45 Years Ago Pan Am Flew A Boeing 747 Around The World In 3 Days

Yesterday marked a significant anniversary in the domain of aerial circumnavigation achievements. Specifically, it was the 45th anniversary of Pan Am’s ‘Liberty Bell Express’ circumnavigation. This saw the airline fly a Boeing 747SP eastwards around the world from New York JFK in record time between May 1st and May 3rd, 1976.

Pan Am Boeing 747SP
‘Clipper Liberty Bell’ made just two stops along the way. Photo: Michel Gilliand via Wikimedia Commons

A record-breaking circumnavigation

On May 1st, 1976, a Pan Am Boeing 747SP with 98 passengers onboard departed New York JFK. By the time it landed back in the Big Apple, it would be a world record holder. The first leg of its odyssey took it eastwards to New Delhi, India. According to This Day In Aviation, it covered the 13,000 kilometers (7,000 NM) at an average speed of 870 km/h (470 knots).

The next leg took the flight, known as the ‘Liberty Bell Express,’ to Tokyo Haneda Airport, 12,130 km (6,550 NM) away. The flight was delayed by several hours due to a strike in the Japanese capital, but this did not prevent it from making history. The flight returned directly from Tokyo to New York at a blistering average speed of 912.5 km/h (493 knots).

This third and final leg measured a distance of 12,100 km (6,530 NM). After 37,230 km (20,080 NM) of flying, the ‘Liberty Bell Express’ landed at JFK just over 46 hours after leaving. Of this time, Boeing confirmed yesterday on Twitter that it was in flight for 39 hours, 25 minutes, and 53 seconds. This beat the Flying Tiger Line’s existing record by more than 16 hours.

Pan Am Circumnavigation
The Liberty Bell Express’s record-breaking route. Image: GCMap

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The aircraft involved

Pan Am reports that ‘Clipper Liberty Bell’ was one of several names worn by the record-setting 747SP during its time at the airline. Its other Clipper-prefixed names were:

  • Freedom.
  • New Horizons.
  • San Francisco.
  • Young America.

The aircraft bore the registration N533PA, and, according to Planespotters.net, it served Pan Am for just under a decade. Having arrived in March 1976, it eventually departed the carrier for Chicago-headquartered United Airlines in February 1986.

United Airlines Boeing 747SP
The aircraft during its time at United. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

Here, it sported a three-class, 244-seat configuration (18 first class, 62 business class, 164 economy class). After just over a decade at United as N143UA, it was eventually broken up at Ardmore Municipal Airport, Oklahoma, in December 1997.

As it happened, the 747SP was not the only aircraft to bear the name ‘Clipper Liberty Bell.’ Indeed, Pan Am gave this name to several other aircraft over the course of its history, starting with a Douglas DC-6 in 1952. According to Planespotters.net, the last plane to bear the name ‘Clipper Liberty Bell’ was an Airbus A310 registered as N814PA.

This aircraft sadly did not have such a long or illustrious career as the record-setting 747SP. It spent just over four years with Pan Am, between August 1987 and November 1991, before moving to Delta. By 1994 it had joined TAROM, under whose ownership it tragically crashed after departing Bucharest in March 1995, killing all 60 occupants.

Did you know about Pan Am’s record-breaking round-the-world flight? Perhaps you even flew on one of its 747SP aircraft back in the day? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.