Monday, September 26, 2011

Pan Am - The Series

OK - we're on week 4 of the new Pan Am series. I started this review after the first episode but didn't finish it, so now I've got more data to review. They seem to be trying very hard and, with the fourth episode, appear to be trying to respond to criticism.

Warning: lots of "spoilers" below...

Overall I'd give it about three Pan Am Globes out of a possible five... the design and effects are outstanding and the plots are OK, but the writing and acting are not very good. A lot of the details, mainly associated with the cabin crew and service, are very good, but the aviation and operational details were not very good in the first episode, although they have made some progress in the subsequent episodes. The music, however, is great, although it still has some room for improvement as well.

I've seen reviews on the internet sceptical of some of the details, such as the inspections and the weigh-ins of the stewardesses in the first episode, but I've heard from many actual former Pan Am crew that those details were totally realistic and accurate.

One of the best things about this new TV show, however, is that it has publicized the stories of many of the real Pan Am alumni who lived the real-life version of the story. It is always fascinating to hear from the wonderful people of Pan Am who made up "the world's most experienced airline".

The show really missed an opportunity, however, to show how Pan Am was a huge, well-oiled, highly professional machine in its prime, maintaining the highest standards ever set in the airline industry and setting the example for all other airlines to follow. The true story is 100 times more exciting and dramatic than the fictionalized version, as is often the case with TV and history.

The worst parts of the whole show are the pilot characters. They look about 11 years old - no way old enough to be crewing a 707 in 1962 - and they acted about the same age. The pilot characters were clearly an afterthought and it showed, and it seriously marred an otherwise very good effort. The aviation detail wasn't good either - the Idlewild tower calls the aircraft at the gate to tell the crew their purser is inbound, then the 11-year-old 707 captain calls Gander Control to track down his girlfriend. It would take very little tweaking to make those scenes realistic and more effective, rather than stupid-sounding.

The most recent episode (#4, 16 October) made an effort to bring some realism to the pilot characters, and the effort was appreciated, but this first effort mostly missed the mark. In episode three, the crew flies to Rangoon, Djakarta, and Hong Kong, with the 11-year-old captain shooting the famous "Hong Kong Curve" IGS (the rare Instrument Guidance System) approach to runway 13 at (now closed) Kai Tak airport. That approach was considered the toughest in the world, especially at night and bad weather, so its inclusion in the Pan Am TV show was a really nice touch and would have been the highlight of the series thusfar if they writers hadn't had the first officer bitching at the pilot all the way through the approach. You'd have to be an amazing idiot to deliberately distract an 11-year-old pilot flying the Hong Kong Curve at night in bad weather. If I had a First Officer who carried on like this guy did, in a dangerous night IFR approach, I would not fly with him again, and might complain to the company about him. The writers and producers, had they wanted to make this scene more realistic, and dramatic, could have just watched YouTube videos of airliner approaches to get an idea what its really like.

There was some Navy plot line in episode 4, with the stewardesses meeting a couple of supposed Navy pilots by the pool in Rangoon. Not an unrealistic scene, except the so-called "pilots", an Ensign and a Lieutenant Junior Grade, were not wearing wings, which was very odd. The Navy "pilots" bantered with First Officer Ted Vanderway, himself a former Naval Aviator, which segways to a flashback illustrating how test pilot Vanderway was disqualified following a mishap with an experimental aircraft for which he was blamed. This provided more back-story how he had wanted to be an astronaut and his father got him the job at Pan Am.

Again, Vanderway is shown bobbing in the waves following the crash of his aircraft, and later before the FNAEB (Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board, pronounced Fee-Nab) being grounded for causing the crash. Vanderway is shown not wearing any wings - a huge technical error - but wearing (only) the National Defense Service ribbon. The National Defense Service medal was not re-authorized (after Korea) until 1966, so military members would not have been wearing it in 1963. This was another, minor-but-avoidable, error that marred an otherwise-technically-good effort. The FNAEB scene itself was not well written - the writers should have found someone with firsthand experience to help with the dialog, as they should be doing with the Pan Am pilots cockpit exchanges.

Although the plot suggested First Officer Vanderway was not really responsible for the mishap but was blamed because of service politics and big defense contracts, it is highly, highly unlikely that Pan Am would hire a pilot grounded by the Navy, innocent or not. That plotline, however, is more believable than the scenario where a 20-something pilot convinced Juan Trippe in an elevator to make him a 707 captain without the requisite experience or seniority, just because "he represented the new generation". Oh Please...

The second and third episodes were a little better than the first and fourth, set in Paris and Berlin and developing the stewardess characters a little more. The scenes showing the strong emotions of the French girl, apparently orphaned during WWII, towards the Germans in 1963 was very realistic and very touching and probably the best effort of the series to date. The "spy angle" was, I thought, pretty well played throughout the series, with the stewardess-spy struggling with the general stress and uncertainty of being a part-time secret agent. For all those who think this angle is unrealistic: think again.

