For decades she’s been dubbed “queen of the skies” and now it’s official – kind of.
The last Boeing 747 to ever be produced traced the shape of a crown in the sky as she made her maiden flight.
Cargo operator Atlas Air took delivery of the jumbo jet on Tuesday, in a ceremony that was livestreamed online to avgeeks around the world.
The aircraft left Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington, and flew to Cincinnati the following day.
During the seven-hour flight, the pilots took the chance to “draw” the crown in the sky, along with a “747” nested within the shape.
The special flight plan had been shared in advance by John Dietrich, Atlas CEO, at the handover ceremony.
Taking off at 7.49 a.m. from Everett, according to the flight tracker FlightAware, the jumbo tacked southeast and then eastwards before starting the maneuver about half an hour in, tracing the crown and the “747” in the air over Washington State, southwest of Spokane.
It was performed at an altitude of just under 18,000 feet, at speeds of around 180-390 mph, according to FlightAware. The aerial ballet took around two and a half hours.
Drawing in the sky takes time, it would seem. The aircraft landed at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport at 5.51 p.m. local time, 42 minutes later than planned.
‘She’ll always be the queen’
Captain Tom Vize, Atlas Air’s 747 fleet captain, who flew the plane alongside Captain Joe Masone, told CNN that some of the maneuvers were so tricky that the computer had refused to plot them in the system.
“There were some pretty tight turns, we had some difficulty in the simulator,” he said. “The computer couldn’t do them that tight, so we had to improvise, and it turned out great.”
The sharp angles of the number four were particularly tricky, he said. “It was a little bit more challenging to make it look sharp and keep those parallel edges on there, especially when the computer was planning it out.
Vize, who called the flight “very emotional,” said that the idea of drawing the crown “came at the last minute.”
“It was an iconic [moment] for Atlas, but also for the world, so we wanted to find a way to share it with the world,” he says.
The team initially had the idea of writing “forever incredible” in the sky, but “it would have taken more time and area than we had.” Then an employee had a lightbulb moment: they should draw a crown.
“The first [design] had more points on the crown,” he said – but testing it in a flight simulator made it again too complicated.
The flight crew worked with the performance engineering team to create the design, make sure the turns were compliant, and then finalized plans with air traffic control. The span of the design was 80 miles.
Vize says the flight crew were “focused” rather than nervous. “A lot of people had put work into it and we wanted the world to see it – we’re avgeeks too and wanted to share it,” he said.
The “gentle giant” took the turns smoothly, he said, and the pilots allowed themselves fistbumps on completing the maneuver. The four-strong crew were given a standing ovation by their six passengers – Atlas Air executives – upon landing.
Vize, who has flown the 747 for 23 years, calls the aircraft “definitely the greatest airplane.”
“Every time you walk up to it, it gives you goosebumps – it’s just such a huge airplane, and so reliable in performance,” he said.
“The amount of cargo it takes. The type of cargo. The number of people we can carry, the places it takes us. 170 countries and over 800 destinations – it’s changed the world but brings it together.
“She was my career, and she’ll always be the queen.”
‘The aircraft that shrank the world’
The crown drawing wasn’t the only nod to the aircraft’s special status. A decal to the right of the nose features the late Joe Sutter, the 747’s chief engineer dubbed “father of the 747.”
Stan Deal, Boeing’s president and CEO, called the delivery a “monumental day” and “a testament to the generations of Boeing employees who brought to life the airplane that ‘shrank the world’.”
The aircraft is the last of four new Boeing 747-8 Freighters Atlas ordered in January 2021. The company has 56 747s in its fleet.
Atlas Air will operate the final 747 for Apex Logistics, a Kuehne+Nagel company, under a long-term agreement. The company has operated the 747 into over 800 airports in 170 countries, Dietrich said at the ceremony.