Pan Am Pioneer

I found out this week that my friend Captain Fred Linari passed away last November at the age of 92. Fred spent his career as a pilot for Pan Am airlines. Boy, did he have some great stories about the “good old days” of flying around the world when aviation was still new and glamorous! He made it sound like one endless party of traveling with “the gals” (i.e. flight attendents, or stewardesses as I suppose they were called back then), checking in to fancy hotels and playing a few sets of tennis before cocktails at dinner.

Fred and I shared a love of the night sky and we would regularly plan dinners at the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki based on the phase of the Moon. We agreed that the best time for dinner was when the Moon was waxing, so that we could enjoy seeing it hanging over the ocean in the western sky after sunset.

It was during one of those dinners that Fred shared stories with me about his training in celestial navigation. I wish that I had recorded that conversation since it truly was a great oral history.

A-12 Handheld Sextant
Image Credit: USAF Navigator History

When Fred trained as a pilot, there were no computers, let alone GPS systems. During the day, pilots would use compasses and observe drift from sea currents to determine location. At night, they relied on the stars. Navigators would measure the altitude of a celestial body (such as a particular star) using a sextant that had a bubble to create an artificial horizon. Fred called this “shooting the stars”.  Once he knew the altitude of a particular star, he would use tables and charts to plot the aircraft’s position.

One time, Fred was flying to Fiji and he was taking a nap on his break. The other pilot woke him up because they knew they were off-course and needed his expertise in celestial navigation to find out where they were. Fred determined that they had overshot Fiji by several hundred miles!

This story reminded me of an experience I had years ago flying on a red-eye flight from Honolulu to Washington, DC.  Several hours into the flight, when the plane was close to the west coast around 11:30pm local time, I looked out the window and saw that the right wing of the plane was parallel with the Moon and the bottom curve of the constellation Scorpius.  I knew that the Moon was rising to the southeast on that night.  So I drew a diagram of the relative positions of the Moon, Scorpius and the plane.  I then drew the cardinal directions overtop of this diagram, based on my best guess as to how far to the southeast the Moon was located.  From this, I estimated that the plane was traveling on a bearing of about 60 degrees.  I then asked a flight attendant to call the pilot to find out the actual bearing of the plane at that moment.  To my delight, the pilot confirmed that the plane was traveling on a bearing of exactly 60 degrees.  I was excited and proud that I was able to use the Moon and stars to accurately calculate the plane’s direction!

Pan Am Boeing 314 “Clipper” Flies Over San Francisco 1940

Many people’s eyes would start to glaze over when I tell this story, but not Fred. He understood the satisfaction I got from being able to “read” the sky in this way. I’m so sad that Fred is gone and we can’t trade stories like this anymore. I wonder if there are other Pan Am pioneers out there who have their own celestial navigation stories that they would like to share?


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