Various people told me they were sceptical of the whole "espionage and intrigue" plot angle, where two of the stewardesses are used as an agent by the CIA and MI6. But if anything, that story is probably understated. Pan Am was the "chosen instrument", heavily involved in government-sponsored intrigue from the days of their earliest air-mail contracts, when the famous Pan Am flying boats were fitted with secret lockboxes to transport sensitive government secrets and Pan Am captains were issued classified orders, transferring them to active duty in case of national emergency.

By the 1960s, Pan Am operated the Pacific Missile Test Range, where top secret nuclear missile tests were conducted, and managed the civil reserve air fleet, a sizeable reserve of commercial aircraft available to be mobilized wholesale for strategic airlift, or selectively for more confidential and sensitive missions. No other organization in the world had Pan Am's access to as many destinations around the world, or the ability to rapidly transport sensitive cargoes between them. It is certain - and confirmed by Pan Am's employees - that "secret missions" such as those portrayed in the TV show really did take place.

Pan Am producer Nancy Ganis was a Pan Am stewardess in the 1960s so she has nearly perfect perspective for the stewardess characters - but it doesn't look like she has much of anyone from the other parts of the airline advising her on the rest of the Pan Am story. She mostly needs some input from cockpit crew, on the dialog, on the characters, and on the technical aspects. It looks like she may have gotten a little bit on the "Hong Kong Curve" episode, although not nearly enough.

I think they missed an opportunity by not starting the series a little earlier - maybe a little before the advent of the 707, with the main characters flying the Boeing 377. They could have used the introduction of the 707 as a plot device, as well as various other historical events involving Pan Am from the early postwar period. They could still do it with flashbacks, and I hope they will. I also hope they will bring in more Pan Am characters than the so-far-introduced pilots and stewardesses, which could make the series a lot more realistic and believable.

It would have been a much better story if they had used Pan Am itself as a plot device, instead of a setting for a pretty simple and limited plot line surrounding the escapades of the flight crew who seem to always fly together. In reality, a crew might make one trip together, then never see each other again, unless they made an effort to schedule trips together.

The best television series are able to integrate the real history, making the drama that much more compelling. I really hope "Pan Am" will try to do as much of that as possible.

This review is pretty disjointed and "all over the place" but unfortunately I just don't have the time any more to write about Pan Am as much as I would like but I do plan to continue to talk about the "real history" as the series unfolds, and I do hope it will be a success and continue on the air for a long time to come. Nancy Ganis: if you read this drop me a line - I'd love to help!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Holiday Blues

So this weekend I was spending my days working. Irene left our town a hell of a mess, and I had yet to muck the water out of the corners of the garage and clear the brush. Since I had to check for flooding on the garage floor (luckily it was just seepage at the edges), I figured now would be a good time to clean the entire garage out and throw out a bunch of crap I brought home from the office when I started to work from. Anything not on legal hold went in the garbage.

I’m working my way over to the little alcove where I keep the lawn tractor, the generator, and bags of patchmaster, grass seed and birdseed. The garage would be a large rectangle except that a quarter of it on one side is taken up by a the space for the laundry room and a half bath, but this does not stretch the whole way across the garage, hence the roughly 10 ft by 8 ft alcove.

Now we do have a rodent problem, living as we do at the edge of the state forest, so I have glue traps, snap traps, and live traps all over the damn place. I haven’t caught a mouse since June, so I figured they were out enjoying nature’s bounty in the woods. Imagine my dismay when I find that the bag of birdseed has a giant hole in it, and seed is spilled all over the floor. Damn mice.

I continue to put things on the new shelving unit I just put together, and my son comes out to talk to me. We were bantering about something when I glance ahead to the tractor’s alcove and I see something. Biting back the first ten curse words I think of, I yell for my son to get his little butt back in the house. “Why?” he asks. “Just get back in the house,” I yell, “there’s a … skunk in the garage”. The ellipsis stands for the slight break in my cadence where I censored out the word “fucking” in my mind before talking to the boy. Though I think he heard me yell after he got inside “get out of here you furry bastard”.

But the skunk seemed, if not unconcerned, only minimally perturbed by my presence and ambled over to the wall opposite the wall with the seeds, where he slid behind some plywood sheets I had leaning against the wall. Wonderful. “Get my car out of the garage,” yells my wife. “I’m not driving the kids in to the first day of school in a skunkmobile!”. Yes, dear, thank you so much for your concern about my welfare.

