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Tales of Pan American World Airways.

Tales Of Pan American World Airways

Today, operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Pan Am struggles to survive. But the carrier is remembered in Alaska as an aviation superstar that pioneered new routes in the 49th state and around the world.

Pan American World Airways, once known as the flagship airline of the United States overseas, has accomplished many firsts, including inaugurating air routes between the United States and Latin America 60 years ago. In 1935, the airline opened routes across the Pacific to China, and in 1939, it developed trans-Atlantic airline service.

Among numerous other entries on Pan Am's long list of firsts are many entailing Alaskan aviation feats. The company forged its way through Alaska flight history beginning in 1931, when its technical adviser, famous aviator Col. Charles Lindbergh, made a survey flight from New York to the Orient via Alaska. Alaska aviation and Pan Am progressed hand-in-hand from that point for many years to follow.

Samuel Pryor, a Pan American vice president, told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce in 1963, "It is no overstatement that Pan American and Alaska grew up together."

Only one year after Lindbergh's survey flight, Pan American, under founder Juan Trippe's guidance, purchased the equipment and facilities of Alaska's two largest airlines - Alaskan Airways and Pacific International Airways of Alaska. The combined acquisitions were suffering $100,000 in operating losses after spending $500,000 on equipment and development work, according to a 1945 historical account written by J. Howard Hamstra of New York, a Pan Am vice president.

Pan American formed a subsidiary, Pacific Alaska Airways, to buy the two struggling operations -- hoping to further the air carrier's vision of a flight path to the Orient through Alaska, which it provided years later. Under terms of the sale, Pan Am inherited a mishmash of airplanes; operating bases at Fairbanks, Anchorage and Nome; and mail contracts, known as Star Routes, for various Interior, Kenai Peninsula and Western Alaska communities.

"To undertake operations with such a heterogeneous assortment of equipment and a series of disconnected mail routes under the severe geographical and climatic conditions of Alaska, with its limited traffic potential, was sufficient to give pause to any prudent management," says Hamstra in his narrative. "Pan American's determination to enter Alaska was, therefore, motivated not by the immediate commercial possibilities of the investment, but by experimental considerations looking to long-range development objectives."

By 1933, PAA had reorganized operations and was maintaining scheduled service on more than 2,600 miles of Alaska air routes. The same year in Fairbanks, the company constructed a modern hangar and improved its maintenance base.

Also in 1933, three Fairchild seaplanes from Fairbanks landed at Auke Bay, near Juneau, with 11 passengers and 360 pounds of first-class mail. It was the first time air mail was delivered to Juneau from the Interior, marking a new era in Southeast Alaska aviation.

Pan American Airways was the first to establish scheduled air service between many Alaska cities, including Juneau and Fairbanks via Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in 1935. The route was added following the company's 1934 purchase of Alaska Southern Airways, which operated a charter service in Southeast that included occasional flights to the Lower 48.

Also in 1934, the airline constructed the first integrated radio network in Alaska suitable for aeronautical use.

In March 1940, Pan Am connected the Last Frontier to the continental United States with regularly scheduled twice-weekly service from Juneau to Seattle aboard 32-passenger Sikorsky Clippers, also called flying boats. Round-trip fare was $100.

"No event of greater importance to Alaska has transpired than the opening of the airways to Juneau and Fairbanks and the maintenance of several weekly schedules that bring these two cities as close to Seattle as is San Francisco," says the Alaska Life Territorial Magazine in a June 15, 1941, article.

Recollecting. For the people who worked for Pan Am during its Alaska heyday, the history goes beyond interesting old news clippings. "When I first came up, we had just about one airplane a day because it took most of the day to get here," says Fred Baxter Sr., Pan Am's airport manager in Juneau for years. "The airplane would usually get here and stay overnight, so we had daily service, but nothing like now."

Baxter came to Juneau from Seattle in July 1942, when Pan Am was putting the finishing touches on a new paved 5,000-foot landing strip. He graduated from aeronautics school in Newark, N.J., and accepted a job in Seattle as a Pan Am mechanic in January 1942. The pay was 66 cents an hour.

