EXCLUSIVE: A Talk with Robert Gandt of Pan Am – An Icon in its Acquisitions and Innovations

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

MADRID – Pan Am, one of the world’s most renowned and experienced airlines, is still remembered today even 30 years after the airline shut down. Amidst the current changes seen in the pandemic among the Covid pandemic, this has been a time to look back at the history of one of the greatest airlines as ‘history repeats itself.

With this we have taken the opportunity to speak with Robert Gandt, former Airforce pilot, Captain at Pan Am and, Author of Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am and China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats. During his 26 years at Pan Am (1965-1991), he flew the B707, B727, B737, Airbus A310, and B747 and was based in New York, Berlin, Hong Kong, and San Francisco for the airline.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As this is the case Robert will also give light to some stories and aspects of the airline not usually in the spotlight of the airline such as Pan Am’s creation of the ETOPS program, its political power to Pan Am’s stakes in airlines in Africa and Asia.

Without further ado, lets get into it:

LZ: Do you believe we are seeing the same amount of innovation by airlines and aircraft manufactures as Juan Trippe brought about through his time as a leader of one of the world’s most innovative and greatest airlines?

RG: First of all, do I see as much innovation as in the old days of Pan Am? No, I do not. You think that back in the ’20s, ’30s, and 40’s a great number of airline aircraft were actually brought into existence specifically by Pan Am.

I’m thinking of the Silvorsky airplanes specifically the S-40. The S-42 is rebuilt to Pan Am’s specifications. One airline made this happen. . Likewise the big Boeing-314 was a Pan Am order and would have never been built if it had not been built for Pan Am’s specifications and it continued up until the Jet-age.

The Boeing 707 was brought into existence as a transatlantic airliner by Pan Am. Juan Trippe sort of forced that on Boeing. They didn’t even want to do it. As a result, the DC-8 followed on soon after.

Lastly, the 747 was specifically a Pan Am order. Now I can’t think of any other time in history or airline that created so much innovation, such huge leaps, in aeronautical technology like that.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 747 just completely revolutionized the commercial airline business. Since then I cannot think of any other airline where even a manufacturer made such a generational leap that caused it to happen.

A Flipnote might have been Howard Hughes who made the Constellation come into existence and because he was a big stakeholder in TWA, he made that their flag-ship but that’s about the closest thing that I can remember.

Now think about this, this all happened in a space of 20 years, from the mid-’30s to the mid-’50s. From primitive flying boats which couldn’t even get across the ocean to majestic big flying boats like the B-314, then the long-range land planes, the Constellation, the B-377 to the first transatlantic jets.

Your question, do I see the same amount of innovation, I would say not at all.

There is certainly innovation, they’re improving efficiency, winglets, more efficient engines saving more fuel, longer-range but you’re talking about airplanes, for example, the Boeing 737 Max, that basic airplane has been around for 40 years.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Those are only incremental improvements, power plants, and efficiency in airframe use. That is not a big generational leap we saw back in the ’50s.

LZ: Why do you think this is not the case? Do you think it is because we have not had a leader like Juan Trippe in such a while to have seen such big generational leaps?

RG: Certainly, it was because of Juan Trippe that Pan Am made all those innovations because he was a young entrepreneur in those days and he was not an expert businessman or aviator certainly not an engineer but he had this vision and he just made stuff happen.

I compare him to later day entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Young guys with this drive none of them brilliant engineers or businessmen but they are driven with this vision and that was Trippe.

I don’t see that much anymore in the industry as it has become a very mature business and I don’t see any big generational breakthroughs. The 787, for example. That’s the latest really new kind of jet.

It goes the same speed basically that every jet before that has. The only big breakthrough generational leap to happen sometime in the SST. I don’t see that happening anytime soon though.

LZ: What can you tell us about Pan Am’s Moon mission?

RG: The mission was more public relations than real. Starting in the mid-late ’60s. We hadn’t landed on the moon yet. The world became very aware of travel to the moon and this was going to happen.

They knew it was. About that time Pan Am started the first Moon Flights Club and it evoked a bit of interest but what really got it going was the movie in 1968 called “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Stanley Kubrick movie and in that movie this spaceship leaves earth and goes into orbit to take passengers to the moon and it’s a commercial spaceship. On the side of it is this big Pan Am logo.

