Halaby, Najeeb Elias

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Halaby, Najeeb Elias

(b. 19 November 1915 in Dallas, Texas; d. 2 July 2003 in McLean, Virginia), former Federal Aviation Agency chief and Pan American World Airways chief executive officer and father of Jordan’s Queen Noor.

Halaby was the only child of Najeeb Elias Halaby, a Syrian-Lebanese immigrant and importer of Middle Eastern goods, and Laura (Wilkins) Halaby, an interior designer, the daughter of a Confederate soldier from Tennessee. He grew up in Dallas until his parents’ divorce in 1927, when his father sent him to the Rippowam School in Bedford Village, New York., a private school owned by a family friend. Eight months later, Halaby was called home to his father’s deathbed. The elder Halaby died from complications of surgery to remove his tonsils.

Following her former husband’s death, Laura Halaby and her son moved to Santa Barbara, California, where Mrs. Halaby remarried. Halaby attended the private Dean School, until the family moved to the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Concerned with Halaby’s increasingly playboy-like behavior, his mother sent him to Leelanau, a boys’ school in Glen Arbor, Michigan. It was the Leelanau schoolmaster, wrote Halaby, who “supplied me with my first real sense of ethical values.” After graduating from high school, Halaby enrolled at Stanford University. He majored in political science and, after graduating with a BA in 1937, went on to the University of Michigan Law School. He transferred to Yale University’s law school in 1938 and graduated with a law degree in 1940.

Having developed a love of flying before college, Halaby enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a government program designed to train instructors for the bomber and fighter pilots the United States foresaw it was going to need in World War II. He practiced law while training and received a draft deferment based on his civilian flight-instructor status. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Halaby joined Lockheed as a test pilot and took night classes in aeronautical engineering at the University of California. His studies paid off when Lockheed tapped him for bigger responsibilities, including high-altitude testing of its latest airplanes. In 1943 Halaby joined the navy as a test pilot in Patuxent River, where he broke the flight altitude record in a Bell YP-59. Halaby reached an altitude of 46,900 feet and ran out of fuel in the process. He managed to crank the landing gear down manually and landed the plane safely.

Halaby met Doris Carlquist, an administrative assistant working at the State Department, in November 1945. The couple married on 9 February 1946 and subsequently had three children, one of whom, Lisa, became Queen Noor of Jordan. By the time they married, Halaby had left the navy with the rank of lieutenant, and on 1 March 1946 he began working for the State Department’s Office of Research and Intelligence. In May 1948 Halaby was hired as assistant to the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal. During his years in the Department of Defense, Halaby helped draft the North Atlantic Treaty and participated in the organization of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, becoming the first chair of its Military Production and Supply Board.

In 1953 Halaby was approached by Laurance Rockefeller, who offered him a position in his company. He was hired, in Halaby’s words, “as more or less of a personal troubleshooter.” Among Halaby’s projects while working for Rockefeller was writing a paper that detailed the problems faced by a growing aviation industry, which was receiving inadequate federal resources and support. In response to Halaby’s findings, a government task force was formed in 1955. Halaby vice-chaired the task force, which, in turn, led to his nomination as head of the Civil Aeronautics Administration—an impressive accomplishment for an outspoken Democrat in the Republican Eisenhower administration. Unfortunately for Halaby, he became a bit too outspoken at a Labor Day party that year and made disparaging remarks regarding President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretaries of State and Defense. Incensed, President Eisenhower refused to approve Halaby’s nomination.

In 1961, under President John F. Kennedy, Halaby was confirmed as the second administrator of the Federal Aviation Agency, the successor to the Civil Aeronautics Administration. During his tenure, he faced some controversial issues, such as the mandatory retirement age for pilots. His management style was both hands-on and collaborative. He held forums with airline pilots, decentralized the Federal Aviation Agency, and solicited feedback whenever possible. Among his legacies were greatly improved safety standards and the desegregation of the nation’s airport terminals.

Halaby joined Pan American in 1965 as senior vice president. In 1968 he became Pan Am’s president and was elected chairman of the board and chief executive officer a year later. During his term, he appointed the first African American to the board of a major airline. However, his years at Pan Am coincided with increased competition among airlines and a general economic recession. Pan Am was also reeling from its owner’s unprecedented $531 million order of twenty-five Boeing 747s. Halaby was blamed for the company’s financial woes and was forced to resign in 1972.

Following his resignation, Halaby opened an international venture capital firm, Halaby International. Among the firm’s many projects was Arab Air Services, a firm that provided aviation technical support and design to Arab countries in the Middle East. The project started in 1973, when Halaby took a position as a civil aviation adviser to Jordan’s King Hussein, who was in the process of expanding his country’s civil aviation. The Jordanian project took an unexpected turn in 1976, when Lisa Halaby, who was helping her father in Jordan, met King Hussein. The two grew closer while Lisa Halaby worked in Jordan as an architect in charge of modernizing aviation facilities. Lisa Halaby married King Hussein, becoming Queen Noor of Jordan, in 1978.

In 1977 Halaby and his first wife, Doris, divorced. He married Jane Allison Coates Frick on 1 October 1980. Following her death in 1996, Halaby married Libby Anderson Cater on 1 December 1997. He was appointed chairman of the board of trustees of American University in Beirut in 1983 and served on the boards of other humanitarian and civic organizations in later years. Halaby died at the age of eighty-seven of congestive heart failure at his home in McLean, Virginia, on 2 July 2003.

The product of an unlikely match between a Middle Eastern immigrant and a Confederate rebel’s daughter, Halaby championed minority rights and lived a life of dedicated public service to his country and the world. It is unfortunate that he is most widely known as a queen’s father, rather than as a man who left his country, and the world, a better place in so many ways.

Halaby’s autobiography, Crosswinds: An Airman’s Memoir (1978), provides a wonderful overview of his life and career up to 1978, with an in-depth look at the workings of Washington, D.C., at its highest levels; Queen Noor’s autobiography, Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life (2003), provides a different perspective on her father’s life, from a daughter’s point of view. A Washington Report (25 Feb. 1985) profile of Halaby paints a vivid picture of the man and his times as of 1985. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (3 July 2003) and the Times (London) (12 Aug. 2003).

Adi R. Ferrara