The somber beauty of air crash memorials

Is it morbid to want to see them all? Plus: Pirates, the TV blues, and a plug for airport food

By Patrick Smith
Published September 18, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)
A detail from the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport.
A detail from the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport.

The Tenere region of Niger, deep in the Sahara, is one of the most remote and inhospitable areas on earth – not the kind of place where you'd expect people to trudge hundreds of miles to construct a memorial.

The families and loved ones of the victims of UTA Flight 772 did exactly that, however. UTA 772, discussed in this column last week, was the DC-10 brought down by a Libyan suitcase bomb in September 1989, about eight months after the similar downing of Pan Am 103. The memorial was constructed in 2007, at the spot where the wreckage fell, using some of the $170 million compensation fund provided by the Libyan government. I had no idea it was there until a reader sent along pictures and a description.

I always felt that the most expressive and evocative air crash memorial was the one placed on a hillside above Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, marking the 1977 collision between two 747s that took 583 lives – history's worst-ever air disaster. But the UTA memorial is even more stirring. Built mostly by hand, it uses dark stones to create a 200-foot-diameter circle, inside of which is a life-size silhouette of the DC-10. Surrounding the circle are 170 broken mirrors – one for each victim. At the northern point, a section of the DC-10's starboard wing has been set upright into the sand and affixed with a plaque.

The remoteness of the crash site makes it all but inaccessible, but that's what Google Earth is for.

Even before the memorial, the UTA crash was an incident steeped in striking imagery. One of the more haunting images you'll ever see is the news photograph, circulated shortly after the crash, showing the plane's crushed forward fuselage sitting in the desert. Something about that blue and white paint, so stark against the dun-colored emptiness.

As if there weren't enough disturbing connections between the UTA and Pan Am 103 bombings, that picture is eerily reminiscent of the iconic photo of Flight 103's shattered cockpit lying in the grass near a Lockerbie churchyard. Blue and white, again.

Meanwhile, would it strike you as morbid, or even obscene, if I told you that I harbor a desire to travel around the world visiting various air crash memorials? (There are dozens of them.) We aerophiles are weird like that.

What I appreciate most about the tribute on Tenerife, viewable here, is that it was built in the shape of a helix. "A symbol of infinity," says the foundation's Web site. Maybe, but let's not forget the more obvious physical symbolism: Early-model 747s, including both of those involved in the collision, were well-known for the set of spiral stairs connecting their main and upper decks. In the minds of millions of international travelers, that stairway is an icon of civil aviation.

We have one here in Boston now, too. At Logan Airport, from which two of the hijacked Boeings departed on Sept. 11, 2001, a memorial was unveiled in 2008, dedicated to the crew and passengers. It's not in the most accessible spot, on a knoll sandwiched between the central parking garage and a Hilton hotel, but it's tastefully done. (Not to suggest anything, but has anybody noted its resemblance to a glass Kaaba?)

Also at Logan, look for the American flag atop the jetway at Gate B-32. This is the spot from which American 11 pushed back. There's a similar flag over at Terminal C, where United 175 departed.

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"Call me a romantic," I wrote in a column last year, "but perhaps airlines wouldn't have so much trouble selling tickets if they weren't so willing to sell their souls." I was responding to how, at some airlines, tray tables are now emblazoned with advertisements. On board a U.S. Airways flight, I folded down my tray and discovered a cellphone ad staring me in the face. I joked that airlines would soon begin renting out ad space on their overhead bins like you see in subway cars. Well, a few days ago I found this.

The natural endpoint of this trend, of course, is when airplanes themselves becomes flying billboards. Except, wait, that too has already been done. Ryanair is one of several carriers that have at times leased out their exteriors to paying advertisers. And some of you might remember Western Pacific Airlines, the Colorado Springs-based operator, now defunct, whose "logojet" 737s advertised, among other things, hotel casinos and car rental companies. Fox TV network paid to have one done up to promote "The Simpsons" – with Marge's blue beehive riding up the tail.

Western Pacific went bust around the time that "The Simpsons" at last became completely unwatchable (1996 was the last tolerable season), and billboard schemes have remained, for now, occasionally and judiciously applied. Here's hoping it stays that way.

