In this episode we will be recognizing the 31st anniversary of Pan American World Airways ceasing operations and explore the lead up to and the tumultuous year of 1991 which ended with the shutdown of Pan Am.
For the first interview, we are joined by the last CEO and Chairman of Pan Am, Russell L. Ray, Jr., and talk about his unpredictable and short time as the last leader of the airline. Mr. Ray has held senior positions with British Aerospace Inc., McDonnell Douglas, Pacific Southwest Airlines, Eastern Airlines and the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
For the second interview, we are joined by the "Last Clipper" Captain Mark S. Pyle, who made history as the last pilot to fly a revenue flight of Pan Am from Barbados to Miami. Captain Pyle then flew for United Airlines from 1992 to 2005. After hanging up his wings, he fulfilled a boyhood dream and became a police officer in 2007 and retired in 2012.
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Tom Betti: Welcome to the Pan Am podcast, brought to you by the Pan Am Museum in Garden City, New York. This podcast in our museum are dedicated to celebrating the legacy of the world's most iconic airline, Pan American World Airways. My name is Tom Betti and I'm the host of this program. Thank you for joining us. This program is sponsored by the generous support of Mr. Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Entertainment Holdings Incorporated. The Pan Am Museum Foundation is a nonprofit organization. Please visit our website for more information at thepanammuseum.org. Again, our website is thepanammuseum.org. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tiktok.
If you're using Apple Podcast, please consider leaving a review. It will help others discover this program. If you're not familiar with Pan Am, welcome. We are honored to have you here and for you to learn about what we're all about. If you already know of Pan Am, worked for or flown on the airline, or just love our history, it's good to be with you again. With that, let's get this episode in the air so to speak. Welcome aboard your Pan American jet clipper.
In this episode, we'll be recognizing the 31st anniversary of Pan American World Airways' ceasing operations. We will explore the lead-up to and the tumultuous year of 1991, which ended with the shutdown of Pan Am. We will then be joined by the last CEO and chairman of Pan Am, Russell Ray Jr., and talk about his unpredictable and short time as the last leader of the airline. Then we will talk to the last clipper, Captain Mark Pyle, who flew the last revenue flight of Pan American. First, we would like to share a joint statement regarding new developments of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
The following is a joint statement from the Pan Am Historical Foundation, the Pan Am Museum Foundation, World Wings International, and Clipper Pioneers. While Pan Am no longer exists as an airline, these four organizations represent the Pan Am family today. Here's the statement. It will be 34 years next week since the tragic and senseless bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21st, 1988. We remember all the victims, the passengers, the Pan Am crew, and those killed on the ground. Our deepest condolences to the families of those who were lost. That day forever changed the Pan Am family and still brings the deepest sadness and sorrow in reflection.
The United States was deliberately attacked by terrorists and our beloved airline was the target. In the aftermath of this horrible terrorist attack, we saw the sunlight of what is good in humanity as we witnessed the neighbors and citizens of Lockerbie coming together to help all involved, especially the families of the victims. On December 11th, 2022, we were given some solace knowing that American justice may finally be served with the arrest and extradition of the suspect in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
We thank the United States Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the wider intelligence community for their decades-long dedication to bring those responsible to justice. They have never forgotten about Pan Am Flight 103 and we are forever grateful. Again, that's a joint statement from the Pan Am Historical Foundation, the Pan Am Museum Foundation, World Wings International, and the Clipper Pioneers.
Now let's explore the events that led up to December 1991. The concluding chapter of Pan American. Many considered the beginning of the end of the airline to be the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. CEO and Chairman Thomas G. Plaskett began his tenure in January of 1988, taking over from Ed Acker. Throughout 1988, many in the airline had a sense of hope that under Plaskett's leadership, Pan Am was changing course for the better, and its long-term outlook started to brighten. In fact, Pan Am had a very profitable third quarter in 1988, and many thought that the future outlook of the airline was positive.
All of this changed on December 21st when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded as a result of a terrorist bomb. Following the tragedy, ticket sales dramatically slowed at an alarming rate. Passengers did not want to fly on Pan Am as it was now a prime target for terrorism. On December 5th, 1988, an unidentified individual telephoned the US Embassy in Helsinki and stated that sometime within the next two weeks, there would be a bombing attempt against a Pan-American aircraft flying from Frankfurt to the United States.
The Reagan Administration quickly informed and warned government personnel in Europe. That action included a notice posted in the US Embassy in Moscow warning of the possible danger of flying Pan Am through Frankfurt, and suggesting that embassy staff might like to go home another way. The Federal Aviation Administration did send a security bulletin through general communication channels to the Pan Am Frankfurt station. The airline's operation headquarters in New York was not notified. The teletype did not come through an emergency channel and was not flagged.
It, unfortunately, went overlooked during the extremely busy holiday travel season, only to be discovered the day after the bombing. There is no known evidence there was any direct communication with the airline from US government officials, law enforcement, or intelligence representatives on this security issue. The outgoing Reagan Administration and the incoming Bush administration both stated after the bombing that the government notified the airlines of a potential security concern in the FAA bulletin. Adding to the financial stress of the airline, Pan Am then faced a $300 million lawsuit filed by more than 100 families of the victims.
In response, Pan Am subpoenaed records of six US government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the State Department to prove that the US government was acutely aware of a potential bombing, warned government personnel not to fly on Pan Am and failed to offer any assistance or important information to Pan Am to help prevent the attack. Even though the information obtained shined an important spotlight on the intelligence community's failures to communicate and warn the airline, some of the victims' families accused Pan Am of attempting to publicly shift the blame of responsibility, which should not help Pan Am's public image.
In addition, adding to the brewing public relations problems, soon after the crash, the FAA cited and fined Pan Am for 19 security failures out of 236 that were detected amongst 29 airlines. All of this sets the stage to a tumultuous period that would end with the airline ceasing operations three years later. With the evaporation of passengers booking on Pan Am and the unstable finances of the airline, Thomas Plaskett began 1989 with grave concern and trepidation.
In order for the airline to survive, it had to do something bold. Under the leadership of his predecessor, Ed Acker, Pan Am looked for possible buyers, including American Airlines, but after reviewing the airline's financials with high labor costs and pension responsibilities, no airline was interested in buying. Courting a potential buyer had already been tried and was not viable. Plaskett came up with a new plan that, if successful, would have been considered one of the most remarkable comebacks in corporate history.
His plan backed by four major banks and presented in June of 1989 was a $2.7 billion takeover bid of Northwest Airlines. The merger would have given Pan Am a stronger domestic network to strengthen its hubs in New York and Miami and regain the airline's Pacific routes that were sold by his predecessor to United Airlines in 1985. In addition, the Pan Am Northwest merger was expected to have an annual savings of $240 million. Sadly, Plaskett was outmaneuvered by billionaire investor, Earl [unintelligible 00:10:13] who outbid Pan Am with the final sale price of $3.6 billion. Pan Am's hopes of returning as a dominant player in the airline business were dashed, and this turned out to be the final attempt of the airline to create a strong domestic network to compete with growing carriers like United, American Airlines, and Delta, which already had strong domestic route systems and were rapidly expanding.
In August of 1990, things got worse for Pan Am. Iraq invaded Kuwait, which began the first Gulf War. As a result, fuel prices skyrocketed, causing a severe global economic disruption. To cope with these unforeseen economic declines, Pan Am was forced to sell the airlines' most coveted routes to London Heathrow, to United Airlines, and its operations in Berlin to Lufthansa, shoring up a total of $1.2 billion. That was not enough to avert bankruptcy for the troubled airline, and the economic recession did not improve.
