The Pan Am Series – Part XXII: The Boeing 747

Boeing 747 Machat

Pan American Goes “Top of the World” With the 747

“Would you build it if I bought it?”

“Would you buy it if I built it?”

As legend has it, these were the utterances between Juan Trippe of Pan American and Bill Allen of Boeing while fishing from the Wild Goose in Puget Sound one summer’s day. By the end of their outing, there was, according to Bob Gandt in Skygods – The Fall of Pan Am, a verbal commitment to build an aircraft  what in Trippe’s mind would be a “stopgap airplane” top fill the void between the first generation jets –  the Boeing 707 and the DC-8 – and the yet-to-be-built Supersonic Transport, the SST.

Pan American had been enjoying unprecedented growth during the decade of the 1960s, with traffic, according to R.E.G. Davies in Pan Am – An Airline and Its Aircraft, increasing an average of about 15% per year. Business was booming and it was time to move forward. What was the next step? In Robert Daley’s An American Saga, the next step could have been the Supersonic Transport. At the time, the British and French were planning the Concorde. In the US, there were also plans for an SST, but the costs were beyond what the government could afford. Because of that, President Kennedy was put into a position as to whether to back the US project or not, and before he could decide, asked the then head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Najeeb Halaby (who would later become Pan Am’s Chairman) to ask Juan Trippe not to buy the foreign Concorde. Trippe, however, was aware that Kennedy was wavering and decided to force the President’s hand. He traveled to England and France in May 1963 and , according to Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul in The Chosen Instrument, “took an option on eight planes. . . [and] became the first airline other than Air France and B.O.A.C. to order a supersonic airliner”. This did not go over well with the President.

Shortly thereafter, however, President Kennedy “gave the signal for a commercial supersonic program to proceed and Trippe signed up for fifteen [Boeing] S.S.T.s.”

Unfortunately, the SST would not become operational for another ten years, and something needed to be done with the anticipated increase in airline travel. What would that be? According to Ron Davies, “Trippe had always been bolder than his contemporaries in going for larger aircraft; indeed he seemed to have followed a policy of ordering types which were typically twice the size of the previous generation. * * * [and] [t]he only way to increase capacity, apart from adding frequencies –  another method of coping with increased demand, but which was practically impossible, because of airport and airway congestion –  was to increase the aircraft size.” And that resulted in what Bob Gandt referred to as the “Everyman Airplane”: “The first jets had made world travel available to Everyman, not just the rich and elite. Now they had to build an airplane to satisfy the new yearning to travel – an Everyman airplane.” Thus lay the seeds for the Boeing 747.

By cajoling Bill Allen into such a project, according to Davies, “Juan Trippe went for broke.” To Bender and Altschul, it was a “spectacular gamble”. For Bill Allen of Boeing, according to Gandt, “[i]t would be the perfect swan song if he could step down knowing that he had launched the world’s mightiest ship of the sky. It would secure Boeing’s future well into the century. Or it could ruin Boeing“. The same fate faced Juan Trippe, according to Bender and Altschul, “by placing his company, its employees and its shareholders at enormous risk. If he judged correctly and was lucky to boot, Pan Am’s leadership would be maintained. If he was wrong or fate was cruel, the airline might well go bankrupt.”

On 22 December 1965, Juan Trippe and Bill Allen signed a Letter of Intent for the Boeing 747. On 13 April 1966, Pan American formally ordered twenty-five airplanes. But before the April agreement, a huge obstacle arose: On 30 March, President Johnson invited the Business Council to a dinner. Both Juan Trippe and Bill Allen were in attendance. During the dinner Johnson pleaded for austerity due to economic problems caused by the war in Southeast Asia. This jolted both Trippe and Allen, whose 747 project was not exactly austere. Was the project in jeopardy? After the dinner, Trippe, who had previously no success in having a personal meeting with Johnson, approached him to press his case. Johnson asked Trippe if anyone knew about the project and Trippe said “no, except for Bill Allen”.  Johnson then asked Trippe to be at the White House the next day “to see someone”. The next day Trippe was taken to the Pentagon to discuss the project with the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. At the time, another large capacity aircraft, known as the C-5A, was being developed for the Pentagon by Lockheed. McNamara pressed Trippe on the possibility of his waiting for a commercial version of the C-5A. Trippe argued his case for the 747 noting the impracticability of creating a commercial version of the C-5A. McNamara agreed and brought Trippe back to the White House where Johnson ordered that they “work it out”.  Both Trippe and Allen hammered it out with the White House and the Pentagon, and then went for approval from their respective Boards of Directors. With Johnson’s approval, the Pan Am directors were convinced. So convinced, that an option for an additional ten planes was authorized for incorporation into the contract, thus making it, according to Bender and Altschul, “the largest single order for a single aircraft model in the history of commercial aviation”.