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In a related story: Inuit groups from Nome to Nunavut have been protesting Alaska Airlines' depiction of an Eskimo's severed head on the tails of some of its 737s. You can see the design here.

OK, hang on, I'm being told that the red splotch is supposed to be a lei, in commemoration of the airline's service to Hawaii. Maybe, but it doesn't look that way from afar.

Headless or not, the origins of Alaska Airlines' tail mascot are murky. Whom the visage belongs to is unclear, though according to the airline's communications department, it is definitely not the face of Old Man Winter, Johnny Cash or an age-progressed Che Guevara. According to an e-mail I received back in 2003, when this "controversy" was first discussed in this column, it's the face of a former Alaska Airlines employee. "The portrait is that of a Inupiaq man from the Kotzebue area," wrote the e-mailer. "Just north of the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi coast." Either he knows what he's talking about or he's trying to fry my spell-checker.

Whoever the tail man is, he remains something of a welcome novelty. Alaska Airlines is one of very few carriers ever to depict a human being as part of its corporate livery. (Peoplexpress once tried it abstractly; and there's Atlas up on the tail of Atlas Air, but he's not really a person.) With that warm smile, it's hard not to like the guy.

Much less charming, though, is the "Alaska Airlines" script dancing across the fuselage. If there's an uglier design anywhere in commercial aviation, please don't show it to me. I've said it before and I'll say it again: It looks like it was drawn on an Etch A Sketch, or by an Inuit in the throes of electrocution.

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Here's something better to look at.

St. Elmo's fire, a discharge of luminous plasma sparking along the cockpit windscreen (and sometimes other areas), is one of the coolest things a pilot ever sees. Spells of St. Elmo's can last for several minutes, dancing like miniature lightning bolts all over the windows. It's dramatic, and a bit disconcerting, but not dangerous. I often bring a camera along hoping to get a shot, but it hasn't worked out; the archive comes through again. Yes, that's really what it looks like.

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Interesting and funny letter from Cliff Lapp, an Ask the Pilot reader and American expat who flies freighters in Kenya:

We flew into Berbera, in Somaliland, an autonomous region in northern Somalia. Somaliland has been independent for about 18 years, but no one recognizes it. It is stable and secure, relative to the rest of Somalia, and does not have many pirates operating out of its territory.

Pirate situation: A pirate mission costs anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000. Obviously, the local guys in the boats don't have that kind of money. They get it from the big-money pirates who live in Eastleigh (a Nairobi suburb), South Africa, England or Canada. Many of these players are Mzungus (white people) like us. They do private IPOs and pool their money, if necessary, to get the funds to the guys in the boats.

Normally the backers get about 30 percent of the ransom (if they are successful) and the guys in the boats, who do the actual pirating, get 10-20 percent of the ransom. The rest of the money goes to bribing the local officials in Somalia, and to other expenses.

A pilot I met at the Wilson Aero Club said that he was recently in Mogadishu in a nightclub, where he met a girl who was very excited that he was a pilot. He was pleased that being a pilot made him desirable, until they got their English figured out, and she realized that he was a "pilot" and not a "pirate." She dropped him like a dirty shirt and went off after a pirate.

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Shameless shill:

This time the beneficiary is Rocco Manniello, owner of the Yankee Clipper restaurant over at LaGuardia Airport's Marine Air Terminal. I've written about Rocco's place before, but I need to do so again.

On my last visit, Rocco was there in person, greeting customers and overseeing the steam tray. I introduced myself and thought I might get a brief interview – you know, pick up some airport gossip, hear a few stories about the old days at LaGuardia.

That was a harder task than I expected. Rocco, see, he talks in tangents, and he talks fast. I mean really, really fast, in a voice so clipped and explosive that I couldn't figure out if his accent was Queens, Brooklyn, Jersey, Naples or Sicily. All I know for sure is that Rocco has run the place for about 30 years and has thoughts of selling out.