Keep in mind that there were no bailouts or government loans from either the Reagan or Bush administration to the airlines in 1988 after the Lockerbie terrorist bombing, and during this period of economic uncertainty, that hit the commercial aviation business particularly hard. Let's take a listen to a clip from ABC News on January 8th, 1991.
Speaker 1: Well, the situation in the Persian Gulf may have pushed Pan American over the edge. The airline has filed for bankruptcy today, blaming among other things, the rising cost of jet fuel. Here's ABC Stephen Aug.
Stephen Aug: Pan American World Airways, perhaps more than any other airline, pioneered international aviation in the '30s and '40s with its famed Pan Am clippers.
Speaker 2: It was that spirit, that pioneering spirit that permeated the whole aviation field at that particular time.
Stephen Aug: When the government deregulated the airlines in 1978, domestic airlines acquired routes overseas, taking business that used to belong to Pan Am, while Pan Am never built up a domestic route system, and suffered huge losses. To raise money, Pan Am sold off its specific routes, its famous building in New York, and most recently its prized routes to London and Paris. The bombing of Pan Am 103 made things worse. Finally, the Persian Gulf crisis and fuel crisis is soaring.
Speaker 3: We simply didn't have the financial strength and reserve to absorb the adverse economic impacts of these external events.
Stephen Aug: Plaskett says a new $150 million loan will keep the airline flying its usual schedule while it reorganizes its finances, but outside observer sees a different future for Pan Am.
Speaker 4: I think that the carrier is quite likely to be dismantled and sold piecemealed to other stronger carriers.
Stephen Aug: Right now, planes are flying at Pan Am. Tickets are being honored, but Pan Am's survival depends on whether consumers have enough confidence to keep buying tickets. Stephen Aug, ABC News, Washington.
Speaker 1: On Wall Street today, the Dow Jones' industrials lost more than 13 points to close at 25.09.
Tom Betti: Plaskett was faced with a daunting task of how to save his airline, and now he had to work through a bankruptcy court. In the end, he was faced with no other options, but to sell Pan Am's most valuable assets and form a leaner smaller airline that was referred to as Pan Am II, focused on South America. Let's take a listen to another news clip. This is from NBC News on July 12th, 1991.
Stephen: Pan Am, our grand old airline that's about to become little more than a memory of its glory days. It has sold now its most valuable assets to Delta, Pan Am's routes to exotic locations and some closer to home as well. NBC's Stephen Prager.
Speaker 5: Once the proudest symbol of aviation success, Pan Am is now all but liquidated. At Los Angeles International, flight attendants saluted their company.
Speaker 6: I have nothing but gratitude for Pan Am. They hired me from Finland, 22 years ago. I have had fabulous time with Pan Am.
Speaker 7: I wouldn't have traded this job for anything in the world inspite of all the tough times.
Speaker 8: We interrupt this program to bring you the latest report on the China Clipper.
Stephen: Before the tough time, there were glory years, decades of pioneering innovations, and commercial dominance. The first scheduled international flight, Key West to Havana, 1927. The first meals aloft, first radio communications with pilots, first to navigate by radio direction-finder. Charles Limburg mapped routes and tried out inventions, and Pan Am's association with the world's most famous aviator added to its mystique. The China Clipper flying boat launched regular service across the Pacific in 1935, hopping from island to island to refuel. Four years later, the Dixie Clipper inaugurated service across the Atlantic. Pan Am was the first to switch to jets, the carrier of the rich and famous. It also was first with economy class fares.
Speaker 8: Pan Am's trouble started shortly after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, preventing companies that never financed such innovations to chip away at its pre-eminence. Only three years later, Pan Am was losing $19 million and had to sell its headquarters building in New York.
Stephen: Not even a hugely profitable shuttle service linking Washington, New York, and Boston could offset its losses. The terrorist bombing of a Clipper jet over Scotland reversed a comeback in 1988. Today, an industry analyst said the airline's fight for life was choked off by management mistakes and the recession.
Speaker 9: Having lived through these last 10, 12 years and watching Pan Am waste away, it's like putting down a sick horse at this point, and it's a relief to see it go away.
Stephen: Pan Am flew shuttles to the moon in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a future as grand as its past both dives today. Stephen Prager, NBC News, New York.
Tom Betti: The selling of Pan Am's coveted assets was finalized by the bankruptcy court a month later. Let's take a listen to another news clip. This one is from CBS News on August 12th, 1991. You will hear Pan Am Chairman and CEO Thomas Plaskett as well as Delta's Chairman, Ronald Allen.
Dan: Now, the airline's story. Delta Air Lines apparently is the big winner as a federal bankruptcy judge today left pioneering Pan American World Airways, a shadow of its former self, and left thousands of Pan Am workers waiting for inevitable pink slips. Correspondent Harold Dow has more about that. Harold, good evening.
Harold Dow: Good evening, Dan. For more than 10 years now, Pan American Airways has literally been fighting for its survival. Because of a court ruling here in New York today, Pan Am is still flying, but now it's a much smaller airline. The bankruptcy judge approved the $1.7 billion deal made by Delta Air Lines to acquire Pan Am's most coveted assets. The Chairman of both airlines seem pleased with today's ruling.
Speaker 10: From Pan Am's perspective, this is a very important day.
Speaker 11: We and Delta Air Lines look forward to moving ahead as quickly as possible with the acquisition of the assets.
Harold: Delta will acquire Pan Am's European routes and its profitable, North East Shuttle operation. A much smaller Pan Am will continue to serve Latin America, but it will hardly be an independent operation. 45% of Pan Am will be owned by Delta, 55% by Pan Am's creditors.
Speaker 10: For Delta Air Lines, it effectively leapfrogs them into becoming a more competitive global player.
Speaker 12: Hope to have a pleasant trip.
Harold: It was in the 1930s when Pan Am's Clipper Service opened US air travel to the world, but it was after deregulation of the late '70s when Pan Am began to falter. In recent years, the airline was hit by terrorism, increased fuel cost, and the effects of the Gulf War. They all proved too much for the airline to handle. Under today's deal, 13,500 Pan Am jobs will be preserved, 8,500 jobs will be lost. One Pan Am employee told us the airline was like a family, and today's news hit like a death in a family. Dan?
Dan: Harold, of course, what happen to the workers is most important, but what happens to outstanding Pan Am tickets and frequent flyer miles?
Harold: Well, Delta officials tell us they will honor Pan Am tickets, and they will also honor the frequent flyer program.
Dan: Harold Dow, live here in New York. Thanks.
Tom Betti: Thousands of Pan Am employees were interviewed and hired by Delta in the fall of 1991. The remaining employees would stay for Pan Am II, and the headquarters would be moved from New York to Miami. In late September 1991, Thomas Plaskett resigned as chairman and CEO of Pan Am. His reasons have never been made clear. Speculation ranged from him not wanting to be the last CEO in overseeing Pan Am's liquidation, to being forced out by the board or Delta's Ron Allen.
In any case, his successor was Russell Ray Jr., who would lead Pan Am in a tumultuous 100-day period, which ended as him being last CEO and chairman and the airline shutting down for good. Here is our final news clip from NBC News on December 4th 1991.
Speaker 13: The troubled airline industry today suffered another death in the family. Pan American Airlines shutdown after more than six decades of service. NBC's Robert Hager has more tonight.
IVR: We are very sorry to advise you that Pan American Airways has suspended operations. All flights are canceled.
Robert: The recording on Pan Am's reservations line said it all. The airline losing $2 million a day called it quits. Thousands of passengers stranded. Many airlines unwilling to honor their discount tickets 7,500 employees off the job.
Speaker 14: We're all upset but it's another mountain we'll have to climb.
