747 SP
Photo Credit: Christian Volpati

United has set the date to retire their last 747s. Delta is close behind. It is not an exaggeration to say it is the end of an end of an era. The 747 was a monument to classic American aviation design and construction. The spacious frame allowed designers to gave rise to lasting changes in what was possible in passenger travel. the aircraft became an icon of popular culture and fiction. It became the flagship aircraft of a nation. Variations studied the stars and the atmosphere. One carried the first airborne laser weapon system. It's extended body carried whole fuselages of new airliners-some of which will ironically be why the type is retired. And the 747s status as a powerful cargo hauler is unmatched.

Sadly I only got to fly on the type once in 1983, a rare TWA 747-SP. A short bodied version designed for high speed and extended range. It was also during my only cross-country flight with my mother. Our flight left Toledo for a short hop to our connecting flight in Cleveland. Instead we were diverted to Boston.

In these days I still carried books on airliners with me and could quote passenger capacity, cruising altitudes and speeds and so forth. Air travel was an obsession. So it was like a second Christmas when we arrived at the gate and a massive 747 was sitting there.

The airport was virtually empty and we arrived at the gate very early but they let us board an hour before normal. I recall hearing the plane had just arrived and was turning right around for L.A. It was around 10 p.m. I made the common request if I could see the cockpit-which I always asked back then and the stewardess said I could go upstairs and visit the captain...whom it turned out was not aboard the plane. So at the ripe age of 9, I lived a dream and got to walk up the spiral staircase and then wander around the unattended cockpit of a 747. I can still remember the exact smell, the awe at the lights, the amount of space-to my smaller frame, and the view. I figured that at any moment somebody would arrive and take issue with my being alone inside the cockpit so I made my way to my seat.

We were in the absolute last row in the rear of the plane and the flight was one of the roughest I've ever been on. Heavy storms from departure until we made it to the plains states, all at night. I've never felt a plane shimmy the way this thing did, especially landing.

More recently I would see the last of Delta's 747 fleet twice a day during a project at Ford's Dearborn headquarters. They usually park in or just outside of the maintenance hanger near to I-94 at Detroit's airport. Thursday and Friday they would leave around 4:30 and if I timed my departure right, I could watch lumber into the air then slowly climb.

They'll fly amazingly comfortable newer aircraft but nothing is going to replace the grandeur and experience of flying on the 747.

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