What You Call It

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 the wreckage of Pan Am 103 fell onto Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the only part of the plane to remain somewhat intact was the very front – a decapitated portion of the forward fuselage including the cockpit and first class cabin. It was crushed when it landed, on its side, but still it looked like a piece of an airplane, which is more than you can say for the rest of the jet. It 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 magazine, and it is easily found on the Internet today. The photo shows detritus and debris everywhere, wires and shredded metal, all surrounding this impossibly still-dignified chunk of a Boeing 747. 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-Schiphol. 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 in this case adds a peculiar incongruity). Just down the concourse, this Kenya Airways 787, The Great Rift Valley, is readying for a flight to Nairobi.

KLM has retired its fleet of MD-11s, each of which was named after a famous woman. There was the Marie Curie, the Florence Nightingale, the Audrey Hepburn, and several others. In years past, KLM’s 747s all were named after rivers. In 1977, the Rhine collided with Pan Am’s Clipper Victor on the Spanish island of Tenerife, in history’s deadliest air disaster.

Author’s photo.

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. Lufthansa does cities, Hawaiian Airlines does seabirds and constellations. Aer Lingus goes with Irish saints, no surprise there, with the names both in English and Gaelic. Each aircraft at Scandinavian Airlines wears a Viking name. 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 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. Even more famous, however, was the L’Esprit de Moncton — the Spirit of Moncton — the 19-seat turboprop captained by a swashbuckling young idiot in an ill-fitting uniform. Plane and pilot are immortalized in the historic photo below, taken on the apron in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1993.

Right, so now let’s play a game. When Donald Trump had his airline, the Trump Shuttle, its Boeing 727s weren’t named. But if The Donald had, in fact, lavished names upon his planes, what would some of them have been, do you think? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.



 

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57 Responses to “What You Call It”
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  1. Paul Johanson says:

    How odd that KLM would name a plane after a public square in my home town of Melbourne. That’s literally the other side of the world from the Netherlands. There are plenty of Dutch and their descendants here (including me) I suppose. But Fed Square, as we know it, is a just a relatively recent piece of public architecture…

  2. Alberto says:

    There’s a Mexican airline who call their planes as person names, for example: “Alberto”, “Maria”, etc… it’s fun to watch. Love your blog!

  3. Martin Schaffel says:

    There is a problem on your site bringing up the “Turbulence” article. When activated, it brings up the ” Name of planes” article. Thought you would like to know.

  4. JamesP says:

    Someday I hope to aboard an aircraft, on some choice route that all the pilots with the most seniority fight over, and hear:

    “Good Morning, this is Captain Smith, and we do apologize for the 3-hour delay due to an equipment change. As we wrap up some last minute paperwork up here on the flight deck, I would like to welcome you aboard the ‘It’s Gonna Be Bigly, Believe Me.’ All the other airlines wish they had equipment this big. At this time, we do request that you put your seatbacks into their full, upright, and locked positions. Please refrain from tampering with, disabling, or destroying the smoke detectors, and turn your personal electronics to the off position. Flight attendants, doors to crosscheck and all-call.”

    Somehow, I don’t think I’ll live that long 🙂

  5. Ashley Riddell says:

    What would the Donald have named his planes. Easy…

    TRUMP
    TRUMP
    TRUMP
    TRUMP
    IVANKA
    TRUMP
    TRUMP…

    Sorry Patrick. It was low hanging fruit 😉 Love the blog, been reading it for years. How about a column with your thoughts about the 787, as a passenger experience? I’ve been riding planes at least as long as you have and I got to ride with a Norwegian Dreamliner a few weeks ago and came away impressed with the airiness of the cabin and the overall sense of quiet (apart from the air-con). A different experience to my first ride with an aging Constellation back in ’64.

  6. Vijay Venkataraman says:

    Air India used to name all its aircraft after either an Indian princess, an emperor, a river or a state. This practice was ended after Air India merged with Indian Airlines. I remember the sad day when the flagship 747 “Emperor Ashoka” was lost with all passengers and crew off the coast of Bombay shortly after takeoff in 1978.

    • Patrick says:

      Keith Lovegrove’s book, “Airline: Identity, Design and Culture” has a great photo of the Ashoka from back in the day. It shows an Air-India stewardess at the top of the boarding stairs, with the name on the fuselage behind her — and that fantastic old livery, with the little Taj Mahals around every window….

