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.


TWA lives on in Kansas City

I landed my first full-time job — assignment editor at KCTV in Kansas City — in August 2011. Yes, it took me more than two years after graduating from college to find a 40-hour-a-week gig in my field, but I did it, and I was more than willing to make the nearly 450-mile move to begin that new chapter in my life.

During the 15 months that Scott and I lived there, I hadn’t yet realized my passion for aviation. In fact, I was straight up terrified of flying — every second I spent on an airplane was an anxiety-inducing nightmare filled with sweat and tears (luckily no blood).

Not long after moving back to Minneapolis, I was out jogging near MSP Airport when an airplane lifted off of runway 17 right above me. I looked up and watched it grow smaller and smaller, until it was no more than a speck in the gray autumn sky. That moment changed my life — I decided to face my fear of flying head-on.

I started seeing a counselor for my anxiety, spent as much time as I could out at my new “happy place” (the airport) and began educating myself on the physics of flight, which helped me to look forward to — not dread — flying.

Throughout this personal transformation, I realized how big a part of my life aviation had always been. My dad served more than 30 years with the U.S. Air Force, and my parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines. To this day, both my mom and dad are “AV geeks” in the truest sense, and if it weren’t for Eastern bringing them together, I wouldn’t be here today.

It was through my parents’ own stories about their time as flight attendants that I realized how much of a family affair the airline industry really is. There is an undeniable, inextricable bond between an airline and its current and former employees. From pilots to flight attendants… mechanics to ground crews… it seems that most people who work for an airline have a unique love for their employer — one that endures the ups and downs, the mergers and acquisitions, the dreaded bankruptcies and everything in between. That’s certainly the case with my parents and Eastern, and it seems to ring true with the former employees of TWA too — especially those who now volunteer at the airline’s museum at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City.

Like Eastern, TWA was one of the earliest commercial airlines to be founded in the United States. It started as Transcontinental & Western Air in 1930 and became Trans World Airlines in 1950. The airline endured until 2001 when it was acquired by American Airlines.

Just about 88 years ago, TWA relocated its headquarters from New York to 10 Richards Road in Kansas City. Fittingly, that’s where the TWA museum opened in June 2012, marking the fifth and likely final location for the volunteer-run exhibit that houses artifacts spanning seven decades of aviation history.

TWA holds a special place in my heart, as one of my favorite airplanes — the Douglas DC-3 — came to be because TWA needed a new airplane. The airline had grounded its Fokker F-10s after one was involved in a tragic crash that killed all eight on board, including esteemed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. Unfortunately, the first 60 Boeing 247s were all going to United Airlines, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. TWA’s president, Jack Frye, made a call for a new aircraft and ultimately selected Douglas, who built the DC-1, which evolved into the DC-2 and then the incredible workhorse DC-3. The DC-3 was the first airplane to make money simply by flying passengers, and is regarded by many as the greatest airplane of all time.

Later, TWA requested a bigger, more efficient airplane which led to the development of the Lockheed L-049 Constellation or “Connie” — the triple-tail, four-engine prop plane quickly becoming a TWA icon. Into the Jet Age, TWA flew the Boeing 707 and later the famous “Queen of the Skies” Boeing 747.

In 1988, with its Boeing 747s and 767s, and the three-engine Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, TWA “peaked” in a sense — carrying more than half of all transatlantic passengers. Fun fact: Today marks 100 years since the world’s very first transatlantic flight. On this day in 1919, the U.S. Navy’s Curtiss NC-4 flying boat landed in Lisbon, Portugal after a nearly three-week stop-and-go flight from the U.S.

The 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 really left a permanent scar on the airline. On the evening of July 17, flight 800 departed New York’s JFK Airport headed to Paris and ultimately to Rome, but a center-fuel-tank explosion caused it to crash into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people on board. The airline flew its final flights — both revenue and ceremonial — on Dec. 1, 2001. The MD-80 used in the ceremonial final flight now rests at the TWA Museum.

“The mission of the TWA Museum is to provide information to the public emphasizing the story, history and importance of the major role TWA played in pioneering commercial aviation.

From the birth of airmail to the inception of passenger air travel, to the post-WWII era of global route expansion, TWA led the way for 75 years.”

This intro to the “About Us” section of the museum’s website very accurately captures the overall vibe of the exhibit itself. These days, it’s not often you can learn history firsthand from people who lived it, but that’s what sets the TWA Museum apart. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I enjoyed more — actually seeing the models, photos, equipment and other historical artifacts, or witnessing the pure, unfiltered joy among the former employees who are tasked with keeping the TWA story alive.

To all my AV geek friends, I highly — and I mean highly — recommend you visit the museum next time you’re in the Kansas City area. In and of itself it’s an incredible experience, but factor in the location (IT’S AT AN ACTIVE AIRPORT!) and the fact that just across the airfield is another great tourist attraction: the National Airline History Museum, which boasts more artifacts and a huge hangar full of iconic birds. Make a day of it — trust me, you won’t regret it!

To blue skies and tailwinds…