By Scott Walker
June 8, 2015
“And where are you flying today?”
I’ve just stepped up to the check-in counter for my Pan Am Experience “flight,” and according to Air Hollywood‘s website, I’m about to “relive the magic of flying onboard a luxurious Pan Am 747.” In this case, I’ll be flying on board a specific 747, the Pan Am Clipper Juan T. Trippe, named after the airline’s founder. And the entire trip will happen in a Pacoima, CA warehouse.
The counter sits just inside the entrance to the terminal / club lobby where I and my fellow passengers congregate while waiting for the departure of our Boeing 747. The lobby is large, filled with displays of Pan Am memorabilia, actual airline seats, retro-style tables and chairs, and a full bar manned by a gentleman sporting a white dinner-jacket.
Frank Sinatra’s most recognizable hits waft lazily through the air, encouraging me to leave behind all the accumulated stress of the week: work, deadlines, traffic, all the digital distractions. “Come fly with me…” Frank croons, and his invitation is impossible to decline. Who am I to argue with the Chairman of the Board?
My destination is the bar, which seems apropos given the Pan Am Experience is all about recreating luxury air travel in the 1970’s. However, I’m intercepted by a dapper, silver-maned gentleman who introduces himself as Talaat Captan, the owner of Air Hollywood. We chat briefly before he excuses himself to welcome the other passengers arriving. I later learn the fascinating story of how he came to be running Air Hollywood, but for now, I redirect myself for another approach to the bar.
I order a Bombay Sapphire gimlet and hope Talaat doesn’t notice. Clearly the drink of choice for tonight should be a three-olive dry martini, but I opt for a gimlet with a splash of simple syrup and hope my anachronistic choice doesn’t spoil the mood.
I needn’t worry.
The gimlet is an icy delight, and no one attempts to escort me out of the warehouse. Quite the contrary, in fact, as a lovely woman named Barbara, who will be working our flight tonight, steps over. She’s seen me taking pictures with my iPhone.
“Would you like me to take a picture of you in front of the 747 or in one of the lounge seats?”
It’s clear the other passengers are snagging pictures just as I am, and we’re all faced with the age-old conundrum of taking a selfie writ large: how do you put yourself in the picture if you’re the one pressing the button? The Pan Am Experience crew seem well aware of our problem and circulate around the room, offering to take our pictures with our device of choice.
Barbara takes my iPhone, happily snaps a few pictures for me and asks if there’s anything else she can help me with before slipping away to help another passenger capture some digital memories of the evening.
I take a seat while more passengers check in. They’re a mix of ex-Pan Am employees, Pan Am enthusiasts, and people like me who are simply interested in this unique experience. What we all have in common this evening is an open, friendly attitude, and I find myself slipping back in time, back to the days when air travel was neither commonplace nor the commodity that it is today.
Then again, it occurs to me we’ve already been encouraged to show up with the proper attitude. Emails from Air Hollywood prior to the experience set a fun but upscale tone:
As your pilots and cabin crew run through their flight preparations, we are getting reports of some adverse weather expected during the flight. Forecasts show heavy showers of Vodka Martinis and Tom Collins for much of the ride, but nothing we can’t navigate…
This is an upscale affair, so no jeans, sneakers, shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops will be allowed. You are part of a shared aesthetic experience, so please dress the part!
We’re all taking part in something special, and the reference to a shared aesthetic experience resonates with me. We’re co-creating the entire thing, much like a LARP (which, in a way, this is). That knowledge, perhaps helped along by the bar, spurs a burst of extroverted introductions. The couple seated next to me are a prime example.
Sally and Robert introduce themselves and tell me they’re stopping by Los Angeles as part of a long road trip wrapped around the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Sally’s father, it turns out, was a Pan Am pilot, and she tells tales of growing up under the wings of the distinguished airline. Years of living abroad, countless flights around the world, and the joys of sitting in the cockpit as her father landed a 747.
Of course, it’s no coincidence that Pan Am was always associated with exotic travels around the globe and viewed as the gold standard for airline travel. From its start in 1927 until 1980 (when it bought National Airlines), Pan American Airlines only served international flights into and out of the U.S., barred from offering domestic flights. For decades, the airline brought the world to us, ushered us to far-off places, and did it all with grace, style, and charm.
Nor is it happenstance that the plane we’ll be “flying” tonight is a Boeing 747. It was Pan Am, after all, that brought us the 747. In the 1960’s, Pan Am wanted wide-body planes to increase the number of passengers they could fly on each route. Boeing wanted more business, and promised to deliver the first wide-body jet to meet Pan Am’s goal. The result was the Boeing 747, a jet launched to great fanfare in January of 1970.
