Pan Am’s spirit is alive in a unique Technical Assistance Project
Even though Pan American World Airways ceased operations on 4 December 1991, those of the flying staff who remained to the end continued flying in whatever assignment they could get. Some flew on Hajj charters; some went overseas to teach Korean pilots and others took any job so long as it involved flying. The possibility of ever joining together again as a team seemed like a remote possibility. However, the “Pan American Spirit” remained in the hearts of many Pan Amers and manifested itself in late 1993.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990 was the breakup of its national airline, Aeroflot. The once behemoth was divided up among the newly independent republics who immediately set out to form their own national airlines. One airline was formed in the new Republic of Tajikistan, “Tajik Air”. Its fleet consisted largely of old Soviet TU-154s that were operated to points within the old Soviet Union. The idea of operating long-haul intercontinental flights was nothing more than a dream.
Tajik Air TU-154s (Photo on left by Gunilla Crawford; on right by Igor Dvurekov)
Then something profound happened. A group of businessmen in London, England saw the potential of doing business in Tajikistan and formed the Tajikistan Development Agency, headquartered in London. The group came to a quick realization that there was a serious lack of air transportation between the UK (or anywhere in Europe) and Tajikistan. Then came an idea: Why not expand the operations of Tajik Air so that it can offer flights between London and Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan?
Starting a new service in any market requires a great deal of research and planning. There must be a suitable aircraft. Government approvals must be in place. Airport access, slots (if required), ground handling services and airport facilities (check-in desks, etc) must be obtained. On the commercial side, the new service needs to be marketed, publicized and tickets sold. Other details include setting up the ticket and operations offices, arranging catering, publishing an In-Flight magazine and printing safety information cards, timetables, paper tickets, baggage tickets, promotional materials and stationary.
For Tajik Air, however, there was one very important requirement missing: an operating base in London and sufficient infrastructure to crew and maintain an aircraft operating the long-haul route between Dushanbe and London. That presented a huge problem as the civil aviation structure of Tajikistan was completely inexperienced in intercontinental operations. Setting up a London base would seem impossible to achieve given the limited resources of Tajikistan. However, through the foresight and creativeness of a few airline experts in London, a unique solution to the problem was hatched: Establish a third-party UK management company to operate the route.
After much discussion with Tajikistan’s civil aviation authority, a contract was signed and Tajik Air Limited was formed. It would build the the necessary infrastructure and operate flights to/from London on behalf of Tajik Air. The company would obtain and maintain the aircraft and crew, organize the marketing and selling of the flights and essentially operate the flights. This would be accomplished using Tajikistan’s Air Operator’s Certificate and Tajik Air’s call-sign and airline code. Tajikistan committed to funding the new service and also obtaining the required government permissions for the operation.
How would this operation be viable and profitable? The route of primary interest to Tajik Air was the London (Heathrow) (“LHR”)-Dushanbe (“DYU”) sector. Operating that sector as an Origin-Destination route presented problems in that there was little, if any, traffic between the two points. The question was how to fill the aircraft? The answer: Offer service between LHR and points beyond DYU. The beyond points selected were Delhi, India (“DEL”) and Karachi, Pakistan (“KHI”). This was to be accomplished using rights under the Sixth Freedom of the Air, made possible by Tajik Air using Tajikistan’s Third and Fourth Freedom rights under agreements with the UK, India and Pakistan. DYU would be the “hub” for traffic between LHR and DEL/KHI.
The schedule would work like this: Tajik Air departs from LHR with a planeload of passengers on a Fourth Freedom flight to DYU. Upon arrival in DYU, those few passengers destined for DYU disembark and the rest stay on board. The flight then departs DYU with a new flight number on a Third Freedom flight for DEL or KHI. Upon turning around in DEL/KHI, with a new planeload of passengers, the flight becomes a Fourth Freedom to DYU and from DYU, with another flight number, Third Freedom to LHR. By operating this schedule, Tajik Air could fill the seats of the aircraft, and compete in a highly competitive market by offering good service with low fares.