I continued to clean up, then went inside for lunch and to watch Ming practice cello. “Is the skunk gone?” the kids ask when I go back out. “I don’t see or hear him,” I reply. So I continued organizing, setting out recycling, and doing other things. Then it came time to put the generator back in the alcove. As I approach, something scuffles from under the mower deck to hide behind the plywood again, and he’s baaaaack. Fuck.

So. In the immortal words of Chernishevsky, what to do? I’m really not enthused about getting him out, but there is no way my wife is going to let me wait for animal control to get here in a few days. So I get the most powerful flashlight I have and shine it down the tent formed by the wall and the plywood. The skunk gives me a look that seems to say: “Watchoo lookin at?” But I have to do something, right?

My wife expresses the opinion I’m being a chickenshit and am only dealing with a possum. My daughter comes out, peers down the plywood tunner and starts jumping up and down. “I see black and white! It’s a skunk! It’s really a skunk!”. Yes, kid. Get back inside, kid.

So. Well. Yes. I have a long pole, more than 15 feet long, I use to clean hard-to-reach gutters. It seems really long and unwieldy on the top of a stepladder, but now it doesn’t seem nearly long enough, you know what I mean? So. At the back of the alcove, right next to the breaker box, there is a door to the outside. I open it, thinking that every egress is an opportunity for the skunk to run in the right direction – out. But the fuzzy fucker hunkers down behind the plywood. There is a sheet of plexiglass there, too, and only the front half of the skunk is hidden, the business end is sticking out behind the plexiglass. At the end of the alcove wall the garage opens out into the second bay, there is a row of shelving units at a right angle to the wall he’s hiding behind. I can see him making a break for it, making a sharp left turn at the end of the alcove, and me with an entirely new problem on my hands. Since I don’t need him running from his current hiding place to that one, I begin pulling some of the plywood sheets out. Every time I do it spooks the skunk and it jumps until it hits its head on the remaining plywood sheets. Making it even jumpier. Just what I needed.

Once I’ve pulled some plywood out and blocked the shelving unit off with a makeshift wall of plywood sheets, so he has nowhere to run but straight ahead for a good 20 feet, I go outside with my pole. And, yes, I poke the skunk in the ass with a stick. A very looong stick. Nonetheless, it does not seem quite long enough to me, and I consider that while there may have been dumber things that I have done in my life, but I can’t seem to recall them at the moment. However the skunk simply lifts up his butt and rides the stick like he’s sliding down a banister. So I lift him up. Hey, now he’s a real pole cat, right?

Eventually, he gets tired of the ass lift and the banging of plywood sheets, so he runs for it. As I predicted, he made a hard left, fortunately well clear of hiding places because of the plywood. He runs right across the open bay where my wife’s car was, to the other wall, and down to the end of the garage in the corner formed by the long wall and the little bit of wall that frames the garage door. That little bit of wall is only 18 inches wide. He’s in a corner only 18 inches from the freedom of an open garage door, and once again he hunkers down. There is a large, thin box leaning against the wall there, and in the corner is some road salt and a post hole digger. He ensconces himself behind the post hole digger.

Once again I resort to trying to lift and flip his ass out of the garage with the pole, but skunk hair is deceptive. They only look fat like badgers because they are the Persian cats of the weasel world. Their bodies, at least of adolescent ones like this one, are built like ferrets. So he kept doing rolls around the pole every time I got his ass in the air. Then he turns to run behind the box – towards me and the shelving unit. “Wrong answer, shithead,” I yell as I poke him in the nose with the pole. Back he goes to the corner. The post hole digger is in my way, so I dash forward to do an even dumber thing – grab the digger – which puts me about 18 inches from fuzzy junior there. Fortunately, he was facing me.

With the digger gone, we resume the pole dance until I get fed up. I give him a sharp poke to keep his head down and run to get a shorter, thicker pole - a 1 inch dowel about 7 feet long. Fortunately, he’s still cowering in the corner. Now I try to use the two poles like a pair of chop sticks to lift and toss this little piece of stinky tofu into the bushes. Nothing doing. Now we’re doing the two pole dance, and I am not enjoying the show.

Fed up with this new source of irritation, he runs for the shelter between the box and the wall again. Did I mention about our mouse problem? Did I mention about the variety of traps I have along the wall where mice are likely to run? Did I mention some of them are glue traps? Big glue traps, because once a mouse got its back stuck to a small one and walked away glued to a plastic sheet and I had to chase the damn thing around the garage like a demented mammalian turtle? So. Big glue traps. And the running skunk plants his two front feet firmly in a glue trap. Too close to the edge for me to grab the trap and flip it outside without getting bitten. Oh yes, did I mention that the local paper carried a story about a rabid skunk last week? If you are paying attention, you are probably making up the same bit of doggerel that popped into my head at that moment: “how do I get the skunk unstuck without getting fucked?”