Retired Pan American Captain John Marshall, who flew for the airline for years, wrote about the development of the Boeing 747 in an article that appeared in Airways Magazine. Below are excerpts from that article:

“Pan Am’s Juan Trippe was a visionary executive who dreamed in only one dimension: big.  Pan Am was the launch customer for the first successful jet transport, the Boeing 707, and it was Trippe who saw the need for an even larger airplane to keep up with the burgeoning growth in air traffic in the early ’70s.  In the mid-60’s, when the 707 was still a novelty in the world’s skies, Trippe took his ideas to Boeing’s Bill Allen.  He and Allen were alumni of the old school, both of them men of courage and daring, and after many long and sometimes contentious meetings between Pan Am’s planners and Boeing’s engineers, the decision was made to go ahead with the giant aircraft. 

“It was a tremendous gamble.  The 747 would embrace new design and technology that up to then had only existed in the dreams of engineers.  The technical hurdles that had to be cleared were enormous.  The new airplane would carry up to 500 passengers; one of the early questions was, how do you evacuate 500 people from an airplane in just 90 seconds?  The FAA, approached by Boeing to relax its 90-second evacuation criteria, dug in its heels and remained firm.  90 seconds was the limit, or the airplane would not be certified.  Engineers wrestled for days with the problem, and eventually redesigned the interior of the cabin to include not just one center aisle, but two, running the entire length of the airplane, with cross-aisles at each of the four main entry doors (there was an additional over-wing escape exit).  The doors were redesigned to permit egress of a staggered two-abreast.

“Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the aircraft’s designers was that of the engines.  While Pratt & Whitney was working on the prototype of the huge JT-9D engine, it had yet to be tested, and it was far from certain that it would be ready in time to mate with the 747.  Boeing had bitter memories of the B-29 bomber and its star-crossed marriage with the Wright Cyclone engines, which had a nasty habit of catching fire and burning off the wing.  The giant JT-9D engine would be the first jet engine mated to an airframe that had not earned its stripes on the wing of a military airplane.  It was an enormous gamble.

“The initial design specifications of the new airplane had the takeoff gross weight pegged at 550,000 pounds.  As the 747 design grew and matured, it put on weight, the bane of every aeronautical engineer.  A massive effort was directed at slimming-down the airplane, and eventually an all-up weight of 710,000 pounds became the final design target.  Four engines, each producing 41,000 pounds of thrust, would be required to get the 747 airborne, and as the airframe design came closer to being finalized, Pratt was way behind the power curve.  Engine development and production proceeded so slowly that the entire project threatened to sink under its own weight.  At one point there were so many engine-less airframes sitting on the ramp at the Everett production facility that their cost exceeded the net worth of the Boeing company.

“The early JT-9D-3 engines that powered the early model 747s were fraught with problems; they suffered from frequent compressor stalls, and would overtemp at the drop of a hat.  It quickly became a procedure that once the engines were running, while the airplane was on the ground at least one of the three cockpit crewmembers had to constantly monitor the engine temperatures for overheat.  Even the first scheduled passenger flight of the giant airplane was delayed several hours because of engine problems, severe enough to force an ignominious change to a backup aircraft.  The sheer weight of the engine and nacelle resulted in a new, heretofore unknown phenomenon, the “ovalizing” of the engine itself.  Its weight was literally pulling the engine out of round.  One of Boeing’s engineers put the situation into cleverly-phrased perspective.  “We have an unround situation,” he said.