The next question was what type of aircraft and this is where the spirit of Pan American first came on the scene: The selection of the Boeing 747SP for the operation. The aircraft acquired was first delivered to Pan American on May 11, 1979 registered as N540PA and named Clipper White Falcon. It was renamed Clipper Flying Arrow on August 1, 1979 and later renamed Clipper Star of the Union on January 1, 1980. One year later, on January 1, 1981, the aircraft became China Clipper.
On February 12, 1986, as part of Pan Am’s sale of its Pacific Routes, N540PA was acquired by United Airlines. The registration was changed to N149UA on June 1, 1986. It was under this registration that the aircraft operated for Tajik Air, pictured below:
Once the 747SP was secured, a call went out for crews to operate it. This was the second instance of the Pan American spirit in the new operation: The selection of former Pan Am crews to operate the service.
Because of the aircraft choice and their availability, it was decided to hire former pilots of Pan American. The decision was perfectly logical in that Pan Am pilots had many hours of experience in the 747SP – some had actually flown the aircraft when it was with Pan Am – had experience operating in the geographic area of the intended operation, and had the savvy and know-how in dealing with unexpected circumstances or conditions inherent in such an operation.
Captain Sherman Carr, an experienced Pan Am pilot was one who received a call from a former colleague about an opportunity to be “an aviation pioneer again”. According to Carr, the offer was to operate a new 747 service for the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. He was told the route to be flown and that the pay would be minimal but with generous per diem and off-time. After some research he made his decision. He learned that Tajikistan
“. . .is magnificently beautiful with a major fertile valley with a mild climate that grows cotton surrounded by majestic peaks rising 18 to 20 thousand feet and populated by their national symbol, the snow leopard. I also learned that (the capital) Dushanbe is on the old “Silk Road” route used by Marco Polo when he brought the secrets of making spaghetti from China to Italy. The neighboring cities of Tashkent and Samarkand conjured up images of wondrous bazaars and really old world treasures of the Mongol Empire and kabobs made from Yak. I was hooked. Like the line from the Clint Eastwood movie: “do you feel lucky?” I did. I called back and signed up”
It was the same for all the pilots who received “the call”. A chance to be an aviation pioneer was too great an opportunity to turn down.
Captain Carr also had this is to say about the 747SP:
“The airplane that was to be used for this operation was a Boeing 747SP. The SP stands for special performance. The plane was originally developed for Pan Am to be able to operate non-stop from the U.S. to Hong Kong and be able to stay aloft for over 15 hours. It was actually a regular 747 with upstairs lounge seating but shortened by about 48 feet to make it lighter and additional fuel tanks for longer range. If it’s not loaded with full fuel for extended range flights, the aircraft actually scoots like a hot rod and will outperform any WWII or Korean conflict fighter aircraft and is a lot of fun to fly. It will roll or loop or do most of the maneuvers you see at an airshow but of course this is not authorized so no pilot would ever tell you he had done those things. For Dushanbe, surrounded by mountains in all directions, it was the perfect choice due to its ability to climb quickly, safely and be on its way in a timely manner and still carry about 260 people with an extended first class.”
Once the group was assembled, refresher training began at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Miami, Florida. Most of the Pan American pilots were over 60 years of age. While that would present a problem in the United States, it did not for Tajikistan. And as is well known, pilots over the age of 60 have a near zero accident rate.
At the academy was a 747SP simulator and the pilots were put through training that brought them up to speed on changes to the aircraft, flight rules and also fined-tuned their instrument piloting skills. At the same time, flight attendants from Tajik Air were undergoing training for the 747SP. These flight attendants were supposedly the “cream of the crop” from Tajik Air but with experience limited to smaller aircraft such as the TU-154.
While the pilots were progressing well in the refresher training, it was not the case for the flight attendants.
