Written by Cody Diamond and Ben Wang
SAN FRANCISCO – On October 26, I made my way from San Francisco (SFO) to Seoul-Incheon (ICN) on the third to last westbound transpacific United Airlines (UAL) Boeing 747-400 flight. I was due to meet up with Ben for the final flight UA 892 on October 29 but headed to Seoul early for a number of reasons.
First, making the long journey for the first time, I very much wanted to visit Seoul. Second, going to ICN on the 26th would ensure that I would get to ride on two different United 747s, with a different tail number each way. Third, Korean Air is also retiring their 747-400s very soon, and this would be the last weekend possible to ride one on the domestic Seoul-Gimpo (GMP) – Jeju (CJU) shuttle.
All of this would make for a perfect AvGeek weekend!
United 893 Heavy on October 26 would be operated by 747-422, UAL Ship 8428, or N128UA. The 1245th 747 built; N128UA first flew on May 1, 2000, and was delivered to United on May 12 of that year. She was one of the youngest 747’s in the fleet and at the time, is the youngest still operating. Also, it is the only one left flying that was built in the 21st century.
In command of UA 893 was Captain John Salvini, who had been on the 747-400 for 24 years. Along with him, were First Officers Sue, Len, and Tim. Our flight was planned for 11 hours and 24 minutes, cruising initially at 31,000 feet, with step climbs eventually up to 40,000 feet.
Even three days before the final international service, many AvGeeks were onboard this flight to ICN, positioning themselves to make the return as I was.
Everyone was offered a chance by Captain Salvini to visit the cockpit before departure, and many took him up on this offer. Even 47 years into its service at United, the 747 is still an awesome-inspiring machine for all ages.
Pushing back five minutes early from Gate G93, our takeoff data was for a 771,600-pound takeoff on SFO’s Runway 28L on the GNNRR2 Departure. Our thrust setting would be a derated takeoff to a flex temperature of 44 degrees, and our ramp fuel in SFO was 299,600 pounds.
I was seated in 14K on the upper deck. United’s amenity kit for Polaris Business Class was 747 themed in honor of the retirement. It was indeed a pleasant surprise to see that and was very thoughtful on United’s part.
Lunch service commenced shortly after takeoff. As this occurred, I spoke with so many of the United flight attendants that all said that they would miss this airplane. Many of them had worked on the 747 Classic for United as well. Cruising at 31,000 feet initially our ride was mostly smooth, and the seatbelt sign was turned off for most of the flight.
After a quick nap, I went for the first of several walks to the back of the airplane. Most of the window shades on the lower deck were down, as most passengers were sleeping. The 747 has such a cavernous interior downstairs, and it is especially noticeable when the cabin is empty like our flight was.
Our UA 893 went out with nearly 200 open seats! Most passengers were able to have a whole row to themselves to stretch out.
As the hours went by, I was doing some research about the remaining 747’s in United’s fleet. As we made our way chasing the sun West that morning, two UAL 747’s made their final journey with the United call sign to Victorville (VCV).
N174UA and N175UA were the oldest remaining 744’s in the United fleet. N180UA would follow the next morning to VCV and N117UA was planned to follow on the 28th. This would leave N128UA, our 747, N121UA, and N118UA as the last active 747’s. N121UA and N118UA are in 747 Friend Ship “retro” titles.
The weather across the Pacific was absolutely beautiful. We made our way across the Aleutian Islands and over the North Pacific, on one of the Red Routes (Russian Overflight Routes).
Making landfall briefly over Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the sky conditions were initially broken, but we were able to get a great view of Russia down below. Proceeding over the Sea of Okhotsk, we made our way over Japan and eventually making a westward turn for the South Korean Peninsula.
Starting our descent about 30 minutes prior to landing, the weather was beautiful in Seoul with clear skies and calm winds. We touched down on Runway 33R and placed at the gate shortly after that, parking next to a Lufthansa 747-400.
Final International Flight
After my domestic flights within Korea and enjoying Seoul for two days, it was time to make the return journey to SFO from ICN on the last ever international service by a United 747. I would be seated in 41A just aft of the left wing. Ben was in 49K on the opposite side aft of door 4.