Speaker 15: It's just going to be very, very difficult this Christmas.
Robert: This employee heard from her mother.
Speaker 16: She called me and told me not to do any more shopping because Pan Am is liquidating.
Robert: Pan Am went under in part because Delta pulled out of a deal they help finance what was left of the airline. All the nation's airlines are hurting of what were the 12 largest Eastern is out of business so is midway and now Pan Am. Continental operates under Chapter 11 bankruptcy as does America West and TWA effective next month. That's half the largest airlines, the others hanging on. Businessing finally to be coming back this summer, but lately it's been off again. November ridership figures due out shortly will actually be worse than November a year ago.
As for Pan Am, which once covered the globe with flights, it's famed round-the-world flights were first to go then in 1985 it sold its Pacific routes to United. More recently, its Atlantic routes to United and Delta its shuttle sold to Delta. Today, the last of the airline, its Caribbean and South American service closed down. With less competition ticket prices to Latin America could go up and as airlines continue to bleed cash, it looks like the industry could lose close to another $2 billion this year. Robert Hager, NBC News, Washington.
Speaker 13: This was a losing day for Wall Street the Dow Industrials were down today in heavy trading.
Tom: Now on to our interview with Russell Ray Jr. the last CEO and chairman of Pan American World Airways.
Russel Ray Jr. had a distinguished career in aviation before joining Pan Am in October of 1991 as the CEO and chairman. He served as an Air Force officer in the Strategic Air Command, and then began his aviation career at Lockheed Aircraft until 1971 when he left to become head of marketing for Eastern Airlines. In 1985, he was named president of Pacific Southwest Airlines, or PSA for short. After US Air acquired PSA in 1988, Mr. Ray joined Douglas Aircraft as vice president of commercial marketing until joining Pan Am in 1991.
He correctly predicted in 1992, that the airline industry would consist of four or five major airlines surviving the industry's consolidation, and carry the vast majority of the nation's air traffic. Thank you for joining us on the program sir. It's quite an honor to have the last CEO of Pan American World Airways with us.
Russell Ray Jr.: Thank you for having me, Tom. I wish I wasn't the last CEO.
Tom: Before we get into the story of the end of Pan Am, let's talk about your background because you have a very interesting background. You worked for many Fortune 500 companies, many aviation companies, and you also were in the Air Force Strategic Air Command.
Russell: Well, that's correct, Tom. I took a commission out of college and joined the Air Force where met my wife actually is in Strategic Air Command in Missouri. Flew for SAC, Strategic Air Command. When I left I joined the Lockheed company in Burbank, California where I had a variety of jobs including selling airplanes and I met some of the Pan Am people back in those days, although I was unable to sell them an airplane.
After 11 years with Lockheed and went on to Eastern Airlines in Miami, spent 14 years there. I was on the board of directors and in charge of marketing. Left Eastern a couple of years before-- well, five years before it declared bankruptcy and went to San Diego to become president and CEO of Pacific Southwest Airlines, PSA, in San Diego. We sold TSA to US Air, and that was a successful selling for the shareholders, they did all right. Left there to join McDonnell Douglas, where again, I was in charge of [unintelligible 00:25:20], in charge of marketing the airplanes, mainly the MD-80 and the MD-11. DC-10 had been long since gone in terms of their production.
From McDonnell Douglas, while I was there, I received a call from Delta Airlines, namely its CEO Ron Allen and asked to meet Ron and his boss, the chairman Dave Garrick and talk about Pan American Airlines. This is Delta Airlines asking me and I used to compete fiercely with Delta when I was with Eastern, so I got to know them through that lens. We had mutual respect, and Delta actually didn't promise me 100% surety. In fact, they said it was a 50-50 chance of Pan Am surviving, but they offered me the assignment as CEO and president with the idea that we would form a business plan to be approved by the bankruptcy court and become a Pan Am II.
Having said that, they offered me a salary and it was a good salary. I suggested that for the benefit of the employees that I cut my salary by a third and put it in the form of Pam Am II stock, which obviously didn't materialize. I thought that was a better signal to the public and to the employees particularly if I didn't take everything that was offered to me in terms of cash.
When I had a Pan Am and later on after the close with Pan Am, I had two other assignments. I was chairman and CEO of World Airways Military Airlift and that was the principal for representative British Aerospace in the United States. That is my background. I have other things to say but I think that's succinct and leads us into the next phase of this interview.
Tom: The Los Angeles Times did a feature on you in January of 1992. The headline reads, The Man Who Tried to Rescue Pan Am. Russel Ray was hired to save the troubled airline. Instead, his 100-day term ended with its dismantling. Let's talk about Thomas Plaskett. He resigned from Pan Am and they brought you in, and at that time, a lot of the assets of the company was sold. The Pacific Division was sold under Ed Acker. The Atlantic Division, Europe was being sold or was already sold to Delta. Majority of the Pan Am employees went to Delta.
The shuttle was sold by the time you got there and you were trying to save the airline in its new form, focusing on Central and South America. Tell us about why you took the job and what you wanted to do. What were your goals when you became CEO of Pan American World Airways?
Russell: Well, I don't know. I think passing up the chance to take such an opportunity with such a big name was hard to pass up. I was happy at Douglas. My home was California originally but to return to Miami, which would be the plan under Pan Am II was attractive. Just the idea of trying to save something as large, it's like going into Coca-Cola and trying to save Coca-Cola. I was enticed by that, it was intriguing. I understood there'd be some disruptions in our private life but I guess it was just the challenge of the business.
I knew Tom Plaskett by the way, you mentioned Tom, and I'd like Tom a lot and I'd never to this day and Tom has passed away, as you know, to this day understood why Tom left whether it was his own doing or whether it was the decision by Delta, which, of course, as you know, would have been the major shareholder in the surviving Pan Am II.
Tom: You begin your CEO chairmanship in October of 1991. Tell us a little bit about the ups and downs during that tumultuous period between October and December of 1991?
Russell: Well, I don't have a vivid memory of detail. I can say that one of the disappointments I had was trying to maintain the morale of the surviving employees. If I had one or two things I have to say negative-- I don't have a lot of things, negative, to say about Delta, because they didn't make a secured promise. On the other hand, one of my complaints is that they started hiring away some of the employees without consulting me and that bothered me. That was tumultuous is a good word because it disrupted the morale of what would have been the surviving carrier, and the employees that were not being picked lost an awful lot of self-confidence, and it was tough.
Day to day, we were concerned with whether or not they'd have jobs in the future Pan Am, and I promised them no disruption in terms of the representation by the union. I would say that the biggest problem was maintaining the spirits. The other problem, you would use the word tumultuous, was preparing the business plan. I did reach out and hire an outside employee, his name was Roth Andreessen, who was a finance officer at Eastern Airlines, someone I knew and trusted. Of course, Eastern had gone bankrupt, and Roth was looking for a job. Roth had a tremendous role in trying to put together the operating plan for approval as did I. We met every day.
We had the cooperation of some of the surviving if you will use that term, officers that would have continued with Pan Am because we didn't let go some of the officers in the process. We had cooperation really from everybody trying to make the operating plan work. Delta was at the table in terms of listening to and approving of the operating plan. The tumultuous problem that you mentioned, and I'll just summarize it here. I don't want to get ahead of your interview but I'll have to say my second issue with Delta.
Again. I respect Delta, they lived up to their promises up to a point that we were unable to present the [unintelligible 00:32:50] plan to the bankruptcy court because, in your words, Delta pulled the plug ahead of the due date of the bankruptcy court by-- They pulled the plug 10 days before it was due to be presented. We'd never had the chance really to show our aspirations of surviving Pan Am II in South Americas and the Caribbean.
