Pan Am was an airline used to grand gestures and though by the mid-70s it was in serious trouble, due to the massive overspend on 747s, the economic woes of the early 70s and increasing international competition, it still had plenty of hubris left in the tank. A pair of important anniversaries led to two special flights being operated each flying a new 747SP around the world but each in different directions. Each flight would break the world record and interestingly each flight would use the same aircraft - N533PA.
To be fair to Pan Am it had appeared to have turned a corner by 1976. Route swaps with TWA and cuts had at least temporarily secured the airline's future. In fact, in 1976 it made a huge profit, almost $100 million, something that only a year earlier had seemed unbelievable. I've written about this period in Pan Am's history before here:
Even with Pan Am's troubles in the early 70s it had still been the driver behind a new type of Boeing 747. Pan Am wanted an aircraft that could fly non-stop between New York and Tokyo with a full payload. It convinced Boeing there was a market for such a plane and when Boeing came up with a shrunken 747, called the 747SP (for Special Performance), it ordered 10 and took options on 15 more in September 1973.
The SP first flew on July 4, 1975 but by then Pan Am's financial problems had meant its order had been reduced to 7 aircraft, with a further 5 arriving on lease. Pan Am's first SP was delivered on March 5, 1976 and registered N533PA. Unusually there were 3 other of Pan Am's SPs with earlier construction numbers and registrations (N530-N532PA) but all would be delivered between March 29 and May 17. N533PA had already proven its capabilities, having operated a worldwide demonstration tour for Boeing, which covered 72,152 miles (116,117 km).
Pan Am began 747SP operations on April 25, 1976; flying between New York and Tokyo. This PA800/801 route avoided the usual need for the fuel stop in Anchorage and shaved three and a half hours off the usual flight time, which now became 13 hours 30 minutes. Initially three times a week the route quickly became popular with business customers and was upgraded to daily.
THE LIBERTY BELL EXPRESS
I have written about how other US airlines approached the Bicentennial celebrations previously and the links can be found here:
The next year Pan Am celebrated its 50th anniversary and to celebrate decided to undertake a second world record flight. This time it would fly to and from San Francisco but via both poles. N533PA was once again chosen for the honour and once again was renamed - this time to 'Clipper New Horizons'. Stops were made at Heathrow, Cape Town and Auckland.
The aircraft was commanded by Captain Walter H. Mullikin who had also flown the Liberty Bell Express. N533PA, or Clipper 50, took off on October 28, 1977 and landed 54 hours, 7 minutes and 12 seconds later on October 30. Seven world records were broken.
Onboard were 172 passengers, who each paid $3,333 for First Class and $2,222 for Economy, plus five Pan Am employees selected by lottery and a bevy of official guests (including Miss Universe and Miss USA).
The Pan Am Museum Foundation has recently published this lovely promotional video of the flight:
Unlike for the earlier flight N533PA gained a special Flight 50 emblem on the fuselage and interestingly it kept this special logo in its later life even after Pan Am had switched to the new billboard livery. By that time the aircraft had been renamed again to 'Clipper Young America'.
Ultimately Pan Am acquired only 10 747SP-21s (it acquired an ex-Braniff 747SP-27 in 1983 also) and all were sold to United Airlines as part of its purchase of Pan Am's entire Pacific division. They transferred across in February 1986 and N533PA became N143UA. Her career with United lasted until the end of 1994. She was stored at Las Vegas from January 14, 1995 without titles and broken up by early 1999. That's a shame as N533PA surely had a strong claim to be worthy of preservation.
Pan Am's 747SPs were a success for the airline and came into service at a time when its future briefly looked bright again, after the dark times of the first half of the 70s. Pan Am's Pacific division, in which they mainly served, was one of the more profitable parts of the business but by the mid-80s things were so bad that the carrier was forced to sell off even profitable assets to eke out a route to survival. The two around the world flights by N533PA represent some of the last highpoints the airline experienced and are still today impressive endeavours by an excellent aircraft.
Villmizar, H. Pan Am's Polar Flight Around the World. Airways Magazine
Baldwin, JP. Pan Am Series Pt XII: The Boeing 747SP. JPB Trans Consulting LLC
Hardiman, J. 45 Years Ago Pan Am Flew A Boeing 747 Around The World In 3 Days. Simple Flying
O'Brien, B. Pan Am's Pioneering Boeing 747SP Flights. Airliner World
Pan Am 747SPs. RZjets.net
Pan Am Record Setting Flights. Wikipedia
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: