Published in June 2015 issue
On February 12, 2015, following a decision to retire the fleet type early amid the merger with American Airlines (AA), US Airways (US) put an end to its Boeing 767 operations. The appropriately-named “Flight 767” was not only the last scheduled Boeing 767-200(ER) US Airways service, but also marked the end of the type’s use in scheduled passenger service in the United States.
By Cody Diamond & Jannik Femerling
The Boeing 767-200 was a true pioneer in the industry. Initially introduced by United Airlines (UA) in 1982, the airplane was a revolutionary wide-body double aisle twinjet, which, like the Boeing 757, was designed with both fuel efficiency and cockpit commonality in mind. Its proven capabilities slowly led to the decline of long-haul tri-jet operations, and played a critical role in the modernization of intercontinental flights, as the 767-200 was the very first airplane approved for 180-minute ETOPS (Extended Operations). Today, the Boeing 767 flies more ETOPS flights than any other traditional intercontinental airplane.
In fact, the Boeing 767-200 is, the world’s narrowest wide-body still in service today. Four main versions were launched, varying from standard short/medium range passenger configurations, to long-range passenger, military or cargo versions. Starting with the -200—conceived as a medium to long-range airliner—the 767 could be fitted with a traditional configuration of 18 seats in First Class and 198 in Economy, flying passengers and cargo beyond 5,000nm (9,400km). Its up-gauged version—the Extended Range (ER)—had an increased endurance of 6,625nm (12,352km) thanks to the addition of a central wing fuel tank and a higher Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW).
Other versions of the versatile airliner are the -200 and -200(ER) freighters, able to carry nearly 59 tons of cargo within intercontinental and transatlantic range. Last, but not least, is the military version of the 767-200. Dubbed “KC-46”, this multirole tanker is designed to refuel military aircraft in mid-air, as well as carry passengers or cargo as originally intended. Its newest version, the KC-46A Tanker, is still under production and is expected to complete its maiden flight before mid-2015. Boeing expects to build 179 units of the KC-46A by 2027, keeping the production line of the 767-200 open for many years to come.
As far as passenger versions are concerned, the last airline Boeing 767-200 was delivered to Continental Airlines in October 2001. The aircraft, a Boeing 767-224(ER) originally registered N68160 (MSN 30439/LN 851), flew for the Houston-based carrier until transferred to United in 2010. Today, it still soars across the skies for UTair Aviation (UT/UTA) in Russia.
Further civilian 767-200s were delivered after N68160. Saudi Aramco—a private airline from Saudi Arabia—took delivery of the last non-cargo/military -200 in history in late March 2003, putting an end to the very successful production of the world’s first twin-engine long-haul airliner.
With 251 units built, the Boeing 767-200 has only experienced 16 accidents throughout its history. The most noticeable were the two airframes involved in the terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. These two units, an AA Boeing 767-223(ER) (N334AA) and a UA Boeing 767-222 (N612UA), were linked to the largest number of casualties (air and ground) of any aviation accident in history—surely a sad fact for such a remarkable airliner.
PIEDMONT ORDERS THE 767-200
Back in 1986, the city of Charlotte and Piedmont Airlines (PI) submitted a joint petition to the Department of Transport (DOT) to use Charlotte (CLT) as a gateway to London Gatwick (LGW), competing against Delta Air Lines’ (DL/DAL) bid from Cincinnati (CVG). Despite the uncertainty of the approval, William Howard, CEO of Piedmont, placed an order for six Boeing 767-200ER aircraft.
As had been the case with the US Airways Boeing 737 fleet’s origins, the early 767- 200s at US began with Piedmont. The first six 767-201(ER) aircraft were delivered to PI between 1987 and 1988. After USAir and Piedmont merged in 1989, six more 767-2B7(ER) aircraft joined the fleet between 1990 and 1993.
In the following three years, as part of a joint venture between USAir and British Airways (BA), three of these -2B7(ER) aircraft (Ships 652, 654 and 655) were painted in full British Airways colors, keeping their US registrations and being flown by mainline USAir crews. These airliners operated specific flights to LGW from the airline’s hubs in Philadelphia (PHL) and Charlotte from October 1993 to July 1996. After this venture ended, all these aircraft were painted into the dark first generation US Airways livery, following USAir’s re-branding, and the fleet of 767- 200s was eventually deployed on flights to Rio de Janeiro, Brussels, Venice, Zürich, Athens, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Rome-Fiumicino, Milan-Malpensa, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Munich, Barcelona, Madrid, Dublin and London-Heathrow, among others.