To me, it's hard [unintelligible 00:33:20] to on Delta's behalf if you will. We were bleeding money, people were looking at a bankrupt airline. Because it was bankrupt when I got there in late September, actually. The people weren't booking, they're booking away from Pan Am and we were bleeding in the neighborhood of $2 million a day-
Russell: -which the Delta board looked at with great scrutiny.
Tom: Do you think things would have turned out differently if you had a little bit more time?
Russell: Oh, sure. I think we had a solid plan, albeit a wrinkle in the plan, and you reminded me now we have a-- it's 31 years ago, and I'm really struggling to remember some of this, but you're helping me, is that we had a plan that didn't start producing profit until the end of the first year because there's all these startup costs, restart up costs, and paying off the relocation costs of the employees, who by the way, at the moment, and I can get to that more in a second, but at the moment, were in the process of moving to Miami, people were on I-95 when this wonderful company was shut down. Having said that, Delta reasoned that we were losing operating costs of a little bit more than $2 million a day, people were not booking into a bankrupt carrier.
Tom: Let's talk about your personal feelings and the disappointment I'm sure you experienced. You told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, "I felt that we could get through it. I thought that right up until the end." When did you realize that the end was near for Pan Am, and how did you deal with it on a personal level?
Russell: Well, the end came quickly because I received a call over the Thanksgiving weekend of that year '91, from Ron Allen, who then was the president of-- then CEO of Delta. He wanted to come up with his entourage to meet in the Pan Am building, in our offices, which he did. Well, actually, we met off-site, and in a room full of lawyers, he announced that-- This, again, is 10 days before we were due in bankruptcy court to present our case.
He said, "Look, we're here on a sad note, but we're not going to continue to support your effort and so we're not in effect approving your bankruptcy plan, your plan of survival." I said, "Look, we haven't had a chance to present it yet." It was a fait accompli, the Delta board was behind Ron Allen, and of course, if you will, made a courtesy call. The arrow still sticks in my back on this because it came as a surprise because there was no lead-up because we were carrying over the Thanksgiving weekend to polish off the plan.
Tom: Mr. Allen from Delta Airlines said that they were in effect pulling the plug caught you by surprise. What happened next? You realized that you didn't have an opportunity to present your plan and you realized that the money spigot has been turned off by Delta. How did you deal with all of that?
Russell: Lousy. I felt lousy. We had already set a path. As you remember, the plan was to move the offices out of then-- well, Pan Am Building we still call it then and now. As I mentioned before, our employees that were going to stay on were en route on I-95 to Miami, which we were beginning to occupy the Old National Airlines offices on the premises of the Miami Airport, and so the turmoil began right then. Those events, we had to tell our employees, "Route turned back, go home, you don't have a job."
A couple of weeks later, of course, we hadn't yet made the announcement after the meeting with Ron Allen, so on December, you'll have to shake my memory, I think it was December the 3rd or 4th of '91, we actually announced the closure of Pan Am, which stuck in my throat, obviously. Just for the record, I have been misquoted, but I have always felt that the names of the clipper ships that were on the fuselages of the airplanes were named often after a lady, and we often referred to the airplane as, "she," so when I came time to announce to the public at O9:00 Eastern Standard Time in New York City because, I'll back up and I'll tell you a little bit about that, announced the cease of operations, and I said, "It's time we're going to have to shut her down," purposely referring to the lady on the ship.
The reason for the O9:00 Eastern Standard Time, we had to make sure that our international fleet of airplanes, they were all over the world. Were still operating albeit with very low load factors. We wanted the airplanes out of the various countries before they were attached by the local governments and because Pan Am was in debt all around the world. I wanted to get the airplanes airborne and out of reach of the local authorities, which by and large, we did.
I think there was one exception in South America, I can't recall the country, but the airplane was attached as that country's property. It was a sad moment. If you want to see a crowd of former employees crying and lawyers in mixed emotions, not all of them all crying. That was that moment where in the Pan Am building on the third floor, I think it was, where the old reservation section was. We announced to shut her down.
Tom: Did you have a choice of staying on during the liquidation and you just decided not to do that?
Russell: That's a good question. I continued to draw down employment salary along with some others because we were going to enter a post-bankruptcy liquidation. I stayed on. I don't recall exactly how that happened but I went back to Miami where we had by the way already put money down on a new home. We love Miami because they're Eastern Airlines but any rate, we had to shut it down through the liquidation of assets. There were some assets. Not much but we had assets. I went back to Miami and we sat there. I think I stayed out until right after the first of the following year and took a job later on with somebody else.
Tom: You have been in the aviation business up until this point for many years working for Eastern Airlines, PSA, Douglas, obviously you knew the history of Pan-American World Airways. How did you feel when you realized that you were going to be the last CEO of this company and this company would be transitioning to history?
Tom: Do you care to elaborate a little bit?
Russell: Well, it is such a tradition, Pan Am. I often think about Pan Am's legacy, its history in terms of name recognition as you know because you've studied Pan Am obviously, Tom, is that in terms of name recognition was second only to Coca-Cola internationally. I guess there was a little romance in, not a little, a lot of romance attached in being CEO of that great name plus the fact you hear of all these employees who were denied a opportunity to go on to Delta Airlines and/or the surviving Pan Am II. You said 11,000. I don't remember the number of employees we had but having said that, these folks were really shortchanged.
It is a terrible feeling if you have any sense of responsibility. A lot of CEOs are there for different reasons. I already had a pretty good career behind me. Did I need the job? You bet. When the name Pan Am was offered, I did but I guess I have to say it sounds corny but I have to say that I feel so sad about those 11,000 or more employees who were left in dire straits. I hope they got jobs. I don't know if they did. I think a lot of them ended up in aviation with surviving carriers.
Tom: Do you have a message to them? It's been 31 years since the company shut down and a lot has changed in all of our lives in that 31-year period. Looking back, do you have any kind of message that you want them to know from you?
Russell: Yes, I do. That is such a leading question but I don't need any time to think about that. I hope they ended up prospering after the shock of the shutdown. I hope that my name doesn't live in infamy because we sure tried. There was a cadre of us who tried very hard to survive the company and I feel partly responsible for that. I never felt that we had a chance to convince Delta and we certainly had no chance to convince the bankruptcy court of our ability to survive. The people that worked around the table on the survival plan I feel so sorry for them as well. They put heart and soul 24/7 into the plan and never to get the opportunity to present it. I'll say sinful but it surely sticks in my craw.
Tom: Since you left Pan Am, did you have any further contact with Thomas Plaskett or Ed Acker?
Russell: Let's see. I'm trying to remember that. Not with Tom. I reached out to Tom at one point just before he died to tell him how much I appreciated his friendship because we were really good friends. He was with American Airlines when I was with Eastern. He was such a good person. I think I reached out to him by telephone a couple of times. In fact, Tom came by the office in the Pan Am building, and his wife and I visited for a while but I still to this day don't know why he decided to leave or he left. In terms of Ed Acker, you asked about Ed Acker?
Tom: Yes, Ed Acker.
Russell: I don't recall that I did hook up with him afterwards. I knew him but I wouldn't say we were close.
Tom: Looking back at Pan Am history, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, there were some events that were beyond anyone's control in the airline such as Lockerbie and deregulation and the government playing favorites with route systems over the years. As an aviation professional and as the last CEO of Pan-American World Airways, I'm sure you've thought about what different choices could have been made that may have had different outcomes. Would you like to share any of those?
