TW-YAY: A nostalgic night at JFK

As an aviation historian and a die-hard Av Geek, a visit to the newish TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK Airport was imminent. The mid-century modern hotel had its long-awaited “soft opening” on May 15, 2019 (my husband Scott’s 30th birthday — talk about a missed opportunity!), and I’ve been itching to get out there ever since.

Originally, Scott and I planned to make a two-week trip to Korea with our good friend Jiho this fall, but COVID-19 put the kibosh on that right quick, so Scott and I decided to head to the Big Apple for a week instead. My dad has a timeshare in Midtown Manhattan that we were fortunate to secure for a few nights, but this time — in addition to our time in the concrete jungle — we decided to tack on an extra night on the front end to check out the 1960s-era hotel.

Designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen, the TWA Flight Center opened in 1962 and served as a bustling terminal until the airline ceased operations in 2001 following its acquisition by American Airlines. The iconic winged structure or “head house” remained intact and was declared a New York City Landmark in 2004 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year.

As part of a Terminal 5 expansion, a new JetBlue terminal opened just east of the head house in October 2008. The hotel project was announced in 2015 and a groundbreaking ceremony took place the following year. The two hotel buildings, aptly named the Saarinen and Hughes wings, flank the head house and sit just between it and the JetBlue terminal. The Saarinen Wing is of course named for the famous architect, and the Hughes Wing for Hollywood icon and aviation legend Howard Hughes.

In the late 1930s, at the advice of TWA President Jack Frye, Hughes began purchasing stock in the airline and would eventually own more than three-quarters of the company. In fact, he’s often credited with turning TWA into a “world-class” airline. Hughes and Frye went to Lockheed in 1939 to request a new 40-passenger airplane with a range of 3,500 miles, eventually leading to the L-049 Constellation. Hughes actually used his own money to purchase 40 of the new planes for TWA.

TWA and the “Connie” truly go hand-in-hand. In addition to its 40 L-049s, the airline went on to operate 12 L-749 and 28 of the L-749A variants, 40 L-1049 Super Constellations in multiple variants, and 30 of the L-1649A Starliners — the last in the Constellation series. For that reason, it’s only fitting that the TWA Hotel’s main attraction is N8083H — a 1958 L-1649A. The beautifully restored airplane now serves as a cocktail bar just behind Saarinen’s iconic head house. You can read her story here.

Other notable, nostalgic features include the spacious sunken lounge with an authentic split flap departures board by Solari di Udine, a rooftop infinity pool, museum exhibits, an outdoor roller skating rink and more than 500 guest rooms, many of which have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the airfield.

So, there you have it! For aviation enthusiasts and history buffs alike, I can’t speak highly enough of the incredible, immersive experience offered by the TWA Hotel. It isn’t cheap (runway view rooms can run you roughly $300 per night) but remember it’s more than just a hotel… it’s a time machine.


Speedbird, Dynasty, Redwood… Oh my!

“Speedbird” flight 178 progresses on its way from JFK to LHR

I have a lot to learn.

I listen to the Minneapolis Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower feed quite often, and have been doing so for the last couple years. I love spotting out at MSP, but you don’t see a whole lot of heavies out there. And despite how much I wish… how much I pray… how hard I cross my little fingers… it never ends up being a 747 flying in over the river, and it’s never an A380 being pushed back from its gate.

So what’s a girl to do?

OF COURSE! Listen to the ATC tower feed out of JFK, close my eyes, and try with all my might to pretend I’m out there watching it live. I’ve been doing this for about a week now on my 45-minute bus rides to and from work. It’s amazing. There is never a dull moment and I’m actually surprised at how well I can picture all the action in my head.

However, I’ve realized as I’ve listened to the feed that I have a lot of learning to do. Nearly every other flight that has been cleared for departure or landing has left me dumbfounded because I have NO clue what airline it is. I knew I’d hear a lot of unfamiliar names… but some were more than unfamiliar, they were simply NOT airlines. What gives?

My “Aha!” moment came this morning… this is what I heard amidst the radio fuzz: “Ee-er 178.”

Excuse me?

I pondered and pondered. Then I picked up on the pilot’s British accent. Still… I was clueless. I then tried to figure out what flight I was hearing simply by its number and knowing it was getting ready to depart JFK. And… BOOM! British Airways 178. I found it.

But I still didn’t understand what the heck I had heard. Believe me… it was NOT “British Airways 178.” And then… it clicked. I thought, “Oh my gosh… Oh my gosh… OH. MY. GOSH.”

SPEEDBIRD!

I remembered that my dad had once told me the British Airways call sign was Speedbird. I was equally as excited as I was proud of myself for solving the mystery. And having figured that out, I wondered if there were any other flights that I was unable to decipher due to not understanding what airline the pilot (or even the controller) had said.

Well, there was one that I knew was getting ready to land, but all I heard through the static was something like, “Ine-see 5322 heavy.” Of course I was intrigued knowing it was a heavy, so I paid closer attention… but I still couldn’t figure it out. Similar to what happened with good old Speedbird, however, something clicked. “Were they saying ‘dynasty’?” I asked myself. Sure enough… China Airlines flight 5322, a Boeing 747-400, had just landed at JFK. And… the call sign for China Airlines? You guessed it. Dynasty.

Bam.

Then I remembered that even earlier I had heard a “Redwood” flight… and after searching and searching, I had given up. But after my epiphany, I did some digging to find out that Redwood = Virgin America.

Sure, this was great. This was incredibly exciting. But… I said it before and I’ll say it again: this all just helped me to realize that I have a lot to learn. I’ve found some interesting forums on the topic of airline call signs, and I even found this helpful list that lays out some of the more common ones: Top 10 Coolest Airline Callsigns.

I’ll never be as knowledgeable as the controllers. Heck, I’ll never even be able to speak as quickly and as effortlessly as they do. But… I think reading up on call signs and studying airport runway and approach maps will really help me to paint an even more vivid picture in my head each time I listen to that bustling hub’s feed.