Captain Tom Pawlesh, an experienced ex-US Airways and now American Airlines Captain, remembers the Boeing 767-200 with a smile on his face. “I first checked out on the Boeing 757/767 in March of 1997. Flying the aircraft was a pleasant experience, especially because, from my base in Pittsburgh, we only had two European destinations—Paris and Frankfurt— along with some domestic cities,” he recounts.
Before transitioning to the 767, Pawlesh had spent 11 years flying as First Officer on the Boeing 737-200/300/400. According to him, transitioning to the larger Boeing had not been that difficult. “Coming from the 737 to the 767, the moving map of the EFIS system was wonderful and the roomy cockpit was more comfortable,” he says.
Pawlesh’s experience with the 767 was both sweet and sour. “I flew the 767-200 for 18 months and then upgraded to Captain on the Boeing 737. However, after September 11, 2001, and the airline bankruptcies and downsizing, I lost my Captain’s bid on the 737 and went back to the 767 as a First Officer. Because I had been off the 767 for four years, I was required to take the entire eightweek initial course again, although I already possessed a type rating,” he notes.
According to Pawlesh, the 767’s ground school was typical of any airline training. “As First Officers, we also had to demonstrate certain maneuvers from the captain’s seat, as we would be sitting there when acting as relief pilots,” he explains. “The Initial Operating Experience (IOE) with a check airman was the last step. Mine consisted of a round trip to Paris and Frankfurt before being signed off for line flying,” he enthused. “From the first day of ground school to being signed off for line flying involves seven to eight strenuous weeks of study and testing.”
US Airway’s transatlantic flights on the 767- 200 were dispatched with an augmented crew, where one or two extra pilots would accompany the Captain and First Officer. “These extra pilots are called International Relief Officers (IRO’s), or Second Officers,” he says. “As First Officers at US Airways, we bid for both the First Officer or Second Officer positions on any determined flight, based on seniority.”
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“Speaking of Seniority,” Pawlesh says, “The flying public has a distorted view of flight crews. They perceive the Captain as the senior, most experienced pilot of the crew and the First Officer as a pilot in training. At US Airways, many of the senior First Officers could hold a Captain’s bid, but choose to fly as First Officers for quality of life. I have seen crews in which the First and Second Officers were actually senior to the Captain.”
THE LAST DAY OF OPERATIONS
After nearly 29 years of 767-200 operations at US Airways, the final day arrived with a rather busy schedule. US dispatched N252AU—in a turn from PHL to CLT and back—as Flight 767. “Ship 252” had first flown on May 10, 1990 and delivered to USAir 15 days later as N652US. Later on, the airliner was painted into the final US Airways colors and reregistered as N252AU in October 2006.
Ship 252’s second-to-last day of scheduled service saw it flying in Orlando (MCO) before heading to CLT, then to Cancun (CUN), and finally up to PHL, where the airplane sat overnight.
On the morning of February 12, the aircraft finally arrived into Charlotte, North Carolina, where it was greeted with a water cannon salute before parking at the crowded gate, which was filled with dozens of enthusiasts for the last leg—as well as CLT-based employees—busy taking pictures of this momentous arrival.
At Gate D13, Captain S.K. Maupin Jr.—a Boeing 767 line pilot since 2001—boarded the airplane shortly after arrival to take one last picture in the flight deck of his beloved airplane. “It’s the best airplane I have ever flown,” he says. “There is nothing like climbing out of Venice and seeing the Alps on the horizon.” Captain Maupin is also set to retire this year flying the Boeing 757.
While passengers and enthusiasts from the inbound Flight 767 disembarked, US Airways Flight 9242 was quietly being prepared for departure at adjacent Gate D10. It was Ship 250—the last one delivered to Piedmont in 1988, and the last of this airline in the fleet. The airplane was scheduled to depart for Mobile (BFM), Alabama, making it the last Piedmont 767 to fly under a US Airways call sign, bringing the Piedmont heritage to a close decades after its disappearance.
