Simanaitis Says

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AFTER 48 YEARS of service, the Boeing 747 is being replaced by newer, more efficient wide-body aircraft. The 747 is a glorious example of aeronautical engineering and, for crew and passengers alike, a source of memorable experiences. Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways Senior First Officer, shares his 747 love story in The New York Times, October 10, 2017. This article rekindled my own memories, from my first 747 sighting to long hauls around the world.

The first Boeing 747 rolls out of its Everett, Washington, plant, 1968. Image from The New York Times, October 10, 2017.

Senior Officer Mark Vanhoenacker recalls his first impression: “Or I could go further back, to the day when I, an awkward 14-year-old, stood with my mom and dad atop the Pan Am terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and stared in wonder at the towering tail fins of the 747s all around us, as proud and promising to my wide-opened eyes as masts in a harbor.”

And, indeed, those tail fins were towering, especially in comparison to those of other aircraft. The Boeing 727, a workhorse trijet built between the early 1960s to 1984, had a tail fin reaching a tad more than 34 ft. above the tarmac; the 727’s wingspan was 108 ft. The 747’s tail fin towered to 65 ft. 5 in., almost twice the height of the 727’s. The original 747’s wingspan was 195 ft. 8 in.; later versions extend this to 224 ft.

The Boeing 747 dwarfs its 727 sibling.

Takeoff weight is another superlative: The original 747’s was 700,000 lbs.; for subsequent variations, it is as much as 987,000 lbs. Even the advanced 727-200’s was 209,500 lbs.

Boeing 747. Image from Airliners From 1919 to the Present Day, by Kenneth Munson, illustrated by John W. Wood et al, Blandford Press, 1975.

Vanhoenacker describes his first piloting of a 747, London to Hong Kong, on December 12, 2007: “That night the majesty of the 747 made the experience of takeoff new again, as joyful as it had been in my first flying lesson years earlier…”

Mark Vanhoenacker, Massachusetts-born 1975, Belgian-American commercial airline pilot, author, frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate.

My own first citing of a Boeing 747 came before Senior First Officer Vanhoenacker was born. It would have been around 1974, with my view of a Pan Am 747 through the windscreen of a Prinair aircraft on runway hold at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A De havilland DH.114 Heron. Image of a model built for Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Living on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, at the time, I was familiar with two basic itineraries for getting from STT to my native Cleveland: STT/Miami/Cleveland or, sometimes with better connections, STT/San Juan/New York/Cleveland. The Miami connection was typically in 727s; the STT/San Juan flight, often in a Prinair De havilland Heron.

The Heron was a four-engine, 19-passenger aircraft. And, back in those days, front-row seating was primo for flight enthusiasts because crews left the flight deck door open. Waiting his takeoff clearance, the Prinair captain motioned me forward: “Take a look at that!” he said.

The Boeing 474 really dwarfs a De havilland Heron.

I concur completely with Senior Officer Vanhoenacker: The 747 was, and remains, a majestic aircraft.

In time, I got to know a 747’s wide-body Coach accommodations on that San Juan/JFK route. It wasn’t until years later that I knew the wonders of its upper deck, accessed by spiral staircase.

Depending on aircraft configuration, the spiral staircase might have led to a First Class cocktail lounge. A portion of First Class seating can be seen at the left. Image from The New York Times, October 15, 2017.

By the time I moved up to Business Class in R&T traveling, a congenial cocktail lounge was gone, the upper deck reconfigured as additional Business Class. Wife Dottie and I have fond 747 memories, especially with foreign airlines. I recall a Scandinavian Airlines System chef, complete with white toque, discussing meal selections. Wife Dottie remembers when early All Nippon Airlines stewardesses, exquisitely schooled and charming, albeit with limited English, called everyone “sir.” Dottie tried wearing bigger earrings, but it didn’t help. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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