“Engineers devised a unique, space-age solution.  It required that the largest amount of weight be placed in the smallest package, in the cowling of the engine itself.  The result was the use of one of the densest metals known, spent uranium, which was embedded in the engine cowl.  It solved the problem

“Trippe envisioned the 747 as a bridge aircraft which would carry the airlines through the adolescent years of the jet age until the supersonic transports, or SSTs, came along.  He insisted on the double deck design for the jumbo, with the flight deck perched high above the main level, so that when the airplane had outlived its passenger-carrying days, it could readily be converted into a very economic cargo carrier.  The nose cone would swing upward to reveal a nearly 200-foot straight-in main deck, accommodating cargo of a size and weight that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

747 Cargo

“Here the visionary pioneer made a major miscalculation.  The SST would be personified only by the Anglo-French Concorde, and even then only a few would be built.  Esthetic and graceful, it was nearly an economic disaster.  Designed when jet fuel was literally pennies per gallon, by the time it had completed what was then the most exhaustive test program ever devised, the oil crisis of the early ’70s had made the airplane almost prohibitively expensive to operate.  It soon became obvious that there would not be squadrons of supersonic transports gracing the skies, criss-crossing the oceans and continents to the world’s capitals, slicing flying times from hours and hours to hours and minutes.  The United State’s answer to the Angle-French Concorde, Boeing’s 2707, was slain by the stroke of a Congressional pen.  The B-747 would have to carry the transoceanic burden, at least for the foreseeable future.

“The introduction of the Boeing 747 represented a quantum leap in air transport technology and design.  Twice as big as its predecessor the 707, the Jumbo not only dwarfed anything it might encounter on the world’s airport ramps, but provided wonderful grist for anecdotal tales that were told among the airlines that were fortunate to have been at the head of the line to fly her.  Untold numbers of photos were snapped of comely stewardesses (still so-called in the early ’70s) standing in the cowling of the huge Pratt JT-9 engines, surrounded by the great shroud that enclosed the big fans.  “Artist’s renderings” was a fanciful term applied to the surrealistic drawings of the new 747 that appeared in promotional material.  The airplane was parked at a futuristic terminal, with a jetway conveniently nestled against each of her eight main entry doors.  There were piano bars (an innovation that briefly came to pass with at least one jumbo operator) and movie amphitheaters, a Radio City in the sky.  Passengers would be able to pass to and fro, as though attending a wonderful, celestial cocktail party. 

Pan American’s 1967 Annual Report noted that its order for the Boeing 747 “led the airline industry to a new generation of heavy duty transports. . .[and that] new standards of passenger comfort and convenience will be introduced. Simplified ticketing, computerized check-in and automated baggage handling will be provided. Pan Am’s 747s will have two aisles and seat 366 passengers.” In the 1968 Annual Report, Pan American noted that the “year 1969 will mark the beginning of the second stage of the jet age – the time of the Boeing 747 and other wide-bodied, advance-technology jet transports. Pan Am again is the leader. * * * Pan Am will be the first to put it into service to the major world markets we serve. Pan Am’s fleet of thirty-three 747s will be the largest. * * * Pan Am’s operating and marketing plans for the 747 program have already been formulated. Ground facilities are also being prepared. The men and women of Pan Am at home and abroad will be ready to put the plane in service”.

Development of the Boeing 747 as described above, was not without other challenges affecting performance and costs – the addition of a spiral staircase, for example. Building the massive aircraft also required a larger  assembly plant. That was achieved by construction of a new plant at Everett, Washington, near Paine Field.  In addition, Pan Am built a maintenance facility and extended the Pan American terminal to accommodate the big jetliners.

The illustrations below were taken from Pan American’s 1968 annual report.

The first 747 was delivered on time and was christened by the First Lady Pat Nixon on 15 January 1970. Six days later, on 21 January, the first commercial flight of a wide-body jet, Pan American flight 2, was scheduled for departure at 1900 hours for London. Clipper Young America was assigned the duty. Unfortunately, an overheating engine delayed the departure and also required a substitute aircraft, Clipper Constitution.  Never-the-less, at 0152 hours on 22 January, the 747 departed New York and arrived later that morning in London, completing an historic flight, opening the door to new era of commercial airline operations and making the Boeing 747 one of the most recognizable aircraft in the world.