So get there while you can. Yankee Clipper is one of a dwindling few indie restaurants to be found at a major airport, serving the best greasy-spoon food around. It's cheap, unpretentious and quiet (no public address announcements or screaming kids). The walls are decorated with historic photographs from the Marine Air Terminal's salad days as a docking point for Pan Am's famous "Clipper" flying boats.

The Marine Air Terminal is found adjacent to the Delta Shuttle, at the opposite end of the airport from the main terminal complex. It's the circular building with the art deco doors and flying fish motif around the cupola. Inside the rotunda is James Brooks' 1952 "Flight" mural, depicting the history of aviation from mythical to (then) modern flying boat. The painting's style is a nod at socialist realism, and at the height of '50s McCarthysim, in a controversy not unlike that of Diego Rivera's famous mural at Rockefeller Center, it was declared socialist propaganda and covered over with gray paint. It remained hidden until 1977.

I was thinking that Anthony Bourdain should do a "No Reservations" episode on airport food. First stop would be Rocco's.

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Which reminds me ...

Ask the Pilot has been a successful column and a semi-successful book. And maybe I'm wrong, but I've always thought it could make a successful TV series as well – a "Cockpit Confidential" of sorts (Sorry, Anthony), capitalizing on people's curiosities and anxieties toward commercial flying.

If it were up to me, I would call the project "Half the Fun" (as in getting there is, borrowing the title I originally wanted for the book) and break it into a three-part series:

Part 1: Airplanes. A frank look at what really goes on in a cockpit. Exploding the myths about cockpit automation, pilot training, turbulence and so on.

Part 2. Airports. From Bangkok to Timbuktu, a visit to the world's most impressive, historic or otherwise curious terminals.

Part 3: Airlines. A look into the cultures and operations of the world's most colorful carriers: the oldest, the biggest, the swankiest and most historically significant.

Like the column, it wouldn't be your typical Discovery Channel fare focused on the technical gee-whiz of planes. It'd be funny and a bit irreverent. The target audience wouldn't be those with a predisposed attraction to airplanes. Rather, it'd be a show for travelers – even for those who despise flying. If Bourdain can do it for cooking, I can do it for flying.

Or, well, if not me, then somebody else?

In fact I have been approached by a handful of TV producers over the years. Upfront, they have always been highly enthusiastic. Alas, each time, the proposal has been killed by somebody up the chain. "People just aren't interested in flying," was the brilliant deduction of one executive. (That one ranks up there with the various retailers who made the strategic decision not to sell my book at airports.)

Most recently I was contacted by a man named Peter Marks, a vice president for Towers Productions in Chicago. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes and was roughly as enjoyable as a tax audit.

I present Marks with my airplanes, airports and airlines triptych.

He doesn't seem to like this. Marks explains to me that what the show would actually be about doesn't much matter. Documentaries, he says, "are no longer about giving people information." They are about giving people performance.

He goes on to describe a show – I am not making this up – called "Extreme Fisherman" or some such, where a guy jumps out of a helicopter to wrestle with a 10-foot marlin, right there on the open sea with only his bare hands and a pair of flippers.

"It's not about the material," Marks says. "It's all about the person delivering it. The host. The show is not about air travel, the show is about you."

Me? And silently I'm trying to relate this "Extreme Fisherman" concept to piloting. All I can think of is Charlton Heston in the movie "Airport 75," dangling from a helicopter and climbing through a jagged hole into an airborne 747 ... and how nothing remotely like that has ever happened in the history of commercial aviation.

"You know, Peter, pilots are really pretty boring," I say. "Even most emergencies aren't the dramas that people imagine."

Nonsense, says Peter Marks. He tells me that he needs a host who is "larger than life." He needs "an Anthony Bourdain of the airplane world, with sex appeal and grit and irreverence; a pilot who's commanding and confident, yet human and still a bit vulnerable. Girls love him, guys pretend they hate him. He's a little bit of a maniac, but not so much so that we can't trust him."

There is silence on the phone for a moment, as I fantasize briefly about jumping off a bridge.

And then Peter Marks pops the question. "Are you larger than life?" he wants to know.

My response begins with the words, "Look, Peter …" and sputters along from there until he says he needs to hang up.

I never did hear from him again.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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