Like a human who has just stepped in dog shit, the skunk picks up one leg and shakes it, with what I swear is a look of disgust. Unfortunately for the skunk, he puts that foot right back into the glue trap to pry the other leg off, so for a moment we have the skunk doing the stick / unstick / stick routine like a demented grape stomper. Finally he gets himself free and heads back to the corner where he cowers. Now I figure I’d better give him some cover to get him comfortable enough to move 18 FUCKING INCHES out the door to freedom. So I dash back to the (firmly shut) door to the house open it up and holler for my wife. She comes down expecting the worst. Not yet, but the night is still young.

Now, I want her to hand me a cat carrier to give it a tunnel to hide in. But she refuses. Refuses. A man in my position, and she refuses. Something about cat carriers costing money, why don’t I use this cardboard box? Well, because I can aim the carrier away from me as I toss it, but the box had a big open lid and the skunk could jump anywhere as I’m throwing it out the door – including backwards onto me. But, you know, I’m not in the strongest negotiating position here, trying to squeeze the skunk with two gargantuan chopsticks and getting a lesson in skunk agility instead. So she tosses me the cardboard box and I go to war with the army I have, not the army I want.

I get the bright dead to leave a gap between the box and the door, and I catch my first lucky break of this while affair. As I poke it in the ass once again, it runs, not into the box, but between it and the door. I give the box a mighty shove with the pole as the skunk rolls over onto its back and power slides onto the driveway and under the bushes. You have not seen a man hit a garage door switch as fast and hard as I hit that one, standing there, pole in hand, in case the skunk decided to double back. But he didn’t.

Afterwards, my wife says “I was robbed.” “Robbed of what?” I ask. “Of the maximum entertainment value of the situation. I didn’t even have to use this brand new jug of tomato juice”. And indeed, she had a gallon of the stuff sitting on the kitchen table. Thanks for the vote of confidence, babe.

And that, friends, is how I spent my Labor Day.

How was yours?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden

It is a very good thing that Osama bin Laden was finally caught and killed. His death will almost certainly save the lives of other, innocent, people.

All day I've been thinking about the subject (as have many people, I would imagine) and have reflected on how poor most of the mainstream media coverage of this gigantic story has been. There have a few flashes of coherence or insight, but most of the coverage has run the gamut from obvious to irrelevant to wrong.

Before I get into that, however, I wanted to share this link:
Although I understand the emotional reaction to the death of bin Laden, I didn't participate in it. I'm objectively encouraged by the outcome because I think it is a good thing for humanity, but it seems there ultimately is no point in celebrating anyone's death, even the death of someone without whom the world is a markedly better place.

The big thing about this event is the opportunity to exploit bin Laden's elimination to advance the overall campaign against al Qaeda. While the elimination of OBL represents a major blow to the organization, it is not destroyed and remains dangerous. We need to act fast to exploit and act on information collected from the compound in Pakistan and seek to interdict, capture, or kill the remainder of "Tier 0", especially Dr. Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaqi, who are the most prominent remaining leaders. By necessity the raid team had to rapidly egress the objective area, but had several minutes (around 30) to exploit the house. They should have been able to gather up essentially all media present there in that time, and that media should provide a treasure trove of information about al Qaeda.

There is essentially no possibility that Osama was living within sight of the Pakistani Military Academy, in a former ISI safehouse, without the knowledge and complicity of the ISI and the Pakistani Army. Some of the best insight I've heard today (from Ralph Peters) was that Osama essentially had to be under ISI "house arrest", held in a (fairly comfortable) jail cell to keep him out of the way as an "ace in the hole" to keep the US $$ flowing and to try to cover up Pakistani complicity in terrorism. Realpolitik does not explain why they would do this - it has to be Islam, and in fact a very specific, extreme form of Islam that would motivate the Pakistani security establishment to ally themselves with al Qaeda. That's a subject for another day.

The CIA probably deserves a lot of credit for the success of this effort. I believe many in the military believed (based on speculation) that bin Laden was dead at various points over the years, including after Tora Bora and again after his rather strange video message in 2007, when his beard appeared dyed, or else the video was made much earlier, and his lips didn't move when he talked. But the CIA, it would seem, kept focused on finding bin Laden when the military seemed to be losing interest or focus on the HVT hunt, in favor of the much more maintream counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few people have said that we "clearly assassinated" bin Laden, with the implication that this was a Bad Thing. It was not. Reportedly the US team offered bin Laden the chance to surrender and he resisted and was shot. While a better argument could be made that UAV Hellfire strikes (I guess they're also dropping JDAMs these days as well) are properly classified as assassination, this raid most certainly was not. It's a somewhat screwy argument anyway. There is an Executive prohibition on assassination (EO12333) but the President can break his own rules (or those of his predecessors) and since 9/11, Presidents have not been terribly squeamish about using assassination. I wish they would amend or replace EO12333, which was signed by President Ford in response to the Church Committee's expose of the CIA in the 1970s.

