Airline Registrations

All airliners from around the world wear registrations, normally marked in numbers or letters on the rear fuselage, but some, like the Emperor Ashoka of last week’s column, also wear names. The tradition of naming airplanes is more ingrained at some carriers than others. Certain airlines make a point of naming their entire fleet, while some choose only select airplanes and others skip the practice altogether. A few years back, United began calling some of its jets after various employees and even frequent flyers (imagine not getting an upgrade on the very plane with your name on its nose). If a plane has been christened in honor of something, somewhere, or somebody, look for titles on the forward fuselage, usually just below the cockpit.

Turkish Airlines names its spotless Boeings and Airbuses after Anatolian cities. You can ride aboard the Konya, the Antalya or the Isparta. Flying Virgin Atlantic, which styles itself a bit more whimsically, you might find yourself enroute to London on the Maiden Toulouse, Lady Penelope, or maybe the Tubular Belle. Austrian charter carrier Lauda Air remembers artists and musicians with, among many, the Gustave Klimt, the Bob Marley and a 767 named Freddie Mercury.

Occasionally — usually during shakeups or employee buyouts — a plane is singled out to fly the line as a sort of management liaison, painted up like a motivational billboard. What these schemes lack in imagination is made up for with gaudy mismatched colors and drivelly sentiment. Workers are encouraged to shed an allegiant tear while slinging suitcases into the Soaring Spirit or buffing the fairings on the Wings of Pride.

You can ride the St. Patrick to Dublin on Aer Lingus, no surprise there, or take your chances aboard a Syrianair 747 called Arab Solidarity. (We assume the Iranian government’s 727, Palestine, will not be touching down at Tel Aviv any time soon.) Freighters too carry names, even if there’s nobody around to notice but pilots and forklift drivers. Every FedEx jet, for example, wears a single first name, male or female. So if you’re a Natalie or an Olivia, or a Clayton or a Daniel, you’ve been immortalized by a namesake purple cargo plane.

South African Airways, like Turkish and several others, concentrates on cities. Flying to Johannesburg on one of their 747s, I didn’t realize I was aboard the Durban until coming across wooden plaque that told me so, near the staircase to the upper deck, emblazoned with a crest and scroll. If done right, the gesture gives an elegant, cruise ship sort of feeling to a jetliner.

For many years I’ve hoped for a chance to ride on KLM’s Audrey Hepburn, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11. The Dutch flag carrier’s themes vary from model to model, calling its MD-11s after famous women (others include the Florence Nightengale, Maria Montessori, Marie Curie), its 737s after birds (Swift, Crane, Avocet), 767s after bridges (Brooklyn, Golden Gate, and Rialto are each represented) and 747s for rivers or cities (City of Karachi, City of Jakarta, The Ganges,). You might recall it was The Rhine that plowed into Pan Am’s Clipper Victor at Tenerife in 1977.

Pan Am was perhaps the most renowned company when it came to titles, all aircraft sporting a “Clipper” designation, a carryover from the airline’s grandiose earlier years when it’s flying boats pioneered new 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). Most enjoyable, though, are the mystifyingly esoteric ones. Looking back at some of the choices, one wonders if Juan Trippe and his boys weren’t downing too much scotch in the boardrooms of their Park Avenue skyscraper: Water Witch? Neptune’s Car? Nonpareil? Young Brander? And you’ve got to give an airline credit for daring to paint Clipper Wild Duck on the side of a Lockheed L-1011.

When Pan Am 103 was blown up over Scotland in 1988, debris, carried by the upper-level winds, was spread over an 88-mile trail covering more than 800 square miles. But the largest section — a heap of wing and fuselage, would drop on the Sherwood Crescent area of Lockerbie, destroying twenty houses and ploughing a crater 150 feet long and as deep as a three story building (the concussion was so strong that Richter devices in the UK recorded a 1.6 magnitude tremor). 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 it.

This piece, as it happened, would become something of a news icon for weeks to come. It was, well, photogenic, in a disaster story kind of way. There it was, on the front of every newspaper, and on the cover of Time and Newsweek. There’s 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.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.