A former Pan Am purser, Gunilla Crawford, was working in contracts at the Flight Academy when she heard that Tajik Air flight attendants were to receive training on the 747SP. Upon their arrival, she immediately discovered a serious problem: their English speaking ability was extremely limited! :
“I had created a training program for the Tajik flight attendants and we started with the 747SP aircraft: the doors, how to arm, disarm, open and close in normal and emergency mode. The first day was spent studying the manual; the second day in the mock- up; the third day back in the classroom. But I soon realized it would take five days to learn the doors and it would take months to teach procedures.
“Nothing I tried worked with the students, mainly because of the language barrier, and partly because of the size of the aircraft. The 747 SP had two aisles vs. the TU-154 single aisle; oxygen masks in the overhead on the 747SP vs. two 5 foot tall oxygen tanks standing in the aft of the TU-154 cabin!”
A flight academy employee who spoke Russian eventually acted as an interpreter, but it became painfully clear that this group would not be able to staff a 747SP. Although kind, interested and friendly, they were overwhelmed by the size of the 747SP.
This problem was not only a concern to Crawford, but also to the pilots who were undergoing refresher training and who had observed the Tajik flight attendants first hand. A solution to the problem was needed, and after consultations with Tajik officials present, it was decided to hire some “real” flight attendants from the former Pan Am. Crawford, was in contact with a group of “experienced and adventurous” former colleagues, and very soon a lot of familiar faces began appearing at the Flight Academy.
Training went into full swing for all concerned and soon it was finished. For the cabin crew, it was decided that two or three experienced Pan Am flight attendants would be assigned to each flight. The remaining cabin crew positions would be filled by the Tajik Air flight attendants as “trainees”. The goal, under the supervision and direction of the Pan Am crew, was the Tajik crew to become qualified on a 747SP.
However, there was one more thing: Teamwork
From Captain Carr:
“Being on a flight crew is a wonderful thing. It is a team effort. Pan Am had always encouraged working as a team. That teamwork was designed to save lives. Although the duties of the cabin staff is the care of passengers, their real job is to save lives in an emergency. They operate the emergency equipment and are trained to get people out of the aircraft as quickly as possible. Good communication is essential. As a pilot, I always appreciated the job the flight attendants do and made sure they knew it”.
In observing the training of the Tajik flight attendants, good communication was non-existent. To alleviate this problem, Captain Carr suggested the Tajiks should see more of America other than their hotel and the flight academy and invited them and his fellow pilots to a luncheon at his home. During the luncheon he made a very important observation:
“[At] almost any cookout in America, guests would pitch in to help with the food and drinks and have a party. Not so with the Tajiks. It became apparent that the concept of initiative did not exist in their culture. They would smile and do anything we asked of them but took no initiative. In an airplane emergency, this can be deadly so we proceeded to see what we could do about it. This was the first chance the pilots and cabin staff had the opportunity to talk in an informal setting. We encouraged them to help themselves and to pass things along to their fellow crew members.
“We also found out why they didn’t talk to each other. They were all from Tajikistan but some were from various mountain tribes that were at odds with each other. Others were Russian, or Iranian or Tajik valley people. Apparently they had been chosen not because of their good English or flying experience but because they were related to government officials. This was also meant to be a representative group of the Tajik population. While I thought this was a very democratic move, I later learned this diversity was meant to make it less likely that a jealous faction would [cause problems with the operation].
“The lunch went very well and the English phrases, “more beer”, “more vodka” were pronounced much better. I also chartered a water taxi for a cruise to see the Bahia Mar Yachting Center and also homes along the waterway. At the end of the tour and before returning to Miami, the Tajiks stopped by our home to thank us. Much to my relief they were all smiling and talking to each other and acting like a flight crew. That lunch was one of the best investments I ever made.”
With the training finished and the Tajiks fresh from their team-building experience, everyone began leaving Miami for London to start the operation. Captain Carr was asked to make the “acceptance flight” of Tajik Air’s Boeing 747SP. He accepted.
This article is quoted from: James Patrick (“Jamie”) Baldwin
You can get more here: James Baldwin