SEATTLE – On April 21, 2017, a very quiet but very special retirement flight took place out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). Kalitta Air retired its final operating Boeing 747-200, officially flying the last flight of a “Classic” 747 by a U.S. Part 121 airline.
As airline pilots, we are allowed to fly as supernumerary non-revenue jumpseat riders on practically any U.S. airline. I am a total AvGeek and try to make my commutes to and from work fun by riding on unique airplanes, especially classic jetliners. The 747-200 certainly fits that bill, and last year, I rode on a Kalitta 747-200 (N794CK) to HNL just for fun!
At the time, the Classic 747 at Kalitta was relegated to only one scheduled run (in addition to flying ad-hoc charter runs); an evening turnaround from Honolulu to Los Angeles and back. Being based in LAX, and occasionally running late, we would hear “Connie 369 Heavy” landing from HNL at LAX just before 23:00 local time, where she would sit on the ground for a few hours before starting the journey back to HNL as Flight 368.
HNL-LAX-HNL was also the last scheduled run for the 747-100, also operated by Kalitta until 2011. Going in and out of Los Angeles every week flying for a regional airline, I would see a Kalitta 747-200 occasionally parked on the ramp on the south side of the airport, waiting for her next crossing to HNL on behalf of Pacific Air Cargo. She was always such a beautiful sight on the ramp. I love any 747, but I just feel that the 747-200, with the original body of the 747, has the best ramp presence and she was always a treat to see.
As I mentioned, last year I rode on N794CK. At the time, Kalitta still had three operational 747-200’s, N793CK, N794CK, and N795CK. I wanted to ride on all three of them and always kept track of where they were flying!
Unfortunately, I missed N795CK, which was retired after the holiday season of 2016, where she flew extra segments as charters for both UPS and FedEx. N795CK is a 747-251B(SF), originally delivered to Northwest Airlines in 1984 as a passenger airplane. She later flew on the cargo side at NWA after being converted to a freighter in 2005. Ship 795 joined the Kalitta fleet in late 2010, having been sold by Delta Air Lines after it terminated Northwest’s dedicated cargo operation out of Anchorage (ANC).
N793CK and N794CK are also former Northwest airplanes, sold by Delta to Kalitta post-merger, but they are 747-222B(SF)’s, originally delivered to United Airlines. In fact, they were the only two 747-200’s built for United.
While United operated a total of nine 747-200’s, seven of them were ex-Qantas 747-238B’s that could be used for transpacific flying from the west coast of the United States. These -238B’s were powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7J turbofans, each producing approximately 50,000 pounds of thrust.
United needed more power to be able to operate its JFK-NRT (UA 801) / NRT – JFK (UA 800) service non-stop and at a profit in order to not be payload limited. Before 1987, the route was operated by the 747SP, carrying significantly fewer passengers than the standard length 747 could carry.
United ordered two 747-222B’s, N151UA (msn 23736/673) and N152UA (msn 23737/675). The two airplanes would be used at first exclusively on JFK-NRT-JFK. With a higher maximum takeoff weight, and powered by the upgraded Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7R4G2, each engine produced 54,750 pounds of thrust.
N151UA first flew on March 1, 1987, and was delivered to UAL on March 19, 1987. N152UA first flew on March 16, 1987, and was delivered to United on April 2, 1987. Following the introduction of the 747-400 to the JFK-NRT-JFK route at United, the pair were used on EWR-NRT services.
Stored in Las Vegas in 1999, the pair were sold to Northwest in 2000, where they were converted to freighters by Boeing in Wichita. N151UA and N152UA became N645NW and N646NW, respectively.
Flying the Pacific on cargo runs for nine years, Delta ended Northwest’s cargo operation in December 2009, at the same time ending the last dedicated freighter division flown by a U.S. major airline.
In September and August of 2010 (respectively), N645NW and N646NW were re-registered for the last time, to Kalitta Air, as N793CK (Ship 793) and N794CK (Ship 794). N794CK would retire in December 2016, leaving N793CK, the first of a unique pair of -222’s, as the sole operating Boeing 747-200 by a United States airline.
Fast forward to March of this year, I was flying a flight from Detroit to Newark and had a United pilot on our jumpseat. He was a former Kalitta/AIA pilot and told me that the 747-200 retirement was imminent according to a friend of his. At the time, N793CK was still flying its nightly cargo run out of LAX to Hawaii. I figured I would have to make another trip out to HNL because I did not want to miss my last chance to ride on a Classic.
Before I could do that, N793CK was ferried to Miami from LAX on April 11, having flown HNL-LAX for the last time on April 8. I figured I had missed my chance to ride on her. She operated one more freight run to Toulouse, presumably on behalf of Airbus as I have heard, flying MIA-TLS-AMS on April 12 and 13. She then flew a scheduled cargo run AMS-JFK on April 14, and then a ferry flight from JFK to Oscoda, MI (OSC), Kalitta’s primary maintenance base, and where the jumbos are retired too, showed up on the schedule for an April 23
She then flew a scheduled cargo run AMS-JFK on April 14, and then a ferry flight from JFK to Oscoda, MI (OSC), Kalitta’s primary maintenance base, and where the jumbos are retired too, showed up on the schedule for an April 23rd flight.
I quickly booked a jumpseat, thrilled that I would get a chance to ride once more on the Classic! In the middle of flying my trip this past week, I received a call that the JFK-OSC flight was canceled. N793CK had one more revenue cargo mission – to deliver three CFM56’s from Columbus/Rickenbacker, Ohio (LCK) to Seattle (SEA).
Early in the morning on April 20, N793CK left JFK for the last time en-route to LCK, picked up her cargo and flew the final revenue flight to Seattle. I was told that if I could make it to Seattle in time, I could be rebooked to the jumpseat on April 21 on Flight 9793 from SEA to OSC. I was on a trip at the time and somehow managed to drop the rest of my trip to fly on this flight. I was thrilled.
