The last United Boeing 747 sitting at SFO

The last United Boeing 747 sitting at SFO – registration N118UA

It is okay to get emotional over an airplane. That is what I kept telling myself anyhow as I experienced United’s final 747 flight recently. I was sad that this was going to be a huge milestone for the retirement of Boeing 747 passenger service. I was also happy and excited to be a part of this historic event. Turns out I was going to be able to experience a few firsts and quite a few lasts on my journey. This was to be my first time flying on a United 747 and this was also going to be my first time flying backwards.

At one point I was asked something along the lines of, “There is one other U.S. airline (Delta) that is still flying the aircraft, not to mention British Airways and others. Why is this such a big deal?” At first, I almost felt insulted, but then I realized that from a non-AvGeek perspective, why make a big deal about this plane, with this airline?

First off, I think it is like visiting a really good friend or family member you don’t get to see very often and it is hard to say goodbye. You start out saying “well, I guess I better get going,” and three hours later you aren’t quite out the door yet and still sharing stories of good times before finally parting ways. This was the first goodbye stage between me and the 747.

My Boeing 757-300 at Seattle - Photo: David Parker Brown

My super long Boeing 757-300 at Seattle – Photo: David Parker Brown | AirlineReporter

My trip started very early in order to catch my 5:00am flight from Seattle to San Francisco. I had a Boeing 757-300 at the gate and I love that aircraft. Not only because it is a bit of cool and awkward (being so long), but with that much capacity, it was just 50% full, so I ended up with my own row. This turned out to be my only United flight over the next two days that would depart with no issues, and on time.

I arrived to SFO about an hour before the gate party started. I went to get some food and walked around before heading back to the gate to see some familiar faces. I feel like a broken record saying this in so many of my stories, but these sorts of events are so great because of the people. After doing this gig for almost a decade, I start to see the same faces at these events and it is great to catch up. Then I get to meet new people (including some of you readers), and talk about airplanes. What’s not to love?

There were a variety of visuals at the gate to take pictures with and even eat. So I was glad that I got there early, as the gate area filled up quickly. Passengers ranged from media to those who used miles, won an auction, or bought legit tickets during the very short time tickets for this flight were actually for sale.

It was a good group and many were dressed up in either Hawaiian or 70s-themed dress. Normally I am down, but with my SEA-SFO-HNL-SFO-SEA trip over a 27-hour period, I just sort of wanted to be in normal clothes. However, at this point I wish I would have gone more with “you only live once.”

Soon it was time to board our Boeing 747-400. This was the last 747 in United’s fleet and held the registration N118UA. It was built in 1999 and flew only for United during its entire career. It really didn’t feel that old, and the 757 I flew to SFO seemed in worse shape.

The energy was amazing as people got on board, chatted, and started to settle in. I was in seat 6D, which was in the center section, on the aisle, and facing backwards. Sitting in the inside section made looking out the windows difficult, but it did allow me to watch all the people watching outside, which is its own sort of special.

As we were almost lined up for takeoff, we were told we would have a delay. Turns out one of the three air conditioning packs were bad and we needed to be towed to the hangar. I was actually pretty excited. I had never been towed on a plane into a maintenance hangar and I had an eight hour layover in Honolulu, so I had time. The good/bad news was they were able to get it resolved while still on the taxiway and we lifted off just a bit behind schedule.

I wasn’t sure what to expect sitting backwards during takeoff, but it was for sure different. I used my legs to keep me in the seat and more of my abs to keep my back to the seat. A nice little workout. I enjoyed it for the sake of being new, but after that, probably prefer sitting forward.

The crappiest part of being in the middle was when we flew right by the Golden Gate bridge. However, I was on the correct side of the plane and I could watch it via the phone held by the guy at the window. It was still beyond cool being there and I had a better view than the people at the windows on the other side of the plane.