We go inside the cabin and we have Pan Am stewardesses hanging upside down in the cabin serving drinks and they look just like Pan Am stewardesses. No one was surprised at that, it was just a huge selling point for Pan Am but everybody knew that if we ever went to the moon on a commercial ship it would, of course, be Pan Am.

With that, that moon club thing really exploded. A great publicity machine, they gave away 93,000 membership cards. I think I had one. Ronald Reagen had one, Barry Goldwater had one.

Famous people wanted to be on that list. It wasn’t really connected to a moon mission yet because there wasn’t any such thing yet. Later on, as Pan Am fell on hard times there wasn’t too much talk of  Pan Am going to the Moon or going anywhere else special. They kept the club up for a while though.

LZ: Are there any other projects other than the well known aircraft manufacturing ones (from Silvorsky to the B747) that have been forgotten?

RG: There was one called the Guided-missile range division. Later on, they made it more formal as the Aerospace Division and as Pan Am fell, it became a really important division as it was the only one making money and it was very successful. I think it lasted up until the end of Pan Am’s time.

Another one was the Business jet division which they became an early promoter and marketer of the Falcon jet and they had a relationship with Dassault in France who made the Falcon and Pan Am sold a lot of Falcon jets in the U.S. Those are two units external to what Pan Am’s main business was the airline.

LZ: What were some innovative engineering-related projects that Pan Am was still working on till its final day in 1991?

RG: Engineering wise I can’t think of any mainly because they were struggling to stay alive. Since Pan Am was the first to receive the 747 they had to solve all the problems that new airplanes have and the 747 had a lot of problems.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mainly the engines. Pan Am had to fix all that along with Pratt & Whitney. There were a lot of turnbacks and engine failures, a lot of expenses. They had a lot of engines fail that they had 747s sitting around Kennedy and Miami ramps with no engines on.

They used to call them the 747 gliders but solving that problem was an engineering feat and we had an entire department at Pan Am that worked on nothing except for that.

A later engineering marvel was Pan Am’s creation of ETOPS, which is the first twin-engine over ocean operations. I got involved with that but Pan Am did it with the Airbus A310 and at that time that was a new thing.

People weren’t flying 2 engined airplanes across the ocean and the ETOPS (Extended Twin-Engine Overwater Procedures Standards). It started out with a route that always had an alternate landing field and good weather within 60 minutes and that was problematic in the Wintertime over the Atlantic.

Not at all available in the pacific. We proved it and proved the engine reliability and had very few diversions. It was extended from 60 minutes to 90 minutes, to 120 minutes, and beyond that to 3 hours meaning you could fly anywhere in the world.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The longest overwater commercial leg for airlines is still from California to Hawaii which is 2400 and some miles and that is about as far as you can go without any alternate airports in the world.

That wasn’t as much of an engineering innovation but it was more of technical innovation, methodically developed and proved. The FAA was with us all the time and Pan Am made it happen.

LZ: Was Pan Am’s management of the likes of Air Zaire, MEA, Ariana Afghanistan, CAAC, Panagra similar to the acquisitions done by Ethiopian, Qatar and Delta in other national carriers? Did Pan Am set the precedent?

RG: Those weren’t really acquisitions. Pan Am didn’t acquire any of those airlines. They did have in most cases a stake in it. For example, they owned 49% of Ariana. Also had management contracts with them.

That lasted for a few years. Same with MEA, Pan Am had a management contract with them. Air Zaire was a management contract that lasted for 3 years and was supplied with 14 airmen to advise, train and manage the airline.

None of these were called acquisitions and weren’t added to their stable. You can look at Ethiopian airlines which have acquired neighboring airlines and have added them to their stable and so has Qatar.

Pan Am never did acquisitions and mergers. The closest thing I could think of was they took over American Overseas airlines and that was in about 1949. They took it over mainly for the purpose of removing competition which they were operating but they also had the contract to fly out of occupied Berlin so by buying out American Overseas, Pan Am suddenly had this Berlin base which they kept for up to 40 years.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I was based there myself. That was an acquisition. There are very few acquisitions, these other airlines they had a stake in them probably for the purpose of connecting and having a political base in those countries such as Zaire (Congo today), Lebanon, or Afghanistan which no one imagined what a war zone that would become to be but about 1955 Pan Am started what it called its Technical Assistance Program.

