SAN FRANCISCO – In part one, I traveled from San Francisco to Frankfurt on my quest to fly around the world on United’s Boeing 747-400, days before the airline retires them from service later today.
My second segment took me from Frankfurt to Seoul-Incheon on Lufthansa’s 747-400, to finally catch in the third segment the very last international flight the United Queen of the Skies will ever operate from South Korea to San Francisco.
Total flying time: 29 hours 35 minutes
Total distance: 14,495 NM (26,844 km)
Average aircraft age: 19.2 years
Around the world on three 747s: Segment 3
Airline: United Airlines
Flight: UA 892, Seoul Incheon (ICN) – San Francisco (SFO)
Aircraft: Boeing 747-422
Registration (msn/ln) Name: N121UA (29167/1211) 747 Friend Ship
Built in: 1999
Age: 18.7 years
Scheduled Departure – Arrival: 5:05 pm – 11:35 am
Actual Departure – Arrival: 4:59 pm – 11:19 am
Flight Duration: 9 hours 42 minutes
After spending two days sightseeing in Seoul, I was excited to return to the airport and take my flight home: the reason for this trip – United’s final international 747 flight.
After seeing tweets from United’s last Boeing 747 departures from Frankfurt and London Heathrow, I was glad the other cities got in on the final flight celebrations as well.
I arrived at ICN early enough to see the inbound flight arriving from SFO. As expected, it was operated by N121UA, one of two aircraft with retro 747 Friend Ship titles applied to celebrate the aircraft’s retirement.
A backdrop and banner at Gate 111 commemorated the occasion. I was disappointed that the celebration at the gate was rather subdued. Based on photos I saw, Frankfurt and London had food, selfie stations, banner signing, and a general celebration.
At Incheon, airline management and the captain made remarks, but it was impossible to hear since there were no loudspeakers set up. Despite all that, enthusiasts managed to celebrate in their own way.
Security interviews at the boarding line (this was even after same interview at the ticket counter) was a stern reminder of the tensions in this region. After receiving a “Saying Goodbye to the Queen of the Skies” booklet, I stepped on board the 747 Friend Ship.
It was so neat seeing the Friend Ship stars peeking through the boarding bridge. The retro logos next to the door were a nice touch, though I later learned one of the enthusiasts on board had put those on.
There was a commemorative certificate at every seat. Those in First and Business Class received a beautifully framed version of the certificate. I arrived in Economy Class finding blue card envelopes at each seat. I was a bit disappointed.
I decided to forgo paying the big bucks on a Business Class ticket on this leg. Premium class tickets were significantly more expensive on this flight given the demand. That was OK because I wanted to experience the 747 from the back, as the aircraft was intended – to be a massive transport for massive number of people, reducing ticket price for the masses.
I also thought it would be a big party flight anyways since most enthusiasts would be flying in Economy. Or so I thought.
There was quite a commotion in Business Class between all the photo taking and crew greeting. Not so much in Economy. I felt like I was missing out while seated in 49K, just behind door 4.
Multiple announcements were made asking everyone to close the bins and take their seats so we can close the door. That wasn’t for our cabin. Despite all that enthusiasm, we were able to push back a few minutes early.
Purser Patricia made a point to welcome all the AvGeeks on board. Just in case anyone missed it at the gate, she announced that we were on the final international 747 flight for United.
The second Purser, located in Economy, made a separate announcement for our cabin (I didn’t even realize they did this). He noted that we had the “Private Screening” Bring-Your-Own-Device entertainment option as well as power outlets in between seats.
With Captain Rafael Rodriguez in command of our flight, we quickly reached the end of Runway 33L. Channel 9, Air Traffic Control broadcast on the in-seat entertainment system was turned on. Yes! It had been a while since I have listened to Channel 9 and I was beaming ear-to-ear as I hear all the foreign accents and unfamiliar callsigns.
It was a roaring takeoff. The ride was a bit bumpy with some sideslip added (it was a windy day). What a difference it was experiencing the 747 takeoff from three different locations in the cabin on my three flights. Same airplane, yet the noise and the sensation were so different between each.
Turning east towards Tokyo, the sun quickly set behind us during climb out, a fitting and emblematic salute to the Queen’s retirement.
It was time to try out United Wi-Fi. It didn’t work. Purser Pat announced that she was going to perform a reset, but noted that the aircraft Wi-Fi, unfortunately, does not have enough bandwidth to accommodate everyone when the flight is full.
Meanwhile, the person seated behind me was trying to get his armrest audio to work with a flight attendant. The attempt obviously failed because she concluded: “that’s why they are retiring this plane!”.
With that, we had to be entertained the old-fashioned way – via overhead screens. I thought this was rather appropriate while sitting in the back of this classic plane.
Flight attendants quickly served Asian-style Snack Mix; the beverage cart followed a rather long 15 minutes later. At least beer and wine were free. My seatmate and fellow traveler Mark A. (who originally came up with this Around the World idea) even found his favorite beer, some microbrew I never heard of – Voodoo Ranger.
There was light turbulence over Japan. On Tokyo Control, many flights requested deviation for weather. The seat belt light came on, just in time during dinner service. Speaking of dinner, choices were Kung Pao chicken with vegetables and rice or stir-fried beef with rice.
Almost one hour after beverage service, I received my dinner tray. Flight attendants apologized for the long wait. Despite that, they were upbeat and accommodating with requests. Realizing the significance of our flight, they also enjoyed the limelight.
I must admit it has been a long while since I had an international economy class meal. My expectation was low. Well, at least this meal was in-line with my expectations. First of all, the meal tray with its various bulges and cutouts did not sit flat on the table.