Arriving at Gate 111 at ICN, the gatehouse was full of AvGeeks watching and waiting for 1999 built 747 Friend Ship N121UA/Ship 8421 to land. Interestingly, 8421 wore UA Star Alliance Colors from 2009 to 2014.
A Boeing 747 backdrop and banner noting the significance of the flight was set up at the gate. AvGeeks and ordinary flyers alike got their photos taken.
UA 893 landed on-time and in great light for photos. With only two hours turn time for the airplane, preparations quickly began to get N121UA ready for her final transpacific voyage as an active United 747.
After the crew arrived, they made brief remarks and posed for photos. They answered many questions from passengers about their airplane. One of the First Officers, Mike, had been on the aircraft since 1993. He has 17,000 hours on the 747-400!
He will very much miss the airplane, which he loved to hand fly. Mike will be upgrading to Captain on the 787 in the very near future.
Captain Rafael Rodriguez has been on the 747-400 for 13 years, and following boarding, announced his farewell to the 747 and an estimated en route flying time of 9 hours and 52 minutes, initially at 29,000 feet.
As Lead Pursers Pat Graham and Tom Krohn welcomed everyone aboard, Pat specifically welcomed “AvGeeks” on United’s final international B747 service. Passengers were handed a Farewell 747 informational booklet upon boarding.
At each seat, First and Business Class passengers found a rather impressive commemorative plaque while Economy passengers received a fancy memorial card.
AvGeeks up front were quite jovial, and multiple announcements were made to close the bins and be seated so the main door can close for departure. We pushed back on-time, and safety video played as we made our way to Runway 33L for takeoff.
In a yet another blast from the past, Channel 9, United’s in-seat audio Air Traffic Control communications broadcast, was turned on – much to the delight of all on board.
We thundered down the Runway at ICN one last time as United Ship 8421 rotated at 17:12 local time, making her way into a fading Fall sky, an opportune moment. Turning left and then back to the East, we climbed up to 29,000 feet as darkness approached while directly over Tokyo.
With radar service terminated, we left behind busy chatter of Tokyo Control into the silence over the Northern Pacific. We did end up picking up some light chop, and the sign was turned on for a bit until we found smoother air.
Captain Rodriguez turned off the fasten seatbelt sign, and dinner service began. Flight Attendants were good-humored and upbeat as they served a choice of stir-fried beef or kung pao chicken followed by ice-cream dessert.
Despite a large contingent of enthusiasts on board, lights in the cabin dimmed for the benefit of frequent travelers to sleep. The mood in Economy was quiet and subdued. As passengers settled in for the long crossing, many ended up in the galley sharing stories with Flight Attendants of their love for the 747.
Unfortunately, United Wi-Fi, the key component of “Bring Your Own Device” entertainment, was not working on our flight, despite multiple attempts to restart the system. Just as it initially was conceived on the 747, those of us seated in Economy had to make do with movies on the main screen.
The sun rose early, and cabin lights came on 90 minutes before arrival. Purser Tom announced those of us in Economy were to receive a special breakfast sandwich unique to our final flight.
The tomato, cheese, and egg muffin were delicious. Later, Purser Pat apologized for the inoperative Wi-Fi and told everyone that we would be receiving “tokens of appreciation” from United.
We began our descent for cloudy SFO, and Captain Rodriguez greased the landing on Runway 28L, touching down 9 hours and 42 minutes after wheels-up. After holding for a Singapore A350 still occupying our gate, we were greeted by a “dry-salute” from the SFO Fire Department upon taxing into Gate G94, thus officially ending intercontinental Boeing 747 service at United. Despite holding for a gate, we still managed to arrive six minutes early.
Lucky passengers were able to snag a seat on United’s final 747 revenue flight on November 7. Appropriately numbered flight UA 747, this “retro” flight from SFO to Honolulu (HNL) will recreate the airline’s first 747 revenue flight from 1970.
Join Airways as we make that journey next week!