By Cody Diamond and Ben Wang
Farewell Friend Ship
United launched Boeing 747-100 Friend Ship service from San Francisco (SFO) to Honolulu (HNL) on July 23, 1970, following delivery of their first Jumbo just a month prior.
N4703U was the first airplane delivered and first to fly a revenue service. Christened “William M. Allen,” the aircraft flew United’s first revenue service as UA181 on July 23, 1970, departing SFO at 0900 and arriving at HNL at 1105 local time.
The return flight would operate as UA182, leaving HNL at 1255 and arriving back at SFO at 2045 local time the same evening.
United celebrated its final intercontinental Boeing 747 service last month on October 29, when UA892 landed at SFO from Seoul-Incheon (ICN).
READ MORE: Around the World On United’s Last 747 Flights – Part One | Around the World On United’s Last 747 Flights – Part Two | Around the World On United’s Last 747 Flights – Part Three
Yesterday, United retired its final Boeing 747, a -400 variant, ending over 47 years of continuous operation of the iconic Queen of the Skies. This last flight was appropriately designated as flight UA747.
United symbolically chose the same city pair (SFO-HNL) to retire the beloved four engine Jumbo.
Honolulu holds a special place in history for the 747 in both Continental (CO) and United. On June 26, 1970, Continental flew its first 747-100 from Chicago (ORD) to HNL via Los Angeles (LAX), inaugurating the “Proud Bird of the Pacific”. Ironically, United’s first 747 Friend Ship was delivered the exact same day. The two companies merged in 2010.
History of the 747 at United and Continental
United acquired its first Boeing 747-122 in 1970, and later flew nine 747-200s as well. Of the nine 747-200s that United would fly, only two were factory delivered -222Bs. The rest were former Qantas -238Bs.
The ex-Qantas planes were perfect for Transpacific flying from Hawaii and the mainland West Coast. However, being powered by Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7Js (50,000 lbs of thrust per engine), the airplanes lacked the ability to fly the coveted New York (JFK) – Tokyo-Narita (NRT) routes without being payload restricted.
United ordered two -222B’s, powered by JT9D-7R4G2s, each producing 54,750 pounds of thrust. These airplanes, delivered in 1987 (N151UA and N152UA), with higher maximum takeoff weights than the -238Bs, would be used exclusively on the JFK – NRT routes, until the introduction of the 747-400 in 1989, at which point they were reassigned to Newark (EWR) – NRT – EWR.
In 1999, the pair of airplanes were sold to Northwest Airlines, who operated them as freighters until December 2009 when they ended their dedicated cargo operation.
The pair again moved onto Kalitta Air. The last 747-200 to be operated by a United States airline ended up being the former N151UA, a United -222B, wearing the registration of N793CK. United’s first -222B now soldiers on once again, flying for The Cargo Airline in Georgia, as 4L-GEL.
In 1985, United acquired Pan Am’s Pacific network, along with 11 Boeing 747SP-21s and a handful of Lockheed L1011-500s.
The SPs were used for ultra long-haul flying and were 48 feet shorter than a standard length 747. Only one 747SP ever wore United’s “Battleship Grey” colors. This airplane was N145UA, which remains active to this day as an airborne observatory with NASA.
Between January 29 and January 30, 1988, United set the round the world speed record with a 747SP, clocking in at 36 hours and 54 minutes.
The following year, United received its first 747-400, the first variant of the 747 to feature an all-glass cockpit and two-man crew.
United flew the 747SP into late 1994 prior to retirement. The 747-100/200 remained active until early 2000.
Legacy United has operated a total of 88 Boeing 747s over the last 47 years. These included the original 19 -122s, five after-acquired former American -123s, seven former Qantas -238Bs, two -222Bs, 11 SP-21s, 42 747-422s, and two -451s that were never taken up by Northwest Airlines.
Continental had smaller fleet of 747s. It operated four 747-124s, the famed Proud Bird of the Pacific.
