MIAMI— Delta Air Lines Flight 836 from Honolulu to Atlanta marked today the end of service of the first Boeing 747-400 ever built. This aircraft, originally in Boeing house colors, made its maiden flight on April 29, 1988, and was delivered to launch customer Northwest Airlines on January 26 1989. It entered service a month later on proving runs between Phoenix and Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Interestingly, this Boeing 747-400 was involved in a major incident while operating Northwest Airlines flight 85 from Detroit to Tokyo-Narita on October 9, 2002, when the aircraft rolled into a 35-degree left bank while overflying the Bering Sea. The actions of the crew took the crippled airliner hand flying, with limited flight controls, back to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska. Investigators found that a crack in the power control module caused the incident.
Northwest operated sixteen 747-400s when merged into Delta Airlines in 2008. Since then, the 747-400 fleet has been repainted in the current Delta Air Lines colors. The first 747-400 was assigned as Delta Ship 6301, and throughout its 26 years of service has logged more than 61 million miles, enough to make 250 trips from the Earth to the moon.
The Last Flight of Delta Ship 6301
As I boarded through Gate 19 at Honolulu Airport, I quickly took a glance into the Delta One business class section in the nose, before heading towards the stairs to the upper deck, where I found my seat for the four-thousand-mile journey. The upper deck was originally devised as a lounge for premium passengers, but as years passed and the economics began to demand more seats on board, the lounges began to fade away and passenger seats were added.
Coincidentally, this was the last summer season flight to Honolulu, which from now on is going to be served by the 242-tonne Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) Airbus A330-300.
At around 16:20 local, the captain came on the PA to briefly welcome everyone aboard and inform us of our flight time of 7hr55min. Our initial cruise altitude was going to be 33,000 feet with two additional climb steps.
A full flight with 376 passengers, about 238,000 lbs of fuel and 24,500 lbs of cargo took our takeoff weight to 755,070 lbs. Delta Ship 6301 began its slow taxi to Runway 26R for its last takeoff ever, and, effortlessly, we were airborne at 16:39 local Honolulu time.
Minutes after reaching our initial cruise altitude, cabin crew service sprang to life. There was no farewell ceremony, and most of the passengers aboard were not aware of this historic flight. Just some aviation enthusiasts joined me in this personal tribute to the first -400 variant of the Queen of the Skies.
Hours passed by while cruising over several time zones. The flight over the Pacific Ocean was uneventful… and slow! Delta Ship 6301 last flight speed cruise was only 509kts due to the lack of tailwinds, and as we burned some fuel, we started to climb our first step to FL350. Our final step to FL370 would be over Western USA several hours later.
The captain made an announcement about the special retirement of this airplane: “You are part of history tonight, this is the very last flight of this airplane, which was the first 747-400 ever built. It has carried millions of passengers millions of miles since its delivery in 1989”
The rainy weather in Atlanta welcomed us as Delta Ship 6301 landed on runway 10 in Atlanta for the very last time at 06:33 local time. Little did we know that our flight was also the last for a fallen soldier, who exited the aircraft first. An FA made an announcement thanking all those who serve and kindly asked passengers to remain seated.
While disembarking through Gate E28 I thanked the crew for the memorable flight and bud my farewell to the Queen of the Skies. The next time I’ll visit her will be in the Delta Air Lines Aviation Museum.
The “High-Tech” Jumbo
Devised in 1985 as a replacement for the early -100 and -200 747 classic variants, the Boeing 747-400 was conceived with a two-crew glass cockpit, along with aerodynamic improvements and an optional fuel tank in the horizontal stabilizer, which together brought the range of the aircraft to 9,800 km (6,090 miles). So far, it was the most successful 747 program ever with 694 orders by the time deliveries ended in 2009, to make way for its successor, the 747-8 Intercontinental.
“Georgia Belle”, Delta’s first 747 (N9896, Ship 101), was delivered to Atlanta on October 2, 1970 and went into service on October 25 with one daily round trip from Atlanta to Dallas and Los Angeles. According to the Delta Museum, “Delta used its 747 fleet between the major cities of its route system including: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco.”
747s were also used on the Delta/Pan Am European interchange, flying from Atlanta and Washington Dulles over Pan Am’s transatlantic routes on April 25, 1971, and briefly to London via Boston in the mid 1970s. Nevertheless, Delta found that the Jumbo was too large for its route operations in the 1970s, and began to trade them back to Boeing in September 1974. The 747 stopped the gap measure until the Lockheed L1011 Tristar deliveries reached critical mass. Interestingly, Delta Air Lines operated the 747s, the Tristars and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10s at the same time. The last of the five original Delta 747s flew on April 23, 1977.
Delta Chief 747 pilot Steve Hanlon said the 747-400 was affectionately known as “The Whale” among pilots. “Even as large as the Whale was, it was surprisingly maneuverable and fast, typically cruising at .86 the speed of sound with close to 400 people onboard.”
As we head toward the first quarter of the 21st Century, the 747-400 era is coming to an end. Mainstay operators such as All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Singapore have retired them completely. Currently, the largest Boeing 747-400 fleet is operated by British Airways.
Meanwhile, the 747-8 program is still alive. Two weeks ago, Korean Air took delivery of the first 747-8 Intercontinental, becoming the sole airline in operating all but one variant of the 747, and it could be the last customer of the type as Transaero has just been taken over by Aeroflot and deferred all widebody deliveries (including two 747-8Is already built). Also, last week Nippon Cargo Airways (NCA) announced the cancellation of large part of its order, casting doubts on the continuity of the program in the coming years.
From the Cradle… to the Throne
During its 26 years of service, Delta Ship 6301 served several international destinations with both Northwest and Delta Airlines. After a brief storage time, the aircraft was put into service again and deployed on most of the Asian routes of the airline.
As Delta continues to modernize its fleet and improve its Pacific network, the airline plans to retire the remaining 12 747s in its fleet by 2017, replacing them with smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft that will enable the airline to operate a wider variety of routes, particularly in Asian markets.
However, the fate of Delta Ship 6301 will not be the scrapyard. The airline has announced a final a final destination scheduled in early 2016 to the Delta Flight Museum, where it will become the latest aircraft exhibit. While its service has been put to an end, the generations to come of aviation enthusiasts will continue appreciating and loving Delta Ship 6301, a true “Queen of the Skies.”