The end of an era: Farewell to the 747

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - Retropo­lis LORI ARATANI

It’s been more than 40 years, but Ta­mula Sawyer still re­mem­bers the soft emer­ald green dress and stylish high heels she wore on her first trip aboard a Boe­ing 747 from Bos­ton to Honolulu.

Back then, said Sawyer, who lives in Worch­ester, Mass., peo­ple dressed to fly. The seats were huge and com­fort­able, and the plane was nearly empty — so empty that pas­sen­gers could choose their seats.

Dixie Deans was 18 when he im­mi­grated with his fam­ily to the United States from Dublin. It was the first time he’d flown any­where, and the 747 was just about the big­gest thing he’d ever

seen. His mother, father and seven sib­lings nearly took up two mid­dle rows on the world’s first wide­body jet.

“I re­mem­ber think­ing that the first plane I was on, go­ing to Amer­ica, was a 747 and how cool that was,” he re­called.

And so the an­nounce­ment this year that two of the coun­try’s big­gest air­lines, United and Delta, were re­tir­ing the iconic plane hit hard. While in­ter­na­tional car­ri­ers and freight com­pa­nies will con­tinue to use the 747, it will no longer be a sight.

“I feel sad that this won­der­ful plane that brought [me] to Amer­ica is com­ing to an end,” said Deans, 55. “It will stay in my heart for­ever.”

The re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment spurred a wave of nos­tal­gia for a plane that for bet­ter or worse for­ever changed the way peo­ple trav­eled. Air travel was still con­sid­ered a lux­ury when Boe­ing made its huge bet on a jet like no other. The com­pany, still re­coup­ing the money it had in­vested in the 707, was already stretched thin and had to bor­row money for the new air­liner. It even shut down one of its di­vi­sions, which made tur­bines, to help fi­nance the project.

“Oh, it was a huge gam­ble,” said Boe­ing’s his­to­rian Michael Lom­bardi.

“It was a very, very spe­cial air­plane when it en­tered service,” said Bob van der Lin­den, cu­ra­tor of air trans­porta­tion at the Smith­so­nian’s Air and Space Mu­seum. “It was huge — it was so much larger than anything that had flown be­fore.”

The 747 took in­ter­na­tional air travel to the next level, said Omar Idris, the sta­tion man­ager for United Air­lines hub at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port, who re­mem­bers don­ning a suit for his first 747 trip — from New York to Cairo — when he was just 5.

“It al­lowed more peo­ple to fly to far­away places at a lower cost,” he said.

The nos­tal­gia for the 747 is a rare warm and fuzzy for an in­dus­try more of­ten un­der fire for its treat­ment of pas­sen­gers.

For some, it was the spi­ral stair­case to the plane’s up­per deck. John van Dyke, who was 14 and ter­ri­fied of fly­ing, re­mem­bers be­ing in­vited into the cock­pit to sit with the pi­lots. Once the plane lev­eled off, he re­turned to his seat, his anx­i­ety al­layed.

Dhruva Gu­rushankar, just 7 when he flew, re­mem­bers sneak­ing past the flight at­ten­dant to use the bath­room in the up­stairs lounge and re­turn­ing with a bowl of straw­berry ice cream.

For Deans, his trip to Amer­ica was the first and only time he’s ever flown in a 747.

“To this day I get goose bumps look­ing at the new planes be­ing put to­gether,” said Deans, who grew up to be­come a main­te­nance me­chanic for Boe­ing based in Everett, Wash., where the 747s are built.

As ev­i­dence of that good­will, United sent one of the last 747s in its fleet on a farewell tour of its ma­jor hubs this fall. The trip in­cluded a stop at Dulles, where United used to fly the 747 di­rect to Bei­jing. Seats on the air­line’s fi­nal 747 flight from San Fran­cisco to Honolulu, which took place ear­lier this month, sold out within two hours of be­ing an­nounced. Delta’s last flight, sched­uled for De­cem­ber, is likely to draw a sim­i­lar out­pour­ing.

“It just has a cer­tain class, a cer­tain panache,” said vet­eran pi­lot Jeff Greco, 65, of Los An­ge­les, who spent much of his ca­reer fly­ing the suc­ces­sor of the “Queen of the Skies” but made sure to take a run in the 747 be­fore hang­ing up his wings this year.

Boe­ing’s 747 was, in­deed, a game changer. It made its de­but when peo­ple were just wak­ing up to the pos­si­bil­i­ties that air travel of­fered. Its tail was taller than a six-story building, and it car­ried enough fuel to power a small au­to­mo­bile around the globe 36 times. With its dis­tinc­tive hump and dou­ble-deck, it quickly be­came the most rec­og­niz­able plane in the world. A spe­cial ver­sion of the 747 has been used as the pres­i­dent’s Air Force One since 1990. An­other ver­sion was used to carry space shut­tles for NASA.

An oft-told tale is that the 747 was born on a golf course dur­ing a match be­tween Juan Trippe, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Pan Amer­i­can World Air­ways, and Bill Allen, the CEO of Boe­ing.

