The Cradle of Aviation’s new Pan Am exhibit about the Boeing 314 takes you back to an era when every airline seat was first class, your coffee and tea were served by an all-male flight crew and Port Washington was a major airline hub connecting travelers with cities around the world.
And if you’re used to today’s no-frills flying, you might also be taken aback — by artifacts that reveal the level of luxury early airline passengers enjoyed on Pan Am’s aptly nicknamed named “flying boats.”
Among the exhibition’s treasures is an original china set, including plates, coffee cups and saucers, which passengers used in the flying boat’s dining compartment, where all meals were served, says museum curator Joshua Stoff.
You can get an even better idea of early airline travel’s comparative extravagance by peering into a cutaway model of the flying boats, which is a centerpiece of the exhibition. The model was first displayed at the Pan American exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Stoff says. It was intended “to show the most advanced airplane in the world, a state-of-the-art commercial airplane.
“They had separate berths for sleeping, which during the day were made up with couches and a table,” Stoff says.
AVIATION HISTORY RECLAIMED
The exhibition, put together with the cooperation of the Pan Am Museum Foundation, a volunteer organization of former employees of the airline, shows Long Island’s role in the creation of the modern airline industry. All of the Pan Am flying boat commercial flights began and ended in 1939 in Port Washington before the operation was transferred in 1940 to the Marine Air Terminal, now LaGuardia Airport.
“Pan Am was an airline that changed the world, it was the most iconic airline in the history of aviation, and it shrank the world by making it smaller,” says Stoff. “In the late 1930s, for the first time you could fly anywhere in the world.”
The cutaway model, and a hardwood bench originally from LaGuardia, come from the museum’s collection. All of the other artifacts, including a navigator’s battery-operated sextant, pins and a cap worn by the flight crew, were provided by the foundation.
Former employees, some of whom live on Long Island, are passionate about preserving and protecting Pan Am’s history, says Linda Freire, 60, of Cold Spring Harbor, a Pan Am flight attendant from 1980 to 1984 and subsequently the base co-director for Pan Am at JFK until the airline went out of business in 1991.
Pan Am “was not only a commercial aviation pioneer. We were woven into the fabric of American history,” says Freire, who serves as the foundation’s co-chairwoman. She says the Boeing 314 is the first phase of a larger exhibition that will, eventually, complete the airline’s story.
THE MEN DID EVERYTHING
A mural depicts a steward serving guests in the dining compartment. Look close and you’ll discover that all of Pan Am’s early flight attendants indeed were men.
Men were employed as stewards because “the job was very arduous,” explains Anne Sweeney, of South Brunswick, New Jersey, who worked in Pan Am public relations. “You had to row people out to a seaplane, you’d be away for six weeks and you had to load the baggage. It was a tough job physically.”
A fare schedule lets you compare today’s airline prices with the 1930s, when $675 purchased a round-trip to London. That may sound like a bargain until you realize that in the 1930s, workers made $20 a week, Monti says.
“It was very expensive,” Stoff says of flying in the 1930s. “Only the wealthiest people could do it.”