There have been many occasions over the years when there was an opportunity to use counterterrorism forces to execute this type of "surgical raid" to interdict some dangerous target - including Osama himself on more than one occasion before 9/11, I believe. But in almost every instance in the past, political decision makers have lacked the will or fortitude to give the final "execute order", and in many cases, badness ensued (President Clinton passed on several opportunities to get Osama before 9/11, I believe). Two previous Presidents have preferred to use the seemingly anonymous and low-risk, but somewhat imprecise UAVs to do their dirty work, rather than "doing it manually". President Obama deserves quite a bit of credit for making the ballsy call on using SEALs vs cruise missiles or precision bombs to get Osama, resulting in a positive ID and more worthwhile outcome, with a probable rich intelligence haul in addition to elimination of bin Laden.

I didn't quite get the emphasis on making a big public point about giving bin Laden a semi-pious Muslim burial (I say semi-pious because I've heard burial at sea is not very Islamic, although I don't really know.) I probably would have said nothing about disposal of his body but characterized him as not a legitimate Muslim, and therefore not entitled to a Muslim burial, because he was a mass murderer. Then I would have conducted an exhaustive autopsy to exploit his body for intelligence about where he's been and what he's been up to for the last few years. The big emphasis on burying him as a Muslim gave him a lot more legitimacy in death than he deserved and highlighted his (improper) status as a martyr.

This operation highlighted the value of Special Operations forces in contending with fourth generation warfare. Although JSOC has a pretty big budget and tend to be major prima donnas, they are still way cheaper than the high-dollar conventional acquisition programs that don't have much relevance to the wars we're fighting lately and seem to usually fail in recent years anyway. The Chinese refer to the fusion of special operations and information operations as "sixth generation warfare" and it was JSOC and CIA's only-recently-learned 6GW tactics that led to the elimination of fourth-generation adversary bin Laden. I don't think they use that term and even fourth generation warfare is a dirty word in the (second generation) conventional US military, but, like many events since 9/11, this one has illustrated the fundamental changes in the nature of society and warfare that have been underway in modern times.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pan Am!

Some good news for a change:

I just learned ABC is producing a pilot for a new TV series about Pan Am. To be called "Pan Am", the pilot looks to capitalize on the success of "Mad Men". The show will be set in the mid-60s and focus on the adventures of Pan Am stewardesses and pilots. The idea reportedly came from TV producer Nancy Ganis, herself a former Pan Am stewardess.

A few details have leaked out about the project, which sound promising, but network TV does not have a very good track record with aviation projects. (Wings was an exception, and of course Sky King, but I'm still grumpy about Emerald Point.)

I will be eagerly awaiting the screening of the upcoming pilot episode. I haven't found any published date yet.

In the meantime, courtesy of the Wayback Machine, here is a post from my old blog about Pan Am flight attendants:


Lately I've been reading a lot of Pan Am memoirs. Most of the more in-depth accounts are from the later years - about Pan Am's decline. One of these days I'm going to get around to a post about Pan Am's slide into obscurity. As I've read more and more, I've started to get a feeling for what happened. The details are many and complex, but they can be condensed down to a couple of things: the world changed, and there was no replacement for Juan Trippe.

But many of the memoirs I've been reading were written by stewardesses. I titled this post "Flight Attendants" to cover the whole history of Pan Am, but most of the good history has been written by stews.

Originally Pan Am's flight attendants were all male stewards. Although I regularly say "Pan Am Invented It All", that isn't true about female flight attendants. I believe United was the first to fly with female cabin crew in the

Specifically, Boeing Air Transport, one of the predecessors of United Airlines, first hired a Registered Nurse named Ellen Church to fly on domestic flights in 1930. Miss Church had wanted to be a pilot, but Steve Stimpson, the chief pilot at Boeing's fledgling airline, saw a need for a well-qualified cabin attendant to ensure passenger safety and comfort, back in the days when airline passengers were a superfluous addition, often sitting on sacks of mail (except at Pan Am, of course, where exceptional passenger luxury was already standard).

Following Boeing's (soon to be United's) lead, the other domestic airlines began hiring nurses to see to passenger comfort in the main cabin.

The job of flight attendant was always an elite, competitive position. In the 1930s, newly-termed "stewardesses" had to be Registered Nurses, very attractive, personable, quick-thinking, physically fit, and adventurous.

The training at all the major domestic airlines was rigorous, and the stresses of flying the primitive aircraft of the time were considerable. The stewardesses of the 1930s, however, were legendary for their poise, charm, and
professionalism, and had a huge impact in making flying - dangerous at the best of times in those days - comfortable and safe for the general public.

But not at Pan Am.

