TWA Hotel Starliner Restoration
TWA Hotel Starliner Restoration
With great fanfare the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport opened for business on May 15, 2019. Located adjacent to Jet Blue’s Terminal 5, the hotel includes Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Terminal which had been empty since American Airlines absorbed TWA in 2001. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had struggled for almost twenty years with how to best utilize the iconic TWA terminal. Although it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there was considerable concern that it would face the same fate as JFK’s Pan Am Terminal which was demolished in 2013. As luck would have it, the building was allowed to stand while the politicians and bureaucrats pondered its fate. Earlier attempts to redevelop the property had met with failure but on September 24, 2015 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that MCR Development would be building a $265M twin tower hotel incorporating the abandoned terminal. Groundbreaking was held on December 15, 2016 with New York Governor Cuomo and other dignitaries along with former TWA employees in attendance. The first tower was topped out in December 2017 followed by the second in March 2018.
MCR’s plan included acquiring a 1950’s/60’s era airliner and transforming it into a cocktail lounge. Placed on the plaza adjacent to the terminal, it would be fitted out to replicate a period airliner with seating for about 40 guests. The plan also called for the cockpit to be fully restored and accessible to cocktail lounge customers. In the end, former TWA Lockheed L1649A Starliner Super Constellation N8083H was selected and MCR acquired it in March 2018. The aircraft had most recently been used as a source of parts for the ill-fated Lufthansa restoration of L1649A N7316C and would need quite a bit of TLC before taking her place on the plaza. .
Saarinen designed the TWA Terminal to symbolize the jet age of air travel which had arrived a few years prior to its 1962 opening. When the selection of the Starliner was announced there was a fair amount of controversy in the enthusiast community about whether the correct aircraft had been chosen for the project. Many felt that a CV880 or B707 would have made a better choice and pointed out former TWA CV880 N828TW which has languished for many years in Mojave, California. The aircraft flew for TWA between 1961 and 1974 and is the type of aircraft that Saarinen had in mind when he designed the terminal. There’s plenty of room on the plaza to add another aircraft and N828TW would make a perfect companion for the Starliner. Although the Convair was retired by TWA in 1974, it still retains faded TWA colors and an intact original TWA passenger interior. It’s owned by Scroggins Aviation and is very much in danger of being scrapped. To date MCR has shown absolutely no interest in the aircraft.
The 60 year old Starliner had an interesting history prior to being acquired by MCR for the hotel project. Originally completed for the Italian airline LAI in late 1957, the aircraft entered passenger service with TWA in May 1958. It was soon rendered obsolete by the October 1958 introduction of the B707 on the long range passenger routes that it was designed for. Converted to a freighter by TWA in 1961, it was sold to Alaska Airlines in 1962. Retired and sold by Alaska Airlines five years later, it was converted to a bulk fuel carrier by its new owner for use on the Alaska pipeline construction project. Stored in Anchorage after completion of the pipeline, it spent most of the 1970’s parked there and in Kenai before being sold and flown to Chandler Memorial Airport near Phoenix in early 1981. The aircraft underwent an extensive overhaul at Chandler where it was modified to airdrop bundles of marijuana. It departed Chandler in February 1983 and six months later was reported to be stuck in mud at a remote landing field in Colombia with a damaged prop. The prop was replaced and it was flown to San Pedro Sula, Honduras and abandoned. Maurice Roundy acquired the aircraft in May 1986 and flew it to his home at Auburn-Lewiston Airport in Maine where it was parked in his front yard until being acquired by Lufthansa in December 2007.