Russell: Tom, I got to tell you I'm really happy that you asked that question because I've opined over the years to various people that my thinking of why Pan Am failed. Clearly, Lockerbie hurt deeply in terms of the airline company but I think there are two essential reasons why Pan Am in the end failed to survive. The first was back in the-- You'll have to help me on that. Back in the '60s if not '50s, Pan Am went to the then CAB to ask for domestic roots in order to feed its international roots. That was essential because up till then, Pan Am had to rely on other carriers to feed its airports in San Francisco, Miami, LA, New York, and so forth because that was in effect, their hub without domestic feed.
I think when TWA was given some international routes and Pan Am was denied domestic routes to feed its hubs if you will, international hubs, that was a early thorn or nail in the body of Pan Am because that set Pan Am back. They had to rely on other airlines to feed its gateways. The other one was when deregulation occurred which in itself hurt Pan Am dearly because it didn't have that domestic feed, Pan Am reached out to try to connect with another domestic airline in terms of a merger which it did with National Airlines in Miami. I argue to this day that that was not a good merger. National had roots that didn't clearly feed into Pan Am's gateways. As a result, nationally, it was a merger but it was not a merger of positive consequence.
I think that combined with early rulings on domestic route authority, I think that hurt Pan Am greatly. I think it was a cloudy. You could argue-- I've heard people argue that Mr. Trip bought too many airplanes too early. He did. He made a habit, God bless him, out of buying being the first to fly the 747, the first to fly the 7-- That kind of thing. Probably didn't have the payloads to justify some of those acquisitions.
Having said that, I don't think that was the contributing cause. I think it was the other two factors. Lack of domestic routes for decades to feed its hubs and the situation that occurred with the merger of National. Lockerbie, again, is always mentioned and boy, that hurt everybody.
Tom: We have a lot of young people that listen to this program. Do you have any messages to them on why Pan Am history is important as the last CEO?
Russell: I think Pan Am represents much of the glamor of aviation. It epitomized the glamor of aviation as it was growing. I think in terms of career planning, I would always recommend get in the airlines. It's a different business today. It's a commercial business too. The CEOs today are different than the CEOs of my era. My era, they basically were driven by marketing and public relations. In today's era, they're essentially finance officers who are CEOs.
My message is that Pan Am is to be glorified because of its glory. It represents an era of history that I think won't be duplicated in the foreseeable future unless there's a new supersonic transport that comes along and recaptures glamor. I don't see that happening. I just think my advice to people who are listening and thank you for doing so, think of Pan Am as a epitome of the inventive glory days of aviation.
Tom: Anything else you'd like to add?
Russell: I don't know how many people who are employed by Pan Am are still around. I hope many of them are. I know a lot of them ended up at Delta. Gosh, I don't have anything else I can possibly add to that. I just hope that people remember the good days.
Tom: Very good. Thank you very much for your time, sir. It's an honor to have you on this program. In those hundred days, I think everybody can agree that you tried to put forth a valiant effort. Unfortunately, in the end, it did not work. It certainly was not your fault or lack of trying.
Russell: Tom, I appreciate those words because there were those who did fault me for failing. I take it personally. I don't use the we failed. I failed. It is very nice of you to say that. I bet part of my farm on survival. Having said that, thank you very much for the opportunity to talk with you, Tom.
Tom: All right. Thank you, sir. Take care.
Tom: We're going to take a quick break with what is presumed to be the very last TV commercial of Pan American World Airways aired in early 1991.
Commercial: There's one airline that flies to more cities in Europe than all other US airlines combined. Right now, that airline is offering more low Eurosaver fares to more of Europe than all of the US airlines combined, plus discounts on hotels and rental cars. That's why people who fly that airline will enjoy themselves more than people who fly other airlines. The airline, Pan Am, the number one airline to Europe.
Tom: Welcome back. Mark Pyle joined the US Navy in 1969, serving in Vietnam. He left the Navy in 1973 and joined National Airlines. Captain Pyle flew with National until officially joining Pan Am in 1981 with the merger. He continued flying with Pan Am until the end in December, 1991 when he became the last clipper flying the final revenue flight of Pan-American World Airways from Barbados to Miami. He then flew for United Airlines from 1992 to 2005. After hanging up his wings, Captain Pyle fulfilled a boyhood dream and became a police officer in 2007 and retired in 2012. Welcome to the Pan Am Podcast, Captain Pyle.
Mark Pyle: Thank you, Tom. Appreciate it. It's nice to be here.
Tom: It's nice to have you. It's quite an honor to have the last clipper on the program. Let's talk a little bit about your career before we start talking about December 4th, 1991. What got you interested in aviation?
Mark: My dad was a TWA captain and I grew up in a TWA household around airplanes. I started flying when I was pretty young probably before 14. Just I always had a desire to follow in my dad's footsteps.
Tom: What aircraft did your dad fly for TWA?
Mark: He started on the DC-3, the Martin 4-0-4. I think he flew every model of Constellation that was available. The Boeing 707, 720B, the Condor 880, the L-1011, and he ended up his career on the 747.
Tom: Let's talk about what happened after you were 14. You started flying when you were 14, and then you went through high school, and then you graduated high school, and then what happened?
Mark: I got my license. About a little after I got my driver's license, I got my private pilot's license at a little operation in Kansas City on Old Casey downtown called Baker Aviation. Then I went to college. Although I couldn't fly obviously commercially yet, I flew somewhat for the college, and then I volunteered my time and picked up celebrities from Wichita and flew them down to Southwestern and Winfield, Kansas. On a couple of occasions, dropped things like ping pong balls and newspapers and things like that when I was in college. Then after I graduated, I went into the Navy.
Tom: How long were you in the Navy?
Mark: Supposed to have been five years. I was a little bit short of that. The war was winding down. I did my year in Vietnam. When I came back, I went from the Vietnam conflict to Oceana in Virginia Beach and flew the F-4 there. I did not go into the fleet on the F-4. I got out early in hopes of getting an airline career started, but that didn't happen. There weren't any jobs at that time, so I floundered around for a while as a security guard and some other low-paying opportunities. Then eventually got a job with National in the fall of 1973.
Tom: What was your first aircraft that you flew for National?
Mark: I flew first officer on the 727. They had professional flight engineers at National. You got to start right in the right seat of a 727, which was, I think, probably the only airline that did that in those days. There may have been another one, but I'm not aware of it. That was a great opportunity.
Tom: This was in the mid-1970s?
Mark: 1973. October of '73 is when I started with National Airlines.
Tom: Your father was flying for TWA at the time?
Mark: He was. Actually, yes. Met him a couple of times on various airports around the country where he happened to be on the ground at the same time I was.
Tom: Did you ever get a chance to fly your father in one of your flights?
Mark: I had the opportunity to fly him. I was in the training department for a good many years. I had the opportunity to take him out into the Everglades at zero dark thirty on an Airbus A300 with some student pilots-- trainees, I should say. They weren't students. They were fully capable airline pilots to get their training on the Airbus A300. I had an opportunity to take my dad and it was great fun. I still cherish that memory.
Tom: Was that with Pan Am at the time?
Mark: That was Pan Am. That's correct. We were the launch customer on that airplane. I think it would've been 1985 or thereabouts that I had that opportunity.
Tom: How was it working for National Airlines in the mid to late 1970s?
Mark: I have great memories of National Airlines. I had wonderful captains that I flew with as a young co-pilot. For the most part, there's always one or two. They were excellent pilots. We flew a lot of short segment legs, which provided a great deal of opportunity to learn the airplane up and down and up and down. You could actually fly, I believe it was nine legs in the state of Florida before you got outside.
