MIAMI — New York’s JFK International Airport has been and continues to be a plane spotter’s dream, given the variety of domestic and international carriers that fly there. In a previous Friday Flashback, we looked at the changes that were taking place at JFK, such as the construction of a new ATC tower and Delta’s takeover of Pan Am’s operations more than 20 years ago. Join us for another look at JFK in the early 1990s, this time focusing on international flights and some of their history, in some cases fateful.
Last month, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 made its last commercial passenger flight on KLM Flight 672 from Montreal to Amsterdam. When I visited JFK in 1992, the MD-11 was a new aircraft. Many passenger MD-11s are getting a second lease on life by being converted to freighters. American Airlines used the MD-11 for trans-Atlantic and South America operations.
Another carrier starting MD-11 service at the time was Swissair for flights to Geneva and Zurich. Unfortunately, one of these flights would go down in history as the deadliest MD-11 accident, killing all 229 passengers and crew, when on September 2, 1998, Flight 111 from JFK to Geneva crashed five miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. The official investigation concluded that an electrical fire and very flammable insulation material resulted in the crew losing control. Eventually, Swissair would become a casualty of post 9/11 airline financial difficulties.
What would a good plane spotting experience two decades ago be without seeing some DC-10s? The MD-11, designed to replace the DC-10, was just starting to roll out of Long Beach in the early 1990s. Therefore, DC-10s were very common at major airports like JFK. When I visited, I spotted a couple of Lufthansa models, which flew the routes from Frankfurt and Munich. At the time, they sported a classic blue cheat line in their fuselage. Another DC-10 operator at JFK was Nigeria Airways, which ceased operations in 2003. The carrier flew form Lagos at the time, and Nigerian company Arik Air serves this route today.
The Boeing 747-400, which started service 25 years ago, is slowly starting its farewell to passengers and is also undergoing conversions for an extended life in the cargo world. At the time of my visit, this variant of the “Queen of the Skies” was brand new. Although United Airlines today only flies to its Los Angeles and San Francisco hubs from JFK, in the early 1990s it had a more robust presence, which included trans-Atlantic flights and trans-Pacific flights. The 747-400, decked in United’s “rainbow/tulip” livery, operated from JFK to Tokyo.
Speaking of the 747, the classic -200 series variant was a very common sight at JFK at the start of the 1990s, especially since its eventual -400 series replacements were still very young. Some of the -200s I spotted included those flown by Aer Lingus from Dublin and Shannon; Alitalia from Milan and Rome; Pakistani International Airlines from Lahore; the infamous and defunct Tower Air mostly to Europe and Israel; and Brazil’s Varig, another failed but historic carrier, from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
EgyptAir operated the Boeing 767-300ER from Cairo to JFK with continuing service to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The airline continues JFK-Cairo service to this day using new 777-300ERs. Like Swissair, EgyptAir also suffered a tragedy on a flight originating from JFK. On October 31, 1999, Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 60 miles south of Nantucket, and all 203 people onboard perished. Egypt’s Civil Aviation Authority lacked the resources for a complex accident investigation and thus turned to the NTSB for help. However, the U.S. and Egypt failed to agree on the findings. The NTSB determined deliberate intent by the relief first officer, while Egypt concluded elevator failure.
Another aviation icon at JFK was the Concorde. Air France and British Airways took passengers from JFK to their respective Paris and London hubs in just over three hours. Concorde service catered to the rich and famous, but that didn’t prevent us regular people from seeing and especially hearing this legendary aircraft. I captured an image of an Air France Concorde during this visit.
While I do not want to focus too much on tragic accidents, it is important to note that JFK was the destination of the only fatal Concorde accident. On July 25, 2000, charter flight 4590 crashed shortly after takeoff from Paris, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew. The cause was a metallic strip that fell from a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had just departed. The fragment made a tire on the left main landing gear explode, which in turn punctured a fuel tank. The pilots were unable to maintain control after the two left engines failed, while their wing was consumed by fire.
I will end on a more positive note by talking about two Chilean carriers flying to JFK during this time. Ladeco and Lan Chlie were competing carriers in Chile and operated various domestic and international routes. Ladeco flew a Boeing 757-200, which meant it could not provide non-stop service from Santiago since the 5,100 mile trip exceeded the 757’s range. Lan Chile, on the other hand, operated a 767-300ER, which was capable of connecting Santiago and JFK without any stops. A couple of years after this plane spotting visit, Lan Chile took over Ladeco. Today, Lan Chile is known as LAN Airlines, it is part of the larger LATAM Airlines Group.