Your session will expire in 5 minutes, 0 seconds, due to inactivity. Stay Logged In
Your session has expired. Please sign in to your profile

Trailblazing Black pilot, flight attendants help Pan Am soar

Looking up at the sky and waving to a stranger, M. Perry Jones felt his calling. What he didn't know at the time was how groundbreaking his journey would be.

"I grew up in rural, segregated Virginia, in a town called Cartersville, living with my grandparents. I was about 6 or 7 years old at the time, and I would go to the fields with my grandfather. One day I looked up, and there was an airplane flying real low," recounts Jones.

"I still remember I could see the pilot with his canopy open. He looked down at me and waved, and I waved back. I ran up to my grandfather, and I said to him, 'Grandpa, that is what I want to do.' Now my grandfather, who probably never had any formal schooling, just looked at me and said, 'If that's what you want to do – then that is what you will do.' And that just cemented it for me because my grandfather was my hero and the most important figure in my life."

ihg-blm-bhm-courtesy-of-captain-m-perry-jones
courtesy of Captain M Perry Jones

Jones says everything he did from that day forward was to fulfill his goal of becoming a pilot. He moved with his parents to New Jersey and focused on math and science classes at school, later pursuing a degree in aeronautical engineering in college.

When he joined the military and entered the air force, Jones overcame the challenges of being a Black recruit and fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot. After flying 126 missions during the Vietnam War, Jones came home in 1965. He didn't know what would come next, but he knew he wanted to keep flying.

"I went to the airport in San Francisco. I saw this Black woman working there, and I went up to her and told her I was a pilot," says Jones. "She started pointing out where all the airlines were – TWA, United, Pan Am. Pan Am was the first counter, so I just walked up and said, 'I would like to be a pilot for Pan Am.' The lady at the counter looked at me and asked, 'Well, are you a pilot?' I said I was, and I ended up interviewing that day with the chief pilot. I began flying for Pan Am in December of 1965, and it was the best decision I ever made," says Jones.

It was also a history-making decision. Jones was the first Black pilot to be hired by Pan American Airlines – and among the first group of Black commercial pilots in the United States.

He became Captain M. Perry Jones, and he was a Pan Am pilot for 26 years.

"When I joined Pan Am, it was after a man named Marlon Green, became the first Black commercial pilot in America. He applied for a job at Continental Airlines and was denied the job because he was Black. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court. We [Black pilots] owe a lot to Marlon."

And it wasn't just the pilots breaking color barriers in travel.

ihg-blm-bhm-courtesy-of-dr-sheila-nutt-portrait
courtesy of Dr. Sheila Nutt

When Sheila Nutt was awarded the first runner-up in the Miss Philadelphia pageant in 1968, she knew why she didn't win the crown. People weren't ready for a Black beauty queen.

"Oh, you can just imagine how I felt," she chuckles as she recalls that moment.

Sheila Nutt is a recently retired educator these days, with her journey from beauty pageants to higher education taking her around the world. When she was 20 years old, Nutt interviewed to become a Pan Am flight attendant. She was one of two Black women in the interview room. Not only did she get the job, but she went on to become the valedictorian of her flight attendant training class.

Nutt began flying with Pan Am in 1970.

"I was confident about getting the job because the pageant world had prepared me. I knew how to speak well, carry myself and walk straight," says Nutt. "And when you were a Black flight attendant, you couldn't just be good, you had to be off the charts. You felt pressure to be smarter, prettier, better – and we took pride in our accomplishment."

It's a sentiment that Alice Dear echoes. She was also one of the first Black flight attendants for Pan Am and worked for the airline from 1969 till 1977.

"There was nothing more glamorous than being a Pan Am flight attendant at the time. We were treated like supermodels." Dear went to work for Pan Am in 1969 after graduating from Howard University.

"I wanted to see the world. My family thought I was crazy for going to work as a flight attendant, but I knew there was an opportunity there," says Dear.

Being a Pan Am flight attendant afforded many young women the chance to travel to places they never thought possible. The airline did not fly domestically in the U.S., rather making its mark in international travel. Its revolutionary success at the time is a testament to the visionary leadership of founder Juan Trippe.

"Pan Am was the Harvard of the airline industry, and Juan Trippe was a real mover and shaker who made his vision come to life," says Nutt.

ihg-blm-bhm-courtesy-of-ambassador-alice-dear
courtesy of Ambassador Alice Dear

Born at the turn of the 20th century, Trippe envisioned a world that was accessible to everyone. It was his goal to open the doors of international travel to the masses. He did so with the introduction of Pan Am's "tourist class" ticket – which cut the typical airfare for international travel by 50%. The airline industry balked at first, but Trippe was persistent.