Just for instance, you would start in Miami. You go to Fort Lauderdale and then West Palm Beach, and then I think Daytona Beach, Orlando, Tallahassee, Panama City, Pensacola. Then finally get out of the state at Mobile. That would be one type of segment that you would fly. It wasn't unusual for you as a young co-pilot to get five or six landings a day. Your skill levels increased fairly dramatically from the first time you got on the airplane. It was great fun, absolutely wonderful fun with great, great guys.
Tom: You were flying the 727. What other aircraft were you flying at the time?
Mark: I started just on the 727. Then eventually as the merger took place, Pan Am acquired us in 1981. I was a dual-qualified pilot on both the 727 and the DC-10 at that time.
Tom: When were you promoted to captain?
Mark: Let's see. It took a long time because you didn't accelerate. The captaincies weren't exactly accelerated in those days. Let's see. 1988 was my first captain assignment, and that was in New York.
Tom: What did your dad think when you called him up and you told him that you made Pan Am captain?
Mark: He was excited for me at that time. He retired in '84, so he'd been retired about three or four years before I made captain. Obviously, he was still happy for me and excited for the impending career at Pan Am. I was too. There was really no reason to believe in 1985 that we wouldn't have a viable operation. I was quite excited as well.
Tom: Tell us a little bit about your Pan Am career. Did you have any favorite aircraft that you flew?
Mark: My favorite airplane has always been and probably always will be the 727 because it's just such a wonderful airplane for a pilot to fly. You caress that airplane. You don't jump on the autopilot like you do on certain airplanes where you gear up and autopilot on it. It was just a nice airplane. You flew it to altitude, trimmed it up, put it on autopilot, took it off autopilot, descended the airplane, and frequently landed the airplane without the autopilot.
Thinking back to National again, just very quickly, we were the only airline I believe at that time that was CAT II certified to hand fly the airplane to approach altitude. It was a great airplane. Obviously, it got to be too expensive with three engines and three cockpit crew but that'll always be my favorite. My second most would probably be the 777 just because of the magic. That was later on in a career with another airline.
Tom: Let's talk about December 4th, 1991. You are in Barbados the morning of that day getting ready to take off and come to Miami. Then what happened?
Mark: We actually started the trip in New York in JFK. At that time, the news was fairly obvious that things weren't going to go well. [laughs] That's been an understatement, I suppose. The mood in the briefing area and the pilot operations area was somber with everybody. Then departing the field was a beautiful day and a beautiful airplane, the 727, one of the newer 727s.
We found out over-- I think it was somewhere over Bermuda the engineer received a word from the company that the airline had shut down. It was not exactly news to us when we landed in Barbados that we'd ceased operations. The station manager in Barbados brought us out a piece of paper with the cessation of operations on it. Obviously, the mood was very low at that point, very dark.
Flight attendants were all crying. A lot of the station personnel were crying. The station manager asked if we would mind taking the airplane on to Miami with some of the station personnel who needed to get home. They had gone back into the city wherever their apartments or rental places to pick up their gear and return to the field. We said we would do that and took the airplane to Miami later that afternoon, which ended up as being the last revenue flight airborne for Pan Am on December 4th, '91.
Tom: Some of our listeners, believe it or not, are younger people and they were born after the airline shut down. We have listeners from all over the world and some of them, a great deal of them, are younger people that are fascinated by Pan Am history. Walk us through the flight back to Miami from Barbados.
Mark: It was difficult. Number one, [chuckles] it was supposed to be my co-pilot's leg. I told him that since this is the last leg I'm taking it. His name was Bob Knox. I took his leg. He was very gracious about it, but I'm sure he would like to have flown it. Anyway, we left Barbados. I believe the station manager, actually, whose name I do not remember, it's too long ago bought fuel on his own credit card to operate the airplane to Miami.
I'm sure that wasn't inexpensive and I don't know to this day whether he was ever reimbursed or not. He was gracious enough to do it. Some personnel from the town came out with flowers and I think there was a news crew or two there interviewing the various crew members and station personnel. We departed and the-- There was a lack of sophistication certainly in the avionics in those days compared to what people operate now, but I believe we got a clearance something like direct to Miami on our navigation system, which I don't even remember truthfully at this time what it was.
Plugged in Miami and went pretty much straight to Miami. When we got there before-- When the engineer calls in range he said, "Mark, we're the last airplane airborne." I said, "What do you mean we're the last airplane airborne?" He said, "We're the last revenue flight anywhere in the world being operated by Pan Am. We're the last one." I said, "Wow, that's crazy."
We started our descent. As we approached the field, the tower asked us if we would do a fly-by. I hadn't done one of those since I was in the Navy. With a full airplane on board, you have to be somewhat careful about how you operate the airplane. I think I put flaps to a very small flaps setting so that I wouldn't bust any FARs over the field and came in fairly low over the field and down the runway and then turned downwind and then base for the runway.
We had a tiny bit of an air show for the guys in the tower. The amazing thing was that you got the feeling looking at the field all the American airplanes were lined up there and the Delta airplanes and everything. It was a somber feeling when you realized that, in my opinion anyway, the greatest airline in the history of airlines, Pan Am, the initial airline to explore the world, and set up navigation, and do all the things that Pan Am had done for all that period of time was about to sit down for the last time and these airlines were taking our roots.
You had a multifaceted feeling going on. There was no euphoria about being the last flight, I can guarantee you that. Then we landed and taxied in. The water cannons were fired over the airplane. A bunch of personnel, probably even other than Pan Am, but a lot of guys lined up in semi-military formation saluting us as the water cannons passed over the airplane. At that time, I began to have a tear or two. I don't mind telling you. It was a little difficult to-- had to keep wiping my eyes to get into the parking system to get to the gate. It was a difficult day, Tom, a difficult day.
Tom: Looking back 31 years. You made history yourself. You were the bookend of Pan Am history. For 64 years, Pan Am went around the world first to conquer the Pacific, the Atlantic, flew celebrities from all over the world, dignitaries, was part of history flying presidents. You, Mark Pyle, is the last clipper captain. Looking back 31 years, how does that make you feel?
Mark: You can't really feel elated about an experience that was the death blow to, as you've already referred to, the greatest airline probably in the history of airlines anywhere. I think all of us were struck at the fact that we were the last. I think everybody in that cockpit was struck that we were the last. That takes nothing away from everybody who operated an airplane that day or for that matter any other day for Pan Am. It was just the culmination of history.
We just happened, not fortuitously by any stretch of the imagination, to be the last crew. I have no idea why it was me, or Bob, or Chuck, the other two flight deck crew members that day why we were the last. Fate, I guess. It was by no means a happy occasion. I am struck less by my operation of the last airplane than I am by the fact that the airline is gone, even to this day. It's just a sad thing.
I have memorabilia around my office here of National, and Pan Am, and United, where I ended up my less-than-stellar career, and various models, but I have none more special to me than the clipper goodwill on my desk that one of my sons had made for me. It'll always be my treasure. It makes me still sad to this day that the airline's gone and that all the people who contributed to it over the course of time lost that piece of history right along with the crew on my flight deck that day.
Tom: How do you talk to your children about your experiences with Pan Am and Pan Am in general?
Mark: Truthfully, they probably don't have the interest in it that maybe some of the younger people that you alluded to earlier do listening to this program. My son did not follow in my footsteps. He was a chef and he's in the food industry.
Tom: That has advantages too.
Mark: Yes, I suppose it does. I suppose so. I don't really think that that's something that they dwell on. They have a casual interest in it. For instance, last year when I went out to San Fran, they wished me good luck in the speech I gave out there with Al Gilbert and to that group. It's not something that they dwell on every day because it's not their field of interest.
Tom: What are some of the most favorite places you've visited over the years?
