Been There Done That
The Pan Am Experience: As Told by a Real Pan Am "Stewardess"

Introduced: October 06 2011

Introduction: Our first Been There/Done That, keyed off the new TV series Pan Am, is written by a real-life Pan Am stewardess. So, if you’ve watched the previews or the show itself and wondered about those white gloves, weight-checks, frisky pilots, and les liaisons dangereuses, this Been There/Done That gives us a reality check and has inspired a dialogue about Women and Careers.

Read dialogue on Women and Careers


Note from IWD: A little Pan Am History:

Pan Am was started in 1927 as an airline that ran mail between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. There are disputed opinions on what was the first passenger flight by Pan Am, but some suggest it flew that same route in 1928 with seven passengers on board. Also that year, Pan Am moved its headquarters from Key West to Miami and opened a restaurant atop the terminal where diners could watch plans take off and land. 


The airline’s founder, Juan Terry Trippe, had big ambitions for his company and by 1934, Pan Am was the first commercial airline between North America and Asia. In 1935, the “China Clipper” took off from San Francisco headed to Manila and actually went UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge because of poor climb performance. In 1947, “Clipper America” made the first round-the-world flight, stopping in 17 cities over the course of 12 days, with an actual flight time of 92 hours and 43 minutes. After that, with worldwide flights, Pan Am changed its name to Pan American World Airways. 


During World War II, Pan Am played a role in the U.S. war effort and flew more than 90 million miles carrying military personnel and cargo in addition to training military pilots, navigators, and mechanics.


In the late 1950s, Pan Am became an “all jet” airline. By 1961, revenues were approximately $460 million, and in 1968, Pan Am became the first airline to operate scheduled service in Russian airspace. In 1970, Pan Am launched the Boeing 747 as an overseas carrier (with an official christening by First Lady Pat Nixon at Washington Dulles Airport).  In its heydey, Pan Am is reported to have covered more than 20 billion miles and carried 11 million passengers, employing 19,000 people in 62 countries.


For almost five decades Pan Am came close to achieving its founder’s dream: To provide mass air transportation for the average man at rates he can afford to pay. But as the1970s progressed, the airline’s good fortune began to decline, allegedly because of overexpansion, the energy crisis and a weak economic climate. In an effort to grow the domestic market, Pan Am purchased National Airlines in 1980. As the financial troubles continued, Pan Am also became a target for terrorists (some say because of its iconic image). Many efforts to save the airline failed, and Pan Am ceased operations in 1991.


Been There, Done That by IWD Member Mary:

In the late 1960s, Pam Am was recruiting at college campuses and a sorority sister let me know they were coming to ours.  Some Pan Am requirements were certain height requirements - I believe you had to be at least 5’4” and could not be taller than 5’9’ or 5’10” and your maximum weight was determined by your height.  Another requirement was fluency in a foreign language since all of Pan Am’s flights were overseas.  And yes, you had to be a college graduate.


Having enjoyed the summer before my senior year traveling through Europe with friends, this seemed like a great adventure.  The interview with the recruiters ended in questions in your foreign language requiring the appropriate answers in that language.  (And I had some one-on-one coaching from a dear friend/sorority sister/French major. Thank you, Chris!)


Ten days after graduating from college, I was in Miami for five weeks of basic training at the Pam Am International Stewardess College!  Twenty-two out of twenty-four fresh young women completed training in human relations, emergency equipment and air-sea rescue, basic first aid, international passenger service and Clipper Cuisine.  We had grooming classes, uniform fittings, passport and visa applications, inoculations for typhoid/tetanus/smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera.  Everyone was sent on a training flight and I was lucky to get Buenos Aires, Argentina. 


One of the most difficult sections of training was “Clipper Cuisine” which required learning how cooked a perfectly done medium-rare roast beef in a galley kitchen, eggs to order with little more than camping-like equipment, and the most difficult – using a pair of silver serving spoons with one hand required for fine dining.  We set the First Class table with linens, silver, and flowers, and learned how to mix all manner of cocktails.


Towards the end of training school we bid for our first home base.  Only a few were open for bids - New York (way too expensive on meager salaries), LA, and Miami.  I stayed in Miami and rented a furnished apartment with two classmates (and the cockroaches).  We had nothing – no kitchen stuff or dishes -- until we were allowed to go home for a weekend to get our clothes and things.  We lived near the airport because only a few owned cars.  And since we were the most junior, the flight choices were not that great and included flying on Thanksgiving (San Juan), Christmas (Guatemala) and New Year’s (Panama). 


Our probationary period was six months and part of that was passing a fluency test in our second language using airline phrases and safety language.  Announcements on the airplane were always made in at least two languages, depending on destination.  Many foreign nationals worked for Pan Am and actually were some of the last to retire because it was a good way to visit family.


The part of the job I did not like was jet lag.  I never found a way to beat it.  Flying eastward was always the hardest because you lost time.  Towards the end, I didn’t like being away from home so much and it was difficult to plan anything more than a few weeks at a time.  A couple of years after I started flying and there was a rash of hijackings, we had FBI Agents flying on lots of our trips. (Before the days of Air Marshalls)  One of my flights was diverted and all baggage had to be removed and checked.  And as Mid-East conflicts got worse, we would have “Red-Alert” notices that someone was attempting to shoot down an American flag carrier – especially out of Heathrow in London.


I know Pan Am stewardesses who went on to all kinds of interesting vocations: attending law school, becomingthe Social Secretary at the White House, starting their own business, etc.  I have kept in contact with many.  There is actually a website dedicated to Pan Am-


Thoughts about the TV series:

The show looks like it will be about the characters.  I never knew a spy although there were a lot of interesting women.  I just recently heard about the Bay of Pigs involvement, but Pan Am was also involved in getting troops out of Viet Nam.


The interior of the cockpit and the cabin were fairly true.  I had a flashback when I saw the balloon graphic on the bulkheads.  The First Class service was always nice.