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Tomorrow morning before the sun is even close to rising I will quietly leave home and start my journey to California. Waiting for me and a few hundred other very lucky passengers at Gate 86 at the San Francisco International Airport on November 7, 2017, will be a majestic, double-decker, Boeing 747-400, Queen of the Skies aircraft.
This iconic aircraft has flown for United since the first United 747 flight flew passengers from San Francisco to Honolulu in 1970, but tomorrow when United flight 747 lands, after 47 years, United will no longer fly passengers on the Queen of the Skies. In a most fitting tribute, the final United 747 flight will replicate the first, by returning to Honolulu from San Francisco. Not only is the route a nod to the 747’s beginnings with United, but the flight itself is touted to be retro-themed experience with passengers encouraged to wear their 70’s best, mingle in the upper deck, and enjoy service similar to how it might have been on that first flight.
This should not and will not be a normal flight. It sold out very quickly and I can guarantee that no one on that plane accidentally booked their tickets. These will be a few hundred passengers that wanted to be there at almost any cost to say a fond farewell to an aircraft that changed the way we travel.
Prior to the introduction of the 747 into passenger service in 1970, the largest passenger jet in service was the much smaller 707. The impressively large 747 could hold dramatically more people than the 707, and that increased capacity and range ultimately opened up the world to those beyond solely the rich and famous.
My dad shared a story with me today of when he was in the military getting ready to board a plane in Houston in the 1970’s and he saw a line of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of soldiers all waiting to get on the same plane. He thought to himself there was absolutely no way that all of these people will fit on one plane. If the plane they were waiting to board was pretty much any other plane he would have been correct, but that plane was a 747 that could hold upwards of 500 people, depending on how it was configured. Over 40 years later he still recalls with wonder the size of the aircraft and the sheer number of people she could transport.
It takes an aviation geek to recognize some of the nuances of one type of aircraft to the next, but even a small child can recognize the humped second level of a Boeing 747. Its massive stature makes people stop and stare not just initially when it was first introduced in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but even still today. She is a beautiful eye-catching aircraft whether in the sky or on the ground.
She is representative of a fundamental transformation in air travel that made it possible for people like you and me to realistically visit another continent. Not just once in a lifetime, if we were very lucky, but potentially several times a lifetime or even in a year. She represents one of the Golden eras of travel when images of bygone airlines like Pan Am race to mind, when passengers and crew flew dressed in their best, when everything about the flying process was exciting, when the upper deck was used as a lounge where you could mix and mingle, and when multi-course meals were the norm.
While I have been booked on a 747 more than once, life always had other plans. Having never once flown on a 747 despite taking hundreds of flights, including flying on United’s inaugural 787 Dreamliner flight just over five years ago, I think it is safe to say that I am not from the same flying generation as the 747. I am from the generation of Dreamliners, A380s, 777s, and of course the 737 workhorse. I am not from the generation of travelers who saved for what was literally a trip of a lifetime and dressed to the nine’s to cross the continent. I am not from the generation of travelers who first saw the six-story-high, red, white, and blue 747 roll out of the Boeing Factory Everett, Washington, on September 30, 1968.
In the world of aviation, technology, and efficiency, nothing lasts forever, and most would say it is time to say goodbye to this graceful bird. At 47 years of passenger service and counting, she has far outlasted the expectations of most at the time she took her first flight. I’m not smart enough to make decisions about when it is time to move from one model of aircraft to the next, but I am smart enough to not miss an opportunity to be a part of the transition from one chapter to the next.
While there will be ample celebration on tomorrow’s United 747 Farewell Flight, I imagine it will also be an emotional day. Not emotional for me because I have lots of memories of my time over the years with the 747 as I’m sure most of the passengers and crew will, but because it is undeniably the end of a pretty amazing era in aviation. It is a Golden era that I only overlapped with and didn’t get the chance to fully experience, but one that I deeply respect.
We still live in an amazing new era of aviation hallmarked by affordable travel for the masses with opulence available even on miles, but as amazing as this current era is, there is something intangibly special about the one that is quickly flying off into the sunset as the 747 makes her final touchdown with another airline.
Lord willing, I’ll be on United’s final 747 flight out of respect for the historic and important role the aircraft and everyone who designed her, built her, and flew her played in how we got to where we are today. I’ll be dressed in a 70’s style shirt, heels, a suit jacket and with my hair as done as you could ask for with a 3AM wake-up call over 1,600 miles away from Gate 86 in San Francisco because that is how you say both hello, goodbye, and thank you to the Queen of the Skies on her final United flight.
Enjoy your final night in California, Queen, I’ll see you tomorrow.
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