Pan Am’s First Passenger Jet to Europe (1958)

Pan Am logo
Pan Am logo

Aviation has a strong history in the Washington area. Following on the heels of our last aeronautical first (Concorde at Dulles), here is another first for the region and the country.

In the fall of 1958, Pan Am (i.e., the planet’s largest and coolest airline) was getting set to inaugurate their transatlantic passenger jet service. The four-engined Boeing 707 was to go through a christening ceremony at National Airport with the help of President Eisenhower.

The Baltimore Sun reported that the ceremony would happen on October 17th at 4 p.m. The plane would depart from National after a brief celebration and fly empty to Baltimore‘s Friendship Airport (i.e., Baltimore Washington International Airport today). The airplane would not be able to take off loaded down with passengers from National due to the shorter runways.

The first American-built jet airliner was to arrive in Baltimore just after 5 p.m. The invited dignitaries — members of Congress, government officials and other important people — would be flown to Friendship via a smaller standard plane and entertained while the 707 was being readied for the journey. The passengers would all be personal guests of Juan Trippe, founder of Pan Am, on the overnight flight to Paris.

This wasn’t the first commercial passenger jet service, but it was the first truly successful service and ushered in the beginning of the jet age. It was the dawn of the golden age of passenger service.

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A Pan Am 707 on the runway
A Pan Am 707 on the runway

Regular transatlantic service from the United States to Europe would being on October 26th from New York’s Idlewild International Airport (i.e., JFK today).

Here’s a film from 1958, promoting Pan Am’s jet clipper service. Watching this video is almost a little sad. Flying used to be such a treat. It was a wonderful experience. Now … not so much.

  • Yes, it is truely sad that Pan Am went the way of the dodo. I enjoyed my first flight with the airline (flight 101 from Heathrow to JFK about 30 years ago). I flew with budget airline easyJet twice this week and the seats weren’t as comfortable as Pan Am, there was less legroom, no free food or drink, a scrum for the unallocated seats, paid hold luggage, limited hand luggage, and no in flight entertainment. That’s progress for you !

  • Craig Shipman

    So, did the 707 go to DCA? The way the article is written, (“The Baltimore Sun
    reported that the ceremony would happen on October 17th at 4 p.m. The
    plane would depart from National after a brief celebration and fly empty
    to Baltimore’s Friendship Airport…”) makes it sound like the event never happened

  • Peoples Hernandez

    Yes, its true that commercial air travel isn’t what it used to be. I remember as a child getting dressed for a flight, jacket and tie. We wouldn’t dream of wearing sneakers or jeans. I also remember getting our family picture taken prior to boarding. Then came airline deregulation in 1978. It resulted in much lower air fares and opened air travel to the masses. Thank you Senator Cannon. But it also made air travel more of the mass transit experience that it is today. Whereas commercial air travel used to be a treat, it is now a necessary evil that we have no choice but to accept.