United went all-out on this thing. On top of everything else, all passengers got a special menu made just for this flight. The food choices were pretty tasty on the inside, but the drawing of the 747-400 on the back cover, with the special livery, made me smile.

The food was delicious. It did help that we had United’s executive chef Gerry Gulli onboard. I was also super excited to have ice cream at 35,000 feet and it was going above and beyond to have sundaes (with a cool dry ice visual) being built right in front of me.

The seat was amazing. Not in a sort of “best product” sort of amazing, but more of a “don’t throw away my favorite recliner I have had for the last 25 years” sort of amazing. It was so comfortable and the 2-4-2 layout wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. But of course I was up walking around socializing most of the flight and not using the seat.

One of the pilots and me hanging in the flight deck in Honolulu.

One of the pilots and me hanging in the flight deck in Honolulu

The flight was too short and soon we started our descent. We first did a little tour around the islands (which wasn’t so great in the center again) before landing. As people started to de-plane, I asked if I could make my way to the flight deck and they were happy to allow me to do so. The pilot I spoke with after the flight said he would be transitioning to flying the 757. He has a few more years until retirement and wanted to be closer to his family in Denver. Totally makes sense, but still hard leave flying the Jumbo Jet.

Saw this on the upper deck!

As I was heading back down to the main deck, I noticed one of the windows had red in it. At the time, I had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t until I got off the plane, and looked out the window that I realized what it was.

Even the 747 got a lei!

There was a large party at the gate to greet the final 747 flight, but I was sort of partied out and sleepy. I was trying to find some cell signal or wifi in the terminal to share photos, but it was worse than the service at 30,000 feet in the air.

Watching United’s final 747 being towed

I soon made my way to the United lounge and as I started to process my photos, I noticed a few guys heading towards the windows. The 747 was being towed across the airport to an employee party in the hangar — with the lei still on. By the time I arrived home (after taking a 777-200 to SFO and A319 to SEA), I had been awake for 29 of the last 30 hours – and it was totally worth it.

This plane is more than a plane. It brings up emotions and memories for people.

A Northwest Boeing 747-200 – Photo: Dean Morley | FlickrCC

I remember my first flight on a 747 quite well. I was about six years old and this was my first unaccompanied flight. I was leaving from Seattle and heading to visit my uncle in Minneapolis, and the aircraft that was going to take me there was a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747-200. My mother was able to walk me on and take me to my seat. I was so excited. But then when she left, the reality sunk in, and I started crying. The flight attendant knew how excited I was, so in an attempt to entertain me, she asked if I wanted to see the first class cabin in the nose. I sure did. The cabin was almost empty and I ended up talking with a nice man, who happened to be blind.

He ended up asking the flight attendant if it would be okay if I could sit next to him during the flight and she said it was no problem (in retrospect, I think he sort of wanted the company, too). That was my first time sitting in the nose of a 747, and I wouldn’t be able to do it again for another 30 years or so.

It is interesting because I don’t really have stories like that for any other aircraft type. None that make me feel the emotion that the 747 does. I would love for you to share your 747 memories in the comments!

Note: United provided the 747 and positing flights for us to cover this story, however all opinions are our own. 

See more photos on our Flickr page!

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EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER – SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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11 Comments
Chuck Krauss

Really enjoyed this. Reminds me that I am not alone in my affection for this plane. A few 747 memories: First trip to Hawaii and first flight on a 747 was in May 1977 on Northwest Orient from SEA to HNL. Like you, I was able to sit in the pilot’s seat upon arrival. I was 16 and thought it could never get any better than this. Later that same year, on a high school band tour of Japan, flew from HND to ITM (Osaka) on a packed JAL 747 for a 45 minute flight. With throngs of Japanese to move on a daily basis, it made sense at the time. Finally, in July 1979, flew a United 747 on a red eye from DEN to ORD on the second leg of a trip to Haiti that only had six people on board. One of the most surreal experiences of my life. Kind of a letdown, but I will now have to scratch the 747 itch by watching for the Cathay Pacific 747 freighter that arrives in PDX each Saturday morning from LAX. You find your pleasures where you can.

