Pan Am Aircraft History

Origins of Pan Am

Sikorsky S42 Seaplane

Pan Am aircraft history began with the founding of the Pan American Airways company in 1927. The original founder was Major Henry H. Arnold, an aviation pioneer who secured the rights to mail delivery to Cuba for the United States. Joined by a number of prominent businessmen of the era such as William A. Rockefeller, he built the company and its seaplane fleet for service from Key West, Florida to Havana. With the additions of more investors, the company eventually was purchased in 1928 by the Aviation Corporation of the Americas, an airline conglomerate that quickly streamlined the industry.

Within a few years, with the help of other notable aviation pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh, the company continued to grow, eventually establishing passenger routes throughout the east coast of the United States and South America. Expansion continued well into the 1930s, surviving the Great Depression as one of the preeminent airlines of the era.

Flight Crew Training

One of the most important facets of Pan Am aircraft history had to do with the intense training of its flight crews. The company established the basis for pilot operations that would eventually be adopted by the profession over the next decades. The history of aircraft pilots for Pan Am included advanced training in nearly all segments of aviation technology. Pilots would be required to have extensive knowledge and log years of flight hours before being put in charge of aircraft. Among the most prominent training were seaplane operations, established radio procedures and the ability to use different navigational platforms to ensure a successful flight.

Pan Am’s Expansion

By the late 1930s, Pan Am had successfully expanded its airline network to Europe. This marked the first time that steady transatlantic flights by a commercial airline were undertaken. The company also began to offer service throughout the Pacific, however, political challenges with the Soviet Union and Japan limited much of the aircraft's landing spaces.

The Clipper

Perhaps the most famous plane in Pan Am aircraft history was launched in 1940, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner. It was the first commercial aircraft with a pressurized cabin and a flight crew that included an engineer in the event of an emergency. This also marked the first time that flights were fitted with first-class seats, a nod to the traditions of ocean liner transportation. The pilots and crew were outfitted with modern uniforms similar to naval tradition, still the standard clothing used today.

Called the “Clipper” by pilots, all of the aircraft were commandeered by the military with the outbreak of World War II just as the company opened up new routes through Africa and the Middle East. One model, nicknamed the Dixie Clipper essentially became the first plane used by the President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt.

Fall of Pan Am

Pan Am 1970s flight attendant

After the war, Pan Am became the most famous airline in the world, traveling to all the continents in the world except for Antarctica. The famous Pan Am logo became synonymous with luxury and security. As well, the pilots were revered by the public almost as heroes. One such young pilot, Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame, became famous when his airplane crashed in Syria. The company expanded its line with the purchase of DC-8 aircraft and Boeing 707s.

The heyday of Pan Am aircraft history ended with the 1973 energy crisis that made fuel prices skyrocket. Operational costs of all airlines rose significantly and Pan Am's investment in the new Boeing 747s caused near bankruptcy. Eventually, the decline in sales and air travel abroad resulted in the economic collapse of the company in 1991. The hubs in which it operated were taken over by Delta Airlines and the assets were seized.

During the 20th century, Pan Am airlines was the forerunner of the modern airline. Pan Am aircraft history represented the glory days of flight, when taking a trip through the skies was both an adventure and a luxury. Though the era of the company has passed, its history will forever grace the annals of aviation lore.


"Pan American" U.S. Centennial of Flight:

Pan Am Aircraft:

Image Source

Sikorsky S42. (Supplied by the Library of Congress; Public Domain;

Pan Am Flight Attendant 1970s. (Supplied by John Atherton at Flickr; Creative Commons;