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Tales of Pan Am: You Just Can't Make These Stories Up

04/24/2014 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2014

Like most people, I love a great story, and most of all, I love a great Pan Am story. I sure heard a lot of them at the recent Pan Am reunion!

As usual -- and this applies to employees of all airlines -- when a bunch of Pan Am-ers get together, the stories start coming out. Many of them are classics, known to most of us veterans, but there are always new stories that I've never heard before. Let me give you just a few examples:

Mohammed Ali was supposedly a frequent flyer on Pan Am. He loved to tease the flight attendants, displaying that familiar impish sparkle in his eyes. So on one such occasion when it was time for takeoff, he hadn't buckled his seatbelt. The flight attendant approached him and said, "Mr. Ali, I need for you to fasten your seatbelt, please."

He looked at her and said with a smile, "Superman don't need no seatbelt." And quick as a wink, she said, "Mr. Ali, Superman don't need no airplane!"

Nobody got a bigger kick out of it than "the Champ" himself.

***

And then there was the extremely glamorous flight attendant who wore bright red lipstick, four-inch stilettos, non-regulation pencil slim skirts, and was known for giving Marilyn Monroe-like breathless announcements. Once, on a long flight, when it was time for her to take her break, she took a seat in the back of the plane. Reaching into her purse, she took out what she thought was her eye crème stick.

Alas, instead, it was her red lipstick that she liberally applied all around her eyes. The next passenger who made her way to the bathrooms in the back screamed bloody murder at this horrifying sight. The poor flight attendant spent the rest of her break in the lav, trying her best to remove the blood-red stains encircling her eyes!

***

The next story takes place during the Golden Age of Aviation, when Pan Am employees were expected to go way out of our way to ensure that passengers' in-flight experience was part of the joy of travel. We were encouraged to be creative, and because we were so well treated by the company, we were happy to do it.

This particular story concerns a woman who worked primarily in Pan Am management. She was observing on a Los Angeles-to-London flight when it became obvious that a very difficult business class passenger just couldn't be satisfied, no matter what anybody did. She came up with one of those very creative solutions. But I'll let her tell the tale:

The crew asked for my assistance. When I approached the passenger, I thought of my young baby at home whose pacifier was in my purse, and for a fleeting moment I thought of offering it to the fussy man! Luckily, my cooler head prevailed.

I told him that I learned that despite the crew's best efforts, he was still quite unhappy. So I asked him if I were to produce a real live belly dancer, would he promise to sit back and enjoy the flight? This piqued his curiosity and he managed just a hint of a smile. Passengers seated in the area overheard this conversation and were now also very curious.

Knowing that one of the flight attendants was an accomplished belly dancer, I asked if she might go to business class and do a few belly dancing moves. As she danced, the unhappy passenger broke into a big smile, shaking his head in disbelief. Meanwhile, his fellow passengers in the area gave a huge round of applause. The passenger kept his promise and enjoyed the remainder of his London flight -- which meant that the crew and everyone else could relax and have fun as well.

***

The following story is a true tale of Pan Am's first skyjacking. The year was 1968. The crew of this particular flight had discussed the very unlikely possibility -- in a light and improbable manner -- of what they would do in case they were hijacked. It was an extremely rare occurrence.

As her flight departed New York, headed for Puerto Rico, a flight attendant -- we'll call her "Jan" -- was quickly approached by three men in the rear of the aircraft. One carried a gun, another a knife, and the third, a Bible. They told her to make the Captain take them to Cuba.

So Jan telephones the cockpit and says, "There are three men here; one has a gun, one has a knife, and one has a Bible, and they want to go to Cuba!"

At first there is laughter, especially given the part about the Bible. But when Jan insists that "No, I mean it. They want to go to Cuba," the cockpit immediately went into action. A real skyjacking was underway.

Meanwhile, the man with the Bible approached Jan, and, obviously nervous, asked for a drink. She returned from the galley with a tray holding a glass of ice and a small bottle of whiskey. As Jan held the tray out to his shaking hands, she reflexively said, "That will be 50 cents, Sir." And the skyjacker paid her!

