20 Years and Counting
It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since that other day of infamy in my life, December 4, 1991, when Pan Am became part of the history of airlines.
Before the terrorist attack on flight 103 in December of 1988, Pan Am had been a very sick company. Most of the assets had been sold, and that symbol of power in New York, the Pan Am building, had also gone to raise money for life support. Most if not all of our aircraft had been sold and then leased back. Even our participation in 435 missions during Desert Storm only provided a little medicine to offset the inevitable.
After the Lockerbie attack, no one flew on Pan Am. Our first class high revenue business ceased to exist, the patient was on the critical list. Several airlines had expressed an interest in acquiring some or all of the assets of the company but had expressed no interest in taking over the unfunded liabilities. In the summer of 1991 Delta agreed to buy the Atlantic routes, the shuttle, and to provide start up capital of $150M for a new Pan Am. The new Pan Am would return to the origins of the company and operate out of Miami thru the Caribbean.
During a good part of 1991, and after Desert Storm I usually flew South American trips to Rio, Buenos Aires, and Santiago. On December 2nd, 1991 I left our now very small operation in New York on the 201 Flight to Rio. We got into the hotel about 0930 the next morning, December 3rd. The first officer and I decided to meet, after getting some rest, for a walk/jog down Ipenema, and on to Copacabana beach, a round trip of about 10 miles. I recall discussing the fact that this may be our last time on Copacabana beach; I did not realize how correct this would prove to be.
The cockpit crew went out to dinner and had a great Brazilian meal and I returned to my room at the Sheraton. Since CNN was available I turned on the news, it was not that good. Delta had announced that they were not going to fund the new Pan Am, they had pulled the life support and the patient would die.
The next morning I was supposed to make a shuttle to Buenos Aires thru Montevideo, I thought before I leave I would call my wife, something I had never done in the 28 years I flew for Pan Am. We discussed the news and I said that I thought this was the end of the company. I took a shower and as I was leaving the shower the telephone rang, it was Joe Tavares the chief dispatcher at Rio, and he said, “Ed, we have a problem”. I knew what it was. Joe told me to round up all the crewmembers and tell them that two buses would be at the hotel at 1300 to take everyone out to the airport. Incidentally Joe Tavares had started to work for Pan Am in Lisbon when he was 16. His job was handing the ropes for the flying boats when they docked. Joe Tavares was now 71, 55 years of his life was ending.
One of the fears that the station at Rio had, was that the creditors would get a legal order to impound the two 747 aircraft at the airport. I met the inbound crew, and they were unaware of the bankruptcy. Delta had waited until 2300 hours the night before to withdraw from the financial deal, an act that would insure the demise of Pan Am. I told them to check in and take a shower but be prepared to leave at 1300 local. The crew thought I was joking, but I assured them that this was no joke.
All the crews, now some 80+ crewmembers, checked out of the hotel and boarded the two buses that were outside the hotel. A first officer from another crew sauntered out to the bus at 1258 and told me that he was going back in to check out of the hotel, I told him the bus was leaving in two minutes, with or without him. We did leave on time, and he took a cab. Since we had no complete roster, we did not realize that two flight attendants were not on the bus, or in the hotel.
The operations office at the airport was now a grim place, and it was a very emotional time for all. I was going to take one 747 to Miami and the other Captain was taking the other aircraft to New York. He had more seniority and got to pick first. Joe Tavares asked me if I would take a sublo (airline employee on a pass) back with me to Miami. The check airman who had arrived with the inbound crew questioned if that was legal. I suggested that it was too late to fire me and if we had time we should go out to the terminal and see if anyone wanted to go to Miami for $50 cash. I took the sublo.
The loads were split with about 40 crewmembers deadheading on each aircraft. I was the first aircraft to start and taxi. In place of my normal takeoff briefing, I told the engineer that unless the problem was going to kill us, I really did not want to hear about it. We departed for Miami.
During the flight to Miami the deadheading crewmembers held a good sized party down stairs. Both aircraft had been fully provisioned for a return to the United States, so there was no lack of either food or drink. The cockpit kept busy with the normal routine of flight, navigation, fuel tracking and weather monitoring. The return flight was uneventful and I landed in Miami at 2205 local time, the last Pan Am airplane to land at Miami. After securing the cockpit I went downstairs, and despite the party, the downstairs was neat, clean and orderly. The blankets were folded and the pillows were put away, a tribute to the dedication of our flight attendants.
Our course, those of us based in New York were now in Miami with no company hotel, no transportation, and no way to get to New York. We ended up staying at a hotel we used for training and found out that American Airlines would take us home to New York. To really rub salt in the wounds, Delta would provide no such assistance.
The next morning at 0600, we all showed up at American for our flight back to New York. My night at the hotel was a waste, as I could not sleep. The two missing flight attendants now showed up at the American check in area. They had been out on dates with some locals in Rio, and came back to find the Sheraton devoid of Pan Am crewmembers.
The two flight attendants had been told by the hotel manager to leave their rooms and the hotel. One responded, that if he forced them to do such she would enter the lobby naked and scream, the manager relented. They were fortunate in seeing the American Airlines crew getting ready to leave and the American Airlines Captain used his authority to take them back.
I went to my car in the now Delta crew parking lot, after having a confrontation with the crew bus driver. Since I did not have a Delta ID he told me I could not ride on the bus to the crew lot. I suggested he get a policeman and have me arrested, I went to the lot.
Since I had essentially been up for two days, the drive home was a blur. When I got home I really could not discuss what had happened without getting emotional. Much like a death in the family, it was the end of something that I loved to do and a company that I lived with for over 28 years.
I was one of the lucky few; I got another flying job. I managed to fly for Korean Air out of New York as a 747 Captain, until I retired in 1995. Many of my fellow pilots never flew again.
Gone but not forgotten.