The Sovereign
of the Skies
FEBRUARY 1, 1993 -- It was a mandatory reality check, one of those jolting, melancholy moments that overwhelm you even when you know full well what you’re going to see.

Visiting New York recently, I walked over to Park Avenue and looked toward the summit of what had been (and for me always will be) the Pan Am Building. Sure enough, the big blue logo with its stylized globe was gone. I could barely make out the workers some 750 feet up, preparing to install the MetLife sign that would proclaim the building’s new name.

The Pan Am Building was never a notable piece of architecture. But stripped of its signature blue-neon beacon, for decades one of the world’s most recognized logos, the 59-story skyscraper looked plain—even seedy.

There was nothing left to evoke the days when helicopters arrived and departed its rooftop helipad; when Pan Am generals huddled over maps in upper-floor strategy rooms, plotting their conquests of faraway empires; when kings and prime ministers regularly dropped by to pay homage to the undisputed sovereign of the skies.

I wondered: Does an actuary’s or claim adjuster’s diploma now hang in the office where Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s visionary founder, once slammed his fist on a desk and demanded that Boeing add an upper deck to the 747—then ordered so many jumbos, the reluctant plane builder had to comply?

The emptiness I felt standing on Park Avenue was deepened by memories of a far simpler building I had visited in Miami just a few weeks earlier: a sun-bleached 1950s storefront where the spirit of Pan Am is tended by a small group of devoted vestals. The Pan Am Aware Store is operated by Aware, Inc., a group of former employees hell-bent on shoring up the airline’s place in American history and folklore. Profits from the shop will help finance the Pan Am Museum planned for Miami.

With racks of relics precariously piled to the ceiling, and boxes and crates spilling across the floor, the Pan Am Store might put off serious boutiquers accustomed to a finer form of visual merchandising. But it’s a veritable gold mine for nostalgia prospectors. Rummage long enough and you’ll uncover just about everything that has borne a Pan Am logo: first-class china, stemware and cutlery; porcelain sake cups from the old Pacific routes; heavy woolen blankets (the kind that reached all the way to the toes, all the way across the ocean).

I riffled through Pan Am playing cards, flight bags, golf umbrellas, in-flight menus, windbreakers, T-shirts, calendars, postcards of the old China Clippers, and strings of pearls once issued to flight attendants.

My fondest prize was a stainless-steel water pitcher crazed with scratches picked up on the way to Rio, Bangkok and Teheran, pockmarked with dents that recorded turbulence over the Azores and the South Pacific. All that history for $8.

“We have some that have never been used,” a flight attendant turned salesclerk told me, producing a shiny new pitcher.

“Not on your life,” I said.

I spent more than two hours in the cramped little emporium, filling a collapsible suitcase with treasures and chatting with the “crew” and the store’s other customers. Everyone who came in seemed to have a purpose beyond collecting or mere curiosity.

“Pan Am was always America to me,” a German woman told me as she carefully assembled six place settings of china. She recalled how Pan Am had run the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 and served as the divided city’s lifeline until the Wall fell—just a couple of years before Pan Am itself collapsed, in 1991.

“That’s the first plane I ever flew,” a Cuban-American told his two grandsons, pointing to a poster of a Havana Clipper flying boat. He bought the poster and Pan Am-blue baseball caps for the boys.

Even the taxi driver who came to haul my trove back to the airport asked sheepishly, “Do we have time for me to look around?” He bought some playing cards and a decal for his windshield. “America can prop up a hundred foreign countries,” he lamented. “But it couldn’t save Pan Am? It’s a shame, I tell you. A dirty shame.”

Few people, it seems, are unmoved by aviation lore. How else do you explain the crowds at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington? Apologies to the Louvre and the Prado, but it’s now the most visited museum in the world.

George Theofiles, whose firm Miscellaneous Man in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, deals in investment-quality American memorabilia (the expensive stuff), thinks the special attraction of air-travel artifacts is “their ability to evoke a bygone, self-assured America, which had not yet learned about limits.” The finest pieces, Theofiles says, “remind us that airlines once were more than business; they were bastions of style.”

Something other than style must motivate an old friend who collects airsickness (okay, “barf”) bags. At last count he had sacks from more than 100 airlines. And he once talked me into booking a most incommodious Balkan Bulgarian Airlines flight just to fill a blank in his collection.

But the passion for owning a piece of Pan Am seems to run deeper. It’s not just because of all those audacious conquests that Juan Trippe pulled off: the first commercial flights to Latin America, the first across both the Pacific and the Atlantic, the first to go around the world, just about any first you can name. As the stories I overheard at the little shop in Miami attest, the passion for Pan Am hinges on intensely personal memory, which won’t let the mind accept that the great old airline is gone.

For me that memory was forged one day long ago when I stood on the tarmac at Monrovia, heading home from two years in the Peace Corps. As a 707 with a big blue globe on its tail fin slipped gracefully through the West African thermals, I knew how it must have felt to see the flag flying over Iwo Jima. I was already home.

If all goes as planned, Pan Am’s legacy will find a home in the very building where the airline began: not a bland skyscraper on Park Avenue, but Miami’s waterfront City Hall on Dinner Key. Juan Trippe built the handsome little Art Deco building in 1929 as a departure terminal for his pioneering flying boats to Latin America, embellishing it with murals that rhapsodized unbridled optimism and endless horizons. As far back as 1984, when it still seemed that the airline might make it, Miami proposed building a new city hall and converting the old one into a museum that would be devoted to the history of Pan Am and other local airline legends: Eastern, National and Air Florida.

So far there’s no word on when the new city hall will be built, and Hurricane Andrew muddled plans even further. Some in Miami favor a more ambitious museum near the airport.

“We’ll hold out here until a museum is ready, then reopen there as a souvenir shop,” Mary Goshgarian, manager of the Pan Am Aware Store and a 35-year Pan Am veteran, told me. “We have a warehouse full of this stuff. The important thing is that we must never let the world forget Pan Am. There’ll never be anything like it again.

Flashback to New York: When MetLife workers dismantled the two rooftop Pan Am logos, naturalists were called in to assure that work could proceed without disturbing a pair of falcons nesting near one of them. The sign is now safe in Miami, where it awaits display at the new museum. But if you stand across from Grand Central Terminal and look closely at the spot where the letter P once hung, I’m told you can sometimes see a falcon emerge from the nest, unfold its mighty wings and soar like the sovereign of the skies.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.