More than 27 years after it was gifted to the Museum of Flight, the first Boeing 727 is still being restored at the museum’s Restoration Center at Paine Field in preparation for its last flight down to Boeing Field.
This plane first rolled out of the factory on November 27, 1962, and took its first flight (from Renton Field to Paine Field) on February 9, 1963. It was then used for a year as a Boeing test flight aircraft before being delivered to United Airlines on October 6, 1964.
With United, it flew 64,495 hours, with 48,060 take-offs and landings. After being repainted to its original livery, N7001U flew, in January 1991, from Boeing Field to Paine Field, where it has been sitting ever since.
Restoration work has stopped and started more than once over the years. Some restoration work started in 1997, but was hampered by the lack of 727 parts. (United had removed any usable components to support their other 727s still in service at the time). Sadly, the plane was left open for several years after it was delivered, and many parts “disappeared” during that time, as well.
A new restoration effort started in May of 2004, after the donation of N124FE (aka Marcella) from FedEx. That plane had the majority of the components needed, but additional parts were taken from three other 727s as well.
“FedEx believes in giving back to both the industry and communities where we live and work.” David Sutton, FedEx Express managing director, Aircraft Acquisitions & Sales told AirlineReporter. “Given our relationship with Boeing and the fact we were the world’s largest 727 operator before retiring the fleet two years ago, this donation simply made sense for us. We’re honored to be a part of this historic occasion.” This is not the only FedEx 727 donated, 84 have been given to schools, fire departments and museums over the years.
Although FedEx has been instrumental in getting the 727 airborne again, a number of components have required a major effort to secure donations from many other contributors. While United and FedEx have made the most visible contributions, it does take a village for such a large restoration project to succeed. The good thing for N7001U is that there is quite the village looking for it to get some love!
Unfortunately, this 727 has been sitting outside, exposed to the elements. Obviously, Seattle isn’t exactly Victorville in terms of climate, so corrosion has been a major issue in the course of the restoration. It has been sad seeing the plane start to look worse and worse, but it was very exciting seeing the old bird get a new coat of paint.
During our visit last week, the 727 was in the process of being prepped and painted. Working outdoors presents challenges in the painting process, but they seemed to have a pretty good solution.
Due to being outside, the paint must be rolled instead of sprayed. Rolling is more time-consuming, and also requires a different approach; they’re not just spraying one color at a time, like they would be in a hangar.
At the same time, the elements are also a factor in when the painting can be completed. It can’t be first thing in the morning, because of the dew, but later in the day, they also can’t paint the side of the plane that is in the direct sun. In more ways than one, getting the 727 re-painted truly is an art form.
TC Howard, the Crew Chief for the project, was excited to share about the history of the plane and the restoration work that has been completed so far. It was impressive to learn that the restoration work to date has been completed 100% by volunteers, except for the painting. Especially considering the number of years the restoration has been underway, it shows the level of commitment to the project by everyone involved.
After chatting, he toured us through the parts area on the way to the plane itself. Once we were outside, we watched the paint crew work while they were masking and painting the starboard side of the tail. Who knew that watching paint dry could be so fun?
During the visit, Bob Bogash, the Project Manager, was also able to share his insight and experience with the plane. His personal website has a lot of great photos and detailed information about the history of the project, and it is obvious that he is very passionate about the aircraft. He told AirlineReporter that he has been personally involved with it since 1984, including his efforts to secure the donation from United originally.
The ultimate goal is to fly the aircraft one last time to Boeing Field, to be displayed at the Museum of Flight. However, there are still some significant items that need to be completed before a ferry flight is possible. For one thing, it would be awfully difficult to fly without engines. Fortunately, FedEx is donating engines removed from planes at Victorville, which are due to arrive this week. They are donating five engines, to allow for two spares.
Another major component is the horizontal stabilizer. It is already at the Restoration Center, but requires specialized help to install. That work is currently planned for September. In addition, the fuel tanks need to be cleaned out, a 727 flight crew must be secured, and additional work may be required on the wheels, brakes, and tires.
With so many items left to complete, there isn’t yet a definitive date for the ferry flight, but hopefully it will be sometime in October. Safety is, of course, the primary consideration, so there is no rush to complete the work by a particular date.
This amazing piece of history has just sitting at Paine Field for a long time. There has always seemed to have been a plan to get the plane airborne again, but it seemed more like a dream than reality. However, with the hard work and passion coming from those who have been working on the 727, it is quite likely that the plane will have one last flight. We hope that is the case and of course we will be following the progress of the last flight, for the first 727.
Story written by Lauren Darnielle and David Parker Brown.