DALLAS – While some of us are interested in commercial aviation from a travel perspective, Shea Oakley made it a passion that turned into a career as a historian. 

Mr. Oakley has been a commercial aviation enthusiast since childhood. He first joined the World Airline Historical Society (WAHS) in 1983 and has served on its board for the past 14 years. In 1987, he was co-founder of the former Tri-State Airline Historical Society.

The aviation historian joined the staff of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of New Jersey, US, in 2001 and was the museum’s Executive Director from 2006 to 2018.

That year, he started The Commercial Aviation History Consultancy, an organization devoted to fact-checking and research for commercial aviation projects in every form of media.

He currently serves as the Pan Am Historical Foundation’s Principal Contributor and Historical Advisor for Social Media. Mr. Oakley began his involvement with FCAP over 20 years ago.

During that time, he has attended multiple training sessions at FCAP H.Q., and has acted as representative of the ministry at numerous airline historian/enthusiast shows around the U.S., administered FCAP’s New York Metro Area Facebook group, and been a member of our Advisory Board, among other roles. He is also currently the Principal Contributor for Social Media for FCAP.

Airways had the opportunity to speak with Shea Oakley about his beginnings in aviation, his journey as a commercial aviation historian, and the importance of the field.

WI: It’s good to have you in this interview. At what point in life did you take an interest in being an aviation historian?

SO: As far as the historian aspect of it and my interest in commercial aviation, I can’t remember a time when I was not interested, and there’s a reason for that.

The first time I flew, I was four months old, in 1968. We were on BOAC flying from New York Kennedy to Bermuda. And my father had something called the BOAC Junior Jet Club, and it included a logbook for children to log their flights. My father got it for me on that flight when I was four months old.

One would give it to the flight attendant, who would then give it to the cockpit crew, who would fill it out and sign it. And he began that for me when I got old enough to hand it to the flight attendant myself, at four or five.

The FA would tell me to take the logbook to the captain, and I would find myself in the cockpit, as a young boy, getting my logbook signed.

It is for that reason that I actually kept that up until adulthood. I’m on my sixth logbook. Now I’ve logged virtually every commercial flight on which I’ve traveled since June 1968, and so that’s really where it began.

So I can’t remember a time when I was not fascinated by airlines and airliners.

It’s literally a lifelong interest as far as it becoming something that was more of a formal historical interest. I was 15 when I joined the World Airline Historical Society and went to my first National Convention of theirs, the following year in 1984 in St. Louis.

So that’s when you could say my official historical interest began but my interest and passion for commercial aviation is lifelong. 

Shea’s grandmother
22-month Shea

You mentioned that you’ve flown quite a number of times. Which are your favorite airlines?

That’s a tough one. Are we talking about airlines in the past or airlines in the present?


I would say my favorite airline that is no longer with us is Eastern and that’s because as a child, more than any other airline in this part of the country, particularly traveling to Florida as my family was vacationing in Florida, Eastern was actually the most used, followed by National Airlines. But I would say Eastern.

I collect airline memorabilia, and I have more Eastern artifacts than from any other airline. So I flew them between 1968, from infancy to my college years. They are, without a doubt, the classic legacy carrier that I’m most interested in.

Although I have an interest in National Pan Am, BOAC and Delta would be the other ones. As far as current airlines,  probably because BOAC began it all for me, British Airways would be my favorite current carrier. 

TWA Fuselage

What challenges have you faced in your career so far as a commercial aviation historian?

It’s one thing when you’re working, as I did for 16 years for an aviation museum. When you’re working for a larger organization, it’s a little bit easier than when you’re freelancing.

For the last five years with a commercial aviation history consultancy, I’ve been a freelance airline historian, and basically, the mission statement says that it exists to provide video, audio, or written commentaries on any aspect of airline history.

So if there’s an organization, particularly a media organization, that’s working on a project of any kind involving commercial aviation in the past and they need accuracy assistance or general commentary, I’m available for that.

You don’t get paid to do interviews, but the advantage of that is that you get exposure, which allows you to promote the other side of your business, which is doing paid work.

What’s the highlight of your career so far?

The highlight of my career as an airline historian is having the opportunity to be interviewed for documentaries and by major news outlets like the BBC and The New York Times. It’s an honor and it’s also exciting to be able to talk about the thing I’m most passionate about and be able to give accurate information.

It’s something that’s important to me—that we see more accuracy and more media about the history of aviation, especially commercial aviation in general. 

What advice would you give someone that would like to be a commercial aviation historian? Perhaps someone that doesn’t have the same background, starts young and maybe picks up interest along the way.

I have a degree in aviation management, which has been helpful, but if I were to encourage someone young who would like to make it his or her career, I would say perhaps get a degree in aviation management but also get a degree in general history, in museum management, or in museum operations.

