Saturday, January 28, 2023

SKYGOD: Pan Am Captain Clarence 'Jooj' Warren and the GMT-Master 6542




By Capt. Danny Crivello

Sky-god \ski-god\: a being who reigns supreme while aloft in man-made flying contrivance 2: an aeronautical creature endowed with godlike attributes and worthy (in his or its own estimation) of human worship.


—Robert Gandt, “Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am”

When I reach for the handset to make a Public Address welcoming my passengers onboard the Boeing 767 I fly for Delta, I often think of the Pan Am captains before me. They would welcome their passengers to a Pan American Jet Clipper before crossing the High Seas. They're the giants on whose shoulders I stand. They've flown boat-planes, propeller planes and the first airliner jets which took four pilots to manage. They literally wrote the book on air safety. 

Pan Am epitomized the golden era of aviation mainly because of its cabin service. But for those sitting in the confined cockpits of the jets filled with toggle switches, round dials and navigation equipment pre-dating GPS, flying was anything but routine. Much about air safety and crew resource management would still be improved on through recommendations, incident reports and worse. 

Rolex-wearing Pan Am aviators are occasionally seen in Rolex ads. But their stories are extremely hard to come by, and little is known about them. They were hired during or right after World War II and took the company through the jet age making it, in Pan Am’s famous tagline, "The World’s Most Experienced Airline." These pilots were reverentially called "Skygods" by those who followed them into the cockpits. 

In the Rolex ad above, the six-foot-tall Clarence "Jooj" Warren, Jr., is standing, right, next to a fellow captain. The fuselage of a Pan Am Boeing 707 is seen between them. Warren is wearing the airline’s signature black double-breasted uniform, a symbol of sleek power in the ’50s and ’60s. Under the Pan Am white cap, Warren flashes a smile as he checks the time on his Rolex GMT-Master 6542 mounted on a black leather strap. The watch seems to be sitting comfortably on the skipper's wrist next to the four golden stripes of his black uniform sleeve.

It's 1959 and Warren is 42 years old in the picture. Few know this Skygod became a Pan Am captain in 1942 at the unusual age of 25, his logbook filled with more than 16,000 hours of flight time to destinations including Africa, South America and Europe. In an interview with a New Haven, Connecticut, newspaper that same year, Warren told the local reporter he had crossed the Atlantic 100 times, flown over five million miles and "never scratched an airplane." 

Warren is a bit the airline version of Lindbergh. He is the first to have flown the public on a scheduled flight across the Atlantic, a "first" he would repeat on a jet-powered aircraft when Pan Am switched from the turbo-prop DC-6 to the Boeing 707. He was also in command of the first 707 when it set a speed record on the transatlantic trial flight. 

Warren performed a large portion of the acceptance flights for Pan Am which were required before delivery of new aircraft. Appointed Assistant Chief Pilot Technical for the Atlantic Division, he became a liaison between Boeing and the airline. He flew Pan Am's first new 707 from the Boeing plant in Seattle to New York and made history again when he was the first pilot to land a jet airliner at New York's International Airport. 

When the White House needed a pilot to fly the Press Corps non-stop to Moscow to cover Vice President Nixon's visit of the Soviet Union, in 1959, they requested Warren by name. If Rolex executives needed someone to embody the "perpetual pursuit of excellence," the way they do with Roger Federer and tennis, they couldn’t pick better than Captain Warren to represent the GMT-Master. 

As of today, Rolex still shows the vintage "First non-stop to Moscow" ad featuring Warren on its website. The ad can also be seen in Rolex's most recent Rolex Magazine, with the 2022 Air-King on the cover. This week, Rolex posted on its Instagram and Twitter accounts a clip with Warren's ad briefly seen in the background of the new GMT-Master.

"The flight itself was navigated by Rolex," Warren is quoted in the ad. For Warren, though, safe navigation was mostly achieved through the culmination of years of study and experience. He even once said he had "enough studying of technical books at home and in the office to earn several college degrees." Air tragedies, that Pan Am skipper believed, were avoided by experience, skill and the ability to keep cool when trouble arises. 

Warren, who had met President Dwight Eisenhower on several occasions, said he was honored to be chosen for the first non-stop flight to Moscow by the White House. But it "involved a great deal of extra study and work," he once told a reporter. 

Warren shakes hands with Eisenhower during a visit in Hawaii in 1960, when the President was being honored by the University of Hawaii. The Pan Am crew flew the White House press corps to and from Honolulu.

Warren is no longer with us, but his youngest daughter, Barbara, now in her seventies, still remembers her dad poring over flight manuals in their Ridgefield, Connecticut, home. 

"He studied them a lot," she told me. "I remember standing, looking at him, his back would be to me, and I would just shuffle or make sounds on the door because I wanted him to turn around and see that I was there. And he would sometimes turn around, and I would say, 'Hi, Daddy!'" 

Warren studied the weather and wind maps for days ahead of a flight to select a course over the Atlantic which would give him the least headwind. His calculations paid off in 1952, when he brought back from London the NBC film crew which had captured Queen Elizabeth's coronation. The major television networks were competing against each other to be the first to bring pictures of the coronation to the American public. And NBC beat the competition by an hour and a half thanks to Captain Warren’s careful flight planning.

Then he would drive home, where his wife made sure the kids had been informed of his arrival. 

"Typically, I would sit at the dining table and I would pretend I didn't know he was coming home," Barbara told me. "So he'd come in, put his suitcase in the bedroom, and eventually he came in the room I was in. And I would act really surprised he was home, 'OH MY GOD!!' He would give me this big bear hug and lift me up." 

Roger Warren, the oldest of four children, told me his dad was often gone for two weeks at a time. "He would fly to London, for example, and make stops at three or four European capitals and would come back," he said. "Then he'd be home for just one week. Our lives growing up were built around all that. Our dad was gone a lot." 