And Air Hollywood’s Pan Am Experience recreates that special era in a nondescript Pacoima, CA industrial park that hides a doorway to the past…
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to begin boarding our flight. We’d like to invite those with small children or who need assistance with boarding, to please begin boarding now.”
I’m surprisingly giddy. I’m about to walk into the front part of a 747 fuselage that’s been decorated as authentically as possible to the design used by Pan Am in the early 1970’s. The entire staff is dressed in era-appropriate attire, and as I learn from Barbara, herself an ex-Pan Am stewardess, she has meticulously trained everyone just as she was trained years ago.
Yes, I know the 747 I just entered is only partially intact. Yes, I know the front part of the fuselage has been chopped off from the rest of the frame and placed inside a warehouse. Yes, it’s unquestioningly a jet that will never touch the sky again.
But despite its clipped wings, this bird will fly tonight, and it’s taking us all along for the ride.
The first thing I notice after stepping on board is the spiral staircase leading to the upper lounge. Double-decker jets are not unheard of today, but space devoted purely for recreational aspects – a true lounge – on a commercial jet boggles the mind.
I slip upstairs to find a handful of chairs, sofas, and tables, plus a serving station. I’m old enough to remember coughing through smoke-filled flights and being relatively free to move about the cabin, but seeing this lounge defies logic. The idea that passengers would be encouraged to get out of their seat, to head upstairs for a drink and cigarette during a flight seems insane.
Back down on the lower deck, I peek into the section directly behind first class, referred to as “Clipper Class” seating, Pan Am’s original business-class seating. It’s what you would expect: an upgrade from economy in terms of seat size, space, and legroom.
But nothing compared to the first-class cabin, which is where I’m now headed to find my seat. As it happens, I’m sitting in the first row, across from none other than Sally and Robert.
Before I can take a seat, however, I overhear a group of passengers who have congregated at the front of the first-class cabin. One of them, Dudley, is an ex-Pan Am steward. He tells us the bulkhead double doors open not to the cockpit (which is accessed from the upstairs lounge), but to a storage closet, which he proves by pulling on a small metal tab at the top corners, releasing the catches.
The doors swing open, revealing a surprisingly large (by today’s standards) on-board storage area with a hanging rod and shelves. Dudley notes that this feature was one of many he remembers from the 747 class of jet, and it’s another reminder that we’ve stepped back in time and in history. Dudley points out other features in the cabin, and, taking a cue from Barbara, I offer to take some shots of him with his friends using his camera.
The staff circulates through the 747, offering champagne and mimosas, and then the overhead speakers come alive. The voice of Anthony Toth, our pilot, announces we’re preparing for takeoff and asks us to please take our seats (I discover later that it’s no accident he’s our pilot).
What follows is a mix of surrealism and humor.
An official pre-flight announcement begins, and for anyone who’s traveled by air in the past few decades, it’s immediately recognizable.
Until it’s not.
The light-hearted humor I saw in the emails confirming my reservation resurfaces in the announcement, where I’m told that, “barring earthquakes, we should arrive at our destination at 10:30” (later, we’re told the jet is now “cruising at an altitude of zero feet, and it’s safe to move about the cabin”). Pockets of laughter bubble up around the cabin, and the mood is set for the first offering of snacks and drinks.
I’m impressed, for some reason, by the packet of almonds, replete with Pan Am packaging design. So impressed that I resist the urge to open it, and decide I’ll take it home as a souvenir.
The drink menu is equally impressive, though I’m slightly disappointed that my go-to gin of choice, Bombay Sapphire, is missing from the list of “Spirits.” I ask a stewardess if it’s possible to get a second gimlet but with Sapphire gin.
The response tells me all I need to know about how the rest of the evening will unfold: “Of course!”
The meal service that follows displays the same authentic attention to detail as everything else so far. Anthony later tells me the first class cabin dinner menu was recreated as faithfully as possible, and the presentation alone speaks volumes about what luxury air travel was like.
One aspect of the menu that caught my eye was the reference to the Clipper sailing ships, which Pan Am used early on. Clippers were very fast masted ships from the late 1800’s that mainly saw service as shipping vessels used to quickly move goods around the globe. Pan Am called its original fleet of seaplanes Clippers (each one received a unique name), and the convention stuck far into the jet age. From a branding experience, I’m struck by the degree of distinguished history Pan Am amassed over the decades, and how few airlines today can come close to imitating it.
Dinner is served using actual Pan Am glassware and silverware, adding another level of authenticity to the experience.
Topping it all off, the dinner service includes something I’ve long heard about but was never able to experience: having a customized meal crafted and presented at your seat. It’s like a gourmet buffet brought to your table (“I’ll have two helping of potatoes, and yes, another slice of chateaubriand. Oh, and may I please have some more asparagus?”). Take as much or as little as you like, and your plate is put together for you on the spot.
