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What’s In a Name?

Author’s photo.

July 27, 2017

ALL JETLINERS wear registrations (numbers or letters that also indicate a plane’s nation of origin) on the rear fuselage, but some also carry names. If a plane has been christened in honor of a place, person, or thing, look for titles on the forward fuselage. It’s an old school practice, and one that I’m quite fond of. It makes flying a touch less impersonal and a touch more dignified. And any airline that bothers to name its planes, I feel, is one that takes its mission to heart.

Nobody did this with more panache than Pan Am, where each aircraft sported a distinctive Clipper designation — a carryover from the airline’s grandiose earlier years when its flying boats pioneered routes across the oceans. There were nautical references (Sea Serpent, Mermaid, Gem of the Ocean), including a particular fascination with waves (Crest of the Wave, Dashing Wave, Wild Wave.) There were nods to Greek and Roman mythology (Jupiter, Mercury, Argonaut) and the inevitable heaping of faux-inspirational piffle (Empress of the Skies, Glory of the Skies, Freedom). A few of them made you wonder if Juan Trippe and his boys weren’t tippling too much scotch in the boardrooms over on Park Avenue: Water Witch? Neptune’s Car? Young Brander? Turns out those were taken from old sailing vessels.

When Pan Am 103 was blown up over Scotland in 1988, the only part to remain somewhat intact was the forward fuselage, from the nose to roughly the first set of cabin doors. It was crushed when it landed, on its side, but still looked like a piece of an airplane, which is more than you can say for the rest of the jet. This piece was widely photographed and became a news icon in the days and weeks that followed. There it was, on the front of every newspaper and on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and it is easily found on the Internet today. The photo shows detritus and debris everywhere, wires and scraps of metal, all surrounding this impossibly still-dignified chunk of a Boeing 747, dead as a doornail. There’s the blue stripe, the paint barely scratched. And there, just above the oval cabin windows in frilly blue lettering, you can still read clearly the words Clipper Maid of the Seas.

Most airlines don’t bother with this sort of thing anymore, but a few still do. Here you can see a couple of KLM examples, photographed last weekend at Amsterdam-Shiphol. KLM names its jets after capital cities, national parks, waterfalls, famous inventors, explorers, and so on. At the top of this page we see the Federation Square, Melbourne, an Airbus A330 preparing to depart to Kigali, Rwanda. (The carrier also has a 747 dubbed City of Melbourne.) And here’s the Nahanni National Park, a 777 destined for Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (Nahanni is in Canada, which adds a strange incongruity).

Just down the concourse, this Kenya Airways 787, The Great Rift Valley, was readying for a flight to Nairobi.

Author’s photo.

Author’s photo.

Turkish Airlines names its spotless Boeings and Airbuses after Anatolian cities. You can ride aboard the Konya, the Goreme, or the Isparta. Flying Virgin Atlantic, which styles itself a bit more provocatively, you might have a seat on the Tubular Belle, the Barbarella, or maybe the Varga Girl. Aer Lingus goes with Irish saints, no surprise there, with the names both in English and Gaelic. For a while, Air Namibia was flying a 747 named Welwitschia, homage to a strange desert succulent that grows in the Namibian wilds and can live for centuries.

Aboard South African Airways several years ago, I rode a pair of 747s, the Durban, and the Bloemfonetein on my return (cities in South Africa). If unsure, I needed only to check the wooden plaque near the upper deck stairs, emblazoned with a crest and scroll. I thought the plaque added an elegant, ocean liner sort of touch.

I miss the Austrian carrier Lauda Air, now part of Austrian Airlines, which remembered artists and musicians with the Gustav Klimt, the Miles Davis, and even a 737 named Frank Zappa.

On the other hand, enough already with jetBlue’s insufferable, too-cute riffs on the color blue. I don’t advocate hurling tomatoes at Airbuses, but here are some deserving targets. I can live with Idlewild Blue (Idlewild is the old name for Kennedy Airport, jetBlue’s home base), and even Betty Blue. But That’s What I Like About Blue, Fancy Meeting Blue Here, or Bippity Boppity Blue are too much to take. What was I just saying about dignity?

Some years back, United christened several jets in honor of its highest-mileage frequent flyers. Imagine not getting an upgrade on the very plane with your name on its nose!

And before somebody brings it up… Yes, we know, there was also the Enola Gay.


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