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  • Writer's pictureJames McGee

That big blue ball in the sky...

Had a delivery by post this morning; a brand new book sent by a pal in the States.

PAN AM -Personal Tributes to a Global Aviation Pioneer.

Fond memories, because in a former life I was lucky enough to work for Pan Am - undoubtedly one of the world's greatest airlines - spending 10 years in the Crew Scheduling Department at Heathrow.

The job: supervising the deployment of all flight service teams and cockpit crews operating long and short haul flights, both trans-Atlantic and between Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

My Ten Year pin

It was a fantastic company to work for. Such was the nature of the job that there were very few dull days - from staffing scheduled flights to rounding up crews for charter flights and assigning teams to operate evacuation flights from Tehran during the Iranian Revolution - plus I got to see a lot of the world.

There were trips to Australia and New Zealand, mainland USA as well as Hawaii, the Middle East, Thailand and Japan.

And this was the age of the top-deck lounge. No suffering the zoo at the back of the plane. This was proper dining with table cloths, wine served in an ice bucket and beef carved to order. There was nothing like travelling on a staff discount ticket and getting an upgrade at the gate. Ah, heady days, and knowing the crew gained you extra special attention!

A great way to travel and I loved it.

Sadly, however, it wasn't all excitement and glamour. There were moments of dark tragedy as well, most notably when, on a March evening in 1977, we received news over the telex (there was no e-mail in those days) that there had been an incident at Los Rodeos airport on Tenerife.

Pan Am Flight 4805 had collided with KLM Flight 1736. Nearly 600 people perished. It remains to this day the deadliest aircraft accident in aviation history.

Another horrific low point was the hijacking of Flight 73 at Karachi Airport in September 1986. Among those who died - shot by four armed Palestinian militants - was the purser, Neerja Bhanot, who posthumously received India's highest peacetime award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award, for her efforts to save passengers' lives during the course of the hijack.

I left the airline in 1987 to pursue a career in writing, but a little over a year later I returned to the fold when, one night in late December, a friend called me suddenly and told me to turn on my TV.

Pan Am 103, en route from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York, had been destroyed by an explosion above the town of Lockerbie. It was when I phoned the scheduling office that I found out that the majority of the flight service team had been from the London base, people with whom I'd worked and become friends with over the previous decade.

It was a ghastly time, but in the wake of that terrible event, what has remained constant is the bond that exists between all former Pan Am employees. If ever a company was said to have had a sense of family it was Pan Am. I haven't experienced that closeness among work colleagues with any other outfit I've worked for.

I made some great friends during my years there - friends for life - and despite the horrors mentioned above, the highs far exceeded the lows. And while some of us may live in different continents and thousands of miles apart, that hasn't prevented us from staying in touch.

The book brings it all back through personal reminiscences and hundreds of wonderful images, a few of which are included within this blog entry.

Lockerbie Garden of Remembrance

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