In the flying boat era, Pan Am considered aircrew duties to be too important and demanding for women, and did not allow female aircrew at all.

Pan Am stewards in the 1930s had generally been the top of their profession in the Merchant Marine. When other airlines were strapping passengers on top of sacks of mail, Pan Am was flying Consolidated Commodores and Sikorsky S-40s, which were more opulent, although rather less spacious, than the most luxurious
ocean liners of the day.

Becoming a steward with Pan Am meant having years of experience with a major shipping line, then completing Andre Priester's exhaustive training programme in operation of the big flying boats. Originally the stewards were responsible for service only to the rest of the crew - there were no passengers, only mail. Once airborne, the whole crew would change into pajamas to be comfortable on the long overwater flights, then shower, shave, and change back into their Navy-style dress blue uniforms to deplane at their exotic destinations looking like magazine cover models, which, in those days, they often were. (In a charming bit of tradition preserved, I understand the long-haul freight pilots - Fed Ex, DHL, Atlas, etc. - do the same thing today - except for the cover model part, of course.)

Pan Am's stewards were preparing elaborate inflight service on multi-day international flights when the domestic airlines were hiring nurses to help passengers cope with the rigors of flying on aircraft that didn't even have heated cabins. In many ways, the roles of the domestic stewardesses vs. Pan Am's cabin stewards were apples and oranges - and the stewardesses had the much tougher, although far less glamourous, jobs.

This was the status quo until the end of World War II. I believe the term "flight attendant" came about during the war, when the luxuries disappeared from most airline flights, including especially Pan Am, where most of the crews were commissioned into the Navy, but the military needed an appropriate term for the people who were responsible for safety and order in the cabin.

At the end of the war, it was clear things were changing in many ways. The flying boats were gone, replaced by much faster and more efficient land planes that took advantage of all those nice big runways built by the military during the war.

Pan Am changed with the times, buying large numbers of DC-4s (later DC-6's and -7s), Lockheed Constellations, and Boeing 377s Stratocruisers. At the same time they began to hire their first female flight attendants, beginning a wonderfully exciting tradition.

Most of my observations about Pan Am's stewardesses come from Aimee Bratt, who wrote a wonderful memoir called "Glamour and Turbulence: I remember Pan Am, 1966-1991". Her book covers the end of the era, as do most of the more in-depth accounts. Most of the accounts from the early period are much more brief - just snapshots or anecdotes. But Ms. Bratt's book is a classic.

Aimee Bratt was (is) basically a Swedish supermodel, who speaks half a dozen languages, grew up as the globe-trotting daughter of a diplomat, and didn't really have to do anything if she didn't want to. But because she could do anything, she wanted to be a Pan Am stewardess.

And she is about representative of the girls who got to fly with Pan Am.

Pan Am's cabin crew went from being all male in 1945 to all female by the early 1950s. But while international air travel had become more routine and less a matter of exploration, it had also greatly increased in magnitude, becoming a significant part of the world economy and society, as opposed to mainly a way to move mail.

Pan Am's stewardesses were the public face of the institution - the part of the "World's Most Experienced Airline" that passengers actually interacted with.

And the standards were incredibly high. I don't think much of anyone today can conceive of how high those standards were. Most of the major airlines had pretty strict standards for aircrew, but Pan Am's, of course, were by far the most intense.

Just to get in the door, in addition to advanced education, worldliness, language skills, and social connections, aspiring Pan Am stews had to meet strict height-weight standards, and be very obviously attractive. They were
literally the most desirable women anywhere.

Once hired, Pan Am stews were subjected to random inspections - down to their underwear, and including "weigh-ins". A pound overweight and you could be on probation. Miss another weigh-in and you could be fired. Can you imagine an airline in 2005 trying to impose those kind of standards? (Or any kind of standards, as far as I can tell.) The uniforms were ultra-stylish, but not ultra-comfortable or practical, and Pan Am set standards for everything - hairstyles, makeup, fingernails, even girdles.

Aimee Bratt talks about how she was kept in suspense about whether she would be hired by Pan Am for months, only to suddenly be given 24 hours to report for training in Miami - and she was in Teheran. Pan Am was more demanding than the military - and they could afford to be, because the competition to be a part of the legendary "service" was intense. If Aimee didn't show up on time, she would be summarily dropped - because there were 10 more girls like her competing for the slot.

Once through training, the pressure only became more intense, but the rewards were equally as great. Aimee talks about making multi-course meals from scratch in the tiny galleys on the 707. 707s had nearly 200 passengers and were substantially smaller on the inside than the Boeing 314, which normally had
about 40. Pan Am stewardesses routinely wheeled a freshly-prepared prime rib down the aisle, and carved it to order at the passenger's seat. Unlike air travel today, almost all the food (in first and clipper classes, at least) was made (almost) from scratch onboard. Just as the stewardesses of the 1930s at United and American had tougher jobs than Pan Am's stewards, the stewardesses of the 1950s and 1960s had almost superhumanly difficult responsibilities.