Mark: Had the opportunity having been in the training department to have my family with me in Toulouse when Pan American was the launch customer for the Airbus A300. We spent a year through '84 and '85, some part of 12 months in there in Toulouse working with trainees and doing the training on the initial startup of that airplane. That would be certainly our first and probably happiest time with the airline. It was wonderful.
Toulouse was our most favorite thing as a family. We enjoyed that immensely having the opportunity to start up an airplane like that for the first time to be the launch customer on that airplane, and one of the first instructors on the airplane, and one of the first FAA designees on the airplane.
Actually, it even goes farther than that. I had an opportunity since we did not have the simulator yet to write a manual system for airplane training on the Airbus A300. What is it, part 95 or something like that? I can't remember now. It's been too many years ago since I did this. Anyway, the airplane training manual on that airplane and take crews out into the Everglades at night or go to wherever the airplane happened to stop that day like Dallas or New York. We'd use Newburgh, for instance, in the New York area, Old Stewart Air Force Base, or Longview, Texas, I think that's also an old either Navy training or Air Force base, then go back to Toulouse and work with another crew. That was fantastic.
In between all these opportunities, we got a chance to learn how to ski and took the kids skiing in the Alps and down into the Pyrenees and things like that. Toulouse was fantastic.
Other than Toulouse, just as far as layovers and things like that goes, San Francisco back in the nice times. San Francisco was a wonderful layover, believe it or not. Pensacola, Savannah. London, of course, was nice.
I spent a lot of time in Oslo, Norway training on the 737 when pan-American transitioned away from the 727 to the 737 for the IGS Berlin operation and had an opportunity to fly that airplane for I think three years and teach on that airplane for three years, and also work as an FAA designee on that airplane. I had a lot of fun in the training department with Pan Am and they treated us very, very well. I'm very appreciative and I'll always have a very special place in my heart for Pan Am.
Tom: Did you ever have any close calls in your aviation career, in-flight emergencies?
Mark: I've been very, very, very fortunate in that regard. I lost one engine climbing out of Miami on the way to New York on a 727 and simply turned around and dumped fuel and came back and landed. I had a brake fire also in Miami with a student captain. No, I shouldn't say student captain, but a new captain that I was doing his initial line operation evaluation on. That's about it.
No, I can't say that I ever had any really close calls. Of course, we operated differently in weather. Today, they drive thousands of miles to avoid weather and we would just generally pick and choose our way through it in my time. Not very many close calls that I can think of. I was very fortunate in that regard, Tom.
Tom: I have a burning question. Did the gentleman pass that you were evaluating with the brake fire?
Mark: Yes, it was not his fault. The brakes locked up and he had nothing really to do with that. It was simply an airplane malfunction.
Tom: Talk about an initiation test. My word.
Mark: Yes, that's true. I think that's the only time I ever had any kind of a fire on an airplane that I can recall, so that's good.
Tom: What happened after Pan Am?
Mark: On the way back from Miami, I had to go back to New York and pick up all my clothes and close down the apartment that several of us maintained together in Queens. Upon landing in [unintelligible 01:17:41] US Airways was nice enough to take me home. Didn't have to, but they gave me a seat anyway because the airline was gone. I imagine they provided many Pan Am pilots their last way home.
Upon arrival, I came into the house, and sat my bag down, and looked at my wife, and started bawling like a little baby. It was a tough time trying to figure out how you're going to feed your family and make the house payment and all the things that were going to come down the pike with no job. It was a very tough night coming home like that.
Anyway, then once that happened, a couple of nights later, I can't remember exactly how many but it wasn't too long thereafter after feeling sorry for myself a sufficient amount of time, the phone rang. There was a gentleman on the other end of the phone whose name he portrayed to be Jacques Legrand. Jack the Great, right? I thought to myself, "That can't be anybody's name. That can't be possible."
Mark: I'm thinking, "This has got to be one of my friends having their way with me in some kind of a joke." He said, "No, no, monsieur. I am Jacques Legrand." I guess I should back this up one tiny little bit. I ended up writing an article for the Miami Herald called Pan Am: The Last Clipper from whence my little moniker has been engendered over the course of time, the "Last Clipper" bit. This article ended up getting somewhat syndicated and went at least to Europe. I'm not sure what other countries it went to.
This gentleman had read the article. He was a Belgian/French entrepreneur who was in the publishing business and said that he had seen my article and that he would like to do an interview. Would we mind flying over to Paris to do this interview? My initial reaction is, of course, this is nuts and this is not a real person. I said, "Look, let me check into this. Call me in a couple of days. I'll think about this."
In the meantime, my wife and I went to a bookstore. Lo and behold, his books were in this bookstore. [chuckles] As incredible as that seems he was on the up and up. He did call back in a couple of days. He flew us over first class on an airline that time called Sabina, which is I think they're out of business now to a Belgian airline. Then he picked us up from Brussels in his Citation and flew us into Paris Orly, where we were met with a champagne and caviar reception at the airport.
Tom: Oh, wow.
Mark: Yes, crazy. And interviewed by some local news people and stuff like that. To make a long story short, over the next couple of days and several interviews with Mr. Legrand, he offered us a job, myself to write for him in a new book called the Chronicle of Aviation and my wife to do some of the merchandising for the book because that was what she was involved in at the time also.
That gave us a job for a year. It was a godsend because he asked us what we wanted and I said, "If you can afford it, the same thing we made at our last year in Pan Am." We went from being paupers and thinking we were going to be on the street to having a lifeline thrown at the very last minute. That was at the very least our salvation at that time. Only God works in ways like that. It has to be God. It couldn't be anything else. It was amazing.
Tom: Then you went flying again?
Mark: Yes. After having gone to sell the book in Oshkosh in the summer because what is that August, I guess, of '92, I thought along-- some of my friends had been calling me and said, "Are you going to go up and interview at United?" I didn't think about it before that time with too much enthusiasm but as more and more of my friends called me and encouraged me and told me they were going to do it, I did too.
I ended up starting all over on the bottom as a flight engineer on the 727 from whence I had been flying captain only a short time before. From the left seat to the back seat, removing food trays and taking them back to the galley. Yes, it was--
Tom: How was that transition for you?
Mark: I was thankful to have a job. On the other hand, I was a pretty decent 727 pilot and to watch some people hand fist the 727 around like they did when the guys at National and Pan AM had caressed that airplane so beautifully and knew its nuances and how to make it purr rather than roar, it was interesting to not be anywhere around the controls.
Tom: How did the United crew view you as a veteran Pan AM-National pilot?
Mark: For the most part, I think all of us newbies at United were treated remarkably well considering we were all starting over and many of us from senior positions at Pan AM to very lowly junior positions at United. There was no attempt to obviously integrate seniority lists or anything like that. Although that had been done previously when routes were sold from Pan AM, sold some Atlantic routes and I think eventually some Pacific routes back in around '85 or '86 and all those people had been integrated. There was no such integration attempted so we were all on the bottom.
At that case, I think I had-- what was I? I was 44 so I had 15, 16 years left to look ahead to try to put some type of a career together after having lost essentially our pensions and everything else at Pan Am.
Tom: That's what's amazing to me when I talk to you pilots, and flight attendants, and maintenance crews that lost everything when Pan Am ceased operations. They still have such loyalty and fondness for the airline.
Mark: Oh, yes. In the broadest sense, it wasn't the airline that crushed Pan Am. In many ways, it wasn't even the management. Although, I guess I would tend to attribute some of the demise to management. Much of it and perhaps the larger amount of it was due to the government bureaucracy having isolated Pan American from domestic routes for so many years and at the same time having delved out the routes that Pan Am sought to airlines like TWA, and American, and others that were upcoming at that time. Pan Am was restricted to the international route system.
