By Michael E. Miller
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Last Tuesday at a warehouse in West Dade, six old men broke open a storage crate. Their lives - more than half a century of aviation history - spilled out on the concrete floor in disarray.
"I can't imagine anyone packing this stuff like this," said Kelvin Keith, one of America's last living flying-boat pilots. "A lot of it has been unpacked and then repacked in a jumble - just sort of shoved back in the boxes."
"Just shoved in the boxes," echoed 74-year-old Gene Banning, gazing at a 1938 flight log from the first transpacific U.S. mail delivery. "There was no attempt to preserve it like the company had it packed when they shipped it down."
The collection of rare artifacts from the pioneering days of commercial air travel was quietly returned to members of the Pan Am Historical Foundation one month ago by the City of Miami. The city had borrowed the material in 1986 in hopes of creating a bayside aviation museum at the site of Pan Am's old Miami seaplane terminal on Dinner Key. The plan evaporated.
The 3000 cubic feet of material in nine large crates includes period promotional posters and advertisements, a 1937 photo showing airline president Juan T. Trippe receiving an award from President Franklin Roosevelt, a lamp shade adorned with Pan Am's 1954 routes, a powder-blue stewardess' cap, scale models of airplanes, and a banner from Pan Am's 37th anniversary party.
Two retired Pan Am pilots will complete an inventory of the memorabilia this week. They say they can already tell that certain valuable pieces are missing, among them a bronze bas-relief plaque given to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh during his tenure as a Pan Am consultant and test pilot, and a large decorative gold vase given to Pan Am by a foreign government.
"We're also pretty sure that some of the scale models are missing," says historical foundation president George Price. The 79-year-old Price says he and other ex-pilots suspect the pieces were stolen or mislaid in 1989 or 1990 when Miami City Manager Cesar Odio lent part of the collection to developer Manny Medina for use as decorations at the Havana Clipper restaurant near city hall.
The use of the collection in a private eatery outraged Price and other former pilots, and Pan Am officials at first demanded that the city return the memorabilia. The airline eventually worked out a lease agreement with Medina's Terremark Inc., but the arrangement became moot when Havana Clipper folded in November 1990 after barely eleven months in operation.
"We know that some things are missing associated with the movement of some of this material to the Havana Clipper at Dinner Key," says Price. "We have heard - just rumors - that some of these things that were under the care of Terremark, so to speak, have ended up in certain people's homes. We hope that the people who have these things will have qualms of conscience, like some of the looters in South Central L.A. Some of those looters actually did return things to the stores from which they were stolen."
Price, who once flew China Clippers from San Francisco to the Orient, says the historical foundation will finish its inventory, compare it with the original 1986 manifest, and determine exactly what is missing. Members plan to ask Miami government officials to facilitate the return of the items.
Odio did not return calls to his office. Medina, travelling outside the United States, could not be reached for comment.
For now, the collection will remain at the warehouse on NW 29th Street. Legally, it is a part of the estate of Pan Am Corp., and thus belongs to the United States bankruptcy court in New York. Jeff Kriendler, Pan Am's former vice president of corporate communications, says he believes the memorabilia will be spared from an eventual bankruptcy auction, along with an accompanying Pan Am archival collection currently stored at Miami International Airport.
"It is the intent of the Pan Am Historical Foundation to acquire this collection from the company and avoid an auction," Kriendler says. "Our ultimate dream is to first preserve and then exhibit these artifacts and the archival material. We would hope to do that in a museum, or as part of a larger museum."
Kriendler says he was deeply moved by watching the spry septuagenarians repack the Pan Am collection last Tuesday. "In part the collection is a tribute to employees like these, a tribute to their affection for the company and their great understanding of aviation history.