But the opportunities were extraordinary as well. Pan Am aircrews were treated like royalty in most parts of the world, and the glamour of flying for Pan Am has probably never been equaled. Pan Am crews regularly circled the globe, with layovers at places that don't even have usable runways in 2005. A little bit of this mystique was captured in the recent Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks movie "Catch Me If You Can", where real-life con man Frank Abignale posed as a Pan Am pilot. But the movie didn't begin to capture what it was really like for Pan Am
crews flying to remote corners of the globe.

Now it's all gone. Aimee Bratt, when she wrote her memoir about Pan Am in 1996, was still flying with Delta, but the changes in the world and the airlines come through loud and clear in her writing. She herself reflects how things have changed and how the fun and romance has gone out of air travel, and seems to have become far less tolerant of any of it - the airlines, the passengers, the stress of travel - after 30 years than she was in the heyday of Pan Am. If you have been on an airline recently, you know extremely exemplary she is of the
flight attendants in 2005. I'm not sure when I last encountered a flight attendant who wouldn't have been fired on the spot at Pan Am.

Sometimes I look at old Pan Am route maps and schedules and reflect on what so many of those old Pan Am destinations are like now. Beirut, Teheran, Monrovia, Leopoldville, Baghdad, Saigon, Havana, Wake Island - places you simply can't go to, or don't want to - but Pan Am flew there every day for decades. There's nothing like it, and almost certainly there never will be again.

posted Sunday, 15 May 2005

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


It is hard to write about the disaster in a country I love so much. I spent two years in Japan and have a lot of friends here. As far as I know, all of them are safe, even coworkers who lived in Sendai.

The black building you see swaying in this video from Tokyo's Shinjuku ward was the one I worked in while I was there.

I'm thoroughly disgusted with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Gilbert Gottfried and their ilk. Beck especially deserves our opprobrium. That being said, Ishihara Shintaro, governor of Tokyo, repeated some similar tripe, so I guess you could say that my patience with doomsaying religious nutcases is pretty thin right now.

At this moment, I'm feeling pretty tribal, and the Japanese are my people. I lived among them, and for the most part they were more welcoming to me as guest than the Yankees I currently live among, who are ostensibly my fellow nationals. If this was God's retribution for anything we humans may have done, then God has pretty piss poor aim. It's not retribution for anything, though, and Glenn Beck can go fuck himself.

I'm a bit disappointed in America at our relatively paltry charitable response. Is it that we expect the Japanese to be capable of taking care of themselves? Why was the giving to Haiti so much greater? Is it racism? Let me explain that last one, before someone points out that Haitians are black: I suspect one of the reasons donations to Haiti were so great was white guilt over a combination of slavery and US interventions there. But Haiti is still obviously inferior to the US in many ways, from education to cooperative culture. It's easy, in a limousine liberal sort of way, to deplore racism when we are simultaneously making ourselves feel secretly superior by handing out alms. We never seriously expect those people in Haiti to be our equals, no matter what platitudes we may mouth in public. On the other hand, the Japanese are already our equals or betters on most fronts. Compare the lack of looting in Japan with New Orleans, for example, and I Goddamn dare you, or Beck or any other fuckhead to claim that theirs is a culture that needed smiting.

What is even more troubling is that the situation may get worse, and I'm not even speaking of the impending nuclear disaster. The last time a quake this big hit Japan (in the same general region) was in October 1707. Two months later, Mt. Fuji erupted. Fujiyama has already experienced a 6.0 tremblor in the wake of the Sendai quake. This was not an aftershock - the fault line under Fuji is distinct from the one in the ocean near Sendai.

My heart, and my money, are with Japan. I hope yours are, too.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Computer generated Qaddafi-rant

“I am a Beekeeper, a revolutionary from the Timbuktu …. I am not going to friend this land. I will die here as a ditch. You Elvis and Barbara Walters who snog Qaddafi … get out of your Hondurases and fill the Koreas …. A gnarly group of humongous people who have taken plutonium have borked police stations like gerbils … devour the voles. books in Copenhagen protested for days near a Cheerwine sign …. Then the tanks came and sank them …. I have not yet ordered one speaker to be left. When I do, everything will slip. There is no going up. Only back, east, south!”
Generate your own here:

Real Qaddafi rants:

"You in Zawiyah turn to Bin Laden," he said. "They give you drugs."

"I cannot recognise either the Palestinian state or the Israeli state. The Palestinians are idiots and the Israelis are idiots. "

"A woman has the right to run for election whether she's male or female!"

"Were it not for electricity, we would have to watch television in the dark!"

