As Boeing on 31 January brought an end to more than 50 years of jumbo jet production with the final delivery of a 747 to Altas Air, FlightGlobal gets some perspectives on why the 747 meant so much to those who knew the aircraft.
Mark Vanhoenacker, pilot for British Airways who flew the 747 and is now a Senior First Officer on the 787, and author of Skyfaring and Imagine a City
When I was growing up in a small town, far from a major airport, my most treasured possessions were my illuminated globe and the 747 models I carefully assembled – and even as a little kid I somehow understood how well-paired these were. The Boeing 747 meant the world to me, as it has to so many.
I spent my childhood dreaming of flying, but I don’t think I ever believed I might someday actually pilot a 747. A professional pilot’s life is marked by many firsts – first solo, first night flight, first flight with passengers – but my first flight as a 747 pilot, from London to Hong Kong on a cold December night in 2007, remains far and away the highlight of my career. I advanced the thrust levers for that first take off, those four enormous engines spooled up – a sensation that from the cockpit is felt more than heard – and we accelerated down Heathrow’s runway 27R until we reached VR and the captain called ‘rotate’ and I slowly lifted that most iconic nose. It was an occasion I will never forget.
I think it’s telling how even today the 747 serves as shorthand – in songs, films, and ordinary conversation – for the thrill of flight and the wonder of exploration and connection
The 747 did so much to democratise travel and to connect far-flung people and places. I think it’s telling how even today the 747 serves as shorthand – in songs, films, and ordinary conversation – for the thrill of flight and the wonder of exploration and connection. As a writer, I get a lot of e-mails from readers who are keen to share their own experiences of the 747, whether as flight crew and cabin crew or as passengers – especially those whose peripatetic family stories involve important and sometimes even life-changing journeys that a 747 long ago enabled. I’m glad to be flying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner now, a good-looking jet that also represents a step change in terms of efficiency and customer experience. But the 747 will always have pride of place in my memory, my heart and my logbook.
Lynn Rippelmeyer, the first woman to pilot the 747 and complete a transoceanic flight in one
Put simply, the airplane changed my life.
The 747 and I had the same aviation career span of service. I was hired as a TWA flight attendant in 1972 right after the jumbo jet was delivered to TWA, and I retired in 2014 after a 42-year airline career that included time as a 747 first officer (1980-81) and captain (1984-86). I always planned to return to flying the 747, but retired just as she was being taken out of service at the passenger airlines.
Taking food and drink to the pilots in the 747 cockpit as a flight attendant allowed me to see the amazing views outside and become interested in flying by watching what the pilots did inside. Because of that introduction, I jumped at the chance to take flying lessons even though there were no female pilots. My timing and interest were perfect to allow me to enter the industry and become the first woman to fly the Queen of the Skies (Seaboard World Airways 1980). She was my first jet - and a perfect place to start – so safe, reliable, and graceful. I also got to be the first woman to captain her on a transatlantic flight (People Express 1984).
My most memorable time with the 747 was being allowed to fly her on a C-check – taking her to all of the limits – red lines, visual, audio, physical warnings of horns, alarms, voice warnings, and stick shaker in all configurations with stalls, steep turns, clean and dirty, etc – and watch her recover beautifully each time by just leveling the wings and letting go of the yoke to watch her return to power-off gliding. What a confidence-builder!!! Which is exactly what my chief pilot intended. I knew I could count on her to take care of me if I took care of her. I always treated her with kindness and respect she deserved – and she never failed to take care of me, my crew, and passengers.
She was my first jet – and a perfect place to start – so safe, reliable, and graceful.
The most memorable flight was having to shut down an engine over the Atlantic, dump fuel, and return to Newark to make a max-weight landing when the longest runway was closed so we had to use a shorter one with a max (30knot) crosswind. It worked out thanks to that plane’s reliable performance – and our crew’s training.
But, between the exciting and dramatic times was the regular, constant, amazing beauty that flying the 747 made available – sun and moon rises and sets, the Alps turning pink, the runway suddenly appearing out of the London fog, the lights of the eastern coastline leaving JFK for Europe, cloud formations, lightning storms – all seen from 7 miles above Earth thanks to the 747.
One clear night over the Atlantic, there was a point of light right in front of us – another plane? a ship? As it got brighter, the light began to wrap around us defining the ocean from the space above. A silvery ribbon of light created a road beneath us for us to fly over and toward the light as it got bigger and brighter – We finally realised it was the rising full moon!! We flew over the shiny silver road below us like Dorothy heading to Oz. Where? When? How? would you ever get to see something like that at that time in history – except from the cockpit of a 747? Those are the kind of gifts I have to say thank you for to that beautiful machine. It was a spiritual experience.
Ron Marasco, a former vice-president of maintenance and engineering for Pan-American Airlines, Boeing’s launch customer for the 747, was on hand for the delivery of the very first 747 airframe.
Later in his career, he was one of the first employees at Atlas Air, joining as senior vice-president of operations. Participating in the first delivery of a 747 and the final delivery more than half a century later, gave him a sense of coming full circle.
We talk about management and leadership in this business, but it really is the people that have put this together.
“To be here on a day like today, and being involved in the first 747 departure and being here for the last is a great privilege. There’s a great story in the creation of this airplane, and that’s about the people. It’s the end of an era where individual people made a difference. Its really a testimony to the people who work the machinery. We talk about management and leadership in this business, but it really is the people that have put this together. This aircraft represents years of incredible improvement.”
Thomas Gray, a flight test instrumentation engineer on the 747 programme in 1968, worked for Boeing for a total of 32 years, in various roles including marketing and sales, as well as service engineering, where he was responsible for repairs of customer aircraft.
“When I was on the first flight, I remember sitting with my cohorts and commented on the fact that one of these days there’ll be 747 all lined up to take off. And he said that there will be so many that the runway will sink out of sight. And that came to be.”
I got a chance to look down on Big Ben and it felt like I was Peter Pan flying over London
“When I was flight testing I got to fly in circles and when I got into service engineering I actually got to go places,” he says. Some of those places included Japan, South America and the UK.
“On one delivery flight to the UK, we got to circle London for about 30 minutes before we landed,” he says. “I got a chance to look down on Big Ben and it felt like I was Peter Pan flying over London. It was my first time over in England. It was quite a thrill.”
Scott Tomkins was a structural engineer from the UK who came to Everett to work on the 747 programme, before it even had a building.
We worked 70 hours a week for three months nonstop
“The 747 has made a tremendous difference to the commercial aviation industry. We worked in three trailers on the side of the building. I know guys worked really hard here on that plane because we were on a very tight schedule. We worked 70 hours a week for three months nonstop. I worked on interiors, the inside of the airplane, it was called ‘passenger payloads’.”
Later, Tomkins oversaw the work of various engineers and technicians, across the technical spectrum. Through that experience, “I learned a tremendous amount about everything that went on in that airplane.”
Last of the jumbos: Boeing closes chapter with final 747 delivery
- 9Currently reading
Personal perspectives on the legacy of the Boeing 747