A variant of the Queen of the Skies took a step closer towards the history books this week as Kalitta Air retired its remaining 747-200, which is one of the few remaining airworthy civilian models of the type.
This particular airframe was delivered to United Airlines in March 1987, having been built at Boeing’s Everett, Wash., factory. It was converted to a freighter in 2000 by Boeing while registered to Northwest Airlines, and was eventually put into storage in 2009. In 2010, it returned to service with Kalitta, and was officially retired on April 23.
“It’s nice to see that people still care about this stuff,” said Capt. Scott Jakl as he and his flight crew were preparing the aircraft for the flight to Kalitta’s maintenance facility in Oscoda, Mich. “This is a very big deal for us,” he said of the plane’s last flight.
The aircraft is indeed something of a relic; the cockpit is filled with analog gauges and still requires a three-person crew to fly it — a pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer. Modern airliners’ automated control systems have done away with the need for a flight engineer.
Kalitta Chief Pilot Bill Rhodes said that he wasn’t completely certain of the plane’s ultimate fate, other than Friday’s flight was “absolutely its last.”
He said that “we have a bunch of -200s up there (stored at Oscoda) that were used as parts birds, so it will probably be scrapped, it’s definitely not going to be sold,” adding that there is not much demand for parts for a type of aircraft that’s not being flown any longer.
As to the ultimate fate of the airline’s contingent of flight engineers, Rhodes said “That’s kind of a sad story; the engineers have all been furloughed and are losing their jobs, although we do have some that are pilots that will be offered positions as first officers because they’re appropriately qualified. There just aren’t any planes with flight engineers any more.”
Jakl said that this particular airframe had been fitted with upgraded avionics about seven years ago; some of the gauges and instruments were replaced with LCD panels that consolidated and automated some controls.
It was great fun being in the cockpit during pre-flight; while the crew was testing the various systems, mechanical bells rang and electric buzzers did their thing, there wasn’t a synthesized tone or voice to be heard. Like vinyl records or film cameras, the nostalgia was both endearing and comforting.
The U.S. Air Force’s VC-25 presidential aircraft are very much flightworthy examples of the 742, but they’re so heavily upgraded/modified that they’re practically their own variant. The last passenger 742 was retired by Iran Air in May, 2016.
“When I talk to other flight crews and they tell me they’re flying to Miami or Chicago, I think, ‘How boring,” said Capt. Jakl with a smile, after rattling off a list of the places where he’s delivered cargo: India; numerous countries in Africa; Afghanistan; Iraq and others. There’s apparently nothing routine about cargo work.
Jakl laughed and smiled his way through the pre-flight prep; it was quite apparent he thoroughly enjoys his work.
Change is inevitable and airframes eventually wear out, but it’s still a bit sad to see such a noteworthy aircraft’s commercial service come to an end.