When the opportunity to transfer to Alaska came in July that year, Baxter says he couldn't pass it up. "Coming from the East Coast, there was very little known about Alaska at that time."

Several months after Baxter arrived in Juneau, Pan American's operations in Alaska were taken over by the U.S. Navy during World War II. Operations under Navy contract continued until July 31, 1944 -- after the Japanese were driven from the Aleutians and the threat of a West Coast attack disappeared. Public transportation aboard Pan Am aircraft during the war was fairly limited and passengers were flown mostly on a priority basis.

In 1943, Baxter was promoted to chief mechanic in Juneau. He was named airport manager in 1958, a position he held until Pan American left Southeast in 1965.

During Baxter's early years with the company, Pan American's Juneau-to-Seattle fleet consisted of three Lockheed Lodestars, an 18-seat twin engine propeller plane, and one DC-3, a 21-seat twin-prop plane.

Pan Am not only constructed its own runway and terminal in several Alaska communities, but it also was responsible for its own snow removal, radio communications and weather reports. Pilots relied on wits and experience instead of instruments.

Though tiny by today's standards, there was excitement at the Juneau airport during its younger days. In February of 1962, Pan Am flew the first jet into Juneau, a Boeing 707 named "Jet Clipper Alaska." News accounts say the plane touched down at 11:10 a.m. on the recently lengthened 8,500-foot runway. Gov. William Egan and Alaska's congressional delegation -- Sen. Bob Bartlett, Rep. Ralph Rivers and Sen. Ernest Gruening -- were on hand along with local dignitaries to preside over ceremonies at the airport, which drew a crowd of about 5,000 people.

The Juneau Empire, then called the Daily Alaska Empire, paid tribute to Pan Am with a half-page spread following the inaugural jet flight. "This progress has spanned the development of aircraft from single-engine, six-place Fairchild monoplanes capable of about 100 miles an hour to today's giant jets carrying 134 passengers and five tons of cargo at a cruising speed of 575 miles an hour," the paper says.

Once a Boeing Stratocruiser, an 86-passenger, four-engine propeller plane, landed short of the runway when touching down in the late 1950s. It thumped up onto the runway and caught fire, but no one was hurt, Baxter says.

"It was a beautiful day and just about the time the airplane crashed, school was getting out," he says. "The fire trucks went by and just about any kid at school who could get a car ended up out on the runway."

In the early 1950s, a Douglas DC-4, a 44-passenger, four-engine prop, skidded off the end of the runway due to icy conditions. It was a close call, with one crumpled wing and a bashed-up tail, but again nobody was seriously hurt.

Don Pegues of Tenakee, who worked for Pan Am in Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan, was on board the plane when it crashed. "We'd been trying to get into Juneau for about a day or so," he remembers. "For some reason or another, when we touched down, it was a little bit off to the sanded area and we slid the length of the runway."

The pilot tried to force the aircraft to a stop with a ground loop, or 180-degree turn, but the method didn't work. Pegues recalls that after the plane crashed, he opened the back door and helped people climb down a ladder into the deep snow. "By that time all the airport crew was out there and we got everybody out," he says. In the accident's only injury, a woman fell and slipped on the icy runway after being evacuated from the plane.

Pegues began his Pan Am career in Fairbanks in 1947. He worked in traffic and sales there for two years before transferring to Juneau in 1949. He stayed in Juneau five years, working at the downtown ticket office, and then transferred to Ketchikan in 1954.

The Ketchikan airport then was located on Annette Island. Pegues says, "In those days, depending on the circumstances, we'd fly to work every morning from Ketchikan to Annette on Ellis Airlines (a regional carrier)."

Pegues worked in Ketchikan in traffic and sales, and then transferred back to Juneau in 1959 as district traffic manager. Pegues and Baxter worked as a team -- Baxter at the airport and Pegues at the downtown ticket office. "The airport in those days was like, to me, a big family," says Baxter. "We worked together and we played together."

By that time many others were on the Alaska aviation scene. "In those days, Alaska Coastal Airlines and Pacific Northern Airlines and the Pan Am group were very close," Baxter says. "Whenever anybody needed help, we all pitched in."

Baxter's sentiment is echoed by Alaska Linck of Fairbanks, who in addition to working for Pan Am for 38 years also served in the Territorial Legislature. "I couldn't begin to describe it," Linck says of the camaraderie among workers. "This was a very tight knit airline -- pilots and communications people, ground crew -- they were all very tight knit."

The staff in Fairbanks appreciated a good laugh, too. Linck remembers one fiscally hard time for the company in its early years when two executives from Pan Am's New York office visited the Fairbanks airfield -- presumably with bad news of cutbacks and layoffs.

The Fairbanks employees "got busy" and stuffed a mechanic's suit with paper and arranged it around a chopping block complete with an ax and fake blood, she says. "So when all these guys came off the plane, here was this dummy with the ax and the head off -- it was really quite a mess," Linck laughs. "But it broke the ice."

Linck worked in various posts with Pan Am in Fairbanks. She started in 1935, providing general typing and other secretarial duties. Linck then was transferred to the company's accounting department in Fairbanks, which was located at the hangar on Week's Field. The hangar is still there, but it now houses a bowling alley and other shops. She also worked at Pan Am's traffic office at the Nordale Hotel on Second Avenue in Fairbanks. A car lot sits on that location today.

Linck jumped at the chance to become manager of the traffic office when the proposal was presented to her by the former PAA director in Alaska, John White. She continued working for the company until 1973, retiring as tour director in Fairbanks.

Pan Am's presence in Southeast ended in 1965, when the Civil Aeronautics Board -- the federal agency that determined air routes then -- eliminated Pan Am from the Juneau-Seattle flight in favor of Pacific Northern Airlines. The move was an effort to cut costs, because many airlines, including Pan Am, received subsidies from the federal government in those days, Pegues says.

Meanwhile, Pan Am continued its Alaska operations out of Fairbanks. After the Southeast shutdown, Pegues worked for Pan Am in the South Pacific from 1965 to 1971. Baxter went to Auckland, New Zealand, for five years, serving as Pan Am's airport manager there.

Leaving Alaska. Pegues returned as Pan Am's Alaska operations director in Fairbanks in 1971 and was there "until the end," he says. In 1978 Pan Am left the state completely. "The revenues were not there and the airplanes were needed elsewhere," Pegues explains. After the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez was completed in 1977, Pan Am's 747 jumbo jets -- the first such jets in Alaska -- were just too large for the market, he says.

The company had no smaller planes based in Seattle for use on Alaska flights, since its main thrust was overseas travel. The decision to leave Alaska was also made during a time when deregulation was reshaping the airline industry in the late 1970s and the oil embargo of 1973-74 had sparked a sharp hike in jet fuel prices.

"The last flight was in September of 1978," Pegues says nostalgically. "It was quite emotional; it was just the passing of an era. Pan Am grew up in Alaska."

Deregulation was to have a major impact on Pan Am, which mostly relied on domestic carriers to bring passengers to its international gateways. Suddenly, domestic airliners were granted international routes, dislodging Pan Am's foothold in international aviation. The Civil Aeronautics Board then awarded sought-after routes, such as Atlanta to London and Dallas to London, to other airliners.

Pan Am sold many assets during the 1980s just to survive. Once considered the premier airline of the world, Pan Am filed for protection from creditors in January under federal bankruptcy laws.

Today, the company operates under Chapter 11. The former Alaska employees, when asked how they feel about the bankruptcy, all express sympathy and respect for the once-great Pan American. After a long, thoughtful pause, Baxter says simply, "It's kind of sad."

PHOTO : In this 1940s photo, a Pan Am DC-3 Clipper lands in Juneau.

PHOTO : First Lady Neva Egan, wife of former Gov. William Egan, christened "Jet Clipper Alaska" on its inaugural flight, which marked introduction of Pan Am's jet service to Juneau.

PHOTO : The first air mail from Interior Alaska to Juneau was unloaded from a Pacific Alaska Fairchild 71 on Sept. 3, 1933.
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Title Annotation:services in Alaska are remembered
Author:Ripley, Kate
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:company profile
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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