In preparing this article, the following sources were used: John Marshall’s article in Airways Magazine, “The Big Jumbo”; The Chosen Instrument by Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul; An American Saga –  Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire, by Robert Daley; Pan Am – An Airline and Its Aircraft, by Ron Davies; and Skygods – The Fall of Pan Am, by Robert Gandt; and Pan American’s 1967 and 1968 annual reports.

On interesting side-note:  Pan Am’s order for twenty-five 747s and an option for ten more in 1966 was the biggest ever at the time. In November 2013 Emirates airline rewrote all records in civil aviation with an order for 150 Boeing 777X, comprising 35 Boeing 777-8Xs and 115 Boeing 777-9Xs, plus 50 purchase rights; and an additional 50 Airbus A380 aircraft.

For additional information about Pan American World Airways:

The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People

For purchasing information, visit the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

Also available in a Kindle Edition

For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation

 

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The Pan Am Series – Part XIX: Clipper Maid of the Seas

“Clipper 103 requesting oceanic clearance”

21 December 1988, the day Pan Am flight 103, Clipper Maid of the Seas, was destroyed by a terrorist act, is a date that anyone connected with Pan American World Airways – passenger, employee, friend or fan – will always be, to quote President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “a day which will live in infamy”. For many, this tragic and awful catastrophe marked the beginning of what was to be the slow demise of the once great airline. During the course of the past two weeks Pan Amers all over the world have been posting messages on the social media with thoughts about the events of that horrible day and the loss of their colleagues and passengers on that flight and the people of Lockerbie, Scotland. In addition, memorial events have been scheduled around the world as well as a call for a moment of silence at 1902 hours, GMT, the moment  Clipper Maid of the Seas disappeared from radar.

Pan American flight 103 was the last of three daily nonstop Pan Am flights scheduled between London Heathrow and New York Kennedy airports.  It originated in Frankfurt Main with a Boeing 727 and changed gauge to a Boeing 747 at Heathrow for its transAtlantic sector. The scheduled departure was 1800 hours. The October 1988 timetable, below, illustrates the flight:

On 21 December 1988 Clipper Maid of the Seas (Clipper 103) operated the London-New York sector and pushed back just after its scheduled departure time of 1800 hours.

Clipper Maid of the Seas

Clipper Maid of the Seas (photo credit itusozluk.com)

Paula Helfrich and Rebecca Sprecher in their novel, Flying – a novel, dealt with that day through their fictional character Zoe Longfield. The pre-departure events described in the excerpt below are factually correct.

“Zoe heaved her crew-bag over the aircraft’s wet doorsill, the rain seeping around the jetway’s transom on this rainy evening.  Hawea’s nanny had been late arriving at the flat, so she’d rushed to the airport in a hurry. As she passed through the doorway, she noticed a small chip in the molding of the emergency slide.

“Damn, Morning Light, here you are again!”  She smiled ruefully at the maintenance chief, who turned the pages of the ship’s maintenance log for the engineer’s signature as he headed out on his pre-flight check.  Making a bet with herself, she checked the history of cabin maintenance items going back several weeks.  Sure enough, N739PA’s aft toilet banks had been inoperable on at least 15 log entries, and all had been written off.   One acknowledgement out of Amsterdam responded to the entry “Toilet 4-3 broken,” with a terse, “Still broken, but trying.”  She laughed and showed the maintenance chief.

“’Yes, miss, sometimes it’s a bit tough to get all these moving parts moving in the proper order.’  He noted that the aircraft had just come in from San Francisco some four hours earlier, and they had not been able to schedule several major cabin items due to a worker shortage and the weather.

 “She responded, ‘You know, Chief, this Clipper Morning Light is almost older than I am!  I remember her from that tiny chip on the slide cover at the L-1 door on my training flight in 1970, and the damned toilet was broken then!’

“He laughed, ‘G’wan, then. Yer not that old! Besides, she was Morning Light for a long bit, and then the big brains changed her name to protect the innocent.  Now they’ve called her Maid of the Seas.’   Look, they’ve even repainted the name on the nosecone.”  And sure enough, they had.