  7. Andy Porter says:

    Actually, the name could be: “This Baby Is In Terrific Shape For Her Age”
    (and instead of complimentary peanuts passengers are served free Tic Tacs)

  8. Andy Porter says:

    Suggested names for Trump Shuttle aircraft:
    “BING BING BONG BONG”
    “BING BING BING”
    “BONG BONG BONG”
    “Bigly Bird”
    “Best Plane Ever, Everybody Says So”
    “This Plane is in amazing shape for its age”

  9. Daniel Ullman says:

    “When Donald Trump had his airline, the Trump Shuttle, its Boeing 727s weren’t named. But if The Donald had, in fact, lavished names upon his planes, what would some of them have been, do you think?”

    Trump, what else? I think the point you are missing is that he didn’t name them in small letters underneath the pilots window.

  10. Lahmisc says:

    Sun Country Airlines (based in Minneapolis) is naming their planes after Minnesota lakes.

  11. Carmi says:

    Sir,

    I think the JetBlue names you dislike may be an homage to the names of the great starships in the Culture series of novels by Iain M. Banks.

    They had a particular humor to them, many of them punning on the word gravitas. See the examples:
    Zero Gravitas
    Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall
    Gravitas, What Gravitas?
    Gravitas Free Zone

    It’s a certain kind of funny, that is not to everyone’s taste.

  12. Savannah says:

    Resident Piedmont nerd chiming in. Piedmont named all of their planes except the Fokker fleet and the 767s and 734s received after the merger with USAir began. Most were named after geographical locations and cultural references, but in later years, were also named for cities and a few people. Here’s a comprehensive list: http://www.jetpiedmont.com/aircraft/

    • Patrick says:

      Yes, they were called “Pacemakers.”

      “Appalachian Pacemaker,” “Potomac Pacemaker,” “Blue Ridge Pacemaker,” and so forth. Great, evocative names that reflected the airline’s heritage and geography.

      • Timothy Gobbel says:

        “Appalachian Pacemaker,” “Potomac Pacemaker,” “Blue Ridge Pacemaker,” and so forth. Great, evocative names that reflected the airline’s heritage and geography.”

        Or a cardiology clinic.

  13. Noor says:

    Very informative article ! And thanks God ,they didn’t ask public for naming of those planes ,otherwise the appellation would be something close to Planey Mcplainface .Please do an article on the airlines names as well ( Whizz and Vanilla Air of course merit a paean to their creativity ) 😀

    • Tod Davis says:

      Qantas actually just let the public name their fleet of 787-9’s. I believe that a few were excluded because they were too stupid but the ones that got through are actually quite good

      • Paul says:

        Qantas 787 names quite good? Here are the winning names and a description (mine) of each one:

        Skippy – the bush kangaroo from an old TV series

        Quokka – a small marsupial like a stunted overweight kangaroo, found on Rottnest Island (off Perth) and a few isolated patches of the south-west

        Boomerang – it will come back

        Waltzing Matilda – a strange little song about a tramp who steals a sheep and suicides by jumping in a waterhole rather than be arrested

        The Great Barrier Reef – Yes, a wonderful place, so long as the coral doesn’t get totally bleached

        Uluru – formerly known as Ayer’s Rock – the second-largest monolith in the world

        Dreamtime – the creation story of the aboriginal people

        Great Southern Land – self-evident. Also a pretty good song.

        I’d give that lot a C+

  14. Paulie says:

    Lets back up and start on design. I appreciated Frontier Airlines for thier efforts to promote content of wildlife images of distinction on their tail wings. I look at the color and compositions of aircraft, and I’m dismayed by the lack of effort of visual design or identity. Delta lookslike a throwback to the 1970’s. American upgraded to a rodeo clown schematic. SW looks like nobody cared to hire professional designers, planes scream fast food… I admit I miss polished aluminum with colorful logos.

  15. Itai Nathaniel says:

    El Al names its aircraft with Israeli city names

  16. HB says:

    The first and only time I ever flew on a 747 was as a teen, coming back from my dad’s wedding in London in 1981 aboard “Clipper Morning Light”. I’m a life-long sailor, and I was struck by the fact my plane was actually given the dignity of a beautiful name. I never forgot that plane and looked her up 30 years later on an online Pan Am plane database.

