absolutely don’t NEED to fly to fly, for lots of germs to be exchanged internationally, to give terrorists a powerful instrument, and to cause airlines to go bankrupt trying to figure out how to make money on rock-bottom seat prices.
      All the best,
      Walt –

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