Clipper Conclusion: The Fall of Pan Am, 30 Years Later

December 4, 2021

IT WAS thirty years ago, on December 4th, 1991, that Pan American World Airways ceased operations.

This is possibly, maybe, the most significant (and unfortunate) anniversary in airline history, marking the death of history’s most significant airline.

Pan Am’s firsts, bests, longests, mosts, and whatever other superlatives you might come up with, are untouched, and untouchable. Its achievements include conquest of the Pacific Ocean and launch of both the 707 and 747, the two most influential jetliners of all time. Founded and led by a visionary entrepreneur from New Jersey named Juan Trippe, the airline’s network would reach into every nook and corner of the planet, its blue globe logo among the world’s most widely recognized trademarks. It was the only airline to have its own Manhattan skyscraper — the Walter Gropius-designed Pan Am Building, soaring over Grand Central Terminal.

The carrier’s slow and ignominious decline, punctuated by the sales of its most valuable assets and — for a final coffin nail, the Lockerbie bombing — is a tale of hubris, poor management, the volatility of a deregulated airline industry, and plain old bad luck. Most agree that the final chapter began around the time of the disastrous merger with National Airlines in 1980. Six years later Pan Am would sell its Tokyo-Narita hub and Asian routes to United. Four years after that, its transatlantic network was handed over to Delta. The airline’s winnowed remains stumbled on for another year or so. It was just a shell of itself in the end, with dismal service and shabby old planes.

“Now the world is every man’s oyster,” Juan Trippe once said.

December 4th, 1991, was a Wednesday. I was laying over that night in a Sheraton in Burlington, Vermont. I almost never watch television in hotel rooms, but this time, for some reason, I had the news on. Suddenly the story broke. I remember some of the footage: panicky-looking employees rushing around a ticket counter, that sort of thing.

Pan Am’s final flight was a Boeing 727 from Barbados to Miami. Which was fitting, I guess. South Florida is where it all began, 64 years earlier, on a route from Key West to Havana.

For pilots, a job with Pan Am was once the most prestigious and glamorous job in aviation. By the end, though, they weren’t paying very much. I never had the chance to apply. On the day the carrier fell, I was a young Beech-99 captain still cutting his teeth. Working for a major carrier wouldn’t be a realistic option for several more years.

I was, however, lucky enough to have flown Pan Am a handful of times, including trips from Frankfurt to JFK on a 747, and from JFK to Rio de Janeiro on an L-1011. I also was a semi-regular customer on the Pan Am Shuttle between Boston and New York in the months before the shut-down. And, one of my most cherished memories is the day I spent plane-spotting on the roof of the Pan Am “Worldport” (later known as boring old Terminal 3) at Kennedy, as a seventh-grader in 1979.

Further reading…

There have been plenty — some would say too many — hardbound homages to the legacy of Pan Am. Most of these are pretty awful (crudely written flight attendant memoirs and such), but two are outstanding:

The first is Barnaby Conrad’s elegantly documented and superbly illustrated chronicle, Pan Am: An Aviation Legend. Not to detract from Conrad’s prose, but the photos and artwork are what make this volume special. The double-page spread of the flight attendants in the doorway of the “Clipper Freedom” is my favorite, along with the shot of the Beatles at Idlewild, coming down the stairs of the 707. This a fantastic book not merely for airline enthusiasts, but for any student of the history of 20th-century America.

The second is Matthias C. Hühne’s Pan Am: History, Design & Identity. So much of airline history has been told graphically — in the liveries, travel posters, promotional brochures and advertising copy of the world’s great airlines. It’s amazing, the level of attention and resources airlines once devoted to the finer points of their branding, and how spectacular so much of it was. This is particularly true with Pan Am.



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A “Life List” of Planes

Page spread from “World Airline Fleets, 1980.”   Author’s photo.


UPDATE: November 13, 2019

AIRLINER ENTHUSIASTS are like birdwatchers in a lot of ways. We dress funny and we tend to own expensive binoculars. And, we’re into lists.

As I kid I was a planespotter. I’d spend entire weekends holed up in the 16th-floor observation deck at Logan Airport, logging the registration numbers of arriving and departing jets. There were books you could buy — annual global fleet directories with the registrations and specs of every commercial plane in the world, arranged alphabetically by country and airline. There were little boxes where you could check off each plane once it was “spotted,” or, you could just line through the listing with a highlighter. World Airline Fleets, I remember, was one of these books. It came from the U.K. and was edited by a fellow named Gunter Endres (who, the Interweb tells us, is still writing aviation books). An even bigger volume, published in Switzerland, was called J.P. Airline Fleets. The idea was to mark off as many planes as you could.

Up there on the 16th floor, things could get competitive. I’ll never forget the jealousy I felt toward a legendary Boston spotter named Barry Sobel, because he’d seen and recorded a Pakistan International 707 freighter that landed unexpectedly one weekday while I was in school.