The plane landed safely, the passengers were evacuated by the State Department, and the crew spent a few unexpected days enjoying Cuba. On her return home, Jan was celebrated as Pan Am's "Employee of the Month!"

A historical note: Ironically, the decade after this first Pan Am skyjacking to Cuba may be thought of as the "Golden Age" of U.S. hijackings. Prior to 1958, only one airplane was hijacked per year in the entire world. The worst year was 1969 (the year after my story takes place), when supposedly 82 airplanes were hijacked.

***

As long as I'm telling stories, I might as well tell one about me. It's a real cautionary tale for any flight attendants who might really believe that passengers don't listen to announcements.

One morning after a very long and grueling flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, the task of making announcements fell to me because the purser who usually made them got very sick. As I was speaking, things went pretty well until I got to the part where I was supposed to say, "Please don't forget to check under your seats to make sure you have all of your personal effects with you."

I, instead, said "Please don't forget to check under your seatbelts to make sure you have all of your personal effects with you." Suddenly all eyes were on me, and everybody was laughing.

There seems to be some unwritten rule of the universe that if you make a mistake in the announcements that contains a double entendre, it escapes nobody's attention. Consider yourselves warned.

***

This next story ranks very high in most PanAmer's top favorite tales. It was in the late 1960s that Pan Am inaugurated service from JFK, via Copenhagen, into Moscow at the height of the Cold War. It was a very big deal, and an international relations coup.

I was incredibly excited to be actually flying to "Mother Russia," because its history had always intrigued me. The moment we disembarked at Moscow's Sheremetievo Airport, I was aware of a dark, brooding atmosphere that seemed to define the Russian soul. We all felt enveloped by it -- as well as by a rising paranoia.

As our bus made its way into the city, gigantic billboards loomed along the way, excoriating the United States for its role in the Vietnam War, as well as other things that I couldn't interpret. There were no colorful signs advertising products -- it was all aggressively hostile anti-American propaganda.

When we arrived at our hotel, we were taken to our floor, where, ensconced behind a desk, sat a large and intimidating babushka (grandmother). This hall monitor's job was to issue our room keys, and to make notes on our comings and goings. Naturally, this did nothing to reduce our paranoia. Her dour, unsmiling countenance rivaled that of the most stereotypical harsh and judgmental nun straight out of Central Casting. This is when our rising paranoia began to mix with our nervous attack of "the giggles."

The lack of any color but grey and black in the buildings, the clothing, and even the landscape was startling. We Pan Am employees in our colorful layover clothing (reds, blues, purples, yellows) must have been deeply offensive -- or envy provoking -- to the drab and melancholy looking Muscovites.

It was in this atmosphere that the story of one of Pan Am's most famous crew escapades unfolded.

As was our custom, this Pan Am crew met in the captain's room for "de-briefing," a time for socializing, and in this case, to discuss the Cold War, the KGB, and the babushka in the hall. After a few hours of drinking, somebody got the bright idea that the captain's room had been bugged.

Then, everyone got into the spirit, searching the lampshades, the sparse furniture, behind the mirrors, under the bed, and finally, under the rug. Voila! There it was! Located underneath the rug in the center of the room was a metal disk screwed to the floor.

Legend has it that the flight engineer went back to his room to get a screwdriver from his toolkit. Then, the crew watched silently as he carefully and methodically unscrewed the disk from the floor.

Seconds later, the grand crystal chandelier in the hotel lobby below crashed to the floor. The noise was so loud, the crew could even hear it in the captain's room above. I can only imagine the look on the babushka's face!

Turns out that the chandelier was worth approximately $5,000, and the crew was not going to be allowed to leave until it was paid for. So the captain put it on his American Express bill, and as far as I know, nobody got into trouble. After all, Pan Am was like a family, and "family was family."

During Pan Am's fabled 64 years of operation, thousands of such stories have emerged and, as I can attest to, having just returned from the Aloha Reunion in Hawaii, Pan Am-er's still love telling them. I know I do.

Note: For those who are interested, here is the link to the newest Pan Am video by Tommy Carroll, entitled The Legend Lives On:
http://www.frequency.com/video/legend-lives-on/161219080