His role in reshaping travel didn't just stop with Pan Am. Trippe also founded the world's first and largest luxury hotel brand – InterContinental Hotels & Resorts (a member of the IHG Hotels & Resorts family).

"They were always the most beautiful, exceptional hotels, and we were lucky enough to stay at InterContinentals all over the world," says Jones. Nutt agrees, "The InterContinentals were fabulous. I particularly enjoyed the one in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a top hotel – there was a swimming pool, number of restaurants, comfortable rooms, and it was located right in the center of the city."

But perhaps no one knows what it's like to stay at an InterContinental better than Dear. "I lived at an InterContinental for a whole year," she laughs. "While I was working for Pan Am in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was working with Pan Am's technical assistance program, and we were helping train Air Zaire flight attendants on their new 747. I stayed at the InterContinental hotel, and it was very comfortable, and it was home for a long time."

For Jones, Nutt, and Dear, their years at Pan Am are full of fond memories but being trailblazers – the firsts – also came with challenges. While the 1970s saw notable progress in how much Black Americans gained access to parts of the workforce once shut out to them, it was a longer road for people's minds and hearts to catch up. Both Dear and Nutt especially remember that there were always a few flight attendants who did not want to share a room with Black flight attendants during layovers.

ihg-blm-bhm-courtesy-of-dr-sheila-nutt
courtesy of Dr. Sheila Nutt

The women say they always viewed those unfortunate moments by looking at the positive. "You can get upset that the other girls don't want to share a room with you, or you can be happy to have a big, comfortable room for yourself," says Dear with remarkable resilience.

As a pilot, Jones says he would have subtle encounters once in a while, recounting how he once heard another pilot use the N-word to refer to airport ground staff. "I just sort of looked at him and made sure he knew I was there and that I heard, and I could tell from his face he was embarrassed."

But these incidents, as wrong as they were, did not define the Pan Am experience for Jones or the others. They all look back on that period of their lives with fondness and appreciation.

"When you were on a flight – wherever in the world it was that you were going – we would have at least one flight attendant who could speak the language and know the culture of that place," says Nutt. "I'm very proud to be someone who started as a Pan Am stewardess. I started working a few years after the civil rights movement, but at Pan Am, we treated each other as family."

"We were always dealing with other countries and societies, so to succeed, you had to understand other people and different cultures," added Jones.

Both women also agree, adding that the global education and insight that Pan Am provided them helped shape their careers.

"The first time I went to Africa was as a Pan Am Flight attendant," says Dear. I became interested in business because of the work I did for them in Zaire, and then Pan Am's flexibility in scheduling my flights allowed me to get my MBA while still working for them full-time. Often, I would go to my classes in my Pan Am uniform before flying out or after flying in."

After 11 years of working on Wall Street as an international banker, President Bill Clinton appointed Dear as United States Executive Director of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 1994. For six years, Dear represented the United States, as an ambassador, on the Board of Directors of AfDB, in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.

Nutt received her doctorate from Boston University's School of Education and went from helping open up the world of travel to helping open up the world of higher education as Director of Educational Outreach Programs at Harvard Medical School. Nutt is also instrumental these days in organizing reunions with other Black Pan Am flight attendants - she's named the group – the Blackbirds of Pan Am.

And as for Jones – he was with Pan Am till the very end.

"I flew the last Pan Am flight out of London to NYC in 1991. It was a sad time. All the people who lost their jobs that morning came to send off that plane, and I just broke down and got emotional," says Jones.

"Seeing as how it was the last flight, I asked for permission to fly the plane over downtown London then make a simulated approach back to Heathrow as if I was landing and then take off for NYC. So, they let me do that, and it is just a special memory."

"The deeply inspiring stories shared by Captain Jones, Ambassador Dear, and Dr. Nutt leave me humbled. The irreplaceable value of travel is its ability to enlighten people, elevate communities, and chip away at prejudices. These incredible trailblazers broke racial barriers with grace and grit to make travel more attainable and the journey more special. They make me proud that the InterContinental brand is forever connected with the Pan Am legacy," says Tom Rowntree, Vice President of Global Luxury Brands at IHG Hotels & Resorts.

Pan American Airlines may longer exist, but the change it effectuated in world travel will endure forever, as will the contributions of its Black pilots and flight attendants who paved the way for all who followed. As we embark on the next chapter of travel, IHG strives to do its part in creating a more welcoming and inclusive society for the guests we serve, the colleagues who work for us, and the communities our hotels call home.