At one point, way back when, I could have told you the model and airline of every commercial plane I’d ever seen. Birders have tallies like this, too. They call them “life lists.” Braniff DC-8, El Al 707, Aeroflot IL-62… check, check, check. There were hundreds. Somewhere along the way I stopped keeping track, and all these years later I couldn’t begin to reconstruct such a catalog.

What I can do, however, easily and accurately, is present a slightly different life list: a record of each airplane type, and each airline, that I have flown aboard. It appears below. I’ve also included which classes I’ve sat in, using the traditional industry codes:

F = First
C = Business
Y = Economy

The accompanying photograph is from April, 1974. That’s my sister and me walking up the stairs to an American Airlines Boeing 727, on our way to Washington, D.C. This was the first airplane, large or small, that I ever set foot in. I’m fortunate to have the moment preserved like this.

Even then, at eight years-old, I knew it was a 727.


American   F,Y
Northwest   F,Y
Eastern   Y
Delta   F,Y
Pan Am   Y
USAir/US Airways  Y
Trump Shuttle   Y
Fawcett (Peru) Y
Aeroamericana (Peru)  Y
DHL (cargo)






Piedmont  Y
USAir   Y
United  Y
Delta  Y
Aloha Y
Rutaca (Venezuela)  Y
Cayman Airways Y
Sky Airline (Chile)  Y
PLUNA (Uruguay) Y


BOEING 737 (Next Generation)

American Y
United  Y
Delta   F,Y
Southwest   Y
Malaysia Airlines  Y
South African Airways  Y
Jet Airways (India) C
Turkish Airlines  Y


BOEING 747 (All series)

Pan Am Y
Northwest F,C,Y
El Al  Y
United  C
British Airways  C,Y
Air France  Y
Qantas  Y
Singapore Airlines  Y
Thai  C
Delta  C,Y
Korean Air  F,C,Y
Royal Air Maroc Y
South African Airways  Y


Rara Avis. Fawcett (AeroSanta) 727 at Cuzco, 1994.   Author’s photo.


Northwest  Y
American  F,Y
United  F,Y
Delta  F,C,Y
British Airways  Y
Icelandair  Y



United F,C,Y
Delta  F,C,Y
All Nippon  Y
Kenya Airways  C



United  Y
American C
Delta  C,Y
Emirates  F,C,Y
Malaysia Airlines  Y
Thai  C,Y
Eva Air  Y
Korean Air Y
Royal Brunei  Y
Cathay Pacific  C
Qatar Airways C
Singapore Airlines  C
Jet Airways (India) F
China Eastern C



Japan Airlines  Y
Qatar Airways C



Air Canada  Y
DHL (cargo)



Northwest Y
USAir  Y
Delta  F,Y
Air Canada  Y
Finnair  Y
Aeropostal (Venezuela)  Y
ValuJet  Y


McDONNELL DOUGLAS MD-80 Series (DC-9 Super 80, MD-88/83/88, etc.)

Delta  F,Y
American F,Y
New York Air  Y
Continental  F
Austral (Argentina)  Y


McDONNELL DOUGLAS MD-90 Series (MD-90, Boeing 717)

Delta  F,Y
Bangkok Airways  Y
Uni Air (Eva Air)  Y



American   F,Y
Northwest   F,C,Y
Aeromexico   Y
Finnair  Y
British Airways   C
Continental   Y



Delta  C,Y



Eastern F,Y
Pan Am  Y
Delta  Y



USAir  Y


China Airlines A350.   Author’s photo.


Eastern  Y
American  Y
Thai  Y
DHL (cargo)



Lufthansa  Y


AIRBUS A320 Series (A319, A320, A321)

United F,Y
Delta  F,Y
America West F
US Airways Y
British Airways  Y
Air France  Y
Lufthansa Y
Royal Brunei Y
Air Malta   C
SAETA (Ecuador) Y
LanPeru  Y
AirAsia  Y
JetBlue  Y, C
China Eastern F
Drukair (Royal Bhutan Airlines) C
Avianca C
Qatar Airways C
South African Airways Y



Air France  Y
Sabena  Y
Delta  C,Y
Cathay Pacific  C,Y
Thai  Y
Asiana  C
Singapore Airlines  C
Turkish Airlines C
China Airlines  C
Philippine Airlines C
Qatar Airways C
South African Airways C



Air France  C,Y
EgyptAir  Y
SriLankan  Y
Cathay Pacific Y
China Airlines Y
Qatar Airways C



Qatar Airways  C
China Airlines   C
Cathay Pacific C
Delta C
Thai Airways C
Qatar Airways C



Emirates  F,C
Qatar Airways   C
Asiana  C



JetBlue   Y
American   Y
US Airways   Y
Aerorepublica (Colombia)   Y



Aeroflot  Y



Aeroflot Y

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve left out regional jets and turboprops. Partly because they’re boring, and partly because, for that same reason, I can’t remember them all. Highlights would include a Pan Am Express Dash-7, an Air New England FH-227, an Aeroperlas (Panama) Shorts 360, and a cargo-carrying Twin Otter in which I sat on the floor during a hop from St. Croix to San Juan.

