Farewell to the Queen

747 airplane
Northwest Airlines added 747s to its fleet in 1970.

Airline pilots “fly west” when they die. Today, the same can be said of the biggest airplane any of them ever flew.

On Jan. 3, 2018, Delta Flight 9771 touched down in Marana, Ariz., marking the very last flight of a Boeing 747 operated by a U.S. airline. (British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa said they plan to keep flying 747s, at least for now.) Just 48 people were on board that farewell flight, including a flight attendant and pilot who were married while in transit.

After nearly a half-century of passenger service in the U.S. and an extended farewell tour, the last of Boeing’s famed “jumbo jets” were retired to the Pinal Airpark Airport, an airplane graveyard in the Arizona desert. (Boeing 777s and 787s and the Airbus A350 are taking their place.)

The first queen enters the world stage on rollout in 1969,

Ron Kenmir, a local retired Northwest Airlines captain, shared his fond memories of the dearly departed magnificent 747.

Carol: Ron, what went through your mind when you saw the 747 when Northwest first acquired it in 1970?

Ron: It’s surreal! There it stands, weighing almost a million pounds, powered by 200,000 pounds of thrust. It’s gigantically overwhelming — and it flies!

C: It’s no wonder we airline crewmembers dubbed the 747 “the whale,” “the aluminum overcast” and, affectionately, “the queen of the skies.” How has it earned this title?

R: It simply performed magnificently. The approach to the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport was harrowing for a Piper Cub. Yet the 747 landed there almost incident-free for nearly half a century. (One ran off the runway during a typhoon in 1993.)

Once, a KLM Royal Dutch 747 flew through an erupting volcano’s ash cloud and lost all four engines. The crew miraculously restarted them and landed safely in Anchorage. It was a queen in royal colors that saved many lives that day.

And as with royalty, people were awed by it. I recall seeing some young folks having dinner at a Cleveland airport patio restaurant at dusk, watching a United 747 prepare for takeoff. When all four engines spooled up — dramatically catching the rotating beacon’s flashing red light — dust and debris flew their way. They loved it! They stood up and applauded, just as if a queen had been passing by.

Boeing 747. The queen tips a wing to Mount Denali, Alaska.

C: What are some of the 747’s queen-size dimensions?

R: The main landing gear tires are waist-high. Its tail is the height of a six-story building (64 feet) — which is, incidentally, half as high in the sky as the Wright brothers ascended on their first flight! Its 231-foot length is almost matched by its 195-foot wingspan.

C: How did such a magnificent flying machine come into being?

R: In 1965, Pan Am worked with Boeing to create a long-haul aircraft to accommodate 400 passengers with a range of 5,000-plus miles. Taking a chance it would be overshadowed by supersonic transport (commercial aircraft designed to travel faster than the speed of sound, such as the Concorde), Boeing designed it with the cockpit atop the body and an optional swing-up door underneath for loading so it also could be used as a cargo aircraft.

But the supersonic transport (SST) never got off the ground in the U.S. — so the 747 took over.

C: Ron, you obviously had a love affair with the 747. How do you feel about it being gone?

R: The 747 was one of the great technological achievements of the 20th century. This Royal Lady of the Skies carried millions of people through the clouds to their destinations in grand style for nearly 50 years. It’s time for a rest, I’d reckon. Still, it brings a tear to my eye. All gone now.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].