That was not entirely benevolent or a goodwill gesture but they provided assistance to Air Zaire and Ariana were some of them. The ultimate idea was for Pan Am to have political collections in that country so they could fly through and add it to their network.

That lasted for quite a while. It was generally quite successful. Pan Am in later years didn’t have any subsidiaries except for CAAC in China before World War 2. They had 2 small operating subsidiaries up until the end, one was Pan Am Shuttle which was mainly a shuttle between Boston-New York-Washington.

The other was Pan Am Express which they bought as Ransom airlines, rebranded it, and called it Pan Am Express.

The idea was that with all the little small town airports this could be the feeder to Pan Am’s international routes and likewise with the shuttle bring passengers up to Kennedy where they could get onto an international flight.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Again Ransom was an acquisition, the Shuttle Pan Am just started on its own. Mind you most of these airlines that they assisted where they had stakes were government-owned airlines. Pan Am was never a government-owned airline.

Most of the overseas airlines with which Pan Am competed were government-owned or subsidized airlines and that became another problem. They could afford to lose money and Pan Am couldn’t.

LZ: How was Pan Am able to make such stakes viable if they steered passengers away from using their carrier (on international sectors, not on domestic sectors obviously)?

RG: They were to put a foothold in these countries as future destinations. This was before the era of code sharing which is commonly done now. Pan Am had very few friends and a lot of adversaries.

This was the way of trying to keep a toehold in those countries for example Air Zaire had formerly been run by Sabena, the Congo used to be a Belgian-run colony which became Zaire and kicked Sabena out after their independence.

When they realized they didn’t know how to run an airline, Pan Am came in. Each one of them is a separate story. It wasn’t one big network of subsidiaries or acquisitions. It wasn’t that at all.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

All the time that Pan Am was doing this, Pan Am was a shrinking airline in fleet size, in routes. After a while, it became a good idea to not be acquiring anything from other airlines, especially with their equipment. 

LZ: Is Pan Am’s image as a national international carrier the same as what we see in the Middle East with Emirates in Qatar Airways, to their respective countries or was Pan Am more than that to their country?

RG: Not really. It’s a different thing. The Middle East carriers are all pretty young airlines but again they’re all state-owned. Qatar is owned by a company owned by the government.

MEA is owned by the Bank of Lebanon, basically connected to the government. These are all protected flag carriers. Pan Am was a flag carrier but not protected from competition.

It used to be called in the old days the chosen instrument. If the U.S wanted to extend its presence to the Philippines, China or Africa Pan Am would be assigned the route to do it. Pan Am was the U.S’s chosen instrument.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It was hoped after what Pan Am contributed in WW2 that Pan Am would be designated a state carrier. The flag carrier like BOAC was for Britain or Air France was or Lufthansa was. Well, that never happened.

The opposite happened. It began adding other airlines routes right over the top of Pan Am’s so the Chosen Instrument idea went away but Pan Am always still thought of itself as a flag carrier, in fact, it was.

There was a big flag on the tail and lots of times that was the only American outpost in troubled places, Civil Wars for example in Tehran there was a Pan Am jet there loading refugees. Same in Saigon 1975 and the same thing in Lebanon during the Civil war.

LZ: Has Pan Am’s loss as a national carrier to the U.S set a precedent for other countries not to make the same mistakes as the U.S did (Lufthansa for example having heavy links to the government)?

RG: Most of the other countries owned their flag carriers for the most part. They were working in the opposite, fostering these airlines for the most part even when there were troubled times such as this pandemic.

Well, no one fostered Pan Am in troubled times and they just made Pan Am’s problems worse by adding competition.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pan Am compounded its own problems when deregulation came along and that should have been the answer to their prayers, develop a domestic route network to feed the international and that was a management failure because instead of doing that they spent about a billion dollars buying National Airlines and then proceed to mismanagement, took it all apart and didn’t merge it well to Pan Am’s network and the result was just a huge financial disaster and this all coincided with another national recession where airline traffic went down so that was pretty much the beginning of the end for Pan Am when it should have been the salvation.

A lot of Pan Am’s troubles were just management.

LZ: What is your most remembered moment with the company that demonstrated their innovation?