The winners, if we can call them that, are the 737 and A320, predictably enough. That’s not very exciting, which makes it pleasing to see the 747 coming in third place. Somehow I’ve managed to fly aboard 747s from 13 different carriers.

Northwest Airlines, some of you might recall, was the launch customer for the 747-400, back in 1989. That spring, they had been using the jet on domestic “proving runs” mainly between Minneapolis and Phoenix. Finally on June 1st, they inaugurated international service. The first departure was flight NW 47, from JFK to Narita. My friend Ben and I were passengers on that flight. It was the day after my 23rd birthday. I still have one of the commemorative sake cups that they handed out.


Of all the planes that ought to be on the list, but aren’t, the most painful example is the Concorde. Years ago, when I was a regional airline pilot, British Airways used to offer a special “interline” Concorde fare to London, available only to industry employees. It cost $400, and it was what we call “positive-space” — as opposed to standby. A remarkable bargain, looking back on it. But when you’re a young pilot making twenty grand a year, $400 is a lot of money, and so I kept putting it off, putting it off. I’ll do it later, I promised myself. Next year.

And then it was gone.


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It Looks Like the Future. Up Close and Personal With the 787.

Ethiopian 787 1

UPDATE: June 14, 2017

HELP ME OUT HERE. Let’s put aside the Boeing 787’s well-publicized technical attributes (and earlier foibles) for a moment, and focus on the lines of the thing — the way it looks. I can’t decide how I feel.

Mostly, I think, I like it. If nothing else it’s got something that too many jetiners sorely lack: personality. The scourge of jetliner aesthetics nowadays is same-ness. Gone are the days when each aircraft, even those of similar sizes, had a distinct profile, and even the casual planespotter could tell a DC-10 from an L-1011, or 727 from a DC-9, from five miles away. Then you had the outliers, the really unique beauties like the Caravelle or the Concorde, or the Soviet-made Ilyushins and Tupolevs. Today, every plane looks like every other plane. There are exceptions, of course, such as the 747, which is not only distinctive, but beautiful, and the A380, which is equally distinctive for all the wrong reasons. , Mostly, though, modern planes share the same generic blueprint: two boring engines, a nondescript tail, and a nose that could be any other nose. Planes used to look sculpted. Today they look like snap-together kits of interchangeable parts.

So, kudos to the 787 for venturing outside this boring box. And, unlike the A380, it does so in a way that is, for the most part, tasteful and stylish.

We love the steeply canted wings, for example. There’s something almost organic in the way they curve and taper. As the plane takes off, they bend upward, their tips rising nearly to the roofline of the cabin. It’s amazing to watch. The jet looks nearly alive, like some great seabird lifting its wings for flight. The scalloped engine nacelles (it reduces noise) are sexy, as are the twisty-curvy blades of the engine fans.

The beauty of any plane, though, is lost or made in the nose and tail. Here the 787 gets mixed grades…

Based on other people’s comments, the nose seems to be one of those like-it-or-hate-it things. For me it works nicely. The cockpit windscreens are unusually rakish and sleek. This jumps out because we’re so accustomed to the boxy, sharp-cornered windows typically found up front — see the 737 for an example of how an ugly cockpit can handicap a plane’s profile. But in the name of aerodynamic smoothness, this is the way cockpit windows should look. It’s the nose of a bullet train, or a sports car. It evokes the Caravelle, and the Comet, relics of the distant past. Yet, at the same time, it helps the plane appear modern, even futuristic.

Plenty of people don’t like the nose — most I think they’re afraid to — but a bigger problem is the tail. It isn’t an ugly tail, exactly, but it’s awkwardly undersized, and curved at the top in a way that makes the entire plane look, well, fishy. Like a fish. A graceful fish, but not a sexy fish. A salmon, maybe, as opposed to a shark or a barracuda. That’s better than a steroidal beluga (the A380), but it’s distracting in an oddly anthropomorphic way. Also the plane is smaller and stubbier than people expect. There’s something sausage-like about it. The lengthened 787-9 variant has a sleeker and more balanced look than the standard 787-8. Ditto for the upcoming 787-10.

Overall it’s a good-looking plane, if not quite a beautiful one. If nothing else, it’s daringly distinctive, which is more than you can say about most contemporary jets. It looks strong, fast, and new. It looks like the future.



Ethiopian Airlines at Accra, Ghana
Qatar Airways at Copenhagen-Kastrup
KLM at Amsterdam-Schiphol
American Airlines at Chicago-O’Hare
AeroMexico at New York-JFK
Wing picture aboard Japan Airlines, 2012


Ethiopian 787 2


Ethiopian 787 Aft


Ethiopian 787 Engine


Ethiopian 787 Tail


Qatar 787 at CPH






787 wing view


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