Still, Roger added, it was exciting to have a dad who was a pilot. He came back with stories of the people he'd met and the places he'd visited. Then there were the flight benefits which allowed families to fly free. "Our dad had this job that kind of connected us with the world in a way that was sort of unusual for our peers," Roger said. 

The excitement of Warren's life is the stuff of Hollywood movies. The tall and handsome Rolex-wielding Pan Am captain with gold bars on his shoulders and wings on his chest was married to a beauty queen he met in college. And he drove a Porsche to work before taking the controls of a fresh-out-of-the-factory Boeing 707 to destinations like Paris or Rome. 

Like many Skygods, Warren's flying experience didn't start at Pan Am but in the Army Air Corps, where he spent two and a half years with the Army Transport Command flying between the U.S. and Africa and Europe. His dad, Clarence Warren, Sr., was friends with legendary World War I "Ace of Aces" Eddie Rickenbacker, whom Warren credits as an inspiration for wanting to fly. He met his wife Marjory at Butler University, in Indianapolis, where he graduated in 1938. He would join the ranks of Pan Am at 23 and make captain just two years later. 

In this exact DC-7, the Clipper Bostonian, in 1956, Capt. Warren flew the first Miami-to-Paris flight, the longest flight ever scheduled by an airline which took 14 hours and 2 minutes.

How Warren received his Rolex GMT-Master 6542 is unclear, as we know little about the relationship Pan Am had with Rolex. Rolex on its website and in past ads said it was "the official watch of Pan American World Airways" without explaining what it meant. 

Rolex doesn't indicate, for example, whether the pilots of Pan Am were standard-issued the GMT-Master, like a piece of uniform, or they had to pay for the watch. One Rolex ad said the GMT-Master was designed to "the specifications of two world-renowned aviation companies" without mentioning the second one.

1958 Rolex ad: "Rolex designed a totally new chronometer to the specifications of two world-renowned aviation companies."

Pan Am being a defunct airline, it is difficult to gather reliable information about the pilots' watches. I reached out to Rolex in Geneva to find out if Pan Am pilots were given free GMTs by the brand. A spokesperson for Rolex said they didn't know. 

“After combing through the archives, even from Rolex USA, we don’t have a clear answer,” the spokesperson in Geneva said. 

Tom Betti who runs the Pan Am Museum podcast, which specializes in the history of the airline, told me he had spoken to three pilots who had made captain in the late ’60s and ’70s. These captains said they never received watches. 

"Linda Reynolds, a Pan Am flight attendant and trainer, distinctly remembers a discount program through the company to purchase Rolex watches," Betti told me. "But the joke was that even with the discount most employees couldn’t afford one. She said she had a cockpit chat with an older pilot in the 1970s about his Rolex and how he talked about the discount.” 

Until my research into Warren, I had never seen a photo of a Pan Am pilot wearing a GMT-Master on his time off. But the pictures of Warren printed in a 1959 local newspaper show him playing the organ at home and loading golf clubs in a Porsche 356 — all while casually wearing the GMT-Master from the famous ad. And despite his active lifestyle and a job requiring to travel the world, the bakelite bezel of the 6542, known for breaking easily, is perfectly intact. 

The exact Rolex GMT-Master 6542 from the ad today. The pilot's family still owns the watch.

I was happy to learn Captain Warren’s historically significant Rolex GMT-Master remains with his family. The black strap still carries his DNA. The steel case is still thick, the dial patinaed by thousands of flight hours spent in the high altitude's sunlight. The watch looks unrepaired and all-original. This GMT doesn't have a Cyclops lens to magnify the date, an option rather than a standard feature offered until the early 1960s, according to Nick Urul and Martin Skeet who co-authored Vintage Rolex Sports Models. This watch could be equipped with the 1036 or 1065 movement; I didn't ask the family to open the caseback. 

Warren finished his career as Lead Check Pilot. Check pilots are the even-more feared and revered captains who flight-check other pilots — and have the all-mighty power to ground them. Check pilots are carefully selected because they are essentially the quality control of an airline's flight operation, the last line of defense. Pilots have to be inspected on a regular basis to make sure they follow procedures, Federal Aviation Regulations and fly safely within the limitations of their aircraft. 

The fact Warren was not only a Check Pilot but also promoted to Lead Check Pilot is, in my view, a testament to his professionalism, skills and dedication to safety. 

Safety was one of the first things Janice Warren, his oldest daughter, mentioned to me when she recalled her dad. He was nominated Chairman of the Central Air Safety Committee for the pilots at Pan Am, she informed me. 

"I must have been 11. I remember telling my dad, I was scared of flying because I was afraid there would be a plane crash," Janice said. She can still remember her dad's response, a bit stern, but a good illustration of his commitment to safety. 

"He stood for the safety of the airplane," she said. "And he wanted me to be sure to know that airplanes were far safer than driving in a car." That conversation helped her go on the airplane. 

"I felt proud of him being my dad and caring how I felt," Janice said. "It was a very heartwarming conversation for me."

"He was proud of being a pilot, he was proud of the aviation industry," Roger finally told me. "He was in a position of responsibility, and he took it seriously. And that's why he ended up chairing the safety committee." 

I asked Roger about his dad's "perpetual pursuit of excellence," to quote Rolex's tagline. 

"It was a standard that he set for himself," he said. "He was aware of the responsibilities that went along with being a captain, and he took them seriously. That kind of stuck with me as a kid. I picked it up a little bit myself." 

Roger Warren is a retired judge and the President Emeritus of the National Center for State Courts. "If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it well," he said. "And I'm going to hold myself responsible for what I'm doing."

Danny Crivello