Flight 9793 was scheduled to depart Seattle at 12:00 local on April 21, for Oscoda, Michigan. It was a beautiful, clear day in Seattle. Our flight plan time was 3 hours and 20 minutes, with a planned flight plan fuel burn of approximately 90,000 pounds.
Tankering fuel, we would carry about 360,000 of fuel, enough to reach Asia if we wanted to. Our crew for the flight would be Captain Scott Jakl (who has over 10,000 hours on the Classic), First Officer Stephen Thomas, and Flight Engineer Lance Pruitt. All are very proud of their airplane, which still has much to offer in the way of manual flying.
We all arrived at the airplane about 10:40, where there was also some local media covering the departure. After the walk around and preflight inspection were completed, the doors closed on time. Captain Jakl called for engine start as we pushed back. Kalitta Air Flight 9793, the last ever Boeing 747-200 flight to be operated by a U.S. airline, was now underway.
The mood onboard was one of joy, but very bittersweet. All three airmen up front have flown it for several thousand hours. F/E Lance had previously flown the A300B4, DC-8 and L-1011 as a Professional Flight Engineer, and has been on the 747-100/200 for many years. He has the honor of being the last Professional Flight Engineer on a widebody airplane for a U.S. airline.
As each of the JT9D’s came to life one last time, the sound was music to my ears. Captain Jakl called for “Flaps 10” and for the Taxi Checklist. We began our slow taxi to Runway 34R for takeoff.
Cleared on the Mountain 8 Departure out of Seattle, Captain Jakl explained during the takeoff brief that we would keep our configuration until after we made a crossing restriction on the departure. The NEZUG fix on the departure must be crossed at or above 4,000 feet. Our flight plan routing was KSEA..SEA..NORMY.J70.MLP.J36.DIK..BRD..ASP..KOSC.
Following a pair of Horizon Air Q400’s and a Delta 737-800 to Runway 34R, we soon were number one for takeoff. Following completion of the Before Takeoff Checklist, we lined up on Runway 34R.
“Connie 9793 Heavy, Runway 34R, cleared for takeoff.” Captain Jakl stated “alright gentlemen, let’s do this,” and advanced the throttles, unleashing approximately 219,000 pounds of thrust. Our takeoff weight was approximately 715,000 pounds as we thundered down the runway. At 12:25 local time, we were airborne.
As we made our crossing restriction, the crew cleaned up the airplane, with a beautiful view of Mount Rainier to the East. It was great to watch all this planning to make the crossing restriction, all manually. Many pilots nowadays in more advanced airplanes would do this on autopilot. Not today! This was all hand flown and had to be planned for with our high gross weight.
It then dawned on me just how special this was. Climbing out of Seattle, N793CK was beginning her last flight, over the city she was born in, just a few miles from Paine Field (PAE) where she flew her first flight in 1987.
While she was beginning her last flight, she was also beginning the ending of a journey that the 747 Classic began in 1970, when it first began airline service with a U.S. airline, Pan Am. After the flight, I read that we were in fact, the only civilian 747-200 in the air at the time; an amazing fact, considering how prevalent they used to be. This is, however, not surprising, considering now there are only 19 active 747-200’s, six of which are flown by the U.S. Air Force.
We climbed to FL330, where rides were smooth all the way towards Minneapolis Center’s airspace. Passing south of Fargo, we encountered some high cirrus clouds. I explored the upper deck of the 747, which still has the four Northwest World Business Class seats installed.
It was quite the sight to look back at the wings and not see any winglets and to see JT9’s hanging under the wing. After eating a quick lunch, our flight was almost over as we crossed the country at an average speed of Mach 0.85. With the prevailing tailwinds, our groundspeed was consistently well over 510 knots.
Interestingly, N793CK, in addition to still having inertial navigation running in the background, has three GPS units installed. Northwest installed a partial EFIS as well. Even some 747-400’s still operated to this day by Delta do not have GPS (though they have FMS’s coupled with inertial navigation so they do have moving maps). N793CK also does not have HF antennas at the ends of the wings, as the HF is installed in the tail on later classics.
Just before we were to start our descent, we began encountering some light chop that quickly became moderate chop. We started down early to try to find some smooth air, descending first to FL310 and then to FL290.
Captain Jakl briefed a visual approach backed up with an ILS to Oscoda’s Runway 24, and we began our descent. It was a beautiful evening with the sun still fairly high as we started down, eventually breaking through a high scattered to broken layer at about 8,000 feet.
Below that, Oscoda airport was to our right as we were vectored for the visual. Captain Jakl configured the aircraft and we picked up the glideslope and started our final approach.
“One hundred…fifty…forty…thirty…twenty…ten,” the radar altimeter unwound and N793CK kissed Runway 24 for her last landing ever at 18:54 local time, 3 hours and 29 minutes after takeoff.
A journey for her that ran thirty years ended as we finally shut down on the Kalitta ramp. Her journey took her to every continent except Antarctica, from major international airports flying for two major airlines ferrying passengers and cargo, and finally to flying ad hoc cargo to everywhere from war zones to flying time sensitive air freight to destinations around the world.
She is truly representative of the Order of the Sleepless Knights and she had a wonderful crew to bid her a final bittersweet farewell. This was a dream come true for me personally; to be able to ride on the last flight of the last Classic 747 to be flown by a United States airline.
The author wishes to thank Captain Scott, F/O Steve, and F/E Lance as well as everyone at Kalitta who made this flight happen for me, and to my good friend Captain Dan who flew me to HNL on N794CK last year! Also, all photos are FAR 121 compliant.