This morning, I had the honor of welcoming an iconic piece of aviation history back home to Kansas City, MO. I watched the event unfold while standing on the roof of what was once an early Trans World Airlines (TWA) stronghold.
Looking into the sky, I could see a tiny red speck on the horizon that slowly grew into a beautiful red/white MD-83 (reg: N948TW). It was something unique, and certainly not common at the Charles B. Wheeler downtown airport (MKC).
Soon one of the most iconic (albeit nearly forgotten) planes to grace the Trans World fleet landed and taxied to within a few yards of TWA’s first headquarters in Kansas City, and former office of Howard Hughes himself.
The TWA Wings of Pride, after 27 years of service across the world, had finally reclaimed its greatest livery and arrived back to the birthplace of its former airline, courtesy of TriStar History and Preservation and their patrons.
About the plane
The MD-83 (SN 49575/LN 1414), which would become TWA’s Wings of Pride, got its start in 1987 with Spantax, a short-lived Spanish airline. Months later, the plane went to another short-lived Spanish airline, LAC. After less than a full year with the Spaniards the plane found a new home with BWIA West Indies Airways, where it operated until 1994. The plane would find its way into the TWA fleet as a gift from the employees to the airline, employer, and family they so loved. But the Wings of Pride’s story doesn’t end in 1994…
The Wings of Pride briefly wore the airline’s final formal livery (oddly enough, often referred to as “the final livery”) before being flown to TWA’s overhaul base at Kansas City International to receive a special inverted retro-livery.
The retro livery was based off of what was sometimes referred to as the “red and white” or “double stripe.” It was a mostly white fuselage with twin red cheatlines and large block lettering, but this plane was different.
What was traditionally white was to be red, and vice-versa. This simple color swap took a rather tame livery to the extreme. Simply stated, the livery was as bold as the act of kindness which led to its dedication. The employees who raised the $233,000/month for the lease determined the inverted livery would send a message to employees and customers alike: TWA had taken a beating but they weren’t giving up and this symbolized they were reinventing the airline from the inside out.
The Wings of Pride would wear this special livery until the end of TWA.
On Saturday, December 1, 2001, TWA flew its last flight. Flight 220, the ceremonial final TWA flight, departed Kansas City International (MCI) for Lambert St. Louis airport (STL) linking the two great Missouri cities that had shared in TWA’s heritage. The plane to carry the lucky passengers for the farewell flight was none other than the Wings of Pride, captained by TWA president Bill Compton.
According to a first-hand testimony from flight 220 passenger Ryan J. Pearl, after a water-cannon salute in KC and early departure passengers were presented with mementos, champagne, and “Trans World First” first-class boxed meals. After a fly-by of the STL airport the plane landed (ahead of schedule) to receive a final water cannon salute.
Fight 220 quickly taxied to STL’s gate C-10, ending TWA’s 76-year history and beginning a new chapter as a part of American Airlines.
Wings of Pride proudly wore its custom livery for a few more months before again returning to KC’s overhaul base in 2002, now under control of American Airlines.
The plane was stripped of its special livery only to receive the standard American Airlines bare metal scheme that the airline was so well known for. All that distinguished the plane was its registry which was preserved as N948TW. Over the next 12 years, memories of Wings of Pride would fade as the plane blended in with the rest American’s “Super 80” fleet.
In 2014, the plane was saved from salvage in a deal between American, TriStar History, and a number of sponsors. The Wings of Pride would again return to the KC overhaul base, only this time neither TWA, nor American, occupied the base. For nearly a year, the plane would sit on the ramp as funds were raised to remove the American Airlines livery and return it to the beloved inverted color design.
Wings of Pride will remain at the downtown airport with the TWA museum as a reminder to KC citizens of their rich aviation history. It will be kept in flying condition and pending various FAA approvals may be used to provide flights to patrons who supported the acquisition and re-livery before being used for educational purposes. Additionally, TriStar History expects to provide some support to honor flights, shuttling military veterans to Washington, DC to visit their memorials. Again, pending various regulatory approvals. The Wings of Pride will be one of the honored stars of the August 22-23 Kansas City Air Show.
TWA’s link to Kansas City
It’s a little-known fact that TWA was headquartered in Kansas City, MO for roughly half of its existence. Its last KC HQ was opened in 1956 on the corner of 18th and Baltimore in the historic Crossroads District. The airline remained incorporated in KC until the decision was made to relocate its executives to New York City in the late 1960s. Even with the loss of the company leadership, TWA maintained a presence at the building for a number of years.
In 2002, the former TWA HQ was added to the National Register of Historic Places. On the roof of the southwest corner of the building sits a 20-foot tall replica (of a replica) of a TWA Moonliner concept from Disney’s Tomorrowland exhibit. The original replica is on display at the National Airline History Museum (NAHM) which also houses a Lockheed Constellation, Douglas DC-3 and Martin 404, all three in TWA livery.
Kansas City is also home to the TWA Museum (TWAM) which occupies part of a building at the downtown airport which was initially part of TWA’s original KC headquarters. The TWA Museum, as the name suggests, is dedicated solely to preserving the history of TWA and its employees. TWAM is believed to host the most comprehensive collection of TWA artifacts of any museum. The crown jewel of TWAM is a Lockheed Electra Junior 12A, the world’s oldest flying former TWA plane.
About Tristar History
TriStar History and Preservation is a relatively new organization to enter KC’s aviation-related non-profit market. As the name suggests, the organization has a special place in their hearts for the L-1011 TriStar. In fact, they own one which is currently in Victorville, California.
Rather than operate a museum, TriStar is taking a unique and much more active approach in looking to cultivate the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) workers. The organization’s mission is “Inspiring greater achievement through higher altitude.” TriStar aims to use flyable aircraft (and sims) in educational and experiential programs to inspire students looks to provide youth.
That’s right. They are recruiting kids to be AvGeeks and pursue STEM careers by offering rides on historic planes. As a lover of aviation history and old planes, a parent, and proud STEM worker, I couldn’t be more excited about the future of this organization. Did I mention they also own a super-rare BAC One-Eleven? It is a very good time to be a KC-based AvGeek!