Last Flight: United Retires Last 747 “Queen of the Skies”

Last Flight: United Retires Last 747 “Queen of the Skies”

For almost a week in October, employees at Washington Dulles International Airport had a chance to get a close-up view of a Boeing 747. The classic jumbo jet was in the midst of a farewell tour, shelved by domestic airlines after almost five decades in the skies.

“It’s an incredible achievement for Boeing,” said Andrew Burnham, a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority ramp controller at Dulles and pilot of smaller aircraft. “Other companies and some banks thought it was a suicide mission to build the 747… Looking at it, you wonder how something that big can get off the ground.”

In keeping with the trend of incorporating aircraft that is more fuel and cost efficient, Chicago-based United Airlines retired its passenger fleet of the “Queen of the Skies” after a flight on Nov. 7 from San Francisco to Honolulu. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines followed suit with its 747 fleet in January.

Some international carriers, such as Germany’s Lufthansa and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, will continue to employ the 747, while later models are also being used to transport cargo and even fight forest fires.

The 747-400 touched down at Dulles Oct. 19 as part of the tour and left for New Jersey Oct. 23. Dulles was a fitting site for one of the stops since the initial 747 was christened at the local airport by then-First Lady Pat Nixon in January 1970. The former Pan American World Airways took a 747 on its first commercial flight from New York to London shortly afterward.

Boeing Co.’s 747 was not only nearly three times larger than any other jet flying in 1970, it transformed travel, pilots said.

“It was just a whole new concept in aviation,” Loyd Kenworthy, a retired United captain, said in a company video. “It had a backup system for everything you could think of.”

The first passenger plane to have twin aisles, the original 747 cost $24 million apiece and could seat more than 400 passengers. It was 232 feet long with a six-story high tail, 196-foot wingspan, double decks and four engines. Numerous passengers walked upstairs to listen to a piano player in a lounge, a contrast to today’s jets that make more efficient use of space.

NASA later modified two 747s into a shuttle carrier, and U.S. presidents used them as part of the Air Force One fleet. The presidential aircraft are Boeing VC-25’s and are modified 747-200B’s. They use the call sign “Air Force One” only when the president is on board.

United transitioned to models such as the Boeing 777-300ER, which seats 366 passengers, fewer than the 747-400. Delta is using replacements such as the twin-aisle Airbus A350, featuring a sliding door in business class seats.

The last United flight included a 1970s-inspired menu and flight attendants wearing retro uniforms. Seats in the upper deck were not sold, lending passengers an opportunity to spend time up there.

Picture: Boeing 747 at Dulles taken by Andrew Burnham