On October 19, 1927, a tiny seaplane flew mail for the U.S. Postal Service a quick 90 miles, from Key West to Havana, in a little over an hour. Within the next few decades, the company that sent that air mail to Cuba would be the first to launch commercial airline service across the Pacific Ocean, the first American carrier to fly jet aircraft, the first airline to use a custom-built computerized reservation system, and the first airline to fly the Boeing 747. This company founded the internationally renowned InterContinental hotel chain, built the world’s largest commercial office building when it opened in 1963, and connected 86 countries on 6 continents by 1968. This company transported Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and Sean Connery and The Beatles. Towards the end of its life, this company facilitated economical air travel for the common man. But for the first half of its life, this company—Pan American World Airways—ushered in the Jet Age, created the Jet Set, and epitomized the glamour, sophistication, and absolute magic of intercontinental air travel.
Pan Am, sadly, ceased operations in 1991, after 64 years. And like a screen legend from the Golden Age of Hollywood, all we have left to remember her by are a few well-preserved artifacts, fading memories from previous generations who experienced her at her most vivacious, and flickering images that captured her at her peak—bittersweet reminders that the Golden Age of Travel, or at least the one we choose to imagine, is an era long passed.
For more colorful history, read about Pan Am’s first black pilot, Marvin Jones, and one of Pan Am’s “Black Birds,” Dr. Sheila Nutt, both part of a select group of black flight crew members hired after 1965. And if you’ve got an hour, take a gander at this phenomenal BBC documentary about Pan Am, which tells the story of the company’s rise and fall, the stringent physical standards for stewardesses, salacious tales of flight crew sex lives, and includes commentary by the pilot impostor who wrote Catch Me If You Can: