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Terminal One: At JFK International Airport, in an enormous swath of asphalt, glass, and aluminum flying machines, the pilot stalks old ghosts.

Published February 21, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

In the seventh grade I made a secret trip from Boston to New York, a sort of junior pilot's pilgrimage in which, without my parents' consent, I spent the day on the roof of the old Pan Am Worldport at Kennedy Airport, which all the airplane magazines said was the best place for plane-spotting.

I'd never been to New York before. Ten miles away through the brown June haze, I got my first-ever glimpse of Manhattan -- a seeming wall of skyscraper punctuated by the spires of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. But Manhattan's haunting contributions to my life were still many years off, and I would not set foot there before my 22nd birthday. My obsession, for now, was the Kennedy tarmac. I remember some of the airplanes, many of which I snapped pictures of using an old 110 camera: a British Airways VC-10 (That's a V, not a typoed D), an Iran Air 747 (these were still the days of the shah), and my first view of that Anglo/French supersonic wonder, Concorde, which back then was still a point of controversy, complete with sign-carrying protesters, over its sonic booming and generally bad (i.e. loud) temperament. No louder than a smoky old 707, was my verdict, watching it blast along Runway 31L.

Polemics aside, Concorde was around to stay; decades later, it's still around, even after a devastating crash, posturing for prestige on behalf of British Airways and Air France, who swear (until the next fuel crisis) they make money on the thing, owing in no small way to its $7,000 one-way fare. From either Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, patrons of BA and AF have exactly one destination to choose from if they're willing to break the bank for the chance to tell their business partners and mistresses they broke the sound barrier. The one destination is New York, and Kennedy is the only place in the world where you can see it in the two airlines' colors simultaneously.

On a warm Sunday night, 20 years after my teenage excursion, I'm back at JFK with two hours to kill, and I think maybe I'll go have a look at an Air France Concorde, parked overnight at the gleaming new Terminal One. BA's machine is also on the airport, but at the opposite end. I'd tried to persuade BA staff to allow me down their concourse for a glimpse of G-BOAC (its registration), but to no avail, my cargo pilot credentials from "the world's most experienced shipping company" apparently a security risk to "the world's favourite airline." They gave me some authentic Concorde baggage tags and sent me along. Maybe Air France isn't so uptight. And plus I haven't seen the new Terminal One yet, which I'm told is very nice.

The terminals at JFK, unlike at most big airports, are unconnected and arranged in a huge, mile-wide circle. When the place was designed half a century ago, when the airline biz was still rife with delusions of eternal glamour, the buildings were called "jewels in a necklace." In that spirit, you can check out Eero Saarinen's once iconic, now filthy, TWA building. Or, if you'd like to see the world's largest stained glass window, you needn't invest in a ticket to Rome or Barcelona, but merely ride the candy-striped Port Authority bus over to American.

Terminal One began accepting flights in the summer of 1998 -- a sweeping, elegant, glass-and-steel structure that immediately beckons your eye as you exit the Van Wyck Expressway into the airport proper. Its proud tenants, who must be paying a sheik's ransom for square footage, include Air France, Lufthansa, Singapore, Virgin, and a bunch of others. It resides on the site of the old Eastern facility, which had gone up in 1959 and used to be known, the same but completely differently, as Terminal 1. Yes, Terminal 1 has become Terminal One. (Something like Heathrow's Terminal Four.) The idea here, I guess, is to belie its true function as a mere arrival and departure hall, the spelled-out digit implying that certain indescribable prestige. The One is a name, not a number, and thus Terminal One becomes a place, a destination, not simply a conduit through which we make the annoying transition between automobile and airplane. And it rises very handsomely above its mates in the JFK necklace (all of them watched over by a 321-foot control tower, also recently opened).

They've even gone so far as to give it a logo -- a flight-reminiscent set of waving lines. The whole thing suggests, if nothing else, a lot of paperwork, lawyers, and a bureaucratic pyramid of well-paid people needed to get the place up and running ($330 million was the official cost).

My first impression as I spin through the oversized revolving door is one of overwhelming white-ness. Everything is blindingly, brilliantly, electrically white. Huge ceiling lights reflect off the newly painted stanchions, and the entire place sparkles clean as an operating room. The main hall is one of glass and girders -- that guts-exposed industrial look that's so popular these days in big public buildings. But unlike, for instance, the United terminal at O'Hare, which is pleasantly muted in gray, Terminal One screams with antiseptic brightness. Maybe during the day, with natural light coming through the glass, the effect is different. But at 9 p.m. there is no shortage of candlepower here, and I'm digging for my sunglasses.

Just as the Brits did, the Air France staff won't let me near their needle-nosed superbird, which is probably, maybe, who knows, the very same Concorde I saw that day in 1979. The marquee at Air France's Club L'Espace lounge says Flight 001 (or is it Flight One?) will be departing in the morning for Charles de Gaulle. The Air France man, who I notice is wearing both his company ID and an even more official-looking Terminal One "access permit," apologizes politely and sends me away as if I'm some kind of oddling curiosity (amused French accent: "Oh, you want to look at ze aeroplane ...?") No Club L'Espace for me, and I'm forced to see the Concorde while eating a super-sized Big Mac Value Meal from the upstairs food court, kitty-corner to the windows with only the tail visible.

I walk past the ticket counters, up one row of polished chrome kiosks and down the next, looking for timetables and reading the screens, committing to memory yet another barrel load of aviation minutiae, if there's room for it, a habit I've always found useless but irresistible (I can tell you the flight number of Gulf Air's departure to Abu Dhabi).

Neither traveler nor employee, and seemingly on an aimless wander, I must look like I'm casing the place, and no doubt I'm being tailed by security, or at least followed by video cameras, buzzing and craning their electronic necks as I double back between Lufthansa and Turkish. Some man in a hidden room with a holographic Terminal One badge is watching me on his monitor, his walkie-talkie crackling, wondering if I've got a half-pound of Semtex strapped under my shirt. "Yeah, that's him. He just tried to get onto the Concorde up at the Lay-Space lounge."

Then at the Olympic counter I see the girl of my dreams. Why are airports so notorious for this brand of torture? Olympic's A340 has just left the gate, and she and her friends are closing up for the night. She picks up some papers and walks past me toward an unmarked door, and she is beautiful: angelic, with huge brown eyes and chubby cheeks and one of those short, geometric haircuts you think you'd see if you ever went to Paris, hair curving sharply chinward just beneath the ears. (I'll bet anything there's a woman working in the L'Espace lounge at this very moment with that same haircut.) But she isn't French, she's Greek, and I now go through a two-minute fantasy of falling in love, of first-class tickets to Athens and boat trips out to see the quiet parts of Rhodes and Santorini (not the rainy and crowded ones I saw with seasick Kirsten in 1992.)

I try to read her name as she passes. Who is she? Where is she going? Will she be making the hour's drive, as her fashion model coiffure might suggest, to some Upper West Side apartment or loft down in Soho? Her crisp brown uniform gives nothing away. For all I know she chain smokes, speaks no English, and lives in a three-room flat with an abusive husband in the Greek section of Queens, if there even is such a place. Maybe she spends her days wearing tight designer jeans and pushing a baby carriage, window shopping at shitty stores and eating week-old souvlaki at roach-infested restaurants, all while pulling down a cool $250 a week from the ticket desk at Olympic.

Boom, the white door slams and she is gone. Dazed and with that bottomed-out, punched-in-the-gut feeling you sometimes get when you see a beautiful girl, I head over toward the other airlines. And I'm thinking now (big mistake) about girls and apartments and lofts in Soho, and how I could have spent these two hours doing something in Manhattan, instead of not getting to see the Concorde at Kennedy Airport.

I had a girlfriend once, sort of, who lived in Manhattan. Not that she and I worked particularly hard at immortalizing our experiences there. We weren't exactly socialites, riding around in yellow cabs to the opera or parties at the Met. We hardly did anything, really, except sit around K's tiny apartment while she whined about her job and her life, ailments I could provide no antidote for, but that would, in time, be cured by the arrival of Mr. husband-to-be, an event that sent me skidding off various deep ends and into a long pattern of really poor decision-making. Somewhere in there I began flying cargo planes.

I near a bank of payphones where, on the floor, three African Muslims are crouched toward Mecca. Actually, they are crouched more toward Bridgeport, Connecticut. Being a pilot I tend to have a reflexive (conditioned, if not natural) awareness of compass points and things geographical, and I notice they are facing the wrong direction. I choose to tell them, and when I do they are surprised.

"This way?"

"No, this way."

"But," one of them says, and points toward a group of people further down. "He tole me."

"Who? Who told you?" I say. "He's wrong. It's that way." Apparently convinced, the men adjust their prayer rugs the extra eastward degrees and thank me.

The people he'd gestured at turn out to be a crowd of passengers checking in for Air Afrique. You've probably never heard of it, but Air Afrique is a strange little company based in West Africa. In fact it's the collective flag carrier of several different countries, coup-prone places you sometimes hear about on CNN as the government is being overthrown for the third time this year, like Senegal, Guinea, Mali and the Ivory Coast. They probably have about as many airplanes in their fleet as nations they represent. Their flight tonight, in a green and white Airbus A330 (parked somewhere, I can't see it) is heading to Dakar, and then on to Abidjan. I assume the disoriented Muslims back at the telephones will be on board.

The passengers, I notice, none of whom are white and many of whom are wearing what would generally be described as "traditional African dress" (multicolored boubous and wildly patterned dresses), are carrying enormous amounts of luggage -- huge cardboard boxes zigzagged with duct tape, and some of the biggest suitcases I have ever seen. The SmartCarte people can dream of second homes tonight; their racks of aluminum carriages are empty, the cash boxes brimming over with quarters thanks to the equatorial-bound Afriquers, who seem to be orchestrating a kind of reverse exodus. It's as though there's been a military coup right here in New York, the KKK has sacked City Hall and the blacks are getting out, throwing everything they have into giant boxes and bolting for the airport.

And what was it that so surprised me when I observed one of the passengers -- a young kid, college-aged, leaning against a lectern and reading a Kafka novel? What is so ingrained in me that I even bothered to notice this -- as if by virtue of nothing greater than his African-ness I should assume this person is an illiterate coconut farmer from Liberia or a drug smuggler?

Therein resides the Kennedy mystique. For JFK is as comprehensive a melting pot as you'll find -- a round (literally) little microcosm of El Mundo itself, not to be outdone anywhere in America. For a guy who hates crowds, and has the same distaste for the stinks and habits of the unbathed as anyone, I nonetheless find this a big part of what makes Kennedy so exciting. I love seeing Sikhs, Moroccans, Colombians, Arab women with their faces covered, all in a frantic, teeming mingle while muscled Port Authority cops look on suspiciously. It's an illusion, of course, a forced integration that lasts exactly until final call once again splinters the masses into their respective creeds and colors. But for now, as the departure lobbies fill and the check-in lines swarm, it's a snapshot of multicultural nirvana that would make any campus radical weep with happiness.

Outside, the crazy colors of a hundred different airlines line the tarmac, pure exotica for an airplane nut. The inter-terminal bus says it all, its stops along the necklace so saturated with international carriers that the P.A. blares not the airline name itself (i.e. Malev), but the country it serves (Hungary). Ghana, Pakistan, Romania, South Africa. They're all here.

Kennedy might be the perennial loser in the minds of weary travelers, but I suppose one learns to love it the way Martin Scorsese, who himself immortalized the place through the infamous Lufthansa heist in "Goodfellas," loves New York itself -- as a multiform world of grit, corruption and beauty.

And crashes. What about crashes? I'm thinking too about the many ghosts of this place. I think of Pan Am 103, the Lockerbie plane. KAL 007, shot from the sky by Russian fighters. TWA 800, gone in a mysterious fireball. EgyptAir 990, its copilot diving for the sea in a surrender to Allah. The Air France Concorde, slamming into a hotel outside Paris. Swissair 111. Eastern 66. Avianca 52. Even the Pan Am 747 at Tenerife in '77 -- the worst disaster in history. Acts of willful sabotage, acts of God; bombs, suicides, simple mistakes. All of these airplanes, and others too, had taken off from, or were enroute to, John F. Kennedy International Airport. Thousands of fates intertwined with that of this enormous swath of asphalt, glass, and aluminum flying machines at the far end of the world's greatest city.

A voice in colonial-tinged French announces the boarding of the Air Afrique flight. Then in English, "Now departing for Dakar and Abidjan." My pulse races. What I wouldn't give to be on that flight, sandwiched in the back of the overbooked Airbus with all these luggage-laden Africans en route to some Third World hellhole. Or in the cockpit. It's the very stuff of why I wanted to become a pilot in the first place. Do you think I did it for the money? So I could find myself at 31 making $14 grand a year? When I was a kid I saw myself at the helm of a Pan Am 747, docking in from Johannesburg or Bombay at this very same airport. A job well done, then off to my pretty wife and my feisty Dalmatian at home in the Connecticut woods, both of whom will be happier than piss to see me.

A scenario that never panned out. Pan Am, for one, went bust in 1991. The Worldport, where I stood that day in 1979, once the haunt of dignitaries and movie stars headed off to every conceivable longitude or latitude, has been renamed, in a gesture of almost sacrilegious ignominy, Terminal 3. As for me, my best efforts got me a job flying an old cargo plane in the middle of the night, arriving and departing under the greasy glare of warehouse lights in deserted corners of the airport, dodging forklifts and screaming mechanics. Whose fault is that, if anybody's? Forget it. God knows I've agonized enough over what became a pathology of lousy choices, terrible luck, and a propensity for turning difficult situations into impossibly hopeless ones.

And with that on my mind, and as the Africans head off toward the metal detectors and, eventually, the coast of Africa itself -- a genuine homeland, something I have almost no conception of, but which, I suspect, is at least as important to them as a dream job or a house in the woods was to me -- I turn and pass again through the big revolving door, and into the humid night of JFK.

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Since this was first written in 1999, Patrick Smith found a great new job and was immediately laid off. Air Afrique went bankrupt and ceased operations. Passages from this story were cannibalized for use in earlier Salon articles and columns.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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