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by Bob Waite
Boeing recently announced it had assembled its final 747 jumbo jet and would be delivering it to Atlas Air, a freight carrier, in February. Hearing this brought mixed emotions. It was a great aircraft. But it also possessed a jumbo carbon footprint.
For those of us who have a passion for aviation history, the cessation of the 747 marks the end of an era.
My interest traces back to a patient of my dad’s, Pete Williamson. Pete lived in Ipswich and worked as a pilot for Northeast Airlines, based out of Logan Airport.
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When I was a kid, I was taken down to Logan and sat in the cockpit of a DC-3 with Pete, who did his best to explain the array of switches and lights.
I was hooked.
Years later, in 1970, Pan Am, the lead customer for the brand-new 747, announced that they were visiting Logan with the launch aircraft. It was a PR stunt — and it worked. I drove to Logan and was not disappointed. The aircraft, with its signature “hump,” dwarfed the terminal.
The plane was so big that there was a spiral staircase to reach the upper deck, which in those early days was fitted out by Pan Am with a bar … and a piano! One could imagine Sinatra singing “Fly me to the Moon” with Oscar Peterson tickling the ivories.
My first opportunity to climb on board a 747 came in 1976. I was covering the primaries for a news agency, one with limited funds. I needed to get from the East Coast to my base in San Francisco and learned that Pan Am had a red-eye between the two cities for practically nothing,
At this point, there was no longer a piano bar, and, at any rate, my ticket did not allow me to go up the magic staircase. But the plane was so empty — it was a so-called “dead-head” flight — that I was able to stretch out over four seats and sleep the entire way.
Over the next decade, I had a few more opportunities to climb aboard the 747, as well as rival jumbos like the (to my mind, inferior) L-1011 and the DC-10. But always in coach.
Fast-forward to 1981: Out of the blue, I was hired by Big Blue — IBM. My job was to be speechwriter for the CEO of IBM World Trade and other senior executives. Among other things, it meant traveling with them.
In those days, Pan Am was IBM’s international carrier. IBM’s executives always flew in first or business class.
This was not always exactly relaxing. Sitting next to a company executive for eight or nine hours called for uncharacteristically good behavior.
As it happened, one of my first flights as a newly-minted speechwriter was with the company president, Terry Lautenbach. We were heading from LA to Sydney, which was the site of an IBM board meeting. We were seated in first class, towards the very front of the plane. I was on the window; Terry was on the aisle.
On getting seated, champagne was served in fluted glasses.
We took off. Almost immediately, strange noises emanated from the plane’s undercarriage. The pilot started circling over what looked like Catalina Island. He then came on the speaker system. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are unable to confirm that the landing gear has retracted or locked in place. We are dumping our fuel and will shortly be returning to LAX. Please remain calm.”
Of course, whenever anyone says “please remain calm,” your blood pressure goes sky-high.
The pilot dumped the fuel. We headed back to LAX. We were told to assume the crash position as the runway — and countless emergency vehicles — rushed into view.
As I bent over, a sticker on my left caught my eye. It was round, silver, and contained Pan Am’s marketing slogan of the day in crisp white — “Pan Am: Welcome to a whole new world!”
I nudged Terry and pointed. He laughed.
The landing gear held. We landed safely.
It was at that moment that I realized that whether you were in first class or economy, once you are up at 40,000 feet, everybody is equal in the end.
Bob says that the 747 was discontinued due to poor fuel efficiency … and that air travel itself may disappear unless it becomes much more environment-friendly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.