Another pleasant surprise awaited me, though. After everyone’s first servings, a second round of food is carted through the cabin. And throughout it all, the crew responds to every special request with either, “yes, of course!” or “I believe so, let me check.”
Again, this small aspect to the experience was a reminder of how different air travel has become in just a few decades. When was the last time you were offered seconds on an airline meal? For that matter, when was the last time you everwanted seconds on an airline meal?
A few passengers, including Robert, are celebrating birthdays, and they receive a candle-lit piece of cake prior to dessert. While the entire meal is wonderful, dessert raises the bar even higher: a delicious selection of cheeses and port, fruit, and a decadent chocolate torte.
I’m into my first bite of torte when the cabin lights dim. I’d forgotten there was in-flight entertainment.
Tonight we’re treated to a documentary about Pan Am, which includes an historical summary of the airline itself as well as several interviews, personal accounts and countless photos and videos. It’s a BBC production, so the quality is very good, and it proves equal parts education and entertainment.
Sadly, as the documentary credits roll, the cabin lights come on, and the staff begins clearing our trays. The flight is over all too soon, as we “touch down” around 10:30.
But that wasn’t the end of our experience.
First, the crew presents everyone with a Pan Am travel kit and luggage tags.
Then, passengers are given a red carnation as we exited the 747, and we’re told a tour of the Air Hollywood facility will being shortly for those interested in staying.
With my flower firmly planted in my lapel (a first for me, if memory serves), I step off the jet and back into the lounge, where I meet Talaat again. Our conversation rolls around to how he wound up running Air Hollywood, a company that provides a wide array of filming production services involving airports, planes, and jets.
In a perfect example of entrepreneurial insight, Talaat shares the story of his struggles twenty five years ago as a filmmaker trying to shoot a movie inside a jet and an airport. Logistically and creatively challenging as well as expensive, Talaat decided there was a market for TV, movie studio, and advertising companies wanting a secure, controlled production environment for these kinds of location shots.
But time is slipping away, and Talaat announces the tour is beginning. I join the group following him out of the lounge and heading next door in the brisk night air to another entrance in Air Hollywood’s spacious warehouse. And as luck would have it, the first production set we encounter is the one that caught my eye on the company’s website: the original cockpit from the cult classic “Airplane!”
Did I take a seat in the captain’s chair while Otto sits next to me with a permanent smile on his inflated face? Of course.
Surely I restrained myself from uttering the expected movie quotes? No, and don’t call my Shirley.
The rest of the warehouse is a collection of props, displays, and sets of various aspects of air travel. Born out of Talaat’s filmmaking frustration, Air Hollywood is the premier aviation-themed studio. They have provided services for films such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Bridesmaids,” shows like “The Mindy Project” and commercials for Capital One.
Additionally, they offer a free service called “Open Sky for Autism” which assists families with autism by recreating the entire air travel experience: airport arrival, ticketing, check-in, baggage check, TSA security screening, departure lounge, boarding, in-flight simulation, and deboarding. It’s a little bit of desensitization crossed with pre-flight awareness, which makes it easier for those with autism to get through the challenges of flying.
And most recently, Talaat teamed up with Anthony Toth, a United sales executive who, it turns out, is more than our captain. He’s been an enthusiast for both Pan Am and the 747 since the age of 5, when he took his first Pan Am flight (the lounge has a picture of him as a child, staring out the window of a 747). Anthony began acquiring and restoring jets years ago, and he’s been written up at the The Wall Street Journal and InsideSoCal.Com.
Anthony eventually decided he wanted to share his jets with others by creating a unique experience that became the Pan Am Experience. It’s a partnership that makes perfect sense, and the Air Hollywood tour makes for a perfect capstone to the evening’s event.
Which for me, is now sadly over. I’m standing in the Air Hollywood parking lot, staring up at the stars. Part of me is still lingering in the 1970’s at 30,000 feet.
I’ve just sampled something that no longer truly exists, and I’m aware on one level how bittersweet tonight has been. The 747’s are no longer the unquestioned leaders in air travel, the graceful giants that defied logic and inspired awe decades ago. Pan Am is no more, the bankrupt victim of several factors, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another airline with the same pedigree.
The question initially posed to me just a few hours earlier – “And where are you flying today?” – pops back into my head, and I find the answer is somewhat elusive. Nowhere? An imaginary trip back in time to luxury air travel in the 1970’s? Some place in between?
I’m still not entirely sure, but I’ll always remember what it felt like: experiencing the days of aviation grace without ever lifting my feet off the ground.
If you have any interest in checking out the Pan Am Experience, I recommend booking your reservation as soon as possible (they’re booked months in advance). And for more information about Pan Am’s history, be sure to check out http://www.panam.org/