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The End of an Era
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Renata Beguin, who can still fit into her flight attendant’s uniform, shows a Pan Am menu she used to hand out to passengers.
   
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
 

STORY BY RENATA BEGUIN

PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

“Mama, don’t go! Don’t go!” Julien, my five-year-old son, clings to me as I hail a yellow cab outside my Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan. He pleads more urgently, “Mama, don’t go! Don’t go!”

Holding on to the baby carriage where my younger son, Andrew, is sleeping, our au pair makes a valiant effort to console Julien. “She’ll be right back. You just have to sleep one night and then we pick Mama up at the airport.”

 
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Until the COVID pandemic intervened, Renata and Fred Beguin hosted yearly parties for Pan Am pilots and flight attendants to reminisce about the golden age of air travel.
 

He gives her an “I know what you’re doing” look, then turns back to me and with tears in his big, blue eyes makes another emotional appeal: “Don’t go. Please, Mama, don’t go.”

This happens every time I leave for work, and every time it makes me feel awful. A taxi pulls up. The driver, seeing the tearful boy clinging to me, gives me a dirty look. After I kiss and hug both boys and gently loosen Julien’s arms from my neck, I quickly get into the cab, careful not to wrinkle my uniform.

“JFK, Pan Am terminal, please.” The driver repeats in a stern voice, “Ok, Pan Am terminal,” then asks me almost accusingly, “Your children?”

“Yes,” I say sadly, remembering Julien’s sweet, grief-stricken face.

 
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Renata Beguin, who grew up in Switzerland but now lives in Ketchum, kept a treasure trove full of Pan Am memorabilia.
 

As we make our way up York Avenue, the driver becomes a little friendlier. “Pan Am! That’s the best airline of them all. That’s how I came here from Puerto Rico.”

We are silent the rest of the way as the taxi weaves it’s way in and out through heavy traffic to the airport. I make contact with the cabin crew just in time for the obligatory briefing. The pilots join us moments later.

The captain’s briefing is short and to the point. “We have over 300 passengers in the back and 16 in first class tonight.” I silently congratulate myself for having volunteered for first class. He continues, “Our plane is a 747SP, capable of the longest non-stop routes of any aircraft. The flight to Saudi Arabia will have us in the air for over 14 hours. I expect a smooth ride and you can take rest breaks during the night, but at least four of you have to be on duty at all times.”

A familiar musical jingle greets me as I enter the airy, elegant first class cabin. You can’t beat the experience - Pan Aaaam… I hum along, feeling proud and privileged to work for this iconic company. After all, back in 1967, seventeen years ago, when 800 young women applied for the job, I was one of only two chosen for the glamorous position.

My friend Paula and I work the first class. She is responsible for the meals. I take care of the service in the cabin. Together, we open every door and cabinet in the compact galley, inspecting trays loaded with caviar, roast beef, salmon, desserts, silverware, and more. When we are satisfied that our 16 passengers and the crew will be well provided for, Paula reminds me, “Don’t forget the upstairs.”

First class passengers on all 747’s always have a choice to dine and socialize in the intimate second story above the forward cabin. I climb the circular metal staircase to the elegant lounge and check the contents of the tiny galley, making sure everything is secured for take-off. A ground agent pops his head in. “Ready?”

One-by-one, the first class passengers, all well-dressed businessmen, enter the cabin and settle in the wide, comfortable seats. Hand luggage stowed, we hand out warm, refreshing towels and offer Dom Perignon, mimosas, and orange juice.

Once in the air, we learn that only eight passengers want to eat upstairs. The rest opt for a quick meal on a tray at their seats so they can sleep as much as possible. As promised, the flight is smooth but endless. There is exuberant clapping when we land.

As we exit the plane, we are hit with a suffocating wave of impossibly hot air. The temperature can reach 120 degrees in Dhahran. It’s been a long night for both passengers and crew. After a quick debriefing and a cool drink, I drag myself to my luxurious, cool hotel room. I hang up my uniform, brush my teeth, stretch out between the crisp, expensive sheets, and fall asleep instantly.

Early the next morning, we board while it’s still dark. We have to depart before the temperatures soar again. Hot air provides less lift, and if we wait too long, our trusted 747SP, heavy with fuel, cargo, and passengers, will not be able to get off the ground.

Strapped in the jump seat next to Paula, I’m filled with joyful anticipation of seeing my husband and children soon. Roaring down the dark runway, we seem to take forever to get airborne. Knowing that most crashes occur in the first ten seconds after take-off, I slowly count to ten after every lift-off.

One, two, three, four… A horrible, loud bang stops me cold. The fuselage shakes violently and the huge airplane is knocked back for a split second. I cry out to Carina, the purser on the other jump seat, “What was that?”

“I don’t know.” There is panic in her voice.

We stop ascending and abruptly level off just a few hundred feet over the dark Persian Gulf. After the steep climb, it feels like the nose of the plane is heading straight down. I’m suddenly certain that this is how my life will end.

Julien’s voice rings in my ear: “Don’t go, Mama! Don’t go!”

It’s surprising how many thoughts race through one’s mind when death seems imminent. How much time before impact? What the hell am I doing here, thousands of miles away from my family? With all that fuel, we’re practically a flying bomb. Nothing recognizable will be left if we crash!

To my great relief, the plane maintains altitude, continuing its flight over the dark waters below. Someone shouts, “Engine number three is on fire!” and I get up to investigate.

The passengers in the economy cabin look worried. Some are crying, but other than the roar of the remaining engines, it is eerily quiet. Those sitting next to the right wing stare out the window at the burning engine. Some look to me for answers. I have none.

Still, despite the lack of information from the cockpit, I’m certain that the pilots are doing all they can to save everyone’s life. Two stewardesses sit frozen in their jump seats. The rest of us walk calmly through the cabins, smiling and reassuring passengers that the pilots have the situation in hand, though we have no idea if that’s true. Finally, an announcement from the cockpit! I stop breathing and my knees almost give way with relief when I hear the captain’s calm voice. “We were able to put the fire out from the cockpit. Now we just have to get permission to land somewhere.”

He continues, “Unfortunately, with a full load of fuel, we are too heavy to touch down right now. We have to dump most of our fuel. Rest assured that we are doing our best to get you safely on the ground as soon as possible.”

After circling and dumping fuel over the Persian Gulf for a long hour, we finally land back at Dhahran. As soon as I’m off the plane, I call my family to let them know that I will be home a day late because an engine exploded on take-off.

My husband’s worried face greets me at JFK. He hugs me tightly. “The boys are waiting for you in the car with the au pair.”

By the time we reach the parking lot, Andrew and Julien are peacefully asleep in their car seats, never knowing how close they came to losing their mother.

Not long after, it was with a heavy heart, that I said goodbye to my elegant life in the sky and a wonderful, adventurous, two-decade career. Only five years after that, Pan American—the pioneer of aviation and the first airline to grace the skies over every continent—ceased operations.

POSTSCRIPT: On Dec. 4, 1991, the era of elegant air travel came to an end when Pan American had to declare bankruptcy. Federal control over everything from fares to routes had come fully into effect, changing flying forever and making it impossible for Pan Am, the Grande Dame of the skies that started it all, to stay competitive.

The end was hastened in December 1988, when a full Boeing 747 was downed by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.

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