I originally posted this review on Epinions.com in 2011. I reposted it on my original blog in 2014. And because I am watching the TV series Pan Am on iTunes, I’m reposting it again here, as is. Enjoy!
Last Sunday night, ABC aired the premiere of a brand new television show called Pan Am. The show, set in the 1960s, is all about the now defunct Pan American Airways, an airline that operated during the glory days of American aviation. I watched the premiere of that show last week and thought it was “just okay”. One thing that did stick out to me, however, was the glamour the show was trying to project. I started to wonder if there had been any books written by former Pan Am flight attendants. Off I went to my Kindle, where I quickly found a brand new e-book entitled Pan Am Unbuckled: A Very Plane Diary. Written by Ramona Fillman and Ann Shelby Valentine and priced at a very economical 99 cents, this book was released just in time for the new show. I’m sure that was no accident.
Pan Am Unbuckled is the story of how Ann Shelby Valentine, once a pretty co-ed in Florida, made the decision to quit college during her senior year and go to work for Pan Am. Valentine explains how she had applied for jobs at several airlines, including Delta, National, and Eastern, but had her heart set on Pan Am. National and Eastern passed; Delta offered her a job, but she wanted to know what Pan Am could offer her. Little did Valentine know that she had applied at a very fortuitous time. In 1969, Pan Am was hiring like gangbusters and Valentine’s ability to speak French and Russian made her a very competitive candidate. She was hired on the spot by Pan Am’s chief executive officer.
Because of her ability to speak Russian, Valentine was originally based in New York City. New York was not her preference, but she was soon flying all over the world. Pan Am was, back in the day, exclusively an international airline. Valentine found herself serving servicemembers on their way to or from Vietnam. She also escorted Vietnamese babies to Guam, where they were eventually routed to Hawaii and then to the United States. She had the opportunity to study Russian at a university in Moscow, along with other flight attendants. She was able to buy a car in Germany, keep it in an underground garage, drive it on the autobahn until she had 500 miles on the odometer, and ship it to and from Europe for free, courtesy of Pan Am.
I think my favorite part of this book is when Valentine writes about her experiences studying in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. She explains that for some reason, the Soviets decided they wanted to keep an eye on her and another flight attendant named Regina, who originally hailed from Lithuania. Valentine explains that the Soviets had somehow gotten some faulty intelligence that her father was some high ranking official in the U.S. government. Valentine’s father had nothing to do with the government, but the Soviets still insisted that she and Regina share a room, which they discovered was bugged and had hidden cameras in it.
Valentine explains that during the Soviet era, all non Soviet visitors had to travel at all times with a guide from Intourist, the Soviet tourist agency. Valentine explains that the group was taking the metro one day. Moscow’s metro doubled as a bomb shelter; consequently, the stations were all situated deep underground and high speed escalators were used to move people. Because of a fear of heights, Valentine got separated from her group when they stepped on the escalator and she balked. She spent a precious hour wandering in Moscow by herself before a private citizen and two police officers delivered her back to her hotel. I was interested in this part of the story because I used to live in the former Soviet Union and experienced the Armenian metro system many times. I could picture what Valentine experienced in Moscow.
Each chapter is introduced in English and French, using typical airline jargon. For instance, at the end of the e-book, Valentine writes in English and French “Thank you for flying with us.” Her tone is light and breezy and frankly, quite a pleasure to read. She doesn’t focus on the cranky passengers and sore feet that come with the territory of being a flight attendant. Instead, she focuses on the glamour and adventure of the job and makes it sound like she had a wonderful time. As a result of her upbeat attitude, I had a wonderful time reading.
If you’ve ever been interested in what it was like to be a flight attendant back in the days when flying was still fun and somewhat luxurious, you might really enjoy Pan Am Unbuckled. Frankly, I enjoyed Valentine’s book much more than I enjoyed the new television show, Pan Am. If I have to offer a criticism, it’s that I might have enjoyed reading more about the people Valentine encountered on her flights and the people Valentine worked with. I might have also enjoyed reading about how today’s flight experience differs from flying in the 1960s and 70s. But who knows? Maybe the two authors will write a sequel.
This book is well worth the 99 cents I paid for it. If you have a Kindle, I encourage you to take the plunge! (As of 2020, looks like the price has gone up a bit…)