Today, you’ll probably come across the re-envisioned, glass-clad renderings of the MetLife Building (formerly Pan Am Building) at 200 Park Avenue (say it ain’t so!). They’re part of an industry-led architectural competition by Metals in Construction magazine and the Ornamental Metal Institute of New York to reimagine the 1963 building next to Grand Central Terminal with a “resource-conserving, eco-friendly enclosure.” But did you know that the Pan Am Building once had a helicopter deck on its roof? In 1965, trial runs for the roof began using a Chinook helicopter.
In many ways, the helipad brought to fruition a long-standing urbanist dream of a multi-modal, multi-level city first popularized by the Moses King’s Kings Dream of New York in 1908. As evidence of the fervor for air travel in the 1960s, in 1966, the architectural historian Reyner Banham wrote in The Architects’ Journal: ”There is no other way to come into the island city of Manhattan. From now on, it has to be helicopter or nothing.”
The concrete helipad was in operation from 1965 to 1968, and took enterprising travelers from the Pan Am Building to the airline’s terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. The Vertol 107s helicopters were operated by New York Airways, also servicing Teterboro Airport for a period of time. The demand did not match expectations, so service was concluded after three years.
The helipad reopened in early 1977, with flights aboard Sikorsky S-61 helicopters. But the service was shut down just three months after due to a deadly accident. On May 16th, 1977, a rotor blade broke off a helicopter, after landing gear failed on the front and the helicopter toppled over. The blade hit four people on the landing pad waiting to board, with three killed on impact. The previous passengers had already disembarked but the crew was still inside the helicopter. 15 to 20 people were in a line on the roof waiting to get onto the aircraft.
The blade fell down the side of a building and hit a window of the Pan Am Building on the 36th floor. From there, it split into two, with one part killing a pedestrian from the Bronx on Madison Avenue, while she was waiting for the bus. More pieces of the rotor blades were found as much as four blocks north from the building.
It was, by all accounts, a gruesome sight both atop the helipad and on the street below. The New York Daily News had a rather vivid account of the bloodshed. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the accident was caused by “metal fatigue” on the helicopter.