On the Last Flight of Delta’s 747: a Party for a Legendary Jet

Dec 19, 2017

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Delta Air Lines is having a big party for its last Boeing 747, a moveable feast across the United States with a touring Jumbo Jet that’s even got its own hashtag, #Delta747Farewell. But while Delta employees partied to celebrate the last 747 commercial service in the US, flight DL158 was crossing the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday from Seoul (ICN) to Detroit (DTW) on the actual last scheduled revenue flight of a 747 by a US airline — and TPG was on it. It’s been a long goodbye to the Queen of the Skies this year, with United and Delta both retiring the giant after almost half a century.

There will be more events with the Delta 747, sure. It may even get sent to help out in an emergency. But December 19, 2017, at 12:45pm ET in Detroit was the last scheduled touchdown with paying passengers.

The moment was important enough for aviation lovers that it was absolutely worth going through an odyssey for. Delta first announced months ago that the last flight would be on December 17 out of ICN, then said last week that there would be another one on December 19, meaning that people who had booked the former flight so they could be on the last American Jumbo Jet scrambled to rebook themselves on the new one — if they could. And then Delta pulled another one on devoted AvGeeks when it cancelled the new last flight to Seoul, on the 17th, and moved it to the next day.

But it takes more than a couple flight changes to stop a dedicated aviation geek from going on a last dance with the most iconic of all airplanes, and so a bunch of us found ourselves in the SkyTeam lounge in Seoul, easily spotting each other by the signs that give away an aviation enthusiast: flight tracking app on telephone, camera in hand, visible enthusiasm when someone announced “There she is!” as our 747 came in to land. Ship 6306, bearing the registration N666US, appeared over Incheon under the brightest of winter suns.     

With the city of Incheon in the background, Delta’s last 747 arrives in Seoul.

That someone was Chris Bearman, a TPG reader and retired dispatcher for America West Airlines who had arrived in Seoul that very morning. He would spend just a few hours in the airport lounge before flying back in seat 72K, the very first row on the upper deck, right behind the cockpit. 

That’s the kind of dedication the 747 inspires among aviation enthusiasts. And for AvGeeks, the place to be on the 747 is the upper deck. 

That’s where I found Preat and Jennifer Kansal — he works in marketing, she is an aerospace engineer — who had brought their three-month old daughter Amitha to see off the airplane that had made Boeing a name recognized worldwide. (On her second 747 trip, Amitha had already logged some serious mileage on the Queen of the Skies.)

Seated behind me, Cody Diamond, a pilot with Compass Airways who flies Embraer 170 regional jets out of Los Angeles, had showed up in uniform for the final flight — so he could fly to work immediately after landing in Detroit. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” he said, with the enthusiasm of a kid meeting his idol, unfazed by what was probably the most punishing commute in the world.

We were welcomed upstairs by Tracy, a flight attendant whose career mirrored exactly the one of the airplane carrying us. “I’m very sad,” she said. “I grew up with this airplane.” She literally did: hired at Northwest Airlines in 1989, the same year the jet we were on had been delivered from the Boeing factory, she had flown on it all over the world, and stayed with it through the merger with Delta. 

The fancy new Airbus A350 she’ll now work on does not, Tracy hinted, stir her emotions like the old 747. Sure, the Airbus has wonderful suites in business class, with an actual door, and modern systems that will make her work easier. But it doesn’t have decades of history as the most recognizable shape in the skies, the airplane that made flying over vast distances possible for billions of people.   

Ship 6306 ready to board for one last time
Ship 6306 ready to board for one last time.

That unique power of the 747 to bring people together was on display on the last revenue flight in 2017 as it must have been on the first in 1969. Out of all people on the flight, there was one I was especially happy to see: Ted Anthony, a friend who was coming back to the US from Bangkok after a five-year stint as head of news for the Associated Press in Asia. We had no idea we we’d be on the same flight until I posted on Facebook that I was flying out of Seoul. He saw it and replied just as the plane’s doors were closing.

A delightful chance, aided by the 747’s vast 376-seat capacity. 

Ted had taken his first 747 flight in 1974 as a six-year old, from Los Angeles to Asia. Standing on the lower deck by a galley — and with lots of room to let people pass by us, because the Jumbo Jet is big inside too — he told me how he was shocked to discover that the airplane had an actual upper deck, with stairs leading up to it. On that flight, he recalled, the captain came on the intercom to announce that President Richard Nixon had resigned: history on a 747. That first flight was followed by many others on the 747, including the trans-Pacific flight from California to Australia that was impossible to do nonstop before the Jumbo came along with its huge range. 

The legacy of the 747 is “an amazing democratization of aviation,” said a Delta customer service employee who had joined our conversation. Lots of seats, great economics for its time, and a reliable airframe that would get 400 people very far and in great comfort — no wonder the Jumbo Jet was one of the human inventions that made a more connected world possible. 

The faces on the upper deck, occupied almost exclusively by AvGeeks, were a testament to that. Americans of different colors and backgrounds, an Englishman, Koreans, an Italian-born journalist — all converging there for the same reason. “This has been so much more than just an airplane,” said a beautiful message read over the intercom by a flight attendant after we landed.  

Preet Kansal’s 13 hours with the Queen of the Skies weren’t enough. He didn’t want the last flight to end. “They could run laps, or something,” he said, smiling. “I just wish it was longer.”

Captains David Haglund and Steve Roddy and their two first officers — two pilots flying, two resting — took turns to come out and mingle with the passengers as we flew over the Upper Midwest, a reminder that this was not a regular flight. The crew brought more champagne for the passengers, as people exchanged 747 stories.

“To the Queen of the Skies!” said one of us, raising his glass. “To the Queen!” we said in unison, as if we had been rehearsing it. But we had all just met, instant friends courtesy of a decades-old machine.

Eight AvGeeks, a baby, a bottle of champagne and a legendary aircraft.
Eight AvGeeks, a baby, a bottle of champagne and a legendary aircraft. Photo by Delta Airlines crew.

Airlines have realized that first and last flights are huge branding opportunities, and Delta distributed 747-themed pins at the gate.

No AvGeek occasion is complete without memorabilia, like this photograph of Delta’s first 747 from the 1970s that we all signed and handed back to its owner, a man named John Compton who got hooked by aviation after his first flight — on a 747, of course.   

“I’ve been planning this for a year,” Jeanette Sterner, a project manager for a medical device company, told me as she flipped through the in-flight magazine to the page with a cutout drawing of the 747-400. A Delta Diamond Medallion member, she probably had more miles on the 747 than any of the other AvGeeks assembled on the upper deck — but none up front on the flight deck. So we both relished the chance, after landing, to go sit in the cockpit and play pilot for a few minutes, a fitting end to an exhilarating flight.

Photo by Delta Airlines crew

Still, no AvGeek on flight DL158 left the airplane without the feeling that a chapter was closing — in our lives, too, after many of us had spent so much time chasing an airplane that would now be grounded forever. The applause that followed the landing was an emotional moment, and for a second after it died down a strange silence filled the upper deck. Then Jeanette spoke up: “To the Queen!” she said, fist in the air. “To the Queen!” came the reply. And with that, the 747 turned off the runway.

Featured image by Zach Honig.

Correction: The city in the background of the first image is Incheon, not Seoul. The caption has been changed.

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