Monday, February 13, 2012

Seoul's Ruined Jumbo Jet

By Michael John Grist

The Juan T. Trippe Jumbo Jet was once the crown jewel of the Pan Am fleet, built in 1970 as the world’s first commercial jumbo jet. Now it’s the shabby ruin of a high-concept restaurant in Seoul, South Korea I visited in the summer of 2009, with SY. This is the story of our explore, and the story of how such a historic plane ended up in such bizarre circumstances.

Nose cone of the Juan T. Trippe

I was in Korea to visit SY’s family and get to know something about her country. On our trip we visited all the major tourist highlights- the War Museum, the Seoul Tower, various ancient palaces and of course, this plane.

The Juan T. Trippe is hardly on the Korean tourist trail, nor does it feature in any guidebooks or promotional brochures, but it’s after glimpsing it on the internet I knew I just had to visit this amazing sight for myself. It did not disappoint. To say the vision of a jumbo jet parked beside a city is incongruous is an understatement. It’s downright bizarre, and intriguing. That’s clearly what the owners hoped for when they bought it in California, had it chopped into 62 pieces and shipped in giant containers across the Pacific.

What owners? Time for a little history.

Easy to spot
.This jet was built in 1969, and named after Juan T. Trippe, one of the leading aeronautical pioneers of his time. He was a Howard Hughes figure who invented the very idea of the Jumbo Jet. He also founded the company Pan American Airlines, which in the 1930′s and 40′s was the biggest airline company in the world.

However modern times were not kind to Pan Am, and after Trippe’s death in 1975 it began to ail. In 1991 the company filed for bankruptcy and was not bailed out by the US government. As a result it was broken up and all its planes sold. The Juan T. Trippe flew a few more routes between Nigeria, California, and Somalia for various owners, before being put out to pasture in 1999. However in 2001 a South Korean couple bought it as their dream-retirement package, shipped it to Seoul, and converted into a high-concept restaurant.

On dry land again they rebuilt it, fashioning new stubby wings for it to keep the image complete, gutting it to add in Asian-style floor-dining at the level of the windows, a kitchen, and an executive suite up where the pilots once steered the giant craft.

The restaurant didn’t last long though, failing in the mid-2000′s, leaving the couple living in a hut beneath the hull to serve as security guards to keep out vandals. We met them, when they popped out from their shack under the plane to chase us away.

More on that now.

Bold against the city.

Giant nose.

SY figured all the logistics for this trip, not surprisingly since she’s Korean. It meant taking a combination of several trains and buses out of central Seoul 40km or so.

“We’re nearly at the end of the line,” she said, as the bus pulled round another twisting turn amongst Korea’s tall green mountains.

“I see it!” I cried, as for a moment the nose of a bright blue jumbo jet poked its head out at me, before another green mountain blocked it from view.

We got off the bus and hurried to see it, and there it was. The Juan T. Trippe in all its jumbo glory, clearly abandoned, gorgeous against a gorgeous blue sky.

Ready to take-off, again. Here the stair-case and hut under the belly are clear.

After arriving and wandering around a bit in awe, we approached. There was a shabby looking hut beneath the jet’s belly, and an access stair going up the side. We climbed it up, only to be halted at the top by locked glass doors. Down the stairs, seemingly roused by our footsteps, an angry old man appeared out of nowhere and spat some aggressive Korean at us. SY told me he was basically telling us to get lost, get off his property, which I suppose was fair enough.

A noodle shop under its wing.

Fair enough, but we’d not come all that distance to give up so easily. SY took point and I stood in back smiling and flashing my camera as we went down to the shack the old man lived in, squatted underneath the hull. He called out into the house and an old woman emerged, presumably his wife, who seemed pretty unimpressed with us, though perhaps amenable to suggestion. SY flashed her press credentials and pushed through the woman’s negativity with some semi-true exaggerations (this is a photographer from England, I’m from a magazine in Tokyo, we’ve come only to see your plane, we really had hoped to see inside, please don’t say we’ve come all this way for nothing), not really false but neither totally true.

The woman persisted, but SY just started walking forwards and saying ‘thank you, thank you’ and before I knew it the woman had relented and we were in the fuselage (where it was baking hot) and taking shots.

At the entrance, looking in

Dining zones.

Tables, windows.

It was obvious the woman was only just tolerating us, so SY kept her busy with a barrage of questions (taking notes all the while), while I took photos as fast as I could. I hurried towards the cockpit but the woman signaled for me to stop. SY said ‘thank you thank you’ a few more times and we both made a dash onwards, unobstructed.

The cockpit was set up like an office, with a few chairs looking out of the glass over the city blocks, an old PC in the back. Down the spiral staircase beneath it was a conference room kind of space, a nice long table and chairs fitting perfectly in the narrowing fuselage.

Conference zone.

Conference zone windows.



Suite area.

Looking down on clouds.

Low tables and seating cushions.

We dashed around a bit more, took a few more photos, then that was it, and we were out in the cool fresh air again. SY was able to fill me in on all that she’d learned: the two old folks were the owners, they’d bought it with their own cash as their dream-retirement package, the first commercial Jumbo Jet ever in their possession as a restaurant. It was a big dream, and one can only respect their ambition.

For the few years it managed to survive, I can imagine all the locals coming to check it out at least once, just to say they had eaten there, but after you’ve used up that pool, and the middle-era Jumbo Jet fan pool, what do you have left? A rather expensive, sad folly in the middle of nowhere.

Down the side.

Out the back.

The wife also told SY that numerous film and TV crews had come by asking for permission to come aboard and do interviews, but she’d always refused, including refusing a crew from NHK (the Japanese BBC) who had come especially to shoot it. Why she let us in is a mystery, but probably has to do with SY’s determination. Kudos to her for that!

She further told us the plane would be shipped off elsewhere, and would become a museum, which seems a fitting third life for such a storied plane. (note- it has since been demolished, though I can’t say whether it ended up as a museum or simply scrap metal).

Juan T. Trippe, the aviator.

One of the sections preparing for transit, back in 2001 after the couple bought it.

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