Today, we’ll set the way-back machine to 1965 when I was 7 years old.  My Dad had recently moved into the brand new Pan Am building (today the MetLife Building), his first year sharing space with the Taylor, Scholl, Ferencz, & Simon Law Firm in Suite 3219.  He would move to his own suite the following year.

I have written previously how I marveled at the modernity of the Pan Am building – to me, it was a vision of the future, please see my post DAD’S REAL WIFE.

Feast your peepers on the opening picture above.  Today’s story is about helicopters.

One of the most notable aspects of this building was the roof, which was completely flat except for a small enclosure housing the staircase down to the access gate and lounge.  As Pan Am was the owner, they had an innovative use for that real estate – a working heliport to ferry first-class passengers from midtown to JFK Airport!  Is that completely cool or what?  More lubricating than the switch downstairs from the Lexington IRT Express to the Local, right?

That summer, I remember walking on the streets below with Dad and on occasion, the loud chatter of a helicopter could be heard coming and going far overhead.  I would look up and see the big chopper approach the roof as gently as a bumblebee to a gerbera daisy.  It didn’t take much more than a second for me to ask him to take me up for a close up look-see.  He readily agreed and promised he would look into it.

Before proceeding with this story, it is worth noting that Dad, before he went to law school to become a patent attorney, was an electrical engineer and an inventor.  As detailed in my post A MAN OF LETTERS, he spent the summer of 1952 pondering how the spin of electrons could be manipulated for cooling effect (such as in a fancy-schmancy futuristic air conditioner).  He ended up writing to none other than Albert Einstein and was honored with a response, albeit not an altogether positive one.

Later on in 1955, he spent a significant amount of time conceiving of a new type of helicopter engine – with two main rotors.  The rotors on his design rotated against each other to create stable lift that obviated the need for a smaller tail rotor.  It is an elegant design.  Here is the illustration from his patent no. 2,838,123 and note the direction of spin for the 2 different rotors.

Helicopter Patent

The only way to get to the roof was a first class ticket or some serious juice.  Luckily Dad had the latter in spades as he was a credentialed helicopter expert and had a 7 year old son begging him for a personal inspection.  So he made inquiries and got an invite for a demo landing and take-off.  I was thrilled!

The big day finally arrived.  Dad put me in a coat and tie for the special occasion (air travel back then was always a formal affair) and we headed to the lobby to connect to the special elevator to the Heliport.  After zipping up 56 floors, we walked out into the Sky Club which was essentially a first class lounge bar with a great selection of booze and a view to match.  My request for a sloe gin fizz was promptly denied so the only way to get higher would be to make a bee-line for the 59th floor helicopter boarding lounge via a separate elevator.  Once there, I could see the actual roof itself from the bottom of the access staircase.  I grabbed my Dad’s hand and shouted “let’s go,” but he held me back as we had to wait for the inbound helicopter to land and take-off.

Which was pretty much off the hook, as you can imagine.  Here’s my Dad’s picture of the landing New York Airways Vertol 107 helicopter, serial number N108PA.  Taken from the access staircase, notice the Pan Am Heliport sign on the rail at the bottom.

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Photo by Bernard Olcott

There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as being on the roof of any tall building in New York.  In 1965, this was the 7th tallest building in the city so it was not simply just tall, it was in the big leagues.

As soon as the helicopter had taken off, the coast was clear for us visitors to walk on the top of the building itself.  I raced up the stairs and found myself on a large flat open space.  And it was windy, with uplifts, as if I could be blown off at any moment.  Notice the Chrysler Building, the 2nd tallest building in the city, over my right shoulder in the picture.  Previously, I had only seen that spire from way below.  Now, from the roof of the Pan Am building, I was looking right at the very top from the side as if I were hovering in the air.

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Photo by Bernard Olcott

I was immediately uncomfortable.  Although the railing along the edge in the picture looked sturdy, it couldn’t be tall enough or setback from the edge enough for my comfort.  I simply did not want to go anywhere near it and risk even looking down 59 floors.  I can’t really claim that I had any sort of prescience of the disaster that was to unfold in that very spot 22 years hence.  All I knew is that I felt severe vertigo and wanted off that roof as soon as possible.

All was better as soon as I descended the stairs and elevator back to the Sky Club.  It had been an exhilarating visit.  I never went back to the roof again and was content to admire the comings and goings of the choppers from below until 1968 when the service was discontinued as the New York City economy declined during the Lindsay years.

Twenty-two years later in May 1977, Dad was fully ensconced across the river in Weehawken, New Jersey with Gloria, his 4th wife.  His house on Hamilton Avenue actually had an obstructed view of the Pan Am Building, roof and all.  My sister Blair was just one year old.  I was back home after my freshman year at Carnegie-Mellon University (I would transfer to Tufts the following year).

After petitioning the community board – to which there had been significant opposition –permission was finally granted to New York Airways in early 1977 to resume service, this time with Sikorsky S-61 helicopters.

Sadly, disaster struck shortly thereafter on May 16th.  After landing and discharging passengers, the right front landing gear of NYA Flight 972 to JFK suffered metal fatigue and collapsed.  The helicopter flipped onto its right side, causing the rotors to crash and break onto the roof, killing four waiting to board.  The rotor fragments became boomerangs – one skipped off and arced back into a side window down on the 36th floor.  Worse, another shard crashed at the Madison Avenue bus stop at 43rd Street, killing a woman waiting for the M4.

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Note the position of the Chrysler Building above.

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The NTSB judged that no one had been at fault.  It was a freak accident caused by a pit in the metal support that had grown undetected until giving way.  In any event, the era of the heliport had reached a definitive conclusion.  No more landings were ever proposed or attempted.  Rooftop landings and take-offs entailed an unacceptable increased risk of damage and injury – by definition – no matter how cool the concept.

For more details on this tragedy, I recommend this excellent site by Brian R. Swopes: http://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/n619pa/.

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3 comments

  1. Sikorsky, a genius helicopter with 2 rotors, great for extreme heavy weight (ferry helicopter, air barge). Your dad was amazing and also a national treasure, himself. But, then came the urbanized & patrol whirlywind helicopters. And, here we are today with a classic invention that has withstood the test of time…

    Liked by 1 person

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