We going to miss them. Thank you for this interesting, thou sad, article. Only make me realize I am getting older.

My first 747 experience was on Pan Am out of the JFK WorldPort to Moscow on a high school trip. The outbound was cool for being a 747, but the return made me really appreciate the Queen. After a week of Soviet transportation, including flights on a Tu-134 and Tu-154, pulling up to the airport to see the gleaming white Pan Am 747 towering over all the small dingy Soviet-block airliners was really something.

Gary Bisbee

Just flew a KLM 747 Combi from Amsterdam to LAX in the upstairs business class section. I was excited when I was routed that way imstead direct to PDX on Delta. It may be my last ride on a 747. My wife worked in Portland and we had many 747 trips over the years. Our most interesting was an El Al trip to Tel Aviv from JFK. We made an unscheduled fuel stop i. Amsterdam and the 747 was surrounded with Dutch army vehicles while we were refueling. The army vehicles escorted us to the active runway and followed us down the taxiway as we took off. A very interesting flight. I will miss those birds.

When we emigrated from the UK to New Zealand in the 90s I was about 9, so before 9/11 & all the associated restrictions. I can still – vividly – remember being taken to the cockpit of the United 747 and talking with the pilots. They gave me a printout of some sort to keep but the best bit was the clouds below stretching forever in a 180-degree view.
I think we also got a little set of United pilot wings in the goodie bag along with the colouring pencils which was pretty cool. Mum had gone up to the cockpit with me & said the pilot was rather envious of us moving to New Zealand & apparently I asked him to come visit us if he wanted 😀

Gary Bisbee

Yes. United used to give out pilot wings to the kids on board their aircraft.

My first flight was on a Qantas Boeing 747-200 in 1997 (Yes they still had two in the fleet as late as then) The flight was between Cairns and Auckland and the upper deck was Economy Class, and yippee I was seated up there. It funny cause I don’t remember much about the week spent in Auckland, but I remember the excitement of that flight and being on the upper deck.

DIANNE DAVIS

Awwwww! Thank you for this great article. It kind of tugged at my heartstrings, too! My memory of the 747 was when I was a child and my dad worked for American Airlines. AA’s first 747 was such a big deal that they displayed it at the hanger and had a huge party where all the employees could bring their families. It was very exciting to go out to the hanger and see this huge bird! We waited in a very long line to get to take a tour. I well remember the first-class cabin up the stairs. It was the coolest ever! Afterwards we had punch and refreshments. Even though I was only about 5 or 6 I could tell this was a very big deal!

Flying was a different animal back then. We dressed in our Sunday best and the flight attendants played poker with the passengers in the lounges. The food experience was extremely chic. It was another time. Today’s flight experience is something to be tolerated. But – at the cheap pricing it’s also accessible now to the masses. We gave up a lot but we got a lot.

You rock!! Dianne

I’m sorry, can anyone explain why the window on the plane was red? I didn’t catch why.

Hey Bryan,

It was the big ‘ol lei that was on the 747… as seen from the top deck.

David

Craig Jackson

Thanks for your writing. The 747 brings fond memories via British Airways, KLM, United Airlines, Singapore, Air New Zealand, Air France and All Nippon in the 80’s and 90’s. When United acquired PanAm’s pacific division, that truly enabled United Airlines to become a major global player with 747s and Tokyo Narita being the bevy of 747s at that time from all over the world. The 747 is still the iconic symbol of technology that revolutionized air commerce for both passenger, cargo capacities and free market global economics as we know today. Thanks to Joe Sutter whom recently passed and all the Boeing employees that helped revolutionized history. I remember a tour of the Boeing factory many years ago and two (2) 747’s being built. It is a good thing British Airways, Lufthansa and US based contractors will continue to fly the 747 for years to come.

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