Commentary: Goodbye, Jumbo

Photo Copyright © 2016 United Airlines, Inc.


I have never flown a Boeing 747.

Yet, I admired the majesty of the original Jumbo Jet that has been christened the "Queen of The Skies." One look at one and you wondered what it was like inside of there. The feeling of comfort had been unrivaled since its first flight in 1969 – that is until Airbus produced the A380 and the airlines of the Persian Gulf elevated flight to beyond Juan Trippe's own airborne fantasies.

The big plane arrived at the right time when flight was a luxury and we only dreamed of going somewhere exotic and unique. Boeing created a masterpiece of engineering that challenged the idea of flight. Its weight alone made us wonder how could one be able to fly with those lean 707s and DC-8s?

The 747 came about as soon as I recalled my first flight. It was on a smaller Boeing jet – the 737 operated by Pacific Southwest Airlines. No 747 would dare fly into and out of Burbank's tiny airport. Not just for a trip up the coast to San Francisco. We budget passengers relied on regional carriers and their smaller aircraft to fulfill our 747 fantasies halfway.

We were lucky in the San Fernando Valley. A jump over the Sepulveda Pass would take us to Los Angeles International Airport, That was where you saw Her Majesty of the air. There were many of them in various colors and stripes. As a child, I saw so many of them adopted by the world's airlines, it was simply staggering and dizzying. Their canvasses yielded a larger presence to their brand and image. The bold red tail of Northwest Orient with its unpainted top and bottom, its white and black contemporary stripe. These were the pride of the Twin Cities as they landed in Tokyo and London.

PanAm, United, American, Delta, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Air France, Korean Air, Japan Air Lines, Singapore, Qantas, South African, Saudia…the airlines that flew them were among the best of their trade. These airliners flew their flags proudly as they reached their ports o' call in far-flung places. That was the most tangible impact the Boeing 747 made in its 47-year history.

What intrigued me the most about the 747 was its forward "hump." It seemed like the antithesis of the theories of aerodynamics. Sure, you eventually adapted the second deck – originally intended for cargo use – for the aircrew and some passengers, but it was also a curious thing to try to comprehend for a child in the 1970s. Once I got older, I understood. Still, it was the most unusual aircraft feature that has never been replicated since. Though Boeing did stretch the hump further on later models of the 747.

That was when I saw the cargo versions of the 747. It used to be that no one would be able to fly specific items in larger volumes than the 747. Remember the Cadillac Allante? To ferry the bodies from Pininfarina in Italy to its final assembly in Michigan, they used a cargo version of the 747 to do so. All they had to do was to open up the nose of the aircraft – upper deck included – and they would be loaded accordingly. Clever, indeed!

Back to the idea of the 747s size and the how and why of it. Four big turbofan jet engines would take it to 30,000 feet and cruise for hours on end. Hundreds of passengers would be up there, trying to sleep in coach or having a smoke in the lounge above the main cabin. The takeoff was the most curious part of the 747 experience. Airports had to extend their runways to accommodate the jumbos. They needed most of its length to get it up into the skies and an equal length for it to land. Both operations drew attention to itself – even if it was a routine repeated every minute or so at certain airports.

I almost flew in a 747.

Like my main carrier of the 1980s – TWA – PanAm would continue long haul flights through Los Angeles International Airport to places, such as San Francisco, San Diego or down to Latin America. I was set to fly to SFO on a PanAm 747 but decided against it. The fare was right – $29.00 one way between the two California cities.

Funny thing: I used to pay that much for an Ambassador Class ticket between LAX and SFO on TWA.

If it weren't for the 747, I would not have experienced any wide-body aircraft. The 747 spurred on competitors from McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed. Though they never matched the Jumbo for seating capacity and overall flight range, the DC-10 and L-1011 were able to fly over water to far-flung places from the USA to Europe, Latin America and parts of the Pacific.

The L-1011 might as well be a 747, for all I cared. In the 1980s, I was introduced to high capacity travel between LAX and SFO while being charmed by the service of TWA and Delta. Sadly, I have never flown a wide-body aircraft as I later traversed across the country.

Yet, the influence of the 747 was seen on the aircraft I have flown from the 1980s to today. The innovations of cabin space, luxury, aircraft engines, wing and tail design are seen from the smallest Embrarer 145 to the A380.

This year marks the final journeys of the Queen of The Skies. United has been celebrating their final flights of the 747, as have the remaining carriers that are flying. The rewards to their carriers have been bountiful – not just in operating costs and profits. To be able to fly longer distances with more passengers was an accomplishment that has set many changes in the airline industry – some of which are uncomfortable to witness.

It would be appropriate to say "goodbye, Jumbo" at this point.

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