* * *

“Maintenance workers in blue uniforms swarmed over the exterior of the aircraft, refueling from massive fuel points set into the cement apron and conferring over maintenance items. Ramp workers drove out the long buggies of baggage containers, which had sat in the rain all day, unsupervised, set up by some anonymous daily planning docket. She looked casually out as the ramp workers maneuvered the first silver baggage container tagged AVE4041 up the belt.  Engines roared from the takeoff runway, aluminum baggage cans rattled, and voices crackled loudly on two-way radios, their words indistinct.  Permeating all of this familiar mayhem was the heavy, sweet-thick smell of jet fuel and machine oil and the constant scream of accelerating engines.

“Zoe looked out at the rain falling steadily, softly, creating a grey ground fog on the tarmac and a ghostly pall over the other aircraft in the middle taxiway as they glided past towards the active runway, their colors muted in the mist. In the First Class galley before her, two port stewards conferred with the flight attendant on duty, covering the inventory of meals, equipment, supplies and special orders that had been loaded and labeled in each galley compartment. They laughed companionably, and the younger of the two men, a handsome man of Mediterranean complexion, flirted amiably with the attractive German flight attendant.  Zoe smiled, catching the eye of the older steward and rolling her eyes, causing him to laugh out loud and nudge his colleague.  She laughed, shaking her head and heading down the left aisle to the economy section galley.

“Several of the crewmembers were gathered there, discussing the latest in the depressing news about Pan Am’s seemingly endless financial woes while they went about the business of preparing for another load of passengers.  They were a collegial, cosmopolitan group.  Zoe had met or flown with most of them in one place or another.  She had shared the December 24th birthday of the French woman some years ago in Beirut at a wild all-night party. She heard the accents of Germany, England, Ireland, Spain and the Scandinavian countries. Crewmembers recounted stories of paying several hundred dollars to commute from Berlin to London on a Pan Am subsidiary, and then working back from London to Frankfurt later that day.  It was a crazy world, and every dollar was measured twice. 

* * *

“There were 13 working crew altogether, almost all based in London. The cockpit crew was from New York, and all were tired from the ongoing anonymity of the new scheduling policies, in which practically everyone was a stranger.  The cabin crew were somewhat alienated by the new locked doors and cockpit-exclusive rules.  Everything appeared to be more-or-less on time for a 6 p.m. departure, with the cooperation of the weather. 

“The load was forecast at 257, with a few deadheading crew and Christmas vacation non-revenue passengers hitching a ride stateside for the holidays ahead.  There was the usual mix of Europeans, Americans, students, diplomats, military and civilian families, single soldiers, businessmen and professionals.  As was typical these days, the load was heavy in First Class and Clipper Class, and fairly light in the three economy sections, where savvy travelers could snag several adjacent seats in a row for a good night’s sleep.  [Zoe] had volunteered to work in the First Class section where there was an extra jumpseat, and the load certainly warranted the extra hand. The briefing was soon over, and the crew dispersed for duty-free shopping.

* * *

“[Zoe took a]  look through the preliminary passenger manifest, listed by name and seat number.  Businessmen and senior professionals in the First Class and Upper Lounge, many with VIP codes next to their names: DALPO—do all possible, or EXCOR—extend courtesies.   A number of diplomats, techies and university professors in Business Class were often distinguished by their titles.  She thought of the impossibly handsome man she’d known briefly, seated opposite her jumpseat, his slow smile of recognition, their brief and white-hot affair. Pahlavian had reappeared in her life just days before with pleasant surprises, and they’d agreed to have dinner when she returned, after Christmas.  Nowadays, most surprises have to do with who might blow us up.

“She noted two stars in the Clipper Class section:  Gannon, 14-J and McKee, 15-F, who appeared to be travelling under diplomatic status but with military recognition.  Another Swedish diplomat named Carlsson was seated nearby in 17-H.  She frowned slightly and noted the anomaly.

“In the economy sections, the demographics loosened up and passengers were spread out, leaving empty rows in the middle of the aircraft.  The list showed lots of single travelers—professionals or sales executives, military officers and enlisted, some with family members seated next to them.  There would be many students travelling alone for the holidays. She noted the name of a young student, Khalid Jaafar in 53-K, almost the last row, as the only ‘profile’ candidate on the plane.  Stop being stupid, she told herself.   There were several young couples.  Some special needs coded:  diabetic meal, vegetarian, hamburgers, seats together.   No birthdays or wedding cakes today.  These codes were clustered around seven families travelling with elderly parents or teenagers, some younger children.  Baby meals and bassinets were noted for six infants and toddlers travelling with their families.  On a flight like this, it would be easy to move passengers around, ensuring an empty seat next to a young military sergeant travelling with her infant child in seat 32-K.

