Pan Am Is Gone, Thank Heaven

July 29, 2009

in Airplane Stories

I flew Pan Am several times never had a good experience. Here is the worst:

Lining up for takeoff from Honolulu, a great BOOM!! made the whole plane shudder. Never mind, we took off anyway, the airplane shuddering slightly until we lifted off.

Sitting next to me was a Pan Am pilot. After we were aloft the plane’s captain appeared and exchanged a few quiet words with the pilot next to me. After he left I asked the pilot next to me, “We blew a tire before takeoff, didn’t we?”

The pilot said, “Yes.”

When approaching San Francisco, the captain broke the news to the passengers. He told us that our landing would be OK, but we might not be able to taxi afterward. He verbally gave us instructions about using the escape slides and other information.

On landing we could see the emergency vehicles lined up along the runway. To the Commander’s credit, the landing was uneventful and he was able to taxi to the terminal normally.

Why, though, did he have to risk our lives by taking off from Honolulu when he knew that we had an unknown explosion before lining up? He did need to discuss the matter with the pilot sitting next to me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

On another day my wife and I, with our two small children, were booked on Pan Am from LAX to Australia, but we managed to switch our seats to a British Air flight.

While in the air, the captain announced that our original Pan Am flight was grounded in Honolulu and that we would be taking on as many of those passengers as we could. The other Pan Am passengers had to spend the night in the Honolulu airport.

We dodged the bullet that time.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Demotage July 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Probably because the pilot had the choice of aborting the takeoff or landing with a flat tire. The latter is less dangerous, so s/he was just doing the safest think. You are fortunate to have had such a good pilot.


SAW July 29, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Hmmm… story says "lining up for takeoff", not "during takeoff"… If I'm reading correctly, this means that the trip down the runway had NOT started yet.

What I do wonder is if the pilots heard the noise from their position up front – hence the discussion with the pilot next to you, who may have been nearer.

Just a wild guess at an explanation.


Anonymous July 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Commencing a takeoff roll with a known failed tire is certainly more dangerous than landing on one. However, Demotage is correct in that aborting a takeoff at speed, especially with a suspected failed tire, is much more dangerous than landing on a failed tire.

That said, I'm guessing this aircraft was either a 747, an L-1011, or a DC-10, and all three are large enough that a blown main gear tire might well be entirely inaudible from the cockpit (especially in a 747, where the main gear tires are not only a hundred feet behind the cockpit, but some 50 feet below it as well). Frequent flyers know that aircraft typically make lots of creaking and groaning noises during taxi, even "shuddering", so the vibration itself wouldn't necessarily be a clue that something had happened. I once took off, unknowingly, with one of our two nose-gear tires almost totally deflated — we're still not sure how it happened, because it was fine when we taxied out — and there was very little in the way of noise or feel that would have alerted us to the problem ahead of time. (Having experienced that once, both of us now know what to watch for next time, however, and I believe if it happened again we'd catch it.)

Without a lot more detail, it's difficult to say what decision I would have made had I been in the captain's shoes. Assuming I had to rely on the opinions of largely ignorant passengers and flight attendants (with the exception of the pilot seated next to you, who obviously wasn't consulted until well after the fact), I probably would have decided the reported noise and vibration were no big deal too. Only after further follow-up did the crew come to the realisation that perhaps a tire had failed and they might have a problem on landing.


Hugh July 31, 2009 at 12:45 am

I hardly think the pilot risked your lives or anything…by your own admission everything was fine. Had he turned around and headed back to the gate, you'd be on here whining about the huge delay for something as simple as a flat tire.


SAW July 31, 2009 at 1:42 am

Hugh… We don't really know the whole story so just because "everything was fine" doesn't mean there wasn't any risk…

Hell… that JetScrew flight landed with messed-up nose gear a few years ago and the landing was "just fine" but easily could have ended in a fireball.


Demotage August 5, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who writes a column called "Ask the Pilot" on, has said in his column that the Jet Blue incident to which you refer was basically not a big deal.

In that incident, the nose gear of the plane was stuck with the tires facing sideways. The media covered it as a disaster barely averted. Smith says that basically any qualified pilot could have landed that plane safely, and that the passengers were in little more danger than in a conventional landing. For what it's worth…


Patrick Smith August 7, 2009 at 8:28 am

I am the pilot and writer cited above. The info posted by Demotage is correct.

You can read my analysis of the ludicrously overblown jetBlue incident here…

JetBlue flight 292 becomes our latest media spectacle. Asks the Pilot: why?…askthepilot156…

JetBlue part II:…askthepilot157…


Atari August 12, 2009 at 9:03 pm

How is aborting a takeoff with a blown tire more dangerous than landing with a blown tire?

In BOTH scenarios, it seems to me, you have a very fast craft screaming down a runway with a blown tire, and, in both instances, you have the plane slowing down to a stop– with a blown tire.

What is it about decelerating down the runway during takeoff that is more dangerous than decelerating down the runway during a landing?

The wheels have to all be on the ground at some point in both situations, and the wheels will be rolling increasingly slower, too.


Acme October 28, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Aborting a takeoff with a blown tire requires stopping a fully-loaded plane in a rather short distance. If it is near takeoff speed this will put a huge amount of stress on the wheels. Unless both engines have just eaten some geese you are almost always better off taking off and figuring out what went bang (or looking for a convenient river).

Landing with a blown tire involves a much lighter aircraft (fuel is rather heavy) on the full length of the runway, something that can often be done without using the brakes at all. The pilot can come in as slow as possible and (if he knows it's a tire) will be expecting the extra drag on one side. As mentioned above, any competent pilot can do this without any problems.


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