“There will never be another 747”: Pilots reflect on the Queen of the Skies

December 20, 2017 | Author: Adam Kress

With United Airlines retiring the iconic Boeing 747 last month and Delta Air Lines completing its last flight on Dec. 19, there’s no better time to reflect on what made this aircraft so special. We’ll also look at Honeywell Aero’s technological contribution to the success of the jet so aptly dubbed “Queen of the Skies.”

“Ahead of its time”

Launched in 1966, the 747 was, at the time, the largest civilian jet in the world. It was massive in scale for the times, with a fuselage 225 feet long. The 747’s first test flight was on Feb. 9, 1969, and its first commercial flight was on Pan Am nearly one year later. Boeing offered three configurations: all-passenger, all-cargo and a convertible passenger/freighter model.

Randy Moore is a former 747 pilot who currently flies Honeywell’s 757 Connected Aircraft. He flew 747-200 and -300 freighters for Atlas Air in 2000 and 2001.

Moore called flying the 747 intimidating. “It wasn’t like anything else. You had to be really careful on taxiways because if you turned wrong, you could blow small aircraft away. Its wingspan was so wide that inexperienced crews could knock parked aircraft at the gate.”

But to fly it was a dream, he said: “It was way ahead of its time. It was smooth as glass when landing.”

“A majestic aircraft”

The first 747 was delivered to launch customer Pan Am on Jan. 15, 1970. Honeywell’s technology contributions on the Queen of the Skies included the main and nose wheels, the flight management system, the 331 series auxiliary power unit and the cabin pressure control system. Its entire global navigation system, which weighed less than a modern laptop computer, also included Honeywell’s LASEREF® inertial reference system. Of course the jumbo jet also had the now-famous hump, which gave the 747 its unique look. The 747’s cockpit, located in the hump, allowed cargo operators front access to the inside of the jet via a hinged nose.

“When you were sitting in the cockpit of the 747, there’s a view and experience that you can’t get on any other aircraft,” said Mark Rogers, a former first officer aboard the United Airlines’ flagship Boeing 747 who is training as a 737 captain.

“The 747 is a majestic aircraft. It’s something that every pilot wants to fly if they have the opportunity.”

Pilot Rich Davidson, a first officer for UPS, currently flies the Boeing 757 and 767 but has logged more than 2,100 hours in the 747.

“When you arrive anywhere in the world in a 747, you get the best clearances and are generally treated very well,” said Davidson, who is authorized to fly the 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter, better known by its nickname “Dreamlifter.” “And when you arrive in the Dreamlifter, you are treated as if you are the 747’s internationally-famous brother.”

“It has been a real privilege”

As of November 2017, Boeing had delivered 1,540 of the jumbo jets. But technological advances in composite building materials and the desire by airlines to have twin-engine, fuel-efficient aircraft made the 747 less desirable in global fleets. After Delta Air Lines flies its last flight on Dec. 20, the 747 will no longer fly in any U.S. commercial fleet.

Rogers said he would have upgraded to captain years ago if not for the 747.

“It was bittersweet,” said Rogers, who flew his last 747 flight on Oct. 17 from Seoul to San Francisco. “On the one hand, it was exciting for me to move on and upgrade and become a captain after 20 years. But on the other hand, there will never be another 747 and it’s hard to let it go.”

The Seattle manufacturer has other aircraft in its wide-body fleet, including the 777-200 and -300 families, as well as the 787 Dreamliner, its first jet primarily constructed with composite materials. Boeing is currently building the 777X, which will feature carbon fiber-reinforced polymer wings with folding wingtips.

But despite airlines moving away from the Queen of the Skies and toward next-generation wide-body aircraft, pilots who have flown the 747 still have a lot of affection for it.

“It has been a real privilege to have been with The Queen — my Queen — for so long,” said Alan Carter, who has flown 747s since 1989 for seven separate airlines. “It is very sad to see the passenger operation on this truly wonderful aircraft declining.”

“I hate to see it go,” said Moore. “But I know that times change and things need to change with them, including airplanes.”

Adam Kress

Adam Kress

Sr. Manager, External Communications

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