“Waiting for the boarding announcement, [Zoe] took a few moments to observe the actions of the young flight attendant she was check-riding, noting her calm assurance and professional demeanor with approval.  She thought of her training check-ride so many years ago with Sally—sweet Sally so far away in Hawai’i, so happy and settled.  She was sorry that their friendship had gone on hold.

* * *

“The old-timers and the Sky Marshalls had taught her to read the manifests, something crews rarely had time to do these days, but it gave an airline an advantage to find someone a birthday cake and have the crew sing, to deliver a bottle of champagne for an anniversary or to an obviously enamored honeymoon couple, or even to folks who had just met. At least tonight, just a few days before Christmas, she thought it might be a great gesture to offer a bottle of champagne to the oldest passenger, seated in 26-F, Ibolya Robertine Gabor, a 79-year-old Hungarian who had ordered a wheelchair on arrival in New York.

“Military personnel were noted on the manifest for any special duties and emergency assistance, primarily because of their training.  Some Pursers at holiday times offered on-the-spot upgrades, or asked other passengers to step aside to allow the young soldiers to leave the aircraft first, a form of honor reserved only to the Purser’s discretion, and not found in any regulation book.

“She took her assigned position as the passenger-boarding phase was announced, greeting passengers cheerfully and recognizing names or seat numbers she had noted. 

“The Purser signaled the imminent departure by announcing that the doors had been closed. . .

* * *

“The aircraft hummed along its taxiway, finally turning into the active runway and revving for takeoff position.   [Zoe] noted . .  the clouds still scudding by with intermittent rain and a fitful sunset, as the huge aircraft started its ponderous take-off roll.   She pressed her head back, completely relaxed, always anticipating this special moment when rotation took away the thudding roar and the thousands of pounds of aircraft became airborne, every time a miracle of flight.”

At about the same time, Roger Cotton, a London businessman driving west on Bath Road, which runs parallel to Heathrow’s runways, saw a Boeing 747 lift off and noted that it was a Pan Am Clipper, likely heading to New York.

In London, Denny Rupert, a student on his way to the United States to visit his parents for the holidays, had checked into a hotel for the night. He was originally booked on Clipper 103, but elected to take a flight the next day so he could spend extra time in London with friends rather than his parents in Minnesota.

At about 1900 hours, at 31,000 feet with a ground speed of 434 knots on a northwesterly track of 321 degrees, Clipper 103 was picked up by the Scottish Area Control Center at Prestwick, Scotland, where it needed clearance to begin its crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The aircraft appeared as a small green square with a cross at its center showing its transponder code. The code gave information about the time and height of the plane: the last code for the Clipper showed it was flying at 31,000 ft.

Captain James Bruce MacQuarrie called Prestwick: “Good evening Scottish, Clipper one zero three. We are at level three one zero.” Then First Officer Ronald Wagner spoke: “Clipper 103 requesting oceanic clearance.”

These were the last words heard from Clipper 103. Soon after that, air traffic controller who watched the Clipper as it crossed Scottish airspace, saw that the aircraft’s transponder stopped replying somewhere over Lockerbie. The ATC controller tried again to communicate with the aircraft, but there was no reply. Not one, but several radar returns on his screen altogether disappeared.

Arnie Reiner was working at Pan Am’s flight safety office at New York Kennedy Airport on that day. It was just a routine day until the secretary of Pan Am’s Senior V.P. of Operations came through the door. What follows are Reiner’s recollections of that day, which are featured in his story about Lockerbie in Pan Am – Personal Tributes to a Global Aviation Pioneer:

 “[T]he Senior V.P. of Operations’ secretary came through the door and announced that the airline’s system control group had just been informed that Flight 103 had disappeared from the radar during departure from London and was presumed down.  Soon after that, network news reports flashed word throughout the world that Pan Am 103 had gone down in Lockerbie, Scotland with the loss of 243 passengers, 16 crewmembers and an unknown number of casualties on the ground.

