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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.