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The Queen’s Farewell

In the 1960’s the engineers at Boeing Aircraft Company were tasked with building the world’s largest passenger jet. Having agreed to a seemingly impossible delivery schedule for launch customer Pan Am, Boeing was in an extreme hurry to meet the demand.  Enter design engineer Joe Sutter to lead the team dubbed “The Incredibles,” who produced this flying machine in a record 29 months.

The resulting design would become a worldwide icon. It coined the household word “jumbo jet.’ It would also be called the “Queen of the Skies.” It was the “747.”

As a child of the Sixties, I tried to wrap my mind around how something so big could fly. This double decked behemoth soon won the imagination of the world. It would change the way we fly. The upper deck of a 747 is almost like a private plane. For the road weary business traveler these are the most coveted 747 seats, a sanctuary away from the masses.

Downstairs, first class is enviable as well, along with additional business class seats and lots of coach seats. The 747 was built for long haul travel and large numbers. In a single-class, high density configuration, it could hold over 660 passengers, bringing new meaning to the word “jumbo.”

With its distinctive hump and immense size, even at a distance

you know it’s a 747. The Queen of the Skies still turns heads at airports the world over.

After 47 years, both United and Delta Air Lines, the remaining US air carriers operating the 747, decided to phase it out in favor of newer and more fuel-efficient aircraft. Both promised to send the Queen off in style, each in their own special way. To be part of the big retirement party, my travels have taken me half way around the world. Join me on this globetrotting 747 Farewell Tour.

The Farewell Begins

On the morning of Oct. 25, I left San Francisco onboard United Airlines flight 893 nonstop to Seoul’s Incheon international Airport. This was the first of many “Farewell Flights” I would do in the next few months.

Oct. 29, 2017 – UA 892 would be the last regularly scheduled international flight on a United Airlines 747. Many United employees flew over just for this historic flight as well.

Departure was set for 4:55 PM. Signage was all around the departure area along with a large scale model of the 747. Passengers had plenty of time for photo ops before a short program featuring the flight and cabin crew. Captain Rodriguez said a few words along with United Airlines country manager David Ruch. Those few passengers who were unaware of the historic significance of this flight now knew what was taking place.

When it came time to board, despite the boarding zone numbers, everyone lined up at once. No one wanted to miss this majestic bird’s historic flight and swan song. Once aboard we were given a small booklet outlining the history of United’s 747s. Looking back 47 years ago, I would have never imagined I’d be here to participate in such an event.

At my seat I found an elegant card which featured a color photo of the 747 and a certificate, suitable for framing – in fact, if you were in business class, yours was framed already. In part the certificate read: “Congratulations. You are now part of United’s history.”

My seatmates for this journey included a pilot for Atlas Airlines who one day wants to fly 747s and a United Airlines flight attendant who started her career with Pan Am. We all swapped stories of our love of travel and some of our favorite 747 memories. It made the flight go quicker, especially in coach.

Before landing, the flight crew got nostalgic and shared stories of the 747. The purser’s voice broke as she made the final announcement upon arrival in San Francisco. Passengers began to deplane knowing we had shared a special moment in time.

These flights are not just about the 747 – but how it has affected so many people. Some began careers in aviation because of this plane. Others hold it dear for the travel memories it brought them; in days past they even dressed up for the experience. Over the years, the 747 was a plane that made the journey special.

This was the last United Airlines 747 International flight. I had two more “Farewell flights” to go…

Retracing the Path to Honolulu 

A week later, it was time for the last domestic and final United 747 passenger flight – UA747. Retracing the first United 747 flight, it would follow the same route from San Francisco to Honolulu. Seats sold out in less than two hours – $551.00 coach and $1958.00 for business class if you were lucky enough to reserve one.

Departure was set for the morning of Nov. 7, and United would send it off in style – retro 1970’s style. Passengers were invited to wear their retro best for this non-stop party flight and many appeared in hip costumes of the times.

The party began at the gate. An entire wall was decorated with giant graphics featuring a timeline history of the 747, plus clever backdrops for photo ops and a giant tribute card ready for passenger’s comments and signatures. Speeches ensued from the captain of the flight and United’s CEO Oscar Munoz. Once briefed by Captain David Smith, passengers boarded the flight to find a goodie bag at their seat. Take-off was delayed a bit, but no one seemed to mind. It meant more time on this iconic aircraft. Soon we were airborne, flying over San Francisco with a strategic nod to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a clear day and the views were fantastic.

