Thursday, January 11, 2018
On Dec. 19, a page in air travel history slipped quietly into the archives even as 240,000 Pratt & Whitney horses roared over the Polar route. The last scheduled flight on an American carrier on a Boeing 747 -- "The Queen of the Skies" -- was operated by Delta Air Lines from Seoul, Korea, to Detroit. United Airlines had already ended its longtime use of the jumbo jet Nov. 7, and American Airlines dropped the airplane, with its distinctive anatomical hump, 25 years previously.
I'm hardly a jet-setter. Much of my air travel has been on forgettable domestic flights. However, I have had memorable experiences on propeller aircraft, like landing on a dirt strip in the Guatemalan jungle or an adrenaline rush approaching Abilene in a Texas Panhandle snowstorm. The Chaparral Airlines Beechcraft tipped 45 degrees just before touchdown. I've ridden in a Goodyear blimp over my Texas house and glided over Tulsa in a hot air balloon. Yet memorable experiences on the first jumbo jet will remain until life's final departure.
My first 747 flight was in January 1972, just two years after its commercial introduction. In my senior college year, I was returning from a journalism study tour of New York and Washington, D.C., and snagged a new flight from Dulles International to New Orleans with an Atlanta equipment change. The Delta 747 from Dulles to Atlanta was actually a Pan Am aircraft arriving from London. A Delta crew took command and flew on to Atlanta. The experience, even by today's standards, was futuristic. At Dulles, there were no jetways but moving lounges shuttling passengers to aircraft parked far from the terminal. On one hand, the 747 sat alone in the gray, winter drizzle as though hijacked on some desolate, third world airfield. On the other, the elevated passenger lounge creeping toward the plane replicated the Pan Am shuttle scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clearly, this was not to be a Texas International DC-9 hop from Little Rock to Houston.
I sat alone on a two-person row. The cabin was eerily near vacant; most passengers had disembarked at Dulles. A handful had boarded for Atlanta. I plugged in the state-of-the-art plastic hose earphones as we taxied. The engines roared; we sped down the damp runway as a song began through the tubes. It was the ethereal Jesus Christ Superstar adagio John 19:41 representing (to believers) Christ's commended soul ascending to heaven. Ascending through clouds to morning sunlight, aircraft and orchestra reached a crescendo -- a Kodak moment for eyes and ears.
Years later, flying to Hawaii for a customer junket, I upgraded my late Linda and me to first class on a Continental 747. We were two of only eight passengers upstairs in total quiet but for the 500 mile-an-hour wind slipping over the hump. That hump, by the way, allowed for a nose hatch on cargo models, opening up below the cockpit like a gargantuan Pez candy dispenser, for drive-in freight. Boeing intended the 747 to be a draft horse more than an airborne village. The flying public altered the course.
But July 1984 holds my most poignant 747 memories. Linda, toddler daughter Emily and I flew to Hong Kong on a travel-points trip. Free seats required a circuitous itinerary on no fewer than five different Pan Am 747s. In those days, Pan Am christened them as "Clipper Ships" with female names scrolled below the cockpit. I treasure a photo of Linda holding Emily at Tokyo's Narita airport with our "Belle of the Sky" in the background, readying to depart for Honolulu. From Hawaii, "Maid of the Seas" took us to the mainland.
On Dec. 21, 1988, I stopped in my tracks in a but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moment. News photos of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing crossed the television screen. The lifeless cockpit section of Pan Am Flight 103 clearly showed: "Maid of the Seas."
Monday daughter Emily, the former toddler Asian traveler, returned to Texas from Vietnam with her husband and three girls. My Gravette native son-in-law is Vietnamese and took them on a Christmas trip visiting extended family. Their San Francisco to Beijing outbound leg was on a 747 operated by Air China, one carrier still flying the big bird. Emily texted photos of my head-phoned granddaughters engrossed in on-board entertainment, naturally oblivious to their voyage through aviation history.
Returning home, and obliging Grandpa, my son-in-law snapped the kids and Mommy at Narita with their Houston-bound 777 in the background -- comparable to the 1984 photo of his wife at the same terminal. I hope the youngsters may share these photos with their children someday, reliving one ordinary family's history with an extraordinary aircraft -- "The Queen of the Skies."
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