Through its merger with People Express Airlines, which occurred in 1987, it acquired and operated two -143s, which were originally delivered to Alitalia. The merger with People Express marked the re-entrance of the 747 to the Continental fleet, as the original Proud Birds had retired early, all flying their last Continental flights by 1975.
There was a 747-133 operated by People Express, a former Air Canada airplane that was leased and carried an Irish registration, EI-BPH. This airplane was not leased long enough for the airplane to ever fly for Continental following the merger. People Express operated three 747-100’s and 8-200’s. Two of these -200’s never made it to Continental, having been retired prior to the merger.
Continental also flew seven 747-200s. Five of these were former People Express airplanes, which included two -243Bs that were Alitalia airplanes and, four former Qantas -238Bs, and a lone -230B.
The -230B was acquired in 1990 separate from the People Express merger and was the only “new” 747 to come on property not via the merger. This airplane, N78019, was originally delivered to Lufthansa and became one of the four Continental 747s to see service based out of Guam operated as Continental Micronesia (“Air Mike”). It was acquired from British Airways in 1990.
The last 747-100 was retired in 1996, while the four Air Mike airplanes would be the last 747s to fly in Continental’s Globe colors (until the United merger), with three of the four flying their last flights in 1999, and one in 1998.
Besides the Air Mike flying, much of Continental’s flying with the 747 the second time around was in and out of London Gatwick (LGW).
Between 1970 and 1975, and then again between 1987 and 1999, Continental operated a total of 13 Boeing 747’s, excluding the airplanes that People Express shed prior to its merger with Continental. These 13 airplanes included the four original -124s, two -143s, four -238Bs, two -243Bs, and one -230B.
The Farewell Flight
United’s final passenger 747 flight, appropriately numbered flight UA747, was operated by a 747-422 (N118UA • Ship 8418).
Powered by four Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines, the 1201st 747 built first took to the skies on February 10, 1999 and was delivered to United two weeks later on February 24. She is one of two United 747-400s to adorn special 747 Friend Ship titles to commemorate the aircraft’s retirement.
The other 747 to have these titles is Ship 8421 • N121UA, which remained on standby in San Francisco (SFO) in case a technical problem arose with Ship 8418.
Ship 8421 operated the last intercontinental service on October 21 and flew in the 2017 San Francisco Fleet Week airshow, the last ever to be done with a United 747.
Ship 8421 is scheduled to be ferried to Victorville (VCV) on the morning of November 8 as flight UA 2690.
At SFO, United encouraged passengers to wear their best 1970s clothing to commemorate this retro flight. At Gate 86, hundreds of people gathered to watch the festivities unfold.
Boarding commenced as normal and on time. Passengers were handed a 1970s United ticket jacket upon entering the jet bridge, which included a retro boarding pass.
In command of the flight was Captain Dave Smith and beside him was Captain Thomas Spratt, United’s Senior Manager 747 Fleet Standards, acting as First Officer.
In the back, Flight UA747 was crewed by 25 flight attendants from all bases across the United network. Valerie, our purser, led 15 other Honolulu (HNL) based flight attendants on our trip. Val described various 747 trivia over the PA during taxi.
Captain Smith has been on the 747 for two years. “It’s an absolute joy to fly, I’m going to miss it very much. I’m lucky I got to fly it,” he remarked at the gate. Captain Smith will be transitioning to the 787 as a Captain. Captain Spratt has been on the airplane for 17 years.
Our flying time from SFO to HNL was planned at 4 hours and 55 minutes, initially cruising at 38,000 feet. Our takeoff weight was planned at 621,106 pounds and we had 133,700 pounds of fuel on board at the start of our journey. Our planned landing weight was 520,436 pounds after flying the filed route KSFO GNNRR2 ALANN GITLE DIALO R576 DUSAC R576 DENNS MAGGI3 PHNL.
Airways spoke to United CEO Oscar Munoz onboard prior to pushback, where he shared his sentiments on the emotional moment. “It’s very sentimental, she’s done her job well,” he stated. Unfortunately, he did not join us for the actual flight.