“That’s pretty close to the truth,” said Lom­bardi, Boe­ing’s his­to­rian. “In those days a lot of the lead­ers in the in­dus­try had very good re­la­tion­ships. They would of­ten get to­gether, play golf, go on va­ca­tions to­gether.”

Lom­bardi said gate space at air­ports was get­ting more crowded and Trippe thought big­ger planes that could carry more pas­sen­gers was one so­lu­tion for the prob­lem.

Boe­ing’s team of en­gi­neers, led by Joe Sut­ter, went to work. One idea — to stack two air­planes on top of each other — proved un­work­able in part be­cause it would be too dif­fi­cult to evac­u­ate pas­sen­gers in case of an emer­gency, Lom­bardi said. But the sec­ond idea — a twin aisle air­plane now known as the wide­body — proved to be the win­ner.

Be­cause it was such a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing, Boe­ing built a fac­tory the size of 40 foot­ball fields to ac­com­mo­date the project. In all, it took a lit­tle less than three years for the team of 4,500 peo­ple to build the jet­liner. Since then there have been 18 dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the 747.

The plane took its first test flight in 1969 and be­gan car­ry­ing pas­sen­gers in 1970. Since then, it has car­ried more than 3.5 bil­lion pas­sen­gers.

First lady Pa­tri­cia Nixon at­tended the plane’s chris­ten­ing, held at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port in 1970. There’s a blackand-white photo of Nixon, seated in the plane’s cock­pit with Sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion Paul Volpe and Na­jeeb Halby, the chair­man of the board for Pan Am. In­stead of cham­pagne, red, white and blue wa­ter was sprayed on the plane. A week later, the first flight op­er­ated by Pan Am left New York bound for London.

With its four en­gines, the 747 rep­re­sented a sig­nif­i­cant leap for­ward for air travel. It was faster and could travel far­ther, us­ing less fuel than any pre­vi­ous jet. But the plane’s real sell­ing point was that it could carry more than 400 pas­sen­gers — more than twice as many as the largest air­liner pre­vi­ously in use.

De­spite the ex­cite­ment, it wasn’t an im­me­di­ate suc­cess in part be­cause of the eco­nomic down­turn that be­gan in 1969, Lom­bardi said. But as the econ­omy re­cov­ered, it soon be­came a sta­tus sym­bol for air­lines.

“Ev­ery­one had to have a 747,” said van der Lin­den, the Smith­so­nian cu­ra­tor. “It be­came the flag­ship for ev­ery ma­jor air­line. If you didn’t have one, you weren’t a top-notch air­line.”

It wasn’t just pas­sen­gers who loved the plane.

Pi­lot Melinda Cerisano flew 747s for United out of Los An­ge­les for 14 years be­fore mov­ing back to North­ern Vir­ginia a few years ago. She said the plane is sur­pris­ingly docile for its size, for­giv­ing and easy to land.

“It’s a ma­jes­tic bird,” she said. “It taxis out slow, but it’s just gor­geous.”

She, too, is sorry to see it leave the United fleet.

“I think it’s a great part of Amer­i­can his­tory,” she said. “It’s one of the won­der­ful things one of our com­pa­nies birthed.”

Added Lom­bardi, the Boe­ing his­to­rian: “It re­ally rep­re­sented Amer­ica at the time — this feel­ing that we could do anything if we put our minds to it.”

Greco, the vet­eran pi­lot, still re­mem­bers when the first 747 came to Phoenix in early 1970.

“I re­mem­bered see­ing it and be­ing en­thralled,” he said. “It was so big, but so grace­ful.”

He was de­ter­mined to fly the 747 be­fore he re­tired. And he wasn’t dis­ap­pointed.

One of his very last as­sign­ments was to fly a 747 to the air­line grave­yard in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. With no pas­sen­gers and no lug­gage aboard, the plane “leapt off the ground,” he said.

“It had a lot of life in it,” he said. “You al­most wish it wasn’t go­ing to be re­tired.”

De­spite its dom­i­nance, it came time for the plane to be phased out for lighter, more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, fu­el­ef­fi­cient jets like Boe­ing’s 777 and 787.

“For many of us, it’s very sad to see the air­craft go, even though we un­der­stand why,” said Idris, United’s sta­tion chief at Dulles. “There’s just a lot of nos­tal­gia as­so­ci­ated with that air­craft, a lot of fond mem­o­ries — a lot of association with a dif­fer­ent time in air travel. While we have a won­der­ful fu­ture ahead of us with these new air­craft — it’s very nos­tal­gic to think about how the 747 changed us per­son­ally as well as the in­dus­try.”

“It had a lot of life in it. You al­most wish it wasn’t go­ing to be re­tired.” Jeff Greco, a vet­eran pi­lot who flew a 747 to an air­line grave­yard in Cal­i­for­nia


The last United Air­lines Boe­ing 747 lands at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Oct. 19. Delta’s fi­nal 747 flight will be in De­cem­ber.


David Smith, right, chokes up as he re­calls fly­ing with his father, who flew a Boe­ing 747, mo­ments af­ter he pi­loted United Air­lines’s fi­nal 747 flight at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Oct. 19. The plane changed air travel with its abil­ity to carry hun­dreds of riders.

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