At 12:41, “Cactus 767” roared down Runway 36R at CLT under the command of Captain Scott Lesh and First Officer John Hyde. Already light on the fuel load and barely one- third full, the aircraft climbed briskly to 31,000 feet for the short one hour flight to PHL. Also riding up front was First Officer Jim Zazas, another 767 pilot and a diehard aviation enthusiast, who had also originally flown the airplane at Piedmont.
At cruise, many fanatics gathered in the middle of the rear cabin and exchanged views about the airplane. Justin Cederholm, who had also been on the US 737 retirement flight in August (Airways, November 2014), was aboard. “This is my 7th aircraft retirement flight and each time is just as great as the first,” he says. “It’s about being part of history and knowing that, more than likely, I’ll never get to fly on this aircraft type again. It’s nice to see the airline and crew marking such occasions by sending the aircraft off with a proper farewell.”
The weather in Philadelphia was cloudy and, at 13:42, Captain Lesh seemingly effortlessly greased the 767 onto Runway 27R—not an easy thing to do with a lightly loaded wide-body airplane.
Upon arrival at the gate, enthusiasts took nearly every safety card onboard as souvenirs from this historic flight. Some even had them signed by the entire crew.
As the last few passengers lingered onboard, a US operations agent ran down the jetway and announced that the airplane was “live” again and needed to be prepared for a 17:25 departure for Charlotte. According to the agent, a Boeing 757 “had gone tech” and needed to be substituted immediately. Ship 252 was ready to go—almost. Since all the safety cards had been taken, a new batch had to be brought onboard before the flight could depart.
With this unexpected event, Ship 252 was able to fly one more turn. It flew flight 717 to CLT, and returned to PHL the same evening as flight 1798. Flight 767 was, however, the last scheduled flight to have been originally flown by a 767-200 and the one which everyone had joined for the occasion.
With the completion of these flights, Ship 252 had just logged over 100,813 hours and 18,666 cycles. This remarkable airliner was estimated to have carried well over three million passengers in nearly 25 years of flying for US Airways.
Of the fleet of twelve Boeing 767s to fly with US, there is only one left in service, presently flying with Transaero Airlines (UN) as EIDBW (former N607P, City of Charlotte, with Piedmont, and N647US with US Airways). This aircraft is scheduled to leave the Russian airline in September 2015. The rest of the aircraft remain stored in Mobile (BFM), Victorville (VCV), Goodyear (GYR) and Kansas City (MCI), with the exception of N654US, which was involved in an incident on the ground at PHL on September 22, 2000, when a ground fire erupted in engine one during a run-up, resulting in a write off and the aircraft being subsequently used as a fire trainer at the airport.
Now that all US 767-200s are retired, the aircraft type will be much less present around the world. While it is still widely used among cargo carriers such as CargoJet (W8), ABX Air (GB), Air Transport International (8C), Star Air (Maersk) (S6), and 21 Air (D2), it is a very sought after plane in its passenger configuration.
The largest operator of 767-200s is now Russia’s UTAir (UT), while some smaller fleets are flying at Omni Air International (OY), Vision Airlines (V2), Aeromexico (AM), Transaero (UN), Air Zimbabwe (UM), among others. Some airframes are operating as government service or VIP jets as well. It is just a matter of time until the 767- 200 will follow the same fate of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 (Airways, February 2015); phased out as a passenger plane and only flying in cargo operations.
US Airways was able to send the Boeing 767-200 off to retirement with much fanfare and, although it will be missed from the fleet at the new American Airlines, the onboard memories of both passengers and crew members will remain.
Captain Pawlesh admits, “It was sad to see both the 767 and 737 being retired from the US Airways fleet so close together,” he says. “I remember the excitement at Piedmont Airlines when it was announced that we would purchase the wide body 767 and begin service to London. I too remember when it was delivered to Charlotte in May 1987—what a huge airplane we thought it was,” he says.
“It would be hard to compare the Boeing 767 to the Airbus A330 I fly today. The 767 was a marvel of 1980s’ technology, while our much newer A330s are the result of today’s innovations. I guess the only fair answer to which aircraft I prefer is to say that, at the time I flew it, the 767 was my favorite aircraft,” he concludes.
The retirement flight is itself a testament to the airplane. It felt like Ship 252 was not ready to retire after Flight 767, wanting to fly one more turn. Meanwhile, American Airlines has confirmed that it will continue to operate a fleet of 767-300ERs well into the foreseeable future, keeping the 767 family alive a little longer.