In addition to N8083H, Maurice Roundy owned Starliners N7316C and N974R with N7316C parked alongside N8083H in Auburn and N974R on display at Fantasy of Flight in Florida. Maurice tried to market the aircraft but the world had moved on and corporate America was not interested in showcasing the aircraft. The three aircraft were acquired by Lufthansa with the intent of restoring the aircraft in the best condition to an airworthy state using parts from it and the other two. N7316C was chosen for the restoration with the other two donating their parts in support of the project. After supplying parts for the project, N974R was made externally complete and donated to Kermit Weeks for display at Fantasy of Flight. N8083H was towed across the airport, parked next to the newly constructed restoration hangar and stripped of anything remotely useful to the project. By March 2018, it was essentially a derelict hulk with a very bleak future. During this same month, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr cancelled the 10 year/$200M restoration project and directed that N7316C be disassembled and shipped to Germany. This was an amazing decision considering how close the project was to completion and the €3 billion profit the airline made the previous year! As of June 2019, with the exception of the fuselage and two wing assembly halves which remain in Auburn, all of the parts and pieces had been packed up and shipped to Germany. While the fate of the aircraft has now been left up to a committee, the best case scenario probably has the airplane being reassembled for static display somewhere in Germany.
The “resurrection” of N8083H began in early 2018 when MRC approached Atlantic Model’s Roger Jarman and Propliner “guru” Carlos Gomez asking if they might be interested in submitting a proposal for the project. As part of their purchase deal with MRC, Lufthansa had agreed to provide many of the missing parts, which were no longer required for their project. Shortly after signing an agreement with MCR, Carlos and Roger made a trip to Maine to assess the aircraft’s condition. During this trip they gathered up nacelles and other sheet metal components for shipment back to Miami, where they were repaired prior to actual work beginning on the airplane. It was still winter in Maine and, since the work would have to be done outdoors, it was decided to wait until early June to begin putting the airplane back together.
With a September 2018 deadline, Carlos and three sheet metal specialists arrived in Maine on Memorial Day and immediately began the daunting task of transforming the stripped hulk into a showpiece worthy of display at the new hotel. Three weeks into the project, the empennage had been reassembled; the leading edges repaired and installed; landing gear doors repaired and installed; and the nose radome repaired and installed. Reassembling the airplane was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Parts had to be located, identified, their condition evaluated and then repaired as necessary. Lufthansa was less than helpful in providing promised parts for the reassembly, with many having gone missing and many discarded even though the local management was fully aware of the ongoing effort to reassemble N8083H and the company’s commitment to provide the parts to Carlos. More than once, he was forced to go dumpster diving to retrieve irreplaceable parts that had been carelessly discarded by Lufthansa employees. Other parts had been haphazardly placed in storage containers around the hangar and it was left up to Carlos to find and retrieve these parts before they too were relegated to scrap metal dumpsters. With considerable effort by Carlos, most of the parts necessary to reassemble N8083H were found.
With Carlos concentrating on reassembling the aircraft in Auburn, replica propellers, spinners, passenger and cockpit windows, miscellaneous cowlings and other missing parts were being fabricated by Atlantic Models in Miami. Many of the missing parts were cowlings in and around the engine nacelles, which would have been very difficult and time consuming to fabricate out of sheet metal. Kermit Weeks generously offered up Starliner N974R at Fantasy of Flight for use as a pattern and fiberglass replicas of the remaining missing parts were fabricated. The engines and propellers from N8083H had long since been removed and replacements needed to be found. Using an actual propeller blade as a template, four sets of fiberglass props along with spinners were fabricated at Atlantic Models. When completed, it was difficult to tell the fiberglass blades and spinners from the real thing! The next problem was to find four R3350 engines and cowlings and, for a time, it appeared that engines wouldn’t be available and fiberglass engine cowlings would have to be fabricated. By pure happenstance and good fortune, a set of suitable engines and cowlings were eventually located for the project.
The cockpit had been almost completely stripped of instrument panels and instruments along with control yokes, crew seats and other components. Replacement panels were located and appropriate instruments refurbished and installed. Replacement control yokes and crew seats were also found and the cockpit walls and floors were restored by a specialty contractor before the aircraft was moved to JFK. The cockpit and main cabin windows were replaced and the entire main cabin plywood floor was replaced.
Three and a half months after Carlos and his team arrived in Maine, the amazing transformation of the aircraft’s exterior and cockpit was complete. Painted in vintage 1950’s TWA colors, the aircraft looked like it was ready to board passengers! After inspection and acceptance by MCR representatives on September 12th, the aircraft was turned over to Marty Batura and his crew from Worldwide Aircraft Recovery. MCR had contracted Worldwide to disassemble the aircraft, transport it to JFK Airport and reassemble it at the hotel site.