At cruising altitude, it was time for a champagne toast to the Queen of the Skies. Many passengers stood for this poignant moment. Afterwards, they swapped “747” stories; memories of flying on the 747 as children, businessmen who commuted on it, like United’s 18 million miler Tom Stuker, and lots of career United employees. Retro menus featured Trader Vic’s-inspired selections from the 1970’s (including 70’s-sized portions). After the meal passengers had a chance to tour the upper deck. Flight attendants in 70’s uniforms were on hand to pose for photos.

All too soon the classic “prepare the cabin for landing” announcement was made, and it was time for our descent through rainy and cloudy Hawaiian skies. As we touched down in Honolulu applause broke out for this final flight. When we parked at the gate, no one was in a hurry to deplane as they wanted to savor this aircraft and this moment for as long they could.

A traditional Hawaiian lei greeting awaited not only passengers but our 747 as well. United’s Hawaii based employees created a giant orange lei that was promptly hoisted over the top of aircraft, creating a fabulous farewell photo. A speech by Hawaii’s Governor David Ige reminded us that the 747 brought many tourists to Hawaii and shaped the economy over the last several decades. It was a destination where the 747 made a difference.

A few days later this 747 was ferried to the boneyard, ending United Airlines’ 747 operations.

All Hail the Queen

Delta Air Lines began flying the 747 in 1970 and operated a handful of them until they were retired in 1977. In 2008, Delta acquired Northwest Airlines and they were back flying the Queen, primarily on international routes until 2017. This second and final retirement took the form of a cross country extravaganza, dubbed “All Hail the Queen – The Farewell Tour.” Though a series of parties and flights, Delta and its employees would say goodbye in their own special way.

To qualify for one of these farewell flights, employees entered an essay contest describing their memories of the 747. For the public, a limited number of tickets were up for grabs in a special Delta SkyMiles Auction. The competition was fierce; bidding for the last farewell flight leg ATL-MSP-ATL topped out at 920,000 SkyMiles.

My Delta 747 farewell journey began the day before the flight in the giant Delta Tech Ops Atlanta hangar. A 747 sat in the center, lit up from both sides. A rear stairway funneled guests through a tour of this working 747. A pop-up shop offered Delta 747 Farewell Tour merchandise, including key tags made from the metal skin of a previously retired 747.

A program featured current and past Delta pilots and flight crews sharing their history with the 747, and a speech from Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian. My personal favorite part of the evening was the opportunity to for guests to autograph this 747.

The next morning, I checked in for flight DL 9771, a day trip from Atlanta to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Greeted at the gate by Capt. Stephen Hanlon, Delta’s chief 747 pilot, passengers were briefed about the flight then welcomed aboard. As we taxied out to the runway, the Atlanta airport fire department gave us a water cannon salute. Take-off was quick and was met with applause from the passengers.

Once airborne, the cabin crew started meal service. Passengers then had a chance to mingle. I met several former 747 pilots, cabin crew and support personnel; it was an emotional goodbye for many.

As we neared the Twin cities, Captain Hanlon announced we would circle the city and then do a low-level fly-by or “missed approach” at the MSP airport. The views were amazing as he pulled the plane up and around to bring it in for landing. Once at the gate we slowly filed out of our beloved bird and into the airport to be greeted by cameras and media.

Another party took place at the Delta MSP hangar. As we entered I saw another 747 already parked there. Walking around the base I saw my signature – it was the same 747 I had signed the night before in Atlanta. Wow! Delta had flown this 747 to MSP ahead of our flight to greet us today.

More food and one last chance to buy farewell tour souvenirs and then back to MSP airport to board our 747 for the final flight. As we taxied out for take-off, it was too cold for a water cannon salute; we had to make do with de-icing instead. After takeoff for the return to Atlanta, I realized this was the most historic part of the farewell tour, the last flight. The hoopla subsided, and the plane grew silent for this last leg.

As we touched down in Atlanta we were treated to one of the smoothest landings I have experienced. Applause broke out all through this 747 and with that, Delta’s “747 Farewell Tour – All Hail the Queen” had come to an end, bringing to a close a remarkable chapter in US aviation history.