The Pope’s Laundry and Other Tales of Papal Travels

TWA was Pope John Paul II’s ride during his first visit to the United States in 1979.

TWA carried Pope John Paul II on his visits to the United States in 1979, 1987, and 1995 (shown here) on aircraft dubbed Shepherd I. Company lore notes that “TWA” can also stand for “traveling with angels.” (Photographer unknown)
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Since Paul VI became the first Pope to travel by airplane—to Israel and Jordan—in 1964, many others have followed. This year Pope Francis plans to travel to, among other places, Colombia, Portugal, India, and Bangladesh. It’s traditional for the Pope to fly Alitalia, the Italian national airline, to his destination, reports Crux Now, then to take the host country’s national carrier on the return journey. Within the United States, Francis will fly American Airlines, which has hosted the Pope before, as TWA did in the past (TWA was absorbed by American in 2001).

Pope John Paul II flew to the United States seven times: his first visit was in 1979. When Sally McElwreath started as director of marketing communications for TWA earlier that year, she had no idea she would be accompanying John Paul II on his papal visit. McElwreath’s recollection of the trip is included in Trans World Airlines: A Book of Memories, published last year.

A specially configured 727 (unofficially dubbed Shepherd I) carried the Pope to six cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. He sat in the first-class cabin, while the Italian press rode in the back. Non-Italian press followed in Shepherd II and Shepherd III. McElwreath recalls:

One of the natural concerns was the weather, be it at the airport on arrival where there were well-wishers congregated, or those lining the streets and roadways. At almost every stop it rained, but when the Pope’s plane arrived, and the aircraft door opened, the sun would break out. Some said it was a miracle. What wasn’t a miracle was that in those cities where the Pope caught a few raindrops, his clothing had to dry overnight. Picture a TWA 727 at the airport looking majestic against the sky. What the public didn’t see was a clothesline hanging out to dry. Once [the Pope] returned from the visit to the city, [his] laundry was collected through the cockpit window.

The airline hoped its logo would be shown at each stop, but it didn’t happen:

We affixed TWA logos on each step so that as the Pope descended, the cameras could see TWA with each step the Pope took. The photo was shown worldwide as he arrived at each city. But there was a problem: the media wasn’t going to give us free advertising and airbrushed the TWA logo out of each step. As the Pope descended the aircraft, each step on the stairway was shiny white...and blank. Foiled again!

Everyone involved with the flight wanted to have some documentation that he or she had worked on the Pope’s airplane. Says McElwreath:

As the 727 stopped at each city, I’d briefly examine what was being done with the aircraft, particularly any mechanical work in progress, just to make sure there were no potential problems. When I examined the checklists, I was alarmed that there were many entries and so many checks, possibly reflecting that there was an inordinate amount of potential problems. I found that the mechanics, baggage handlers and fuelers all wanted to have in writing that they were part of the Pope’s trip. They all wanted to find a reason to sign the check-off list. (There were no mechanical problems.) On the final 727 flight, those who had worked on the aircraft signed their names on Shepherd I’s fuselage.

TWA carried the Pope on his 1979, 1987, and 1995 visits to the United States. The Pope’s travel bed and seatbelt from the 1987 Papal Charter—now classified as relics, since Pope John Paul II’s canonization in 2014—are on display at the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center in Kansas City, Kansas. They were loaned back to TWA for the 1995 flight.

Excerpts are reprinted with the permission of the authors.

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