March 31 marked the end of an aviation era in Japan. That day, the last of the country’s passenger-carrying Boeing 747s landed at Tokyo’s Narita airport. Over the previous six months, All Nippon Airways had sent its 747-400s on a series of farewell tours, following by several years the final flights of Japan Airlines’ jumbo jets.
“I thought it was a wonderful aircraft. There is no comparison,” says ANA’s chief executive officer, Osamu Shinobe, of the decision to drop the 747. “I feel so sad to see its retirement.” But emotions are no match for economics, and the Japanese carriers join many others in ridding their fleets of the four-engine jumbo that gulps too much fuel and requires too many passengers to fill.
“Like a good car, when it gets old and it’s time to replace it, you get sad, of course,” says Austin Cheng, president of Taiwan’s EVA Air, which, along with Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Air India, British Airways, and Qantas, has been swapping 747s for smaller twin-engines like Boeing’s 777 and 787 and the soon-to-be-flying Airbus A350 XWB (“XWB” for “extra wide-body”).
“The 747 is plummeting out of service far faster than anyone would have expected,” says Richard Aboulafia, an airline analyst with the Teal Group in Washington, D.C.
Still, perhaps no airliner past or present is likely to be more fondly remembered by the people who built it, the executives who bought it, the employees who worked on it, or the passengers who flew in it across the globe for 44 years.
“I loved it for the spaciousness. I loved it for the walk-through galleys,” says Candice Kimmel, a flight attendant on the 747s flown by Pan Am World Airways in the 1970s. “I loved it for the innovative things you could try because there was so much space.”
When the 747 entered service, in 1970, space was the thing that stupefied everyone, says Robert van der Linden, curator of the air transportation division at the National Air and Space Museum. “That airplane came out and it was two and a half times larger” than the Boeing 707. “It dwarfed everything.”
I remember my first 747 flight on Virgin Air from New York City in 2001. My employer had sprung for a premium seat, not first class but large enough to feel comfortable. I was tucked up on the left side of the upper deck with a window seat. I felt above it all long before we took off for London.
Don Wolfe, who has 10,000 hours in the 747 flying for United, says he is still amazed by the view as he sits in the cockpit before taking off. “My eyes are 29 feet off the ground. We have a guide man 150 feet in front of the airplane, and when I look down at that guy, I cannot believe how high I am sitting.”
For Wallace Moran, who flew the 747 for Trans World Airlines for 12 years before retiring in 2002, the height was the pilot’s greatest challenge. “You can look over the top of most terminal buildings, which is kind of a neat thing. But when you look down at those taxiways they look pretty small, pretty narrow.”
Cargolux pilot Christiaan van Heijst says the 747 “is a pilot’s dream. It flies very nicely and it’s not any more difficult than any other Boeing aircraft to handle with the exception of [landing in strong] crosswinds. Because of the extra engine on the wing, if you bank too much during landing you run the risk of a so-called ‘pod strike’ or scraping the outer engine on the ground. It’s the queen of the skies but sometimes a bitch to land in cross-wind conditions.”