Shea Oakley has been a commercial aviation enthusiast for as long as he can remember. He first joined the World Airline Historical Society (WAHS) in 1983 at age 15, and in 1987 was co-founder of the Tri-State Airline Historical Society. The following year Shea began the first airline collectibles show held in the New York area, “Airliners Northeast,” at Newark Airport. He has written many feature articles on U.S. airline history for several print and electronic publications and is currently Managing Editor of the quarterly journal of the WAHS. Shea joined the staff of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of NJ in 2001 and was its Executive Director from 2006 to 2018. His latest project is The Commercial Aviation History Consultancy, an enterprise devoted to fact-checking and research for commercial aviation projects in every form of media.
1 If you had the chance to fly on any aircraft, current or retired, what would it be and why?
I am tempted to say the first airliner I know I ever flew aboard was a BOAC (now British Airways) Vickers Super VC-10. However, being an infant at the time, I have no memory of that flight from JFK to Bermuda in 1968. What I do remember were many childhood flights from all three major New York-area airports to Sarasota, Florida on Eastern and National Airlines Boeing 727’s during the following decade. I would love to ride one of those long-gone tri-jets belonging to either carrier, just one more time. The reason is a simple one, a chance to relive many happy childhood flying memories.
2 Are there any livery trends that you loved and/or disliked?
Both the “Euro-White look,” pioneered in 1976 by Air France, and the advent of the use of “billboard” size logotypes by Pan Am in 1984 was, in my opinion, the beginning of the end of creativity in livery design by most airlines. This is especially true when both of these design elements are combined. The classic “Jet Age” liveries of the 1960s and ’70s were far more interesting and attractive. Some would point to the profusion of airlines fielding one or more “retro jets” painted in the colors of that era as a tacit admission that it was perhaps the best period in airline exterior design.
3 What would you consider the golden age of airliners?
There is a wide range of opinions on this subject! The term “Golden Age” has been applied to every era in commercial aviation, from the time of the legendary Pan Am flying boats of the 1930s to the advent of U.S. airline deregulation in 1978. I believe that in this country, as far as the largest number of passengers’ comfort and traveling pleasure, the height was reached during a short period in the early 1970s. This was when the first generation “Jumbo Jets,” the 747, L-1011, and DC-10, were introduced. It just so happened that it occurred when the soaring traffic increases of the 1960s, which inspired these airplanes, gave way to several years of economic recession and vastly decreased growth. The result was brand new widebody aircraft flying around often well less than half-full. The airlines tried to attract passengers by ripping out seats and adding large “lounge areas” in both first-class and economy cabins. Seat width and pitch, especially in coach, were already huge by today’s standards. When you add those lounges in what was already an era of great comfort and service aloft, you have what I consider to be the “Golden Age.”
4 Can you tell us about your new project, “The Commercial Aviation History Consultancy”?
The mission of The Commercial Aviation History Consultancy is to provide commentary, fact-checking, content editing, and research for airline and airport history-related media projects of all kinds. This includes broadcast, electronic, print, and visual media, as well as public and private exhibitions/displays. My desire is to see the history of passenger flying captured in the most accurate possible manner. A lifelong love for and study of airline and airliner history has given me the opportunity to put my personal passion for detail on the subject to good use. I work with organizations that want to ensure that this history is realistically depicted in any given project they are endeavoring to do, which touches, at any point, on commercial aviation’s past.
5 With the renewed interest in supersonic flight, do you expect to see more fact-checking on the Concorde?
2021 will mark nearly two decades since the retirement of the Anglo-French Concorde from commercial service. I have been amazed in recent years by the rise of intense historical interest in this truly beautiful and iconic airplane that was, at once, both a technological masterpiece and an economic disaster for her builders. I do suspect the advent of companies like Denver-based Boom working on a next-generation Supersonic Transport (SST) and NASA’s own low-sonic boom X-59 test aircraft taking to the skies has had some impact on this phenomenon. I also think that people are simply captivated by the “spirit” of Concorde herself. While I never was privileged to fly aboard her, many years ago, I worked in airport operations at JFK at a time when Concorde was still in operation. To stand on a service road immediately next to the runway at the point where “Speedbird” rotated for take-off, with that droop-nose down and afterburners blazing, was an experience I was able to experience more than once and will never forget.
BONUS QUESTION: Can you tell us about your new partnership with LaGuardia Gateway Partners?
I am providing LaGuardia Gateway Partners, specifically Terminal B LaGuardia Airport, with a weekly photo and text post related to the history of LaGuardia’s former Central Terminal Building (now the site of Terminal B). These posts are being published across several social media platforms to draw attention to the entire airport’s storied history and to show that, even as LGA is completely rebuilt for the needs of the 21st century, this history will not be soon forgotten. I am personally thankful for LaGuardia Gateway Partners’ desire to not let a needed future obliterate a meaningful past. This, by the way, is largely the result of one person’s initiative, Lisa Rentschler Patch-Vrod, Marketing and Communication Manager, Terminal B LaGuardia Airport. The idea was her brainchild, and I am very pleased to be working with both her and her organization.