“The company’s aircraft accident contingency plan was immediately activated.  Every key department was involved and a 24-hour command center at Kennedy Airport was established to coordinate company post-accident efforts and assign duties.  Concurrently, a go-team  was  assembled primarily from Flight Operations and Maintenance and Engineering with supporting members from other departments to assist in the investigation at the accident site with government investigators from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB ), a Boeing representative and  a large contingent of investigators from Britain’s Air Accident Investigation Branch (AIB).  Representatives from the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and Flight Engineers International (FEIA) unions also flew to the scene and assisted in the effort.

“As a member of the go-team I assembled with the rest of the group at Pan-Am’s JFK Worldport that evening to catch the evening flight 002 to London.  Captain Bob Gould, Senior Vice President of Operations, would lead the team.  The Worldport was a somber and frenetic scene swarmed by media reporters with their cameras and lights intent on capturing the sorrow and anguish of relatives and friends gathered there to meet those who would never arrive on Flight 103.  Company representatives were on hand to lend what comfort, support and assistance  they could at a time of bottomless despair.

* * *

“.  .  . We were met at Heathrow by Pan Am staff, whisked to a chartered twin engine plane and flown to an airport near Lockerbie.   After quickly dropping off our bags at a hotel, Captain Gould and I split off from the group and had a driver take us about the town and out into the nearby countryside to take in the scope of the accident scene.  It was immediately obvious from the large debris area in town and out in the surrounding countryside east of Lockerbie that the 747-100, Clipper Maid of the Seas, N739PA, experienced a catastrophic in-flight breakup at a high altitude.

* * *

“The nose section had broken off and was in a field outside town with First Officer Raymond Wagner and Flight Engineer Jerry Avritt still inside the wreckage when we arrived.  Captain James MacQuarrie lay outside, already covered by a tarpaulin.   Debris was visible in the steeply rolling pastures in every direction.   A portion of the horizontal stabilizer was off in the distance.  An engine lay imbedded in a Lockerbie street.  The center fuselage and wings   had come down almost vertically, striking a housing area and exploding on impact.  Over 10 homes in the immediate vicinity were destroyed and others were badly damaged out to 900 feet.  The impact and explosion fueled from the fuselage and wing tanks gouged a huge elongated crater where the houses once stood.  Looking down into the scorched impact trench, there were no signs of cabin occupants.  About a half mile away, a fuselage section aft of the wing root struck  a house and impacted a street leaving passengers and  cabin crew  tangled and broken in building debris and aircraft structure. Constables guarded the scene. Residents milled about, quietly.

“We returned to the hotel, washed up and gathered the Pan Am group for a preliminary briefing. I presented to the group what Bob and I had seen and learned so far: That obviously there had been a very rapid catastrophic in-flight breakup and the aircraft had come down steeply, shedding parts as it descended; and so far as we knew there was no distress transmission from the crew before the plane disappeared from air traffic control radars; and that our objective was to keep an open mind about what might have happened, not speculate, and follow the evidence.  But privately my thinking was that by then 747s had been around over 18 years. Pan Am was the driver behind their development.  They were structurally damage tolerant, solid planes with robust systems redundancies and in nearly two decades of operating experience at Pan Am, they didn’t just suddenly fall apart in midair.

“Something else was going on here.  I’m certain the structural engineers from the company’s Maintenance and Engineering Department who sat at the briefing that evening were thinking along the same lines.  

* * *

“[After several days of investigative work] “[o]ur group’s first break, the one confirming our unspoken suspicions, came while walking down a country road when a farmer approached and told us he and his wife had removed a number of suit cases from nearby sheep meadows to keep them out of the rain.  He said they were in a shed by his house.  There in neat rows were about a dozen pieces of passenger baggage, one with distinct scorch marks.  Also that day, one of the British AIB team members noted a distinct bowing out of a fuselage skin fragment.  Then a constable accompanying our group found a heavily pitted fuselage fragment in the tall meadow grass.  It was tagged and bagged by the constable to assure continuity of evidence and taken away for analysis. The following day the British announced that analysis of the wreckage confirmed that an explosion had occurred in a cargo container in the forward cargo compartment.  A later investigation revealed that forces from the blast breached the fuselage and internal shock waves led to further fuselage failures which quickly led to the aircraft’s in-flight disintegration.

