How Pan Am Flight 50 flew from pole to pole
You might think circling the globe by airplane is no big deal anymore. But you’d be wrong.
Surprisingly, circumnavigating the world via the North Pole to the South Pole in an airliner is a feat accomplished only three times.
Why? Because it’s a Very. Long. Ride.
Even with stops to refuel, flying across several oceans as well as the remote Arctic and Antarctic requires long-range aircraft that first became available in the mid-1960s.
And besides, passengers aren’t exactly clamoring to endure being trapped on a four-leg, 54-hour odyssey.
I mean, who would REALLY want to travel that way?
Meet author Brian Baum.
In 1977, Baum was an 18-year-old aviation enthusiast who ponied up $2,222 of his savings to buy a ticket on Pan Am Flight 50.
Baum knew this flight was likely to make history by setting a speed record for a polar circumnavigation. The one-time-only flight on Boeing’s new special performance 747 began in San Francisco, flew over the North Pole and stopped at its next destination: London.
After refueling the plane jetted on to South Africa. Next, it flew over the South Pole and landed in New Zealand before taking off again and ending up back in San Francisco.
Total time: 54 hours, seven minutes and 12 seconds. The record-setting average speed, according to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale: 487 mph (784 km/hr).
“It was truly an opportunity to do something that really hadn’t been done before,” said Baum, a former public information officer at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. There had been a couple of previous flights over both poles, but this was the first such flight that was affordable to folks other than the super-rich.
How do you pack for a 2 1/2-day quick whip around the world? You pack light. Very light.
Luggage for Flight 50’s 120 passengers was limited to a single carry-on bag per person. For many, that provided just enough space to fit an extra set of clothes and your basic toiletries.
Although Pan Am provided passengers with access to an onboard hairdresser, freshening up was limited to whatever you could manage in the lavatory. “I think everybody took that in stride,” Baum said. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
‘Round the world, ’70s style
From his window seat in front of a wing — seat 17A — Baum experienced a whirlwind tour of the two poles that he would never forget.
He remembers the flight crew counting down the miles as the plane closed in on the top of the world, followed by cheers and toasts as it finally flew over the North Pole. Baum recalls the wonder of watching a sunset shortly followed by a sunrise because of the plane’s unusual route.
The celebratory atmosphere throughout the flight was unforgettable.
While over the North Pole, one passenger put on a Santa hat and beard. Later, when the plane crossed the equator, the man reappeared with the same beard and a three-pronged toy trident — paying tribute to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.
A strolling guitarist was aboard, singing custom songs about the North and South Poles.
In true 1977 style, international beauty queens were aboard, armed with Polaroid cameras — for passengers who wanted a selfie.
And then there was the Gucci fashion show. Five models showed off 24 different outfits, using the 747’s upstairs lounge as a changing area and the lower cabin aisles as their fashion runway.
“That was really well done,” Baum said. “They played it up so well.”
“The most memorable thing was Antarctica,” Baum said. “It was incredible.” Mysterious, desolate and vast, the frozen continent kept Baum glued to his window.
A man sitting directly in front of Baum was looking forward to seeing an active volcano in Antarctica called Mount Erebus. “He pointed a lot out to me … Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’re not able necessarily to identify things.”
Although the jet was cruising at 43,000 feet (13,100 meters) above ground, Baum said the landscape appeared to be much closer.
Another countdown from the flight deck signaled to passengers that they had passed over the South Pole — triggering another celebration.
The sky was remarkably clear, Baum remembered. The absence of haze or pollution brought out a brilliant sunset. “Everything was just spectacular — the mountains, the colors when we were exiting the continent and heading toward New Zealand. The sun was going down, and it had the lovely pinks and pastels of the sunset. It just couldn’t have been better.”
Baum felt like he was looking at things people had never seen before. “You’re at the bottom of the world, and there’s nobody else in the air for thousands of miles around you. It was an interesting feeling.”
Other pole-to-pole flights
The first pole-to-pole circumnavigation flight took place in 1965 by a modified Flying Tiger Line Boeing 707-349C carrying 40 scientists, guests, and crew. To make the trip possible, the plane — nicknamed Pole Cat — had to be modified with two additional fuel tanks installed in the main cabin. Total time: 62 hours, 27 minutes.
In 1968, a Modern Air Transport Convair 990 airliner with 78 passengers and crew flew over both poles. This plane didn’t set a speed record, but by landing for fuel at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, it was the first aircraft to touch all seven continents.
Pan Am Flight 50’s speed record stood for 31 years until 2008, when a Bombardier Global Express business jet broke it, thanks to perfect planning and shorter fuel stops.
Membership in the “over both poles” club is pretty exclusive. According to Baum, more people have flown in space.
Now, 41 years after the last such flight, a sub-50-hour aviation adventure is being planned to take air travelers over both poles. The Polar Express is scheduled to take off this coming October 26 from New York’s JFK International Airport with about 150 passengers.
The route will take them from JFK to Río Gallegos airport in southern Argentina. Taking off from there, the Polar Express will fly over the South Pole and continue all the way to Perth, Australia. Next, it’s on to Beijing. And the final leg of the trip takes the plane over the North Pole and back to JFK.
The jet for this upcoming trip will be an Airbus A340-300 — a large, wide-body, long-range airliner with four trusty engines. Coach tickets start at $11,900. Amenities include specially created cocktails, informative lectures, inflight yoga classes, and an Antarctica expert who will explain what passengers see out the windows.
Baum will join this polar party as its historian, documenting it to create the final chapter of his book “Over Both Poles: Epic Flights Around the World,” which is due early next year.
Clearly, the glory days of record-setting global air travel have not completely passed. For those who can muster the time and money, there are still rare experiences to be found out there.