MIAMI — Today in Aviation, Pan American World Airways ceased all operations in 1991, putting to an end 64 years of existence, and leaving behind a legacy of many industry firsts that shaped commercial aviation as we know it today.
On this occasion of our history series, Airways features the story of the last Pan Am flight, served by a Boeing 727-200 under the radio callsign Clipper 436 from Barbados to Miami.
This story, written by Captain Mark Pyle, is featured in the book Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People and is authored by Airways contributing editors Jamie Baldwin and Jeffrey Kriendler.
At one time, I subscribed to Aviation Quarterly, which was remarkable in its quality, its appreciation of aviation, and its unrelenting pursuit of excellence. It was hardbound and worthy of being perused in my favorite lounge chair as I enjoyed a snifter of choice brandy. I was a lifetime charter member, but it is now defunct and belongs to history. Nothing is forever!
My airline now belongs to the past as surely does my aging lot of forgotten magazines. Pan American World Airways is lost–lost to corporate ineptitude, governmental indifference, and an inability to change with the world it helped to bring together.
’It looks like a beautiful day to go flying,’ First Officer Robert Knox of Greensboro, N.C., said as we began our ritual of checking the weather along our route of flight. Flight 219, bound for Bridgetown, Barbados, was one hour from departure. We completed the paperwork that would ensure that the trip would meet all legal requirements for performance and weight and balance. We were more than businesslike because CNN had reported the night before that Delta Air Lines had withdrawn its support for our newly proposed company.
On most occasions, we would have made a comment or two about sports or hobbies at a pre-departure briefing. Individuals who had not flown together before would use such small talk to break the ice of unfamiliarity. This morning was certainly different–an air of finality hung about everyone at our counter. The fact that it was 6 a.m. further depressed the atmosphere. The engineer, Chuck Foreman of Washington, D.C., was poring over the fuel figures. He had just returned to the Boeing 727 from its much larger cousin, the jumbo Boeing 747.
We walked briskly to our aircraft, ship No. 368, one of the newest Boeing 727s in the fleet and quite a pleasure to fly with its more powerful engines and spirited performance. Pan Am had many Boeing 727s, but most were older. Their engines were always adequate but would not produce the kick in the seat of this newer model.
I stowed my gear in the cockpit with a feeling of quiet pride, generated by the command of such a machine. I then walked aft to greet the flight attendants who would complete our ship’s company on this beautiful New York morning.
Immediately, the purser raised the question of Delta’s withdrawal, and my answer was the same as it would be to my cockpit crew members: “Whatever the day holds, we will make it a good trip.” All agreed that it would be, whether as the first of many, as the promised “born again” Pan Am with roots in Miami, or as the last of many.
We acknowledged the pushback clearance from our ground team, or what had been our ground team. Now that they were attired in their Delta uniforms, we felt a sense of unreality as we left the gate.
Our aircraft responded in its usual marvelous manner–the engines whined to life as though longing to push onward into the promise of this cloudless morning. The ground team gave us a salute, and we were off.
The navigational computer engaged, and we took our place on the runway as the final checklist items, routine with years of repetition, were completed.
As we gathered speed, I marveled at what fine engines the wonderful folks at Pratt and Whitney had provided for us. Gently, I eased the nose of this beautiful airplane skyward.
The sound of rushing wind and whirring instruments added to what is always a magic moment in every pilot’s life. The ground fell rapidly away, and the sky above beckoned. Both man and machine were happy to oblige. We turned away from the familiar Manhattan skyline and pointed the nose of Clipper Goodwill south–toward Barbados.
After leveling at 31,000 feet, the routine of monitoring powerplant and navigational instruments settled in. The conversation once again turned to what we felt to be the abandonment of our airline by what we had all thought was a corporate good guy. Not a visionary by any means, I had detailed my fears along these same lines from the day the agreement was finalized.
“The Delta promises were necessary to cement the agreement and nothing more,” I had said, and all along I had hoped I was wrong! I, like many of my friends, was not fortunate enough to transfer, or more correctly, I was not on the right airplane–the Airbus A310. (Delta wanted only certain groups of Pilots, based primarily on airplane qualification.)
We flew over Bermuda, that incredible 21-square-mile piece of volcanic rock, where I had spent my last Christmas on layover.
I have many happy memories of Bermuda and of other places–all associated with destinations on what had been a world carrier. Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Manila, Beijing, Berlin, Frankfurt, London, Venice, Oslo, Istanbul, and many other cities–destinations previous Pan Am employees largely pioneered–all hold memories for many more Pan Am employees.
Only a few puffy cumulus clouds–airborne cotton balls–blocked our way to Bridgetown as we began our descent. The approach along the western coast of Barbados is surreal. The island is truly a multicolored jewel set in a background of the turquoise sea.
We landed to the east, as the trade winds nearly always dictate, touching down 4 hours 30 minutes after our departure from New York. We taxied to the gate and shut down our engines as we had done hundreds of times before.
This time there would be a difference, a notable difference! In the four and one‑half hours of our flight, tragic history had been made.
Pan Am Ceases Operations
The station manager approached as he always did and greeted the inbound passengers. He then stepped into our office (the cockpit) and greeted us cordially, explaining he had some bad news. I quickly responded that I thought we could guess the nature of his grim tidings. He produced a message from New York operations in a very familiar format. This content, however, had never before in its 64-year history been inscribed on any Pan American document.