Because really, if it were not for the 16 years spent at the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of New Jersey, I would not have the credibility that I have now. There are things that I’ve done.

I started a small airline historical society in the New York area with a friend. When I was 19 I started the airline collectible show in the New York area in the Northeast when I was 20 so there were things that I did earlier on as far as formal training.

I think having, if possible, a degree in both aviation and history or museum management would be good advice. 

United Airlines’ concept SST

I would like to know. Of the 2022 aviation trends, which one is your favorite and why?

Well, I’m a big proponent of sustainable commercial supersonic flight. I am a fan of Boom Supersonic out of Denver largely because when I was a child, in the early seventies, my assumption was that in a few years I would be flying around in Concorde and Boeing SSTs, you know, the American answer that was planned for the Concorde that ended up being canceled.

Supersonic flight was assumed to be the next step. And of course, while we had more than two decades of Concorde services, it was quite limited. Now we have an opportunity possibly with boom supersonic to see a second supersonic age that might actually be widespread. They have ordered their provisional orders for 140 aircraft right now from the likes of American Airlines (AA), United Airlines (UA), and Japan Airlines (JL).

So whether or not they do make it into series production, is still an open question. They would need about US$5bn to do that. But if it goes into production that excites me because we are living in a period where travel is, obviously not as comfortable or luxurious as it was 50 years ago. The aircraft have become, if anything, slower, not faster.

We are now flying aircraft that don’t fly as fast as the first-generation jetliners of the 1960s. And the other thing is how many “twin engine mounted on the wing” airliners can you have? It’s not quite as exciting as back in the days when there were twin jets and tri-jets and quad jets and everything from Boeing 707 to 767 is flying around at the same time.

I’m looking forward to breakthroughs that see things like supersonic flights or if it’s something that can be practically achieved. The concept of electric-powered airliners is also interesting to me but it’s the idea of finally moving past the 500 to 600 miles per hour barrier that we’ve been flying since 1958, that I find most okay.

The Museum

Why is aviation history important to you and to the world?

Well, I think aviation history is important to me because, for as long as I can remember, there’s been a fascination with flight. And there are a lot of people out there that are interested in military aviation. There are a lot of people out there that are interested in general aviation, including people that want to fly as pilots and a vast number who fly on commercial airlines [IATA forecast predicts 8.2 billion air travelers in 2037].

And it’s been a dream for human beings, for our entire existence as a race, to be able to fly. And it’s only in the last century really that commercial flight has been a possibility and it’s only become mass transportation in the last forty years or so. This age-old dream of being able to fly has been fulfilled in our lifetime.

So, it’s something that I think is inherently exciting to me because the advent of commercial aviation has opened up vistas for travel, commerce, and the opportunity for people of the world to draw closer together to know each other for the world to be shrunk in a sense, by the speed of air transport. It has revolutionized the way we live in so many ways.

The fact that we have a global air cargo system that transports goods around the world, is something that was unthinkable a century ago. Unthinkable aviation.

Commercial aviation is sort of a modern miracle. And again, it’s really important to stress that commercial aviation when it’s become something that’s more mass transit than sort of the luxury of the golden age of air travel still has set human beings free from ground travel to air all over the globe which is really amazing. 

Duxford Concorde private tour

What is your favorite historical moment in commercial aviation?

The inaugural flight of the Boeing 747 by Pan American on January 22, 1970, is definitely profound in the sense that it is what began the age of mass air transportation. It was pioneered by Pan Am. I have the privilege of doing social media work for the Pan Am Historical Foundation, whose mission is to preserve and promote the history of the world’s most experienced airline as their advertising used to go.

For me, I think the event of the 747, which would never have happened if it weren’t for the two companies Boeing and Pan American, was the most important meaningful moment in the history of commercial aviation.

The greatest moment for me was when I worked at New York JFK for a while in airport operations and I often had the opportunity to be next to the runway when Concorde was taking off and it lifted off.

That is almost an indescribable experience because we were only a hundred feet away from the aircraft. The airplane is lifting off, it’s rotating, and you’ve got the afterburners, the full reheat coming from the Rolls Royce Olympic engines, the sound, and the fury.

It wasn’t something that you just heard; it was something that you felt when Concorde was that close to you at takeoff thrust. Every time it was tremendously exciting.

Shea at JFK

My last question: you’ve already told me about your favorite airline. How about your favorite aircraft?

That’s a tough one. I am a bit of a partisan for Boeing. As a child, I would fly with my family in a Boeing 727, and up until now, it’s been one of my all-time favorite aircraft because I identify it with my childhood memories of flying.

I would give anything to have another ride on an Eastern or a National Boeing 727 on a whisper jet. 

Thank you for your time. 

It’s been a privilege to be interviewed by you and by Airways Magazine.

Featured image and all photos courtesy: Seah Oakley

Source: airwaysmag.com

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