Excerpt from Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am
That’s Why We’re Here
The image would remain fixed in Rob Martinside’s memory for the next twenty-seven years: burnished aluminum fuselages, sleek tails slanting skyward, blue-on-white paint schemes gleaming in the morning sun. New Boeing 707s, the cutting edge of commercial jet technology, covered the ramp at the San Francisco International Airport. Each bore on its tail the round blue logo of Pan American World Airways.
As Martinside made his way across the ramp to the Pan Am complex at the south end of the airport, he paused to gaze at the polished beauty of the jets. He was twenty-six years old, the youngest in his class of newly hired pilots. It was his first day at Pan American.
Martinside met his fellow new hires. Despite the differences in height and shape, they seemed cast from the same mold. Freshly released from military service, each still wore the ubiquitous crew cut, a PX-bought polyester business suit, an enormous wrist chronometer.
But there was something besides haircuts and clothes that distinguished them from their contemporaries of the mid-1960s. In their walk, in the way they bantered among themselves, in the appreciative look they cast on the nearby jet airplanes, there was a . . . cockiness. To a man, they walked with a discernible swagger. It was an acquired trait—the body language of the fighter jock, the astronaut, the test pilot.
Each knew he could have gone to another airline. There was Delta, for example, if you wanted to live in the South. There was Braniff, Texas-based and expanding very fast. American was also Texas-based, with a large domestic system. TWA was a leaner version of Pan Am. With TWA you could live in middle America—Kansas City was its headquarters. If you flew for Eastern Airlines you were based, not surprisingly, near the Atlantic shore.
But those were domestics, like Greyhound Bus. This was Pan American. No bus driving for them. No miserable lunches in places like Des Moines or Cincinnati or Boise. For them it would be sushi in Tokyo, petit dejeuner in Paris, tea in London. Pan Am advertised itself as “the world’s most experienced airline.” Well, sure, thought the new hires. That was the kind of airline they ought to be working for.
Pan American was the world’s most glamorous airline. It was also the most snobbish. Pan Am’s response to pilot applicants went something like “. . . if you truly believe that you possess the credentials to fly for the world’s most experienced airline, then present yourself to our offices at. . . ”
It was a time like no other in the history of the airlines. Traffic growth had doubled in the early sixties and was forecast to double again before the end of the decade. Expansion was so rapid that airline recruiters were predicting that the supply of new pilots—military and civilian—would be used up and the airlines would have to hire college kids and train them from scratch. Promotion would come so fast they would barely get settled into a new seat before the next became available. Boeing and Douglas could not build jetliners fast enough to fill the orders of the airlines.
Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps pilots had an edge in the hiring order. To the airlines, military aviators were a known quantity. They were trainable, it was assumed, and they could probably even take orders.
Between 1964 and 1968 a steady stream of hopeful airmen flowed through the front door of Pan Am’s operations complex at Kennedy Airport. Each of the crew-cut young men (no women pilots were being hired by the major airlines in the sixties) carried a briefcase containing his most precious documents—his military flight logs and pilot licenses.
They joked about the physical exam and the rubber gloved flight surgeon who checked for everything from hernias to hemorrhoids—Don’t turn your back on the guy with the gloves—and kidded each other about his branch of service—Are you Air Force or did you have formal flight training? Each felt obliged, under the scrutiny of his peers, to flirt with the pretty blond nurse.
Mike Denham was a good-looking kid who had flown a Navy jet up from Pensacola just for the interview. Denham was a fighter pilot, cocky and good-humored, who wanted it made clear he was not a transport or a patrol plane pilot—one of the multiengine pukes.
Chuck Kraft, who was a multiengine puke, knew exactly why he was there. He had spent the past four years eating box lunches and drinking bug juice and flying Air Force C-130 transports around the world. During his missions a scene had begun to repeat itself. At each layover—Madrid, Paris, Bangkok, Hong Kong—he would head directly for the hotel where the airline crews stayed. At the swimming pool he would observe the same curious sight: Pan Am stewardesses—Swedish, German, French, American—gorgeous in their bikinis, frolicking around the pool. Frolicking with them would be smiling, suntanned, obviously overpaid Pan Am pilots.
One day in Bangkok, standing there in his evil-smelling, baggy flight suit, B-4 bag in hand, his gaze riveted on the scene at the pool, Chuck Kraft suddenly fathomed a stunning truth: They’re doing the same goddamn job I am. And in the next instant, with his new clarity of vision, he made a career decision: Screw the United States Air Force. Screw their box lunches and bug juice and baggy flight suits. The next day he mailed his application for employment to Pan American.
At thirty-one Cale Boggs was the oldest of the group. Son of a Maryland senator, he had already been out of the Marine Corps for a few years, made a pass at law school, and worked for General Motors in the industrial relations department. While there, he made a discovery. Boggs discovered that he hated all forms of employment that had nothing to do with flying. So here he was, contrary to his father’s high hopes, standing in his boxer shorts in a drafty hallway at Pan Am’s medical department, about to become an airline pilot.
Before Rob Martinside left the Navy, he had investigated other careers—business, law, teaching—and dismissed them all. Martinside realized that he had no burning ambition to do anything except fly airplanes.
The commanding officer of his Navy squadron understood this facet of Martinside’s nature. “Martinside,” he advised the young officer, “you happen to be the laziest naval officer I have observed in my entire career. You should consider being an airline pilot.”
