For the first time in 48 years, you can’t buy a ticket on a US airline to fly on a Boeing 747.
On January 3, Delta Air Lines Flight 9771 touched down in Marana, Arizona, an arid boneyard for stored and cannibalized jetliners. A three-hour-and-33-minute journey from Atlanta.
The last of the airline’s 16 jumbo Boeing 747-400s flew to a desert retirement, ending travel operations by passenger airlines in the United States.
Both Delta and United Airlines have been saying goodbye to the jumbo for months. A final domestic revenue flight, a last international trip, a final charter. Those last trips became more of a farewell tour than a formal end.
But this departure on ship 6314 was the true grand finale.
Pan American Airways debuted the enormous two-deck airliner in January 1970, and flights by US passenger airlines have been flying uninterrupted ever since. The 747 was a marvel of engineering when it first flew months before the first moon landing in 1969.
Earning the moniker “queen of the skies,” the 747 was postage stamp famous, an icon of pop culture, and the backdrop of movies, television and a flying emblem of the US presidency as Air Force One.
“Everybody stands up at the terminal and goes to the glass and they go ‘that’s a 747’,” said Capt. Stephen Hanlon, 62, Delta’s chief 747 pilot, who was in command of the final flight.
Another senior Delta captain, Paul Gallaher, was making his final flight, too. Gallaher, 64, was retiring with the 747 fleet.
He’s flown with Delta and its merger predecessor, Northwest Airlines, since 1983 and was a captain on the 747 for 18 years. Gallaher’s last command flight had been the day before, flying a charter with Hanlon to get the Clemson Tigers football team back home to South Carolina.
“Paul called me up, said ‘hey, Steve, how about jerking gear for me? And I’ll do the same for you going to the desert,” said Hanlon. “Jerking gear” is a pilot euphemism for flying co-pilot and controlling the landing gear.
Gallaher, Hanlon’s friend of more than 30 years, was a first officer on the first 747-400 delivered to Northwest Airlines in 1989. Gallaher made the first commercial landing of the 747-400 when it arrived at the airline’s then-headquarters in Minneapolis after delivery from Boeing.
“He had the first landing and I’m going to have the last landing,” said Hanlon, who has been a 747 captain since spring 2000, Gallaher was just a few months ahead.
Hanlon led the final walk-around inspection. Shaking hands with fuelers and ground handlers who had looked after the airplane. Many came out to bid the plane farewell, even on an unusually cold Atlanta winter morning. It took a full 15 minutes to walk around the 231-foot, 10-inch long jumbo.
Endurance is what airlines wanted
While the sheer size of the 747 is its most famous attribute, that wasn’t primarily why the 747 that attracted many of the world’s airlines. Many bought jumbo 747s because of their incredible endurance.
The iconic jumbo jet has been fading since the late 1990s. The global 747 fleet peaked at more than 1,000 in 1998. That’s when smaller twin-engine jets like the Boeing 777 really began filling fleets. It could fly just as far, and airlines didn’t have to worry about filling all the seats.
Those retirements accelerated as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A350, which Hanlon will fly next, came along. Enormous four-engine jets like the 747 and the even larger Airbus A380 haven’t sold in significant numbers in recent years.
There are still 185 flying paying passengers around the world, according to Flightglobal. Most are still in Europe at British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM and in Asia with Korean Air Lines and Air China. Another 332 are hauling cargo, VIPs, heads of state or flying a variety of unique missions.
A jet from another age
Back in the cockpit, Gallaher was readying the jet to fly. Reviewing paperwork, programming the flight computers and ensuring the jumbo would perform just as it would on any normal flight.
The 747-400, a 1980s technology update to the jumbo, dates itself. Cathode ray tubes – like old TVs – were once state of the art displays for pilots. The analog settings on the autopilot bounce with each turn of the knob.
Flight computers with green type on black screens and blocks of backup gauges with spinning needles have long been obsolete. She is a craft from the dawn of the computer age.
Ship 6314 left the ground for the last time in Atlanta weighing a spritely 518,000 pounds, about 20% of which was jet fuel.
A Navy landing
At around 6,800 feet, Marana’s runway is an extremely tight fit for a 747. By comparison, one of the longest runways at Narita Airport in Tokyo is more than 13,000 feet long, while tiny LaGuardia Airport in New York City is 7,000 feet.
“Eight thousand [feet] makes us pucker,” said Hanlon. “This is going to be a Navy landing,” said Hanlon, a reference to the hard landings required to stop a fighter jet on the small deck of an aircraft carrier. The 747 “stops on a dime. So once we get on the ground, you’re going to feel the deceleration.”
Before the final touchdown, the 747 would swoop low over the desert runway. Gallaher flew the jumbo down to 20 feet on its final pass over the runway. His final time at the controls of a Delta 747.
After the jumbo cleared end of then runway, Gallaher called “going around,” the order to begin climbing again.
“There you go. Make it happen,” said Hanlon. The four engines accelerated and the 747 climbed back in to the sky for one last circle. Six minutes later, the 18 wheels on the 747 touched the pavement on the runway and the half-million pound airliner rolled to a stop passing the long row of Delta 747s already in retirement.
“We’d like to welcome you to the boneyard,” said Stephanie Nelson the trip’s lead flight attendant. “Now we say farewell, to the queen, the last queen, it’s her last voyage, her last touch down.”