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October 07, 2011

Behind the Scenes: The Ex-Pan Am Stewardess Photo Shoot at BTV

It sounded a little too good to be true.  PanAmPix

Burlington International Airport was going to let me, Seven Days designer Celia Hazard, photographer Andy Duback and three former Pan Am stewardesses have our way with a JetBlue plane during the hour it sat on the tarmac between flights. They'd fling open the back door, wheel up a staircase, and we could take all the pictures we wanted for our cover story this week. 

All the airport wanted from us were our driver's licenses. 

Half an hour before we were set to meet at BTV, I got a call from JetBlue marketing: They wanted a synopsis of the story. They didn't want their logo appearing in anything they hadn't pre-approved. I assured them the story wasn't scandalous and that we might even Photoshop their logo out entirely. 

They were not happy about this. "OK, we won't Photoshop anything, we'll just avoid logos altogether," I told the JetBlue marketing woman. She was very sweet, but had clearly already decided she was not letting us anywhere near that plane. 

She called back 10 minutes later with the bad news (we couldn't use the plane), but our team headed to the airport anyway. We'd figure it out. Heather Kendrew, director of maintenance, engineering and environmental compliance, had assured us we could at least get out on the tarmac. And she'd set us up with airport operations specialist  — and our awesome escort — Andrew Jones. PanAmPix2

We arrived at the check-in area to find the three ex-Pan Amers — Nina Falsen, Daphne Walker and Susan Barron — dressed to the nines. In the short time they'd been there, the women had already been mistaken for on-duty flight attendants multiple times. It wasn't hard to see why; they were decked out in crisp, white, button-down shirts and navy-blue blazers, with Pan Am wings — and one golden clipper ship — pinned to their lapels.

Jones shuffled us up to his office to wait while Kendrew tried to get us another plane (maybe FedEx or Delta would do it?). It wasn't hard to pass the time up there. The former stewardesses had brought bags of Pan Am souvenirs — seat belts; barf bags; electric razors (which men onboard would use and then pass back to the stewardess and on to the next guy); company-issued pinafores; elaborate menus with entire pages devoted to liquors and cocktails; porcelain plates painted with dramatic images of Pan Am jets flying over exotic locations (first-class passengers were meant to take these home after the flight, but they rarely did; hence the stacks of them that ended up in stewardesses' basements); and so much more. PanAmPix3

Kendrew came in with good news: We could use a Delta plane! We thumped down some back stairs and into a garage, where we piled into two trucks and headed out to the tarmac. There it was, a beautiful Delta jet, passengers streaming off of it the old-fashioned way, on stairs, just as we'd imagined it for our photo shoot.

We waited and waited, as the sun slipped lower and lower in the sky, until Kendrew reappeared with bad news again: Delta changed its mind; we couldn't use the plane. "On to plan C!" she said without missing a beat.

I'm still not sure why Kendrew and the rest of the folks at BTV were so accommodating — and fun! They never stopped smiling the three hours we were there, and never batted an eye at our requests. I've come to associate airports with humorless TSA agents throwing away my shampoo, the horrible feeling of bare feet on cold tile, and the looming dread that the plane might crash. The go-with-the-flow vibe at BTV made me feel like we'd stepped back in time.  PanAmPix4

Our trucks backed away from the gate and headed on a long, slow drive away from the gates, past a tiny building that served as the terminal before the airport, as we know it, was built. Susan Barron's husband, Brooks, along for the ride, recalled that when he was a child, the runway wasn't paved.

We passed Heritage Aviation, the tarmac of which was filled with shiny, perfect charter planes (we'd asked the week before if we could do our photo shoot there, to no avail). Finally, we arrived at a sad, seemingly forgotten corner of the airport. There, parked beside some sort of gargantuan runway-cleaning brush, was a beat-up U.S. Air Force jet from 1955 covered in a thick layer of dust. 

It was ours! BTV had called in a small team of firefighters, who pried open the door and pulled down a rickety set of stairs, which we weren't allowed to stand on — the firefighters couldn't guarantee they wouldn't crumple beneath us. No matter! Duback went straight to work, directing the ladies to pose by the wing and under the propellors.

Look sassy, he told them. Give me snooty!

The three of them were naturals, snapping right into their Pan Am-approved poses, their torsos at a slight angle so they had to look over their shoulders, their feet in something close to ballet's fourth position. "It makes your hips look slimmer!" they explained, roaring. 

We could hear engines revving up in the distance and, suddenly, Jones had an idea. You know, he said, the airlines can only regulate images of their planes when they're on the ground. As soon as they're airborne, those images belong to anybody.

The sound of a jet grew louder behind us. 

Duback asked the ex-Pan Amers to turn around so the runway was behind them. Before anybody knew what was happening, the very JetBlue plane from which we'd been rejected launched into the sky behind them. Duback snapped just in time, and the result — with a little magic from Celia Hazard — is our cover photo.



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