A lot of it, you can't even say that it was in any sense Pan Am. Like I said, tiny bit management but more of the way the government treated Pan American and evidently, due to the fact that maybe one trip had crossed a few paths with some governmental bureaucrats along the way. No, I have no animosity towards anything Pan Am. I just have a wonderful-- just having the opportunity now to talk about Pan Am is an elating feeling for me.
Tom: Tell us a little bit more about your United career.
Mark: I started as a flight engineer as I already had mentioned. Then it wasn't too long thereafter that I got a bid in Los Angeles on the Guppy, the 737. I went out there to fly on the 737. Then I had an opportunity to fly on the 777 a little bit down the road from that. I can't remember exactly what year it was that these things occurred now. It's just not that important to me, frankly.
When I was on the 777, I guess I did a good enough job in my training on that airplane to be asked to be an instructor on that airplane. I instructed on the 777 for two or three years until I made captain, which the original captain job earlier with National-Pan Am took me 16 years. It took only six at United or seven, something like that. I was flying captain on the 737 out of San Francisco and commuting out there from Kansas City.
Eventually was asked to come into the flight department at the flight office in San Fran. I became a flight manager on the 737 when they were operating the shuttle out there. I was the shuttle flight manager and that was great fun. I enjoyed flying that shuttle greatly. As you might already guess, it was very similar to the start I had a National, a lot of up and downs every day, short leg up and downs. I had a great time doing that.
Then I ended up being taken in as a chief pilot on the 737 in the training department at Denver for a few months only because the big boss out there didn't really like me very much. I got axed about six months into my chief pilot agency, whatever it would be called. [chuckles] You can't win them all.
Tom: Very true. Did you leave United at that point?
Mark: I flew the line for a couple more years. Then when I was 59 I developed a couple of issues with some neuropathy type of things which I am told has to do with my Agent Orange ingestion in my Vietnam experience. I got myself in the best shape of my life at that point and went to the police academy.
Tom: Oh, tell us about that.
Mark: Actually, my son at that time had been working for a contractor in Afghanistan. He encouraged me to get my butt up off the sofa and get myself in some decent shape and try to do something that I had wanted to do when I was a kid. When you're a kid you either want to be a cop or a cowboy. At least when I was growing up that's what you wanted to do or baseball player, I guess. I said, "Okay, I'm going to do it."
I worked very hard to get myself into pretty good shape and went to the police academy. Graduated somewhat incredulously first in my class with a bunch of young guys, really.
Tom: You're 59, 60 years old at this time?
Mark: Yes. I was 59 at that time and was the best shooter in the class, believe it or not. I think because my son had trained me. He was a really good shot over there in the things that he did. I did that and got out from the police academy. I had five offers for a job and ended up working with an interior city in Kansas City, a place called Grandview, Missouri, which is essentially an industrial part of Kansas City, and had a great time there for five years. I actually made the SWAT team when I was 61.
Tom: That's awesome. That's a great story.
Mark: It was great fun. Yes, it was great fun. Something I'll always cherish like the "Last Clipper."
Tom: Navy pilot, commercial airline pilot for National, Pan Am, and then United. Then you worked on this book in between United and Pan Am. Then you became a police officer.
Mark: I did.
Tom: That's a great story. That's a great story.
Mark: Thank you kindly.
Tom: Looking back at your career, what message do you have for young people that might be listening? Career advice, people that want to become a police officer or want to become an aviation professional or anything for that matter?
Mark: It's a very difficult time to be a cop. There's no doubt that right now is a tough, tough time. Those guys, I have the utmost respect for anyone who lays their life on the line every day, straps the badge and the gun on, and goes to work. Anyone that would choose to do that, in my opinion, you are a knight in shining armor in a savage land that harkens back to a TV show a long time ago, I think called, Have Gun – Will Travel. That's the way I feel about it. You're immeasurably high on my esteem list if you choose to do that in this day and age and more power to you.
As far as flying an airplane goes, it's going to be enormously expensive right now with fuel costs and things like that to go the civilian route. I would encourage people who are interested in doing that to choose a military route. You may actually find that that job is so challenging and interesting that you may not want to even think about an airline career. Should you choose to do so, I think that's probably the method whereby you would be most able to achieve that goal. Certainly, the airline career is worthwhile I think more so now than when I was doing it because the industry seems to have stabilized a little bit anyway over what was going on during what should have been the prime of my career.
Those are the things I would choose. As far as if you're a really young person out there listening to this, get all the math and science that you can because should you find that either one of those jobs airline or police aren't what you want to do, then certainly the technical jobs, the technical fields are something that are challenging and in demand right now. Don't take basket weaving, take something that you can put in your back pocket and your wallet eventually.
Tom: Good advice. Let's settle a score. We have one of our board members Pamela, she was married to an Air Force General. When she flies, usually she can tell the background of the pilot by how the plane lands. She claims that a smooth landing is an Air Force veteran and a hard landing is a Navy veteran. Do you have any comment?
Mark: Here's what I would tell, you said Pamela?
Tom: Pamela, yes.
Mark: Had she been on one of my flights, she would've guessed me to be Air Force.
Tom: [laughs] That's very diplomatic. Very good.
Tom: Anything else you'd like to add? Would you like to tell us a little bit about how you look back at Pan Am in a historical way?
Mark: There is just absolutely no doubt in my mind that the most historical airline, the most contributing airline to every other airline, to aviation itself, the opening of roots, the early navigational systems that made international flying possible, the boats, the great flying boats that Pan Am operated around the world, all these things, helped characterize the airline as what it was, a great, fantastic historical airline of which I am so proud to have been even a small part.
Even though I came from a different airline, National, to start out with, as I mentioned last year at the Pan Am Convention in San Francisco, if you cut me, I bleed blue. It's a wonderful time, a wonderful opportunity to have flown for the world's premier airline.
Look what they did in World War II, for instance. Essentially, they were an extended arm of the United States government. It just did so much. It opened so much. It created so much. It led the way. It blazed the trail for everyone else. There's no doubt about it. It's just so sad that it was a victim of its own success in some ways because I think so many people in high places were jealous of Trippe.
Tom: You're right in the sense that for many years, Pan Am had such a stellar reputation that people thought it was too big to fail, and if the government would allow them to have domestic roots, then it would almost be like a monopoly. It was almost like you said, it's the company's success was almost its downfall.
Mark: Yes, I think that's true.
Tom: Anything else you'd like to add to our interview?
Mark: Oh, I can't think of anything. I'm very thankful to have the opportunity. I consider it an honor to speak with you and to have an opportunity to address the audience that you have out there. I'm just thankful to be here. Thank you for the invitation. I wish you every success with your Pan Am Museum and this podcast.
Tom: Thank you, sir.
Tom: Pan Am was a pioneer in air travel and still stands as one of the most iconic and innovative airlines in aviation history. That legacy lives on at the Pan Am Museum in Garden City, New York, where you can explore the rich history of the aircrafts and individuals at the heart of the company known as "The World's Most Experienced Airline." For more information about the Pan Am Museum, check out our website at www.thepanammuseum.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok.
As was once a tagline in one of our commercials, we would greatly appreciate your support to help the Pan Am Museum continue making the going great. You can also support the museum by shopping on our online store for all things Pan Am, accessories, apparel, jewelry, books, models, and posters. We want to hear from you. If you have a question for us or want to share your story, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. As flight crews once said to passengers departing for their destinations around the world, thank you for flying Pan Am.
Pan Am. We fly the world
the way the world wants to fly.
Pan Am. We fly the world
the way the world wants to fly.
[01:39:50] [END OF AUDIO]