Marty and his crew immediately set about disassembling the aircraft and by October 8th the various components of the airplane had been loaded on lo-boy trailers for the 300+ mile trip to JFK Airport. The convoy departed Auburn on October 9th and headed south on I95 accompanied by a police escort. Things went well until the next day when the trailer carrying the fuselage experienced a flat tire in Bolton, Massachusetts. With the tire replaced, the caravan proceeded south as planned until reaching the Throgs Neck Bridge in Bronx, New York where the fuselage was held up for three weeks due to a permit issue. The tail assembly, engines and other components were allowed to proceed the final 20 miles to JFK Airport with the fuselage finally arriving during the wee hours of October 30, 2018. Escorted by Port Authority Police, it joined the rest of the disassembled aircraft at a large deicing shed adjacent to the site of TWA's now demolished Hangar 12.
I didn’t think it could be done in this day and age but on March 22 Marty and the Worldwide team managed to transport the 116 foot long fuselage from JFK Airport to Manhattan and then tow it through the streets of Manhattan to Times Square. Escorted by 75 of New York City’s finest, the fuselage made its way up Avenue of the Americas, through Columbus Circle and down Seventh Avenue before arriving at Broadway and 45th Street in Times Square.
On Saturday March 23, 2019 there were thousands of people on hand in Times Square and even Mayor Bill de Blasio, Elmo and the Naked Cowboy stopped by to have a look at the airplane. The fuselage was on display on Saturday and Sunday before returning to JFK Airport during the early hours of Monday, March 25th.
Reassembly of the aircraft began on April 3rd when the two wing assembly halves were lowered into position on the plaza adjacent to the terminal. They were joined and on April 9th the fuselage was moved into place and mated with the wing assembly. Work continued with installation of the landing gear, triple tail and engines during the following three weeks.
I visited the worksite on Tuesday April 23rd to get a first-hand look at the aircraft and the hotel project. Engine installation was underway with the crew installing the #4 engine. By the end of the week reassembly had been completed and it was time to install the four props. This happened the weekend of May 4th and 5th when a small team led by Roger and Carlos installed the props and spinners. Externally the aircraft was complete and looked stunning but the interior still had to be completed by opening day.
With the external restoration of the Starliner complete, it was an all-hands effort to get the interior of the Starliner outfitted as a cocktail lounge in time for the TWA Hotel’s scheduled opening on May 15th. The interior of the aircraft had been stripped to its metal bulkheads and the team had less than two weeks to install the interior, including electricity, HVAC, lighting, plumbing and furniture. I’m happy to report that the crew rose to the challenge and the Connie cocktail lounge welcomed its first guests on opening day!
On June 30, 2019 my wife and I booked a room at the TWA Hotel prior our flight home to Florida the next day. In the early 1970’s I lived less than a mile away from Jim Flannery’s Restaurant, which featured a Super Constellation cocktail lounge. For whatever reason, I never took the time to visit it…I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Maurice Roundy and his wife Jane booked a room the same time and we enjoyed their company over cocktails in the aircraft that he had saved from extinction more than 30 years ago in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Maurice told me that the aircraft’s restoration and its incorporation as the hotel’s centerpiece exceeded his wildest expectations! As for the hotel, while it was a bit more expensive than I would have liked, we enjoyed our stay and especially the spectacular views from our “runway view” room. We plan on doing a repeat visit during our visit to New York City next year.
Congratulations to Carlos and Roger for an outstanding job resurrecting this iconic aircraft. They were a unique team with unique capabilities that pulled off this very complex and demanding task and almost made it look easy! I’d also like to commend MCR for having the vision to make the aircraft part of its hotel project.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Carlos Gomez, Roger Jarman, William L.B.J. Dekker, Michael Zoeller, Paul Filmer, J. Douglas Scroggins, Robert G. Hufford, Peter de Groot, Richard Vandervord, Steve Lynch, Richard Brooke Gilder, Bill Hirsch, Georg von der Muehll, MCR Development, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 6 November 2019----