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Photo provided by Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: Pan Am

In 1927, a crucial air mail transport task from Key West to Havana led to the formation of Pan Am. Initially an air mail carrier, the widely known airline grew to become prosperous and successful, allowing for a well-remembered legacy that continues to fly high today.

During the early years of their history, the carrier operated numerous types of flying boats, the most popular being a fleet of Boeing B-314s. By 1931, these aircraft earned nicknames which included the word “Clipper,”  resulting in a new trend of aircraft naming. The term “Clipper” also remained as Pan Am’s call sign. As their fleet progressed, the carrier became the first operator of the Boeing 707, which they first flew in 1958. They are also recognized for their extensive operation of the famed Boeing 747 starting in 1970. Alongside their iconic aircraft were DC-6s, DC-7s, DC-8s, DC-10s, Airbus A310s, and Boeing 727s. The airline also intended to purchase a Concorde, but the supersonic airplane was never officially purchased.

Previously known as Pan American Airways Corporation, the carrier officially gained global status in 1950, becoming Pan American World Airways.

Over the course of their history, Pan Am flew to nearly every part of the world at some point, including the Caribbean, Central, North, and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. At their peak, they offered service to 86 countries. Their headquarters were located at Miami International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, with major hubs in Tokyo, London, and Frankfurt. Their flagship terminal, respectively named Worldport, was located at JFK.

Another high point in the airline’s history came in 1980, when Pan Am acquired National Airlines. They won a bidding war with their competitors, including Texas International Airlines.

As for aircraft accidents, Pan Am was involved in two well-known incidents. The first occurred on March 27, 1977, when Pan Am 1736 and KLM 4805 suffered a runway incursion. Known as the Tenerife Airport Disaster, the crash was a result of pilot error, communication issues, and heavy fog. The second disaster occurred on December 21, 1988, when Pan Am 103 was bombed while in flight. The 747 crashed into Lockerbie, Scotland, and the tragedy became known as the Lockerbie Bombing.

Following the oil crisis in 1973, Pan Am suffered severe financial struggles, worsened by the operating costs of their older airplanes, increasing fuel prices, and reduced air travel. Growing financial concerns continued to harm the ailing company over the next several years. In early 1991, Pan Am was forced to file for bankruptcy, giving Delta a prime opportunity to purchase parts of the failing brand. All recovery efforts fell through, and on December 4, 1991, Pan American World Airways officially ceased operations.

Though Pan Am no longer dominates the global skies, the international airline left behind a powerful legacy of iconic aircraft and exceptional passenger service. Their presence in the times when air travel was still highly glorified will surely not be forgotten by their former employees and passengers.


  • Ashley is currently a senior in high school and plans on pursuing a career in aviation or journalism. Her favorite airplanes include the Boeing 777, 737MAX, and Airbus A350. She enjoys taking flights on various airlines to different airports and planespotting at her local airports.

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