    I was deeply affected — more than I thought I would be — on reading that very same 747 “Clipper Morning Light” had at some point been renamed “Clipper Maid Of The Seas” and was destroyed over Lockerbie.

    • Patrick says:

      Yup. I remember when it was still called “Morning Light.” I saw it many times. For a while it had a discolored, slightly yellow nose cone that made it distinctive.

  17. Steven says:

    Great article until you mentioned that man in the last paragraph. Gack!

  18. Mark Maslowski says:

    Some of my fondest childhood memories are walking out on the tarmac, climbing the stairs to board a beautiful Pan Am 707 Clipper and reading the distinctive name. These days, the most you see of an aircraft exterior is the door frame at the end of the jetway. The plane could be named anything and we would never know the difference. Sad.

  19. Blair Kooistra says:

    Pussy Magnet.

  20. Lynn Daic says:

    Aircraft names. I do like the idea of being on a ship of the air rather than on a bus with a number, something that I could call “She” without anyone wondering what the heck I’m talking about.

    The first airship that I (think) remember the name of was a Qantas 707. I was part of a group of students flying from Honolulu to Melbourne (via Fiji? Tahiti? for fueling) and stopping in Sydney before going on to Melbourne in 1973. I can’t absolutely say that the name of the ship plane was The City of Alice Springs, but it seems like that’s correct.

    Between first class and coach there was a plaque with the aircraft’s name on the bulkhead on the coach side (and perhaps first class too; I didn’t look). A nice touch.

    My elderly mother now lives in rural Victoria, and once a year I fly to Tullamarine, the Melbourne International Airport. I go on an airline named Jetstar (as it is the only airline to fly direct from Honolulu to Tullamarine). It is a budget airline. They do not bother to name their planes. Although it’s a 767 it might as well be a bus. The majority shares of this airline are owned by Qantas, make of that what you will. The livery is frankly awful (and not in the sense that it fills me full of awe) with a distinguishing feature of its livery being the URL to the Jetstar web page plastered on its side. Tacky.

    (Looks like I can out of space: to be continued.)

    • Lynn Daic says:

      (Continued)

      Anyway, I do fly Hawaiian Airlines at least every third month. As the IT person where I work, sometimes I personally need to attend to problems at our Kōloa branch in Kaua‘i. From the first shuttle I noticed that the 717 (I really want to say DC9) aircraft had a name, a Hawaiian seabird.

      Hawaiian names all of their aircraft. Their 717’s (interisland flights) are named after Hawaiian seabirds. Their 767’s are named after migratory seabirds who touch the Hawaiian Islands. Their A330’s are named after celestial points in the sky (stars, constellations). Their ATR-42’s (‘Ohana by Hawaiian, for short jumps to islands not served by their 717’s) are named after Hawaiian winds. All of this is, of course, in the language of Hawai‘i.

      You can see the list of all of their aircraft here:

      https://newsroom.hawaiianairlines.com/corporate/facts/hawaiian-airlines-aircraft-names

      L. D.

      • mitch says:

        The “Boeing 717” was originally the McDonnell-Douglas MD-95 – a short-to-medium range updated derivative of the DC-9 and MD-80. After the 1997 merger, Boeing renamed it and kept the line open for a few years. Production ended in May 2006 after 156 were built
        To us few remaining Boeing purists, the Model 717 will always be what it’s been since the 1950’s: the KC-135 Stratotanker and its many versions.

        • Lynn Daic says:

          Thank you! I didn’t know that Boeing skipped over 717 in the late ’50’s as it was supposed to be the designation of the military version of the 707. Thanks for being a Boeing purest and getting me to Google the history of the 717 and the KC-135 Stratotanker. Quite interesting.

          • Alan Dahl says:

            They did on the other hand build a “720”, a short-range variant of the 707 with a shorter fuselage and different wing roots.

  21. Tod says:

    Qantas should also be mentioned, their aircraft are mainly named after cities and aviation pioneers. Recently they however had a public poll to name their new fleet of 787’s. Those names are all icons of Australia

  22. phoenix says:

    I’m sorry Patrick. I adore your pieces but I’m totally with JetBlue. With the state of air travel in most of western civilization, anyone who brings a sense of fun and levity gets props from me. I think there’s definitely something to be said for any corporation (or person!) that doesn’t take life too seriously.

