In 1985, Thomas Betti’s father took him to the Cleveland Airshow. At five years old, Tom was fascinated with two things, aviation and James Bond. That day at the airshow, as the little boy looked up, he saw the Concorde and was captured by it. ‘’Aviation has always been in my blood,” said Tom during a recent interview, “and I always wanted to be a pilot, but at five, I had an eye injury, and that put that dream to rest.” But as he grew up, Tom’s pull toward aviation would resurface during many ‘chance encounters’ which arose over the years, and in time, these encounters felt less like chance to him and more like deliberate good fortune.
In 1991, when Eastern Airlines went out of business, Tom’s uncle Vince lost his job. Having always been in the aviation business, Vince was very friendly with the Pan Am staff at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, and there he sought new work. One of the station managers told Vince that Pan Am was going through bankruptcy and hoping to emerge from it, but at that time, they were not hiring. Needing help at the station, the manager told Vince that he could pay him through travel vouchers and that with the vouchers, he could fly anywhere in the world.
That summer, Tom’s uncle Vince got six Pan Am travel vouchers. Since Tom’s uncle, mother and grandmother were originally from Southern Italy; they decided to spend the summer there. At the time, Tom, who loved James Bond (and still does), thought, “Oh, I’m going to fly on James Bond’s airline!”
Since international flights departed in the evening, the family’s connecting flight from Cleveland left very early in the morning for JFK Airport. At the time, iconic airline Pan Am had a very strict dress code, and traveling as a non-rev (revenue) passenger, Tom’s parents made sure that he was all ready to go in his suit and clip-on tie. After their arrival at JFK, the entire day would be spent awaiting their evening departure. Tom was bored and went exploring inside the saucer-shaped Pan Am WorldPort. Suddenly he stopped and froze in place because the surroundings looked so familiar. ‘’That’s it,” he remembered,” I saw this in ‘Live and Let Die’, when Roger Moore walks through the terminal with his baggage… I’m walking in James Bond’s footsteps! So Cool!”
That evening when Tom and his family boarded the plane for Rome, the flight was full, and so they were all scattered throughout the main cabin. Tom sat on the right side in the very last seat of the smoking section, where everyone would come to light up. Before dinner, a nice gentleman sitting next to Tom asked the boy if he was feeling okay from all the smoke. Neither of them were, so the man started chatting Tom up and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up? With James Bond on his mind, Tom thought, since he could not be in the British Secret Service, he would say that he wanted to be in the U.S. Secret Service. After revealing his choice, the man looked at Tom for a second, and with a twinkle in his eye, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his badge, saying, “I’m in the U.S. Secret Service.” Trying to keep his cool, Tom thought, “I’m on Pan Am, and I’m sitting next to a secret agent… just like a movie!” As they spoke the entire way to Rome, Tom learned from the man that the first President he protected was Lyndon Johnson and later, Nixon. That day, though, he was going to Italy because George H.W. Bush would be coming there in the next few weeks, and he was on the advance team. As they spoke, Pan Am flight attendants walked by, winking at the boy, knowing who the special passenger he was seated next to was.
After the airplane landed, non-rev travelers had to wait for all paying passengers to get off the aircraft first, and as always, Pan Am would play their commercial jingle, ‘You Can’t Beat the Experience.’ Hearing the song repeat for 30-40 minutes, the song was seared in Tom’s mind and has remained there ever since.
Following the summer spent in Italy, Tom boarded a Pan Am jumbo jet home and was told that the flight was wide open and that he could sit anywhere he wanted. A ticket agent asked him if he wanted to sit ‘upstairs’ in the huge 747 -200 series aircraft, so of course he did. There he was treated like a prince for the entire flight home. Recalling the experience, Tom said, “That is where my love affair with Pan Am began.”
In the years to follow, Tom collected Pan Am memorabilia, and later, as a historian and author, his friends would ask him, “What’s with all this Pan Am stuff?” After telling his friends his story, they suggested that he share it. So, one day he posted his recollections on his Facebook page, and when the Pan Am Foundation (Pan Am Museum) members read it, they reached out to him and told him how much they loved his story.
Upon learning of Tom’s career in the non-profit sector and as a historian, they said they could use his help at the Pan Am Museum, located inside the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York. Tom was invited to volunteer for their organization and was later asked to be on the board of the Pan Am Museum in 2021, 30 years to the day of his return flight to JFK in 1991.
At one of his first meetings with the board, members of the Pan Am Museum referred to it as an aviation museum. Tom immediately corrected them and said, ‘No, you’re not. You are the Pan Am Museum, and Pan Am history encompasses so much more than just aviation. The airline encompasses so many different subjects and stories rich in history and pop culture.”
To capture these rich stories and oral histories, Tom came up with an idea for a Pan Am Podcast…a virtual radio show interviewing people from many walks of life who both had and didn’t necessarily have a direct connection with Pan Am. Tom did not propose the idea with the thought of hosting it, but the board loved the idea and wanted him to do it.
Sitting in his living room with only a microphone, Tom speaks to his interviewees over the telephone. “The beauty of this podcast platform,” Tom says, “is that it is easy to put together, as long as you have excellent quality and tell a good story.” Although his title with the Pan Am Museum is as historian, he likes to think of himself as a storyteller, making history interesting and entertaining. With all the work entailed in putting together each podcast as a volunteer, Tom said, “If I can get one kid interested in history, it’s all worth it.”
Tom believes that Pan Am’s iconic status as an airline and its prevalence in pop culture, movies, shows, and images largely resounds to younger people and that many are aware of it, even decades after its last flight on December 4, 1991. He relates how one 16-year-old listener recently commented on social media that the Pan Am Podcast is one of his favorites and that Pan Am is his favorite airline.
For Tom, working on the Pan Am Podcast and on the board of the Pan Am Museum is a dream come true. As of April 2022, he has hosted 19 episodes of the Pan Am Podcast, such as, ‘The First Presidential Flight and the Last Pan Am Flight,’ ‘The Evacuation of Saigon,’ ‘A Lifetime of Romantic Adventure, From Flying Boats to Jumbo Jets,’ ‘ Pan Am in the Movies,’ ‘Lockerbie and Flight 103 Remembrance’, and more. In a recent episode, ‘Concorde,’ Tom spoke to Captain Mike Bannister, chief pilot of British Airways from 1995 to 2003. Bannister spoke of his love of taking the Concorde to airshows, and as chance would have it, Captain Bannister was at the Cleveland Airshow that Tom attended with his father when he was a little boy, 37 years prior. Future topics will center on ‘Operation Baby Lift’, a humanities award to the Pan Am Museum focusing on Pan Am’s diversity in flight, civil rights, racism and gender equality, and the often-overlooked ground and behind the scenes staff who are at the heart of the airline… maintenance crews, handlers, ticket agents, air traffic control staff and others.
This year the Pan Am Podcast received the 2022 Silver Muse Creative Award. But Tom asserts that he does not take sole credit for its success and that none of it would have come to fruition were it not for the support of the Pan Am Museum Foundation and the continued hard work of the board and its volunteer members.
“I have spoken to so many amazing people and have been adopted into the Pan Am Family,” Tom says,” and when you’re adopted into the Pan Am family, you ARE part of that family, no strings attached.” Speaking at Pan Am events and doing the podcast, he adds, “I’m like a kid in a candy store. I feel like that five-year-old boy looking up at the Concorde and the 11-year-old sitting in the upper deck of the Pan Am 747 flying into JFK!”
The Pan Am podcast can be found online at: podcast.thepanammuseum.org