July 2015 -
I was born in New York City, just down the street from the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport (KLGA). That heralded spot had been the home of the Pan American flying boat operation of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Even though the Clipper water flying operation was already long gone when my father took me for an occasional visit around the airport in the early ‘50s, I vividly recall the remnants of those earlier water flying days at the Marine Air Terminal.
I would wander around that nostalgic spot with its very distinctive architecture and memorable Art Deco accoutrements—all recognizable from photos of the early days of the Pan American Clipper ships—and stand in awe. This was where it was all at.
Pan American’s international operation had moved to the other end of LaGuardia Airport when land airplanes replaced their water-based machines. Eventually, the airline moved its operations to the newly renovated Idlewild Airport (IDL).
Years before that, my family had moved just about the same distance. I spent my teenage years living four miles from IDL, near the Runway 22L outer marker. I spent my high school days watching Pan American piston airliners crossing overhead on their way back from London, Paris, Rio and San Juan. The thought of those Clipper skippers doing their thing was, in my youth, always my thing.
I had been introduced to a few Pan American mechanics who lived in my neighborhood and, to indulge an enthusiastic teenager, these kindly men sometimes took me out to the airport to hang out. I have so many good memories of those days that they crowd each other.
What bubbles to the top are the several occasions when I was given free run of a Pan Am DC-6B or a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser parked on the maintenance ramp for the day. I would sit in the left seat and imagine what it would feel like to command something as magnificent as these multi-engined behemoths.
Within a few years, the first Boeing 707s were arriving at IDL (what a sight!), and I would hitch a ride from the hangar to the terminal building on the Pan Am employee bus to watch the launch of the morning flight to Europe.
One day in particular I recall the captain climbing onboard the brand-new Boeing 707 that was Pan American Flight One, with the Sunday New York Times tucked under his arm. He waved at me, and I waved back. I didn’t budge another inch from my position at the terminal window until he had taxied away and taken off. Amazing.
Years later, I was an airline copilot for Mohawk Airlines, flying Convair 240s out of the same airport that had in the meanwhile transformed itself from IDL to JFK. On a long and boring day, four of us copilots talked ourselves into marching down to the Pan Am hangar for a job interview.
We managed to get in to see one of the chief pilots. Pan Am was massively hiring in those days and it was indicated to us that as Mohawk copilots, we were more than qualified and should apply immediately. Three of us sent in an application. Two of us were hired and soon left Mohawk for Pan Am.
But I didn’t. After much soul-searching, I came to the right answer for all the wrong reasons. Pan Am had just ordered the new widebody Boeing 747 jumbo jet and the airline was also indicating lots of interest in either the Anglo-French or a future American version of the Supersonic Transport.
After drawing myself all sorts of graphs and charts to depict what I thought the ultimate impact these new ultra-big and speedy airliners might represent, I decided to let my Pan Am dream go.
At Mohawk, it was prophesized I would be a captain in another three years; at Pan Am, I expected to be a copilot nearly forever. Pan American meant a great deal to me; being a captain meant more. I stayed with the ‘Hawk (which eventually morphed itself into US Airways).
Yet Pan Am was still there for me. There was at the time a magazine ad from that worldwide carrier that said the only continent you couldn’t get to on Pan Am was the Antarctic. In fact, I used Pan Am on an interline pass to eventually get to that exact spot: Pan Am to Santiago, Chile, then by ship to visit the southernmost spot on the planet.
A few years after that, I went to Moscow on Pan Am, riding behind an obliging captain in the jump seat of a Boeing 727 out of Frankfurt.
As years went by, more Pan Am riding opportunities arose—particularly as reciprocal jump seat privileges became more formalized. One of the most precious photos on my wall is of me standing on the ramp in Warsaw, Poland with a Pan Am Airbus behind me and the Clipper skipper’s white hat on my head.
That was the nearest I ever came to actually having my own Clipper skipper’s white hat, but as it turned out, events in the future would bring me infinitely closer—in a manner of speaking—to sitting in the left seat of Pan American World Airways flights on their way around the globe.
(Next time: Up close and personal with some of the heroes of my youth.)
Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown nearly 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a U.S. Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .