Today we need to get ready to say goodbye to a dear friend to all of us who share the privilege of working in this profession. This is a friend who has influenced our lives, a friend who has accompanied us on some of our most memorable journeys and a friend who rarely let us down.
We were always proud to spend time with this friend, and we would sometimes name-drop that we had just been with her. Or was it him? I never knew.
Ships are all ladies; of that much I am certain. Some are working women, and some are elegant, graceful ladies. But I am talking about a commercial airliner, so I am unsure as to gender.
We are about to say one final goodbye to the Boeing 747. United Airlines will fly its final 747 flight from San Francisco to Honolulu on Nov. 7, the last scheduled flight of this aircraft by an American legacy carrier. I will pause that morning at 11 a.m. Pacific time, in quiet contemplation. I suspect we all have memories shared with this aircraft.
The timing of the last flight is not a coincidence. Nov. 7 is the date of the airline's first 747 flight, known as the United Queen, in 1970. We've lived and worked with the magnificent 747 for 47 years.
Fittingly, those guests, mostly former employees and airline geeks who purchased tickets online as soon as the flight was announced, will be treated to attendants dressed in 1970s-style uniforms, a retro menu and some 1970s in-flight entertainment.
In March 1966, Boeing's board approved the construction of the 747. Within the next 30 days, Pan American World Airways ordered 25 of the aircraft with a combined price tag of $525 million. American ingenuity was tested when the first workers, 113 of them, arrived in Everett, Wash., to begin work on the world's largest civilian aircraft. Miraculously, they brought the jumbo jet concept to reality in 16 months. That is why the workers on this project all came to share the name the Incredibles.
On Sept. 30, 1968, the aptly named City of Everett rolled off the assembly line. Its livery included the logos of the 27 airlines around the world that had already placed orders.
We all remember the first time we stepped aboard a 747. There were the flowers and the stairs leading up to a second level where premier seating and the cockpit were located. This has to do with the fact that the aircraft was originally conceived as a profitable freight carrier, and it was felt that the main deck had to be large enough to hold two fully loaded freight pallets. The idea of passengers came later.
My first 747 flight was an inaugural to London on which I sat next to a journalist who was flying on to Nepal to interview the monarch. He asked me to join him, and I declined. It's a decision I've always regretted.
Soon after, I flew to Paris to join a Globus tour, my first real experience in Europe, an overview of something like 12 countries in 16 days. I loved it. It was a memorable flight over and back, with a European smorgasbord of places I knew deserved more time. But I was starting to understand that I would return. I actually kissed the aircraft when it delivered me to Paris.
It was a 747 landing in Milan that brought a group of my students arriving from the U.S. in the mid-'70s. I was the headmaster at a school I had started in Tuscany, and after the big bird landed I noticed security approaching with one of my new students in hand. It was explained that he had refused to sit down for the entire flight. It turned out that he had bet every other student on the plane that he could "walk across the Atlantic Ocean." All was forgiven, and he ended up starting the school year with some spending money in his pocket.
One of my most memorable flights was aboard a Pan Am 747 from London to my home in San Francisco. I was seated up front, next to a beautiful Japanese woman. We talked for the length of the flight, had an incredible dinner in the upper deck restaurant and disembarked holding hands. It was the beginning of a seven-year relationship.
Years later, I was on an Olympic Airways 747 returning to Chicago from Greece. I had planned to be escorting a group of clients, but my wife's Greek family sold out the trip in two days. My father-in-law was seated next to me, and he joined me in a rare fit of silence as the huge plane set off down the runway in Athens on takeoff.
I've always loved the way a 747 takes off, slowly lumbering down the runway like Larry Bird on approach to a layup. Then, suddenly, this massive tribute to what we can achieve when we put our minds to it manages to get airborne. Moments later, the silence was broken.
He leaned over and asked me, "So, Richard, what happens next?"
"The same thing that happened on the way over," I responded. "You'll behave, sit in your seat for eight hours, have a meal and watch a movie."
He laughed. "Greeks don't sit for hours doing nothing," he said as he rose from his seat. I wasn't worried; what kind of trouble could an adult get into on an airborne 747?
About 20 minutes later, I heard gales of laughter coming from the back of the aircraft. I turned to see that my father-in-law had taken his headset, converted it to look like a stethoscope, somehow found a long white shirt, and was going up and down the aisles pretending to be a doctor giving fake chest exams to anyone willing to play along.
I wanted to hide, but there was really no place to disappear, despite the plane's size. When we finally landed at O'Hare, just about every passenger came up to say goodbye to my father-in-law.
But my most memorable 747 flight by far was one way, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles with our newly adopted daughter.
Cathay Pacific had very generously offered to help us with this flight, and they insisted that we sit in business class.
We had spent almost two weeks in China finalizing all the details, and my wife and daughter were exhausted. I will never forget the way the Cathay crew members insisted on holding our baby in their arms so her mother could get some rest. It was the 747 that brought our baby to the U.S.
It was the best flight of my life.
If you visit the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington you will notice that the 747 had a "father." His name was Joe Sutter, the son of a first-generation Slovenian who worked in Seattle's meat-packing industry.
Joe worked a paper route and got a job on the Boeing production line so he could pay for his first semester studying aeronautical engineering. He became known for his sizeable engineering talents and worked on the Boeing 707 and 727 then, with another famed Boeing designer, Jack Steiner, on the 737.
It was the 737 that produced one of Sutter's most memorable decisions: locating the engines beneath the wings instead of in the tail.
For his design expertise and contribution to aviation, Sutter received the $50 payment for the patent that resulted from his work on the 737.
Joe Sutter died recently after shepherding the design and development of what, until the debut of the Airbus A380 in 2007, had long reigned as the world's largest commercial aircraft.
Soon, there will be just two 747s flying routes within the U.S. Two modified 747-200s were delivered to the Air Force in 1990. They are both known as Air Force One, and they are still in service. Donald Trump, it turns out, will get the last ride.
Clarification: United is retiring its 747s on Nov. 7, but there will still be several foreign carriers flying the aircraft, and not just for cargo.