In addition to the physical exam, there was a torturous four-hour written test called the STANINE (a military-invented acronym for Standard Test with a perfect score of NINE). The same test was administered by most of the airlines, and extracts of the quiz had already been transported back to Navy and Air Force ready rooms around the world. The point of the STANINE seemed to be to separate both extremes of the cerebral spectrum. The airlines wanted bright pilots, but not too bright. It was okay to be smart, but not goofy. To the untutored, the STANINE was a confounding array of questions ranging from the names of the Beatles to the chemical composition of basalt to inquiries about how you felt about God and whether you had ever coveted your neighbor’s wife. One section of the exam required the candidate to analyze a pattern of lights, under pressure of time, and then punch appropriate buttons to extinguish the lights.
The moment of truth for the applicants, though, was the interview. The interviewers were crusty old Pan Am captains with eyes like spark plug sockets. There were usually three interviewers, and they sat behind an elevated table, peering over their half-frames at the presumptuous young men in the PX suits.
The questions didn’t lead anywhere in particular. The old pelicans wanted to see the kids squirm, listen to them talk, find out if their veins carried any of the sacred juice of the Skygods.
“Why do you want to work for Pan American?”
“I want to fly for the best airline in the business, sir.”
The interviewers nod. Standard suck-up answer. No surprise.
“Yes, but why do you think Pan American is the best in the business?”
“I read a lot of aviation history. I know that Pan Am was the first to pioneer the ocean routes and to fly the newest airplanes. Ever since I was a kid, I knew that I wanted to fly for Pan American.”
More nods. Okay, the kid has done some homework. “Tell us about yourself. What kind of a pilot are you?”
Here the candidate might pause a second, considering how much to lay it on about his personal skills. If he was a fighter jock, he might insert a little gentle bragging. Multiengine pilots tended to shrug and let their thicker logbooks testify to their accomplishments. “I have always been regarded as an excellent pilot by my commanding officers. . . ”
“Why are you getting out of the service?”
“Because I want a career as an airline pilot. It’s a stable, satisfying profession that suits me and my family.”
Good answer. He has a wife and, probably, kids, which implies a measure of maturity. Less likely to be a skirt-chasing gadfly. “How do you think you’ll like having a seniority number and taking orders from more senior crew members?”
The interviewers lean forward to hear the answer. This is the real nitty-gritty.
The interviewee clears his throat. “I’m very conscious of the chain of command, sir. I have no problem taking orders. I know that at Pan Am the captain is absolutely in command.”
The ancient pelicans exchange glances. The applicant has obviously been coached to say the right thing. But what the hell, he understands the most fundamental truth about Pan American World Airways. Hire the Kid!
It took a couple of weeks to score the tests, do the background checks, and follow up on the applicants’ references.
The commanding officer of Attack Squadron 36, based at Cecil Field, Florida, received a telephone call from the Pan American personnel department. Afterward, he summoned Lt. Rob Martinside to his office.
“Martinside, I have just performed one of the noblest services of my entire naval career.”
“What was that, Skipper?”
“I just told some guy from Pan American World Airways that you were a distinguished officer and an asset to the Navy and that your leaving would be a severe loss to the service. Please accept my congratulations. I think the dumb shit believed me.”
And so it happened. Three days later came the telegram:
TO: LT. R.D. MARTINSIDE, NAS CECIL FIELD, FLORIDA
YOU HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED BY PAN AMERICAN FOR PILOT EMPLOYMENT AND ARE ASSIGNED TO TRAIN AND OPERATE AS A COPILOT FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO BASE STOP PLEASE REPORT TO THE CHIEF PILOT/PACIFIC CAPT. DON KINKEL AT SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT STOP BRING LICENSES FLIGHT LOGS AND BIRTH CERTIFICATES STOP CONGRATULATIONS
SIGNED: CAPT. SAM MILLER, MANAGER, FLIGHT OPERATIONS
In the indoctrination room the newly hired pilots helped themselves to the coffee and began getting acquainted. They wisecracked about being Navy pukes or Marine jarheads or Air Force wienies and indulged in a little bragging about numbers of carrier landings or missions flown in Southeast Asia.
But mostly they talked about Pan Am:
“Did you know they’re buying a whole fleet of 727s?”
“They’re opening a base on Guam. . . ”
“. . . flying freighters to Saigon. . . ”
“We’ll make captain in five years. . . ”
“Pan Am will be the first to get the SST. . . ”
Someone said he had seen a mockup of the American SST. The tail of the proposed supersonic transport bore the Pan Am blue ball.
On this, the morning of the first day of their new careers, a euphoria pervaded their chatter. It was the sweet, contented certainty that they had arrived. By some stroke of fortune they had been plucked from the vast ocean of faceless and futureless aviators and deposited here in aeronautical heaven.
Pan Am had been the first to fly the Pacific, first across the Atlantic, first around the world. It was the first American carrier to fly jets. It had more international destinations than any other carrier. Pan Am jet freighters carried more cargo than any other airline.
Now there was talk of SSTs—supersonic transports—and even commercial space travel. With just a touch of theatricality, Pan American was accepting reservations for its first commercial service to the moon. The lunar flight list had swelled to 93,005 names.
Into the classroom of newly hired airmen strode a craggy-faced man in a business suit. “I’m the chief pilot of the Pacific Division,” the man said. He had crinkly eyes that looked as if they had peered down at the world from a thousand different cockpits. The new pilots took their seats. A respectful silence fell over the room.
The chief pilot surveyed the young faces over the tops of his half-frames. And then he told them exactly what they had expected to hear. “Congratulations, gentlemen,” he said. “You”—he paused for effect – “are going to be SST pilots.”
The pilots glanced at each other, nodding. Supersonic transports? At Pan American?
A young man in the first row spoke for them all. “Yes, sir, we know,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”
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