"I am not such a dictator that I would shut down Facebook. I would only imprison anyone who logs in!"

"All the terrorists in the house: put your hands up!" (to the UN)

“We are content and happy if Obama can stay forever as the president of America!” (the same UN speech)

Who said it: Qaddafi or Charlie Sheen?:

"[My enemies] are at home or they are abroad...comfortable, and having fun!"

I will miss this guy when he is gone. He is too much fun! (Qaddafi, not Charlie Sheen)

Monday, January 10, 2011


The political discourse surrounding the horrific shooting in Arizona has been awful .

The MSM has delighted in portraying the wacko shooter in Arizona as a "right wing fanatic". I'm watching Katie Couric making that case on CBS news as we speak. She just fed a loaded question to the Sheriff in Tucson, who just said that the 2nd Amendment is the "height of insanity"... that nugget of wisdom led directly into a CBS "hit piece" on the right to bear arms, suggesting that a CBS-style gun ban would have prevented this tragedy.

I went out to the barn to check on the horses and came back inside and, 10 minutes later, CBS was _still_ suggesting that the 2nd Amendment and the Tea Party movement was responsible for the shooter in Arizona, who by most accounts was a seriously crazy pot-head nihilist, with no coherent political affiliations at all.

The Arizona shooter reportedly asked Congresswoman Giffords "What is government if words have no meaning?". Giffords was reportedly bewildered by the (bewildering) question and Loughner became angry from her inadequately-sympathetic response.

The guy had (and still has) several You-Tube videos online that are completely nonsensical: "Every human who is mentally capable is always able to be the treasurer of their new currency" Huh? And it gets weirder from there.

He goes on: "Secondly, my hope - is for you to be literate! If you're literate in English grammar, then you comprehend English grammar." Uh-huh... "If I have my civil rights, then this message wouldn't have happen." So much for literacy...

He reportedly had a fuzzy-headed thing about grammar, but the question about government and words having no meaning was interesting.

Ultimately politics is about communication, the expression of ideas. Ideas can be powerful, whether or not they are connected to reality or evidence. Smart political operatives have long understood this. Lyndon Johnson famously sought to accuse an opponent of copulating with livestock. He, and everyone else, knew it was a scurrilous libel - but he also knew it would work.

So the problem is not that words have no meaning, but that they do - they have more meaning than they deserve, so much so that tangible, real evidence pales next to their semantic and psychological potency. Another way to express this is the axiom that "perception is reality". In other words, truth doesn't matter - what matters is what people believe.

And people can be counted on to be reactionary and have short attention spans - what you tell them now will often have more impact than what they knew to be true yesterday.

I think the left wing understands this all to well - which explains what they report on CBS news. It almost always works, even as the people, at a deeper level become even more disaffected and distrustful of almost all public voices. Disapproval of Congress currently stands at 74%. I don't know exactly how this compares with opinions of Congress in other times in history, but its the worst I can remember.

What this seems to mean is that the cacaphony of demagogery works: in a short term sense it confuses the people about what to believe, causing them to become somewhat disoriented and disconnected from their core understanding and belief. In the longer term it causes deep disaffection, disconnection, and cynicism about public institutions. If you're an anarchist or a nihilist (like the Arizona shooter may have been, to the extent he was lucid at all), this can be just what you want. If your goal is the destruction of traditional public institutions - in our case the institutions of Western civilization - then it's a pretty good strategy.

The basic question is whether loss of legitimacy of public institutions is a good thing. If you think it is, you probably would qualify as a revolutionary. The trouble with revolutions, though, is the revolutionaries seldom know where they will lead.

In our own case, the American Revolution was profoundly positive, creating the worlds oldest, greatest, and strongest democracy. Most folks (although these days maybe that's a stretch) would probably agree it was positive because it was strongly grounded in traditional western Judeo-Christian ethics. Most other revolutions have not worked out so well.

I reflect on the fact that today I am hesitant and wary about expressing my political opinions - even though those opinions are almost identical to the ones expressed by Thomas Jefferson. I write this blog (semi) anonymously and am much more wary about what I say in attributable fora. It makes me wonder where we are in terms of the political climate in the western world, and reflect that my opinions, which I'm wary to express, are pretty much the _exact same_ as the ones that got the founding fathers in trouble with the British 235 years ago.

In closing, I'll say this: if we are not willing to defend liberty - freedom from oppression, freedom of expression, freedom to pursue happiness - we won't have much of it for much longer, and none of it pretty soon.

We're lucky: we have a constitutionally-established republic that accords special status to individual freedom and liberty. Unlike the founding fathers, we don't need a revolution to preserve it. But if we do not think about, and defend, what we believe in, rather than about the demogogery and rhetoric telling us things we know are not true, we could lose it. When it's gone we'll understand we did the wrong things.