Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Farewell, Fare Lady

“If I build it will you buy it?”
“If I buy it will you build it?”

That famous phone call between Pan Am and Boeing begat one of the most revolutionary airplanes of the past 50 years, the 747. While it has become harder and harder to find in the Americas the 747 remains the flagship of more than a few international airlines in Europe and Asia. With new technologies on the horizon and the harshest economic realities of nearly a century, however, the writing is on the wall for this aviation stalwart.

The first time I ever flew on one was in the mid-70s when I was about 11 years old. It was also the first time I would be flying by myself, off to visit a friend in Texas. I couldn’t contain my excitement about being “grown” and not having to sit near Mom to make sure that I behaved. I was also on Cloud Nine about flying the biggest passenger airplane in the world, even if the entire flight would last no more than an hour and a half on Delta Air Lines between Atlanta and Dallas.

Since that initial experience I’ve enjoyed this miraculous machine with Pan Am, Lufthansa, Air France, Malaysia, All Nippon, Northwest, Qantas, Air New Zealand and United Airlines. They have collectively operated the -100, -200, -300 and -400 versions and powered them with Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls Royce engines. Not once in nearly 40 years was a 747 flight I had booked interrupted, cancelled or had to have equipment substituted because of a breakdown.

It’s been a pleasure to experience First Class, Business Class and Economy Class, both upstairs and down. First Class was particularly special in the very first row where the angled windows offered a sense of looking straight ahead - that plus the feeling of arriving at the destination ahead of the pilots, even if only by a micro-second or two. The last row of coach had its treats as well in being far enough behind the engines to see the contrails whipping along and providing a true sense of speed in flight. My favorite seat was just behind the 2nd boarding door so I could see, hear and feel the engines roar and watch the massive, deeply swept wing bend and flex as it lifted us into the sky.

The shortest flight was a one hour hop on Pan Am from Washington/Dulles to JFK while the longest was 15 hours from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on United when both the airplane and the airline were on top of the world. The stand-up bars, piano lounges and Sky Dining restaurants were all long gone by the time I started traveling as an adult but I certainly welcomed the First Class Suites that brought contemporary touches to the Pullman sleepers of old.

No in-flight child birth or mile-high club experiences to report either; my adventures on this grande dame involved little more than a weather diversion to Brisbane once when Sydney was closed for thunderstorms. Still, time and economics are the two cruelest task masters. For the 747 it is undeniably near that time. Commercial airplanes are not weekends-in-the-garage hobby toys to tinker with after their economic usefulness is over no matter how beloved “the ol’ girl” may be; the desert, the chop and the A380 are all waiting. The memories and the adventures, however, will surely live on.

From Tahiti to Japan, Mainland China, India, Australia, Great Britain, Hawaii, Thailand, Hong Kong (both airports), Okinawa, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand and all over America, thanks for the safe and solid good times.

Gotta go.

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