Aviation News

November 13, 2017

An Ode to the Observation Decks at JFK

You might notice the silhouetted figures of several individuals on the roof of the building above and behind the photo of this Pan Am DC-8-33 taken in the 1960’s. They are members of the public enjoying what was once the largest observation deck at JFK International Airport. It encompassed all of the International Arrivals Building (IAB) and its East and West Wing, including piers, for over a decade after the terminal’s opening in 1957.

While the IAB roof was perhaps the most impressive of the Idlewild/Kennedy observation decks it was by no means the only one. In those pre-terrorism days both the Eastern Terminal (on the site of the current Terminal 1) and, later, the BOAC Unit Terminal (the current Terminal 7) had open-air decks. There was also an enclosed viewing area just beneath the cab of the original control tower. This was open to the public until the early 1970s (the author remembers visiting it while a young Port Authority volunteer intern in the mid 1980s. At the time it still had identification photos and descriptions of airliners in use circa 1960 mounted under glass.)

By the 1970s, all that remained of the original IAB deck was a small section in what was called the “center of the U” in the central part of the building across from the control tower. It too was finally closed in the 1980s.

One other excellent place for public observation of JFK flight operations existed after 1973; the rooftop parking lot of the Pan Am “Worldport” terminal, which was the now-demolished Terminal 3. From here there were excellent views all around of takeoffs on the long “Bay Runway” (13R-31L), ramp action at the Pan Am terminal itself, and then the West Wing of the IAB and the Northwest/Delta terminal (now T-2) on either side. As security concerns mounted at Pan Am during the second half of the 1980s, a large fence with panels eliminated the view from the Worldport roof almost entirely.

Today, there is an open-air section of the new Delta Terminal 4 extension, but it is located post-security and open to Delta Sky Club members only. In a sad sign of the times, no dedicated viewing areas remain at John F. Kennedy International, though the developer’s plans for the upcoming TWA Hotel at Terminal 5 include mention of a 10,000 square foot public observation deck.

(Photo by Mel Lawrence, Shea Oakley collection)



About the Author

Shea Oakley
Shea has been a commercial aviation enthusiast from childhood. 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 feature articles on U.S. airline history for Airliners Magazine and is Book Review Editor for the Captain’s Log, the quarterly journal of the WAHS. Shea joined the staff of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of NJ in 2001 and since 2006 he has been the museum’s Executive Director. His latest project is The Commercial Aviation History Consultancy, devoted to fact-checking and research for commercial aviation projects in every form of media.




 
 

 

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  • Lester Anderson

    Nice article. I remember the observation deck very well. When I frequented it in the 1960’s both IDL (later JFK) and EWR had a 10 cent fee for access. They also had a box that for a quarter you could “hear the control tower” until I realized it was a recording not live.

    I was also in the “audience” (upper gallery) when IDL was dedicated to be JFK. They said they did not have all the letters of the exterior sign that would say John F Kennedy International Airport, but they did unveil the three letters J F K. Ted Kennedy spoke at that event. About 2 years later, I was in a school (a college visit since I was a teaching major) and happened to leaf thru a history book, and saw a picture of the dedication that I attended, and I felt I was way to young to have been present at an event that is published in a history book.

    I remember great hamburgers at the snack bar in the “temporary old terminal” that National used while they built their own terminal.

    I had an even more geometric (I was always a math geek) appreciation of the Eastern terminal. Entry was via ramps, and those ramps of marble (or marble like) were suspended from the ceiling by steel cables and was a great geometric design. I even recall seeing it pictured in one of the geometry books from High School.

    • Shea Oakley

      You would make another good columnist for NYCaviation.com, Lester, in my humble opinion. You know NYC area commercial aviation history and you have a winsome way of communicating it.

      • speedbird1

        Thanks for the great memories Shea. As a youth, I visited the old IAB deck but snuck under the 10 cent turnstile. All I saw was Lufthansa aircraft. Somehow I learned about the Pan Am Roof from somewhere and I fell in love with the views. All operations were visible except for arrivals on Rwy 13L/31R. Air France Concordes, Aeroflot, Tarom, El Al and much, much more. As a bonus, food services and restrooms were just a short elevator ride away. No security guards hassling me except once by El Al as they spotted me changing films hidden under my jacket with the antenna of my scanner in plain sight. All good things must come to an end, After the attack on Pan Am 103, wired-off, visitors no longer were able to visit the Roof and cars were banned as well. I was devastated. I have 100s of photos in storage albums from that place. No place now at JFK welcomes spotters; we get chased away and questioned. When I smell jet fuel I always remember the great times on the Pan Am Roof.

        • Shea Oakley

          My pleasure and you are welcome. I remember being out on that bit of remaining IAB deck one rainy night while waiting to leave on a school trip to Spain in 1983. I still remember the Icelandic DC-8-63 parked right in front of me. I doubt they flew them much beyond that after the Stage 3 noise regs came into effect (on 1/1/85 if I remember correctly). By June of 1984 I was volunteering with the Port Authority JFK Ops Unit and was ramp-side a lot, otherwise I might have personally spent more time on the Pan Am roof. I remember El Al security, that’s for sure. They were stationed in a lot of places in that part of Kennedy. I’d say more about that, but then they’d have to kill me! 😉

  • Alan Dargie

    Such a shame observation decks are rare these days. Also a shame that aircraft are so similar these days! Thanks for your site, just discovered it and I enjoy it!