Pan Am as the global airline was present all over the world. Pan Am crews had the most experience to operate where others could and would never. Pan Am's history regarding extraordinary flights is long and what Pan Am crews achieved is indeed amazing.
That is why Pan Am usually was the last airline flying out and the first airline starting to operate flights after or even during exceptional cicumstances and situations like after earthquakes and other natural desasters, civil unrests, and wars. Due to Pan Am's experience and reliability officials like of the U.N. and others chose Pan Am to reach their destinations.
Some even have been so thrilling that there have been made movies about them like the "Last Flight Out" about the last operated flight out of Saigon during the Vietnam war.
But Pan Am operated many more "last flights out" than out of Saigon airport like the last Tehran flight during civil unrest and demonastrations when the Ayatollah took over power in Iran.
Unknown are the many other Pan Am flights which could be used as thrilling scripts for more movies and documentaries.
Herewith one thrilling Pan Am story "out of Beirut" operated by its well experienced crews:
during war in Lebanon in 1976.
The story illustrates the hazardous conditions under which some flights were undertaken. It was written by Chuck Cutting.
March 17th, 1976, was one of those days that air crew members joke about earning their pay-check.
I was operating Pan Am Flt 101 from Tehran, Iran, to Rome, Italy. The crew of aircraft #426, a Boeing 707 B Advanced, consisted of me, copilot Ron Farren, and flight engineer Rich Hall.
Our weeklong trip from New York reached our turn point in Iran without incident. The following day upon reaching our Tehran airport dispatch office on the morning of March 17th, we received a company telex from New York.
The crux of the message from Pan Am headquarters requested that, in place of a direct flight to Rome, we stop and transit Damascus (Syria) and Beirut (Lebanon) before continuing on to Rome.
Pan Am had not serviced Beirut for several weeks because of the civil war raging in that city. The Palestinian refugees, with aid from Syria, had attempted to overthrow the government of Lebanon. The quaint old seaport on the eastern Mediterranean had become a city of smoke, fire and rubble. The airport, located several miles south of the city, had not seen any destructive fighting but had the disquieting feature of housing the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp adjacent to the north end of runway 21.
Our crew was requested to stop in Damascus to drop off some United Nations officials and then proceed to Beirut to deplane a group of Lebanese employees. They had not been able to return home because the land battle had closed the airport for the past several weeks and they had been stuck in Tehran worrying about their families. After departing Damascus, it would be my judgment call as to the advisability of stopping in Beirut or overflying on to Rome. Pan Am was a family and I intended to stop if possible to help my fellow employees.
It was a clear spring morning as we flew west from Tehran over the high desolate Zagros Mountains. We cruised north of Baghdad, Iraq, over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and then let down to land in the desert town of Damascus. The final approach to this airport was a tense few minutes. As in many mid-east countries, communications were a real problem due to the almost unintelligible rapid, high-pitched, broken English spoken. The last few miles to touchdown took us through a belt of antiaircraft missile batteries. Each one pointed to and tracked our final approach to landing while we struggled to obtain our final landing clearance. Hostility was in the air as the US press was feeding the world press with constant complaints against the Syrians for their aid to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. We landed without incident and, after taxiing in, we shut down only the number two engine to allow the UN officials to deplane.
In minutes we were airborne for Beirut, our next destination. After takeoff, I flew a three hundred and sixty degree climbing circle to reach 10,000 feet. It is 45 miles from Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea coast and in minutes, we were high overhead Beirut airport. We talked to the control tower and they assured us that all was safe on the field. We could see pillars of black smoke rising skyward over the city to the north.
After a few moments deliberation, I determined to land and received the tower clearance to do so. In place of the published approach over the city, I went out to sea five miles and let down to 500 feet over the water and flew in at right angles to runway 18.
At the last possible moment, I flew a steep turn in to my final approach course.
The landing was firm but right on the approach end of the runway. With heavy reverse thrust and brakes, I turned the Boeing into the terminal ramp just halfway down the usable runway and came to a stop on the parking ramp far out from the pass enger terminal. With the public address system, I instructed the flight attendants to open all four exit doors and to post a lookout at each of these doors. (The last information we received on leaving Tehran was the warning to be on the alert for possible bomb attempts.) The flight engineer went down the stairs that the Pan Am maintenance crew had positioned against L1 door. His in structions were to stand under the aircraft and let no one approach the aircraft cargo compartments.
We shut down all engines except number 3 which we continued to run at idle power. Our dispatch office thanked us for returning their boys home and then gave us our flight plan over the VHF radio. They then requested to board six people for the onward flight to Rome. After thinking over this request for a few moments, I replied “OK” but that each passenger had to have his luggage inspected in detail by Pan Am personnel and then hand carry his or her luggage out across the tarmac. They were to allow no cars or buses near the aircraft. They agreed to do this and shortly we watched six people struggle under the blazing sun, across the hot concrete to our airliner.
Flight engineer Hall made a rapid outside check and came back aboard as the last entry door was closed. The copilot and I had all four engines operating by the time the engineer was fastening his seat belt. Copilot Ferrell requested permission to taxi to runway 18 for takeoff. The tower denied this and instructed us to move to “November” taxiway for the standard departure off runway 21. I intervened at this point and stated that I did not think it was safe to move up to the end of runway 21 that abutted the PLO camp. The tower and I continued to argue about the takeoff runway when there was a sudden loud oath, “Son of a Bitch!” from the copilot.
I turned to look where his finger pointed. Three men, one with a rocket tube, one with a tripod, and the last with a rocket round were running down the perimeter fence trying to get into position to shoot at us! I told the tower what we observed a s I applied take off power to the four jet engines. With Rapid acceleration, we crossed the aircraft parking area and entered taxiway “Hotel”.
I slowed with heavy braking and we could feel the aircraft shudder sideways as I made the sharp turn to align with the runway. The throttles were firewalled and we surged forward from the runway midpoint. I estimated there was 5,000 feet of the 10,663-foot runway RW 18 left available for our takeoff run. It would be close but I knew the aircraft at its present weight would become airborne if we did not have engine failure, for the usual safety margins were gone. In the few moments that it took to roll from our parking spot, copilot Farrell read the checklist and the engineer answered the items in my stead. The engineer found time to key the public address system to say that there was an emergency, everyone including the flight service to be seated immediately and fasten their seat belts.
We were eating into our usable runway at an alarming rate as I called “Increase the flap setting to 20 degrees now!” and pulled the yoke back as we reached the end of the runway. We were a few knots below the V2 speed that we had programmed on the airspeed indicator but with the added flap, the aircraft responded without a quiver. I now called for “Gear up” and began a right turn at low altitude to clear a low hill that loomed in front of us. As the airplane increased speed, I increased the bank angle and we were soon clear of the obstacle. A moment later, we crossed over the cliff that marked the lands edge and the sea beyond. A push on the yoke sent the aircraft down toward the sea and I leveled off fifty feet above the water. I then pulled the two inboard engines back to idle power thinking that if they shot a heat-seeking missile, it might hit an outboard engine and we would still have enough control to continue flight to the Island of Cypress which was a few miles ahead.
As the airspeed continued to rise, we raised the flaps and accomplished challenge and response of the “After Takeoff Check List”. A few miles out to sea, I increased all four engines to climb power. No one said much for some time as we all let our heart rates slow to normal. The course to Rome was set as we reached flight level 290.
Epilogue: The following week the newspapers carried a story of another airliner at Beirut airport. This aircraft had moved out onto runway 21 for their takeoff and sadly had the tail of the aircraft blown off by a rocket from the PLO camp.
By Pan Am Captain Chuck Cutting