It didn’t matter whether I had it length-wise or width-wise. I thought perhaps this meal tray was designed for another aircraft/seat type. The plastic utensils were chintzy, too limpy for any serious cutting.
The warming cart had warmed up the roll (which was good) but as a consequence, warmed up the salad (not good). Too bad, because I thought the potato string salad was quite tasty.
The entrée itself, however, could be better. The chicken was flavorful but slightly greasy and the rice was overheated such that parts became crunchy. Overall, your typically economy meal.
“United 892, radar service terminated, squawk 2-0-0-0”
With that final radio call from Tokyo Control one hour 45 minutes into the flight, we started our Transpacific crossing in earnest. Cockpit radio tied to Channel 9 was set to frequency 123.45 – a “chat line” between flights.
While it remained mostly quiet throughout the night, some conversation was heard between flights mostly on altitude and separation adjustments.
My dirty meal tray was quickly picked up. Ice cream and water bottle quickly followed. The strawberry cheesecake ice cream was quite good. And the Jeju Island mineral water – a product for Korean Air!
At this point, I had given up on the Wi-Fi. Purser Pat announced the video screen had to be reset. Oh brother.
Flight attendants were quite busy throughout meal service. I have a better appreciation of their job given the insight I had seated next to the galley. The drink cart came by yet a third time, but this time around, I skipped it. The cabin went dark about one hour after dinner and the seat belt light finally extinguished 3.5 hours into the flight.
It was time to attempt some sleep. There was plenty of room. My friend sat in the aisle and the middle seat was empty. Although I had my seat reclined all the way back (which was not much), there was too much pressure on my tailbone.
I readjusted my body, slouched, and sat on the spare pillow. That only helped a bit. After dozing on and off for three hours, I got up looking for the mid-flight snack.
The snack was set up in the aft galley. Despite the dark cabin, some enthusiast gathered there. We exchanged some AvGeeky talk and tried to determine the mystery meat in the finger sandwich. The only way to find out was to eat it!
I managed maybe just one more hour of sleep. Seven and a half hours into the flight, the sun rose again on the Friend Ship. Cabin lights came on a half hour later. Purser in Economy announced that we were going to receive a treat for breakfast. A special sandwich that none of the other final 747 flights got: an egg, ham, cheese, and tomato muffin.
Once again, the cold food got warm in the food cart. Good thing I don’t eat yogurt. The muffin sandwich was actually good! The muffin was not soggy and all the elements held to their properties. It was indeed quite a treat.
Forty-five minutes to go and the seat belt light came on for final descend. Despite lots of photo-taking and av-talking in Economy, it was not as much of a party flight as I expected. Too bad. Looks like those who flew up front had a blast. Good for them!
Purser Pat apologized for the non-operational Wi-Fi and said we would be receiving an “Appreciation Offer” from United. Kudos to United that the email was already waiting in my inbox upon arrival. I was offered the choice of 10,000 bonus miles or $250 travel credit. I went with the $250 credit.
We turned final over Palo Alto, descending into the low ceiling obscuring most of the Bay Area below.
“United 892, congratulations on being the last pilots to fly the United 747 into San Francisco…contact tower…”
With that congratulatory message from NorCal Approach, our pilot called SFO Tower requesting United’s last 747 landing there. After receiving clearance to land on Runway 28L, the ever-cheerful tower controller added:
“United 892, since this is your last 747 inbound to San Francisco, we decided to make it the usual – your gate is not available, plan on rolling all way to the end.”
Laugher all around. Our pilots made a greaser of a landing to the applause of most in the back cabin. We rolled all the way to the end of 28L, turned left and held for our gate to open.
Purser Pat expressed an appreciation of the incredible turnout to salute the 747. She gave a special shout-out to the AvGeeks – and thanking those passengers that just happened to fly on this flight for their patience.
She concluded, “the crew had just as much fun…it’s a flight that we all will remember forever”. Captain Rodriguez closed with a final tribute, “all hail the Queen, long live the Queen. Thank you for flying United today!”
After waiting for 15 minutes, the Singapore Airbus A350 finally pushed from Gate G96. Upon taxi in, we were told to expect a water cannon salute, which I was surprised to hear. Since the drought started years ago, water cannon salutes were banned at SFO.
Sure enough, to the disappointment of all on board, we received a simple “dry salute” from the SFO Fire Department. It’s the thought that counts anyway.
Before deplaning, I went upstairs and joined the party still in progress. I got in line for cockpit photos. Unfortunately, the Captain had to leave in order to catch his flight home. As a final salute, the crew gathered in First Class for one last photo together: “Goodbye 747!”
End of an Era
End came swiftly for the United 747. After exiting customs and immigration, I joined my fellow spotters just in time to catch the last of seven 747s being ferried out to Victorville that weekend.
Looking across to the Super Bay where they are normally parked – a lone 747 remain. It was an eerie sight. United 747s have been a staple at SFO for as long as I remember and now they are gone.
At the Southern California desert, these aircraft will now await their final fate. Scrap? Maybe. Or perhaps they will live on to serve another day with another airline.
Aircraft N118UA joins N122UA (both in the retro 747 Friend Ship titles) as the last two Jumbos in the United fleet. One of them will cover the airlines’ final 747 flight from San Francisco to Honolulu on Nov 7.
Flight UA 747 will be a “retro flight”, recreating United’s first 747 flight in 1970 on the same route. It will be a fitting celebration to commemorate the Queen’s 47 years of service at United.
Stay tuned and join Airways when we take United’s final 747 flight!