    Beats the heck out of Virgin America. I appreciate they try, but “Airplane 2.0”?

    https://www.virginamerica.com/cms/blog/news/meet-the-fleet.html

  23. Matt says:

    I like SAS’s Viking names for their planes. A few years ago I flew on Eystein Viking, Frede Viking, and Astrid Viking. It’s a nice nod to their Scandinavian heritage.

  24. Mike Richards says:

    Icelandair names its fleet after the country’s volcanoes – not really a problem when you board Hekla or Katla, a bit trickier when it’s Snæfellsjökull, Skjaldbreiður and of course – Eyjafjallajökull.

    Right now, Hekla is flying in the gorgeous Aurora colour scheme – video here:

    http://www.icelandair.us/hekla-aurora/

  25. ReadyKilowatt says:

    You didn’t mention the US carrier Frontier. Many might recognize the animals on the vertical stabilizer. What they might not know is that they all are named.

    http://aeropx.com/collection/frontier-airlines-fleet

  26. mitch says:

    Virgin Atlantic early airplane names:
    VAA got its start in 1984 with a single ex-Aerolineas Argentinas 747-200B. Boeing had taken the airplane in on trade. It was stored for a year, then completely refurbished and repainted for VAA. It was Richard Branson’s first airplane for his start-up airline, so it was named “Maiden Voyager” and registered G-VIRG.
    A year later, Branson bought another refurbished Boeing trade-in, an ex-Alitalia 747-200B. Branson being Branson, he named the second airplane “Scarlet Lady” and registered it G-VGIN.
    [Pix of both airplanes are on Airliners.net].
    Since then, every VAA aircraft has had a female name and been registered using G-V___ plus three letters from “IRGIN”
    They each have a Flying Lady logo based on WW2 USAAF B-17 nose art by Vargas

    Some 747 airlines had fun with the airplane’s size: SAS’s airplanes are all “Vikings”; their first 747 was “Huge Viking”. The former British Caledonian had a 747 registered “G-HUGE”.

  27. Mike A says:

    FedEx has names of employee’s children painted on all of their Aircraft,
    not sure how the names are chosen but all 650 airplanes have a name on them:
    http://www.airplane-pictures.net/photo/921140/n572fe-fedex-federal-express-mcdonnell-douglas-md-11f/

  28. Matt D says:

    Southwest also did a few. Like “The Herbert D. Kelleher” and “Rollin King”. Curiously absent was “Lamar Muse”, who was also one of the founding fathers of that airline. But he splintered off to start Muse Air, which didn’t last long before Southwest got it, and basically finished it off. They also did a “June Morris” (one of the founders of Morris Air”).

  29. Rod says:

    Yes, Lufthansa’s “Landshut” was the 737 that ended up in Mogadishu. I’ll never forget that one.

    Swiss International also names its airplanes, after towns and cantons. I think SAS used to.

    Until the sad day when KLM retired its last MD-11, all of that type were named after illustrious women (Maria Montessori, etc.).

  30. Neil says:

    You really need to have a trip to Norway then with Norwegian who name some their aircraft after famous Norwegians (and possibly Scandinavians in general), and then put the name and a portrait on the tail.

    An example I managed to photo while at the viewing park near MAN can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/nshawcouk/29087493981/in/album-72157669688754994/ (my own photo, hoping relevant links are allowed!)

    • Carlos Si says:

      Lol, forget about naming them, Norwegian has frames of the named person on the tails too!

    • phoenix says:

      Norweigan has expanded to simply famous people in general. Their newest 787-9 has Queen’s Freddie Mercury on the tail, another one of their properties has author (and non-Scandanavian) Roald Dahl. Fantastic!

  31. DV Henkel-Wallace says:

    Lufthansa names their planes after cities (perhaps in homage to the old hanseatic league — hansa). They’ve thing is they also post the name in the cabin right by the forward boarding door so you can see what plane you’re flying on even when using a jetway.

    • SOB says:

      One Lufthansa Airbus A340 was actually named Gander/Halifax, the first to be named after a non-German city. That was in 2002, as a thank-you to the people of these cities who were so generous to stranded passengers after the US airspace was closed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A fitting gesture, I think.

    • Patrick says:

      At once point they had an A340 named “Worms,” which always made me laugh when I saw it.