“With official confirmation that the loss of Flight 103 was a terrorist act and not an accident, our role as accident investigators had  ended and one of the most  intense forensic and criminal investigations was just beginning.” 

Kelly Cusack was working the New York Reservations Department that day. Below are his memories:

“On 21 December 1988 I was working in Pan Am’s New York Reservations Department. About 2:20 in the afternoon I was summoned into the Manager’s Office along with about 20 other experienced agents. The manager, Bob Turco, closed the door and said “the 103 is missing.” In 1988 flights between London and New York did not go missing. We all instantly knew that our aircraft, passengers and crew had been lost. We were assigned to work a toll free number for families and friends calling in for information. It was emotionally excruciating as we were not authorized to give out any specific confirmations until London did a flight coupon (this was back in the days of paper tickets) recount, though we could see the passenger list in the computer. 

“Later that evening I was assigned to begin arranging travel for Next of Kin who wished to travel to the crash site. I worked 24 hours straight and remember a colleague, Cathy Dorr passing me in the hallway and remarking she had lost complete track of time and her only gauge was passing me periodically in the hall and seeing my beard grow in. I finally went home and slept a few hours and then worked another 24 hours on various crash related follow up. I flew home to my family Christmas Eve morning, got into bed and slept for 24 hours. 

“My life would be all about the 103 for the next 6 weeks, traveling to Lockerbie for the Memorial and working at both the Pan Am Building and JFK Operation Centers. It was a very sad time. I was 26 and was very aware of all the young Syracuse University Exchange students who had perished on the flight as well as crew members I had known.”

Steve Priske was a Flight Attendant and photographer. On one of his trips he was assigned to Clipper Maid of the Seas. He took a picture of the ship, below, followed by his comments:

Clipper Maid of the Seas (photo by Steve Priske)

Clipper Maid of the Seas (photo by Steve Priske)

“Pan Am 747-100 Clipper Maid of the Seas. I am onboard photographing our reflection in the windows of the World Port JFK, on our way to LHR. This aircraft would also be Pan Am 103, blown up over Lockerbee Scotland in December of 1988. My fiancé, flight attendant LHR based Jocelyn Reina, would be on board.”

Jocelyn Reina (courtesy of Steve Priske)

Jocelyn Reina (courtesy of Steve Priske)

 

Below is a poem by Susanne Malm, a former Pan Am flight attendant:

The Demise of Clipper Maid of the Seas

“Clipper one zero three,
at level three one zero,
requesting oceanic clearance,”
advised the transmission
over Scotland’s Prestwick Control.

Cpt. MacQuarrie throttled back,
scanned the gauges,
affirmed the crossing
of the shining, briny “pond.”

“All is well!” chimed the bell,
oblivious, like the innocents
cradled in aluminum and
safely secured by seat-belts,
to a ticking terror
in the cargo hold below.

Pulsing Mach stem shock waves,
spawn of terrorists’ maniacal minds,
punched through the P in Pan Am
on the Clipper Maid of The Seas,
maimed at 434 knots,
giant wings afire like Apollo’s muse,
Cpt. MacQuarrie lifeless at the helm,
thumbs indented, clutching the yoke.

Wreckage rained on Lockerbie,
unwary sleepy Scottish village,
flaming fragments
of a proud clipper’s voyage,
and an echo of
MacQuarrie’s final desperate plea
to save the souls entrusted to his care:

“Clipper one zero three,
at level three one zero,
requesting oceanic clearance,”

That never came.

Thanks to the late Paula Helfrich and Rebecca Sprecher for excerpts from their novel, Flying – a novel and to Susanne Malm for her poem.

Further information about Flying – a novel is available through Amazon.

For additional information about Pan American World Airways:

The Book Pan Am – Personal Tributes to a Global Aviation Pioneer is an oversize hard cover book, suitable for a coffee table. There are over eighty stories written by Pan Amers and friends of Pan Am about historic events during the 64 years of Pan Am’s operations, each illustrated with colorful images that include posters, ads, rare baggage tags, timetables and aircraft.

This book is available through eBay or Amazon.

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Also available is a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

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The book is also available through eBay and Amazon. Signed copies (on request) are available on eBay and through JPB GOODS on Amazon.

Both books can be purchased as a package deal on eBay.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation