Come Fly With Me
I watched the first 5 or 6 episodes of the new US TV drama Pan Am but gave up on it because, frankly: it’s absolute crap. Glossy soap-opera for easy-to-please nostalgics and the credulous young.
This sort of infantile, trolly-dolly romance was being written in the 40s, 50s and 60s —Shirley Flight: Air Hostess was the British version; Vicki Barr: Flight Stewardess, the American– and the genre hasn’t improved with age.
The premise of the series is that the 60s were the ‘golden age’ of air travel but this is arrant nonsense. If anything, the 60s were the end of a golden age of air travel–at least, to anyone who values the civilised pleasures of comfort, good food, legroom and headroom. Although, to be fair, the 60s trolly-dollys did look rather good, in that primped and coiffed, girdle-strangled, sheer-stockinged way that they had.
The truth is, the 1960s weren’t even the ‘golden age’ of Pan Am; that was the 1930s and 40s, when Pan Am had its ‘Clipper’ service of flying boats:
While Pan Am’s flying boats generally came to be known as Clippers, the planes, themselves, were actually comprised of three different models: the Sikorsky S-42, the Martin M-130, and the Boeing 314. Luxury was the common theme to all three planes. In the 1930s, Pan Am founder Juan Trippe believed in providing his customers an extravagant travelling experience, one which rivalled the comforts of a grand luxury ocean liner. Passengers enjoyed the finest food, drink and amenities while traversing the seas.
The largest of Pan Am’s flying boats was the Boeing 314, which entered service in 1939. Not until 30 years later with the arrival of the 747 would a commercial plane surpass the 314 in size. It could carry up to 74 passengers during day flights while offering sleeping accommodations for up to 36 passengers. Unlike today’s commercial planes, the 314 – as well as the other Clippers – were divided into several luxurious cabin compartments including a stateroom, dressing rooms, and men’s and women’s restrooms. The 314 featured a separate dining room where passengers were served full-course meals. — pbs.org
But to see really luxurious air-travel –room, comfort and service to match an ocean liner– you have to go back a little further, to the age of the airship. Have a look at these photos of the interior of the Hindenburg: now, call to mind your last flight. Depressing, isn’t it?
I took my first flight in 1958, on a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Vickers Viscount: it had propellers. I remember being excited as a 7 or 8 year-old, to fly on a BOAC Comet, the first jet-powered commercial airliner. I became blasé about flying at a very young age and only expressed mild interest when I first flew on BOAC’s latest jet marvel, the VC-10 with its rear-mounted quartet of engines. Jaded at the age of 12: mine has been a sad life.
Flying from Boston, Mass. to Beirut, on my way back to school, I had the Pan Am stewardesses in stitches at my urbane 15 year-old ways. Asked if I wanted a drink, I’d place an unfiltered Lucky Strike between my lips, raise a quizzical eyebrow the way I’d seen Cary Grant do it in the movies, and ask for a highball: then I’d set fire to my nose. After they’d stopped laughing, they’d ask me if I was serious: I was.
“Rye whisky and ginger-ale”, I’d explain; a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Boston restaurateur, had introduced them to me over the summer and I thought they were the height of sophistication. Previously, what we’d drank had been the most gag-inducing combination of spirits that we’d stolen from our parents’ drinks-cabinets and mixed together: vile stuff but it got you drunk. In a way, the highball was a step into young adulthood.
The stewardesses would all come over to gaze at this modern marvel–the boy who smokes and drinks–and they spent more time with me than was entirely proper. In truth, they weren’t much older than me and compared to fat, drunken businessmen grabbing their bottoms, I must have been quite refreshing: I wasn’t a ‘grabber’, I had nice manners and I listened to the same music that they did.
But it wasn’t a ‘golden age’. I missed that. I fly as little as I can now: I much prefer trains–more civilised. There’s been talk for the last few years of bringing back the airship. I hope they do. In the meantime, let’s have poems on air travel. Up, up and away…