Pan Am, as of 9 am on December 4, 1991, had ceased operations. None of our flight attendants could restrain their emotions or their tears. All were at least 20-year veterans with Pan American or National Airlines. They vented their disbelief and their resentment of the Delta decision; consoling them prevented those of us in the cockpit from showing our own pent-up feelings.
Our station manager asked us if we would operate the trip to Miami. He would find a way to buy fuel. Many passengers were stranded, and some Pan Am employees were packing to leave their stations and their jobs.
We informed our station manager that we would delay as long as possible. This would ensure that all those wishing to return to Miami had time to board. We waited more than two hours in mostly silent thought while the passengers gathered from their hotels and employees packed their belongings.
At one point, the local airport employees who had served Pan Am so well, and whom Pan Am had so well served, came to the aircraft. A tearful ceremony followed. Flowers and good wishes were exchanged. The local television news media requested interviews. Airport employees barraged the Clipper Goodwill for last pictures, which would adorn family scrapbooks.
At 2 pm EST, the wheels came up on Clipper 436, hailing from Bridgetown, Barbados, and bound for the city of Pan Am’s birth. We flew with silent thought, exchanging few words as time passed. San Juan Center cleared our flight direct to Miami, and I punched in the navigational coordinates for Miami International a final time. Little could be said in the face of a solemn reality–the certain knowledge of dead-end careers.
What happened can best be described as a death in our immediate family. Pan American was my family in every sense. It was the corporate family to thousands.
The engineer interrupted my thoughts as we began our descent into Miami: “Should I call in range?”
“Yes,” I said, “someone will surely still be there. The airplanes must be put to bed.”
The engineer spoke again in my direction very softly, so softly I could not understand.
“Pardon me?” I said.
This veteran engineer of more than 25 years choked back tears through clouded eyes. He said, “Mark, we’re the last flight–the final flight.” That circumstance had not occurred to me. He continued, “They want us to make a low pass over the field.”
I said, “You’re kidding, right? They’re joking!” Privately, I thought it might be a friend who had landed before me, now pulling my leg.
“No joke,” he said, “they are going to be there to meet us–some kind of ceremony.”
Miami lay before us. A cold front had just passed, and fog followed the coastline, extending out to sea almost to the Bahamas. Miami sat on the other side of the fog bank, eerie and beautiful at the same time. Dinner Key lay nestled in the fog. My mind raced at the finality of what I was doing.
This wasn’t just the end of my career! This airline’s fading into history far surpassed the end of any individual’s career. Franklin Roosevelt had left from that same Dinner Key aboard Dixie Clipper, bound for Casablanca in 1943, the first American President to fly while in office.
Pan Am had not been just a part of history, it had made history for all of its 64 years. It was always there when the government needed it. Indeed, Pan American Clippers had many scars as mementos from encounters with enemies of the United States. From Japanese bullet holes, a lumbering clipper received as it evacuated key military personnel from Wake Island during the early stages of World War II, to the terrorist bombing of ‘Clipper 103’.
Moreover, Pan Am Pilots and airplanes aided in Operation Desert Storm. A Pan American Clipper brought me home from Vietnam. Now Pan Am had only Clipper Goodwill and this last crew–this final flight.
With the passengers briefed carefully as to our intentions, I called for flaps 15. We descended on the electronic glideslope that had so often guided me to Miami. We now executed the requested low pass–my first since I left the Navy many years ago. As we flew down the centerline of Runway 12, I noted the lineup of American Airlines aircraft that would soon take our place. As we completed the low pass, the tower issued a final statement: “Outstanding, Clipper!”
Pulling up and turning downwind for our final approach and landing, I looked at the beautiful Miami Airport and the city it serves. We all realized this would be the last time. Again, the finality of the moment slammed my senses. Our wheels touched for the last time in a Pan American aircraft –the last time for a scheduled revenue flight of any kind for this historic airline.
Approaching the taxiway, we began to see the reception that stretched before us. Airport vehicles of every description–police and security vehicles, port authority, and fire equipment–lined the taxiway, and video cameras abounded. Lines of individuals in semi-military formation were everywhere.
A Salute to History
As we taxied past the first formations, men and women came to brisk attention and saluted ‘the last of the Clippers.’ Tears welled up in my eyes then for the first time.
Many rows of people and machines–all smartly formed–all saluted. I returned the salute just as crisply, fully knowing that their salutes were to this “machine” and to all the ‘machines’ that bore the title ‘Clipper’ for 64 years. Their salute was to the history that this ship represented and to all that had gone before.
We passed the line of fire equipment, and the water cannon was fired over the aircraft. My emotions reeled under the weight of this tribute to Pan Am’s last flight. I engaged the windshield wiper to clear water that was on the windscreen, but that did little good for the water in my eyes. My first officer fought back his tears. He had worn Pan Am blue for 23 years.
One final formation–all Pan American ground personnel–tendered their last salute. We approached the gate and set the brakes for the last time. We shut down systems for the last time and secured the faithful engines. Sadly gathering our belongings, we shook hands. Our final fight was over.
No eyes in the cockpit were dry. Many of the departing passengers shared our moment of grief. The tears for Pan Am will continue.
Featured image: Pan Am ‘Clipper’ tail. Photo: Pan Am