A Lifelong Fan Bids Farewell to United Airlines’ Last Boeing 747

November 30, 2017 | Author: Benét J. Wilson

The Boeing 747 has always had a special meaning to me because it was the first plane I ever flew on. My dad was an Air Force officer, and when we moved to England in 1971, we traveled there on a Pan Am 747. It was magical. Back then, air travel was a real event. My sister and I were wearing our Sunday best, complete with hats and white gloves.

 

As we boarded, the captain invited my sister and me into the cockpit. My sister declined, but I went up the spiral staircase and into the cockpit, which was a marvel. The captain took the time to explain how things worked and encouraged me to pursue my aviation dreams. That was the trip that turned me into a lifelong aviation geek.

 

When the Boeing 747 jumbo jet took its first flight on Feb. 9, 1969, it became an instant classic, thanks to its distinctive hump and its ability to carry up to 500 passengers over long distances.

 

United and its merger partner Continental Airlines have a rich history with the 747. In June 1970, Continental became one of the first airlines to put the Boeing 747 into U.S. domestic service, flying from Chicago to Los Angeles and on to Honolulu. One month later, United began 747 service between San Francisco and Honolulu. And in April 1985, United acquired Pan Am's iconic Pacific routes, which included a fleet of 11 Boeing 747SPs.


But as aircraft engineering has evolved, airlines moved toward lighter and more fuel-efficient two-engine jets. Although there are more than 480 747s still flying around the world, United Airlines made the decision early in 2017 to retire the jumbo jet from its fleet after a 47-year run.


I’ve been an aviation journalist for 20 years, and United was kind enough to invite me on this historic flight. The flight, on Nov. 7, was from San Francisco to Honolulu, United’s original first 747 route. On the way to the gate, a group of us, a mix of journalists and enthusiasts, stopped to look at an airport exhibit on the history of United Airlines. As we took photos, a gentleman stopped by and he happened to be Capt. Dave, one of the pilots on our historic flight.

 

Once we arrived at Gate 86, the party hosted by United CEO Oscar Munoz began in earnest. There was a cake and a huge commemorative card. The passengers lucky to have been invited on the flight — a fun mix of United’s best customers, employees, journalists and aviation geeks — had dressed up in clothing from the era. We spent time looking at a history of the United 747, taking photos at a poster of a 1970s lounge in the hump of the 747 and gazing at the jumbo jet outside the gate window, all while classic music from the decade played in the background.


One passenger I met was Diane Learned Cox, whose father was United’s first 747 captain. She had photos of her dad and informed me that she was on the flight as a personal guest of United’s CEO. I also met Tom Stuker, who has flown more than 18 million miles on United in the past 20 years. I had the pleasure of attending the big party United held for him at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in 2011 when he passed the 10-million-mile mark. He told me that he expects to pass the 20-million-mile mark in the next year or two.

 

As we boarded the flight, there were goodie bags with commemorative pins, a 747-themed amenity kit, a bottle of Coca-Cola celebrating the retirement and a bag of that quintessential 70’s candy, Pop Rocks. Munoz and the San Francisco ground crew closed the door and we were off. There was applause after the inflight safety announcement and the pilot’s greeting.


The flight then took off, making a deep bank over the Golden Gate Bridge. When the seatbelt light went off, the party began with a champagne toast. Flight attendants wearing flower wreaths on their heads began serving Mai Tais by Trader Vic’s, the airline’s longtime food and beverage partner on its Hawaii flights.


No seats were assigned in the 747’s hump. Instead, passengers were allowed to go up and socialize, with one even proposing to his girlfriend (she said yes). We played the popular Halfway to Hawaii game, where passengers guessed the geographic halfway point between takeoff and landing, and three passengers were within 10 seconds of the actual time.


The time flew by, and I admit I teared up as we made our final approach into Honolulu International Airport. After landing, we were greeted by employees and Hawaii Gov. David Ige, who hung leis around our necks. We watched from the window as employees placed a giant lei made out of 120 pounds of plastic bags around the hump of the 747. The next day, United’s last jumbo jet was flown from Honolulu to the aircraft boneyard in Victorville, Calif. It was a sad, but expected, end of an iconic aircraft.

TS final flight Tom Stuker, 18-million-mile passenger, a flight attendant in a vintage 1970 uniform, and the author getting ready to board the final flight. Photo courtesy of Benét J. Wilson.

 

Benet J Wilson

Benet J Wilson

An author and writer for Honeywell, Wilson is a veteran aviation journalist who has also managed communications for two airlines, an aircraft engine manufacturer and two aviation nonprofits. After growing up a proud U.S. Air Force brat, she’s now a student pilot.

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