RG: When I came with Pan Am which was 1965 it was right at its heyday, the very peak of its power, its reputation, and its success. Back in those days coming out of the military as I did you could work for any airline you wanted to they all were hiring but to me, the only airline was Pan Am.

They had this glamorous international presence. They had more jets than any airline in the world. Had more international routes than any other airline in the world. Really good-looking stewardesses.

They had the 747 on order, in the process of it being designed and Juan Trippe was pushing and pushing for SST’s for Pan Am to be the first to fly them and there was no question that Pan Am was going to be my airline.

On the first day of class about 30 of us new pilots and the chief pilot walked in. “Congratulations gentlemen, you’re going to be SST captains”.  “Yes, of course, that is why we’re here” and we believed it. We kept on believing it for 10 to 15 more years. That was the attitude then.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pan Am was bound even maybe to the moon. There was no limit that Pan Am was bound for the stars. That was my very first impression of the airline and that lasted for a while.

Later on, I had a semi-management job, managing the A310 ETOPS implementation. I flew the first several flights and I tried out all the diversion airports. That was a new thing.

That was one of the most satisfying jobs I ever had. Making that happen. Usually having the FAA with me and finally concluding that and signing off “Ok Pan Am, you got it. You’re good to go”. The success of that is sort of what brought Delta to buying that part of our airline only 3 years later because it was successful.

We all had a lot of pride in the airline. I spent 8 more years flying for Delta after that and I know a lot of other airline pilots. I haven’t seen that pride in an airline or any other pilot group to that extent.

Pan Am was really proud, even when things were going to hell and airplanes were getting old and getting beaten up but we still called ourselves Skygods so that’s a good memory that will last.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
LZ: How did Pan Am hold the political power it did and have the corporate core as you said in your book ‘Skygods’ of the group of pilots during the era of flying boats who saw themselves as superior and high pitched?

RG: As a young man, Juan Trippe was a Yale graduate and one of the keys to his success was that he was able to surround himself with powerful people. Vanderbilts, Rockefeller, and other people with huge influence and that included members of Congress and Senators.

He had an off-and-on kind of relationship with President Roosevelt. He had a lot of clout in Washington and because of that clout he was able to get all these airmail contracts which were really the key to making a profit on ocean routes but he was an acquirer of influential people and that went against him.

He had a collision with young president Kennedy over the SST affair and from then on Washington had a vendetta against Pan Am. Kennedy only made sure of that. The basic story was without consulting president Kennedy, Trippe went ahead and ordered Concordes.

All the time Kennedy was orchestrating Congress for an American SST and Kennedy saw this as a betrayal.

Rendering of the SST which Kennedy was trying to promote upon funding from Congress Source: NDC Blog

What it really was a typical Trippe ploy, playing one against the other just as he did going against the government. That was typical Trippe. By this time he had too many enemies and he made a big enemy with Kennedy.

The Skygodly attitude. When I started there in 1965 and was trained as a co-pilot on a B707 going across the ocean at 0.82 Mach, and almost all the captains I flew with had flown flying boats.

They were China Clipper pilots and flew the B-314 and they flew the first long-range land planes, Connies and DC-7’s and then they ended up flying the first jets. Most of them retired on the 747.

This is all in a space of about 30 years. Imagine going from the China Clipper to a 747 all-in-one career. These guys were a pain in the ass sometimes to fly with, the way they treated you. I got them to tell the stories but it occurred to me I had 30 years in a cockpit and had nothing like that.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This big generational leap in technology. I started on a Boeing jet and 34 years later on my retirement trip, I’m going across the Ocean at 0.82 Mach on a Boeing. What changed? Hardly anything changed. The planes were a bit bigger, slicker, and a little more fuel-efficient.

I didn’t get to experience this huge historical evolution that these guys did. I admire and envy them for that.


With this AviationSource and the author would like to thank Robert Gandt for this opportunity.

As Pan Am still remains an icon for those in the industry with many lessons to learn from it ranging from government affairs to diplomacy it still is taken as an example of what the industry was and could be for the future of aviation in the years to come.

In addition below, you may find two of his books that he wrote about Pan Am, excerpted from both historical records and his own life experiences with the airline

Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am

China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats

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About the author

Luca Zocche

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