Every passenger, including those in Economy, found a “747 Farewell” goodie bag and premium class Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket at their seat. The custom labeled glass bottle Coca-Cola was a particularly nice touch.
We pushed back at 10:59 am and taxied towards Runway 28s. The 747-400 safety demo was played. Upon holding short at the runway, Captain Dave came on the PA and announced that we had a maintenance issue with one our air conditioning packs and that he would keep us updated.
Unfortunately, United’s Air Traffic Control broadcast, Channel 9, was silent. Its radio most likely tied up with calls to maintenance.
A few minutes later, we were informed that we would be taxiing to the maintenance hangar to be inspected. However, upon coordination with dispatch and maintenance control, the issue was resolved a short time later and the captain asked the flight attendants to prepare the cabin for an immediate takeoff.
At Noon Pacific Time, United 747 Heavy was cleared for departure and began her takeoff roll off Runway 28R.
Rotating near the crossing with Runway 1, it was a powerful takeoff. A surprise awaited everyone as we rocketed skyward. After a low level off, we flew the San Francisco Bay Tour, giving passengers a low altitude view over the Golden Gate Bridge at about 2,500 feet.
After a hard left bank over Marin Headhands to the delight of all on board, we turned southwest and began our journey over the Pacific. The seatbelt sign was turned off as the captain came over the PA and announced that we should not be too late to the gate. He realized most of us probably did not care, but at least for DoT statistics, the airline does care.
Passengers played “Halfway to Hawaii”, a traditional game on United. Captain Dave provided with information from our flight plan. Whoever comes the closest (within the second) of our halfway time (in Hawaiian Standard Time) would win the game.
Let’s play along!
Takeoff time from SFO: 10:00 am (HST)
Estimated Time Enroute: 4 hours 55 minutes
Distance in Statute Miles: 2508 sm
True Airspeed First Half of Flight/Headwind/Calculated Ground Speed:
558 mph /35 mph/ 523 mph
True Airspeed Second Half of Flight/Headwind/Calculated Ground Speed:
564 mph /29 mph/ 535 mph
Can you guess our halfway time to Hawaii, down to the second? Find out the answer at the end.
As we headed towards HNL, a toast was given by United’s Senior Vice President of Flight Operations, commemorating everything the 747 has done and what the next generation of airplanes brings us.
Before lunch, passengers wandered all three cabins and mingled. The cabin got so busy that we were asked to be seated in order to get the drink and meal service started.
Everything on board was 1970-themed. Lunch was served with a period themed menu as well as movies on the main cabin screens. In Economy, United’s 747-400s do not have personal TVs, just like the original -100!
In First and Business Class, United Executive Chef Gerry Gulli personally assisted in the meal preparation. The macadamia nuts encrusted mahi-mahi was slightly dry, but otherwise a very tasty dish. The coconut-flavored rice and vegetables were done just right.
Ice cream sundae service across all cabins took awhile as passengers were scattered throughout and outnumbered flight attendants at times. The volcano on the dessert cart attracted great attention from all onboard.
On board, we found Thomas and Sally Lee. Thomas had flown on a number of significant first flights, including the world’s inaugural 787 flight on ANA and A380 flight on Singapore. As a passenger on board the world’s inaugural 747 flight on Pan Am in January 1970, he had to make his way to SFO to partake on United’s last 747 flight.
Thomas and Sally got assigned to the last row on UA 747. The couple took it in stride, realizing the significant symbology for them, “I love the fact that we are going to be the last people to land on the last 747 flight in Honolulu.”
The first Pan Am 747 flight had a mechanical issue and a replacement aircraft had to be used in its place. When we had our small mechanical issue on our flight, Thomas found it quite ironic and exclaimed, “she still has her issues!”
On the upper deck, passengers experienced a full retro experience with flight attendants dressed in period uniform. A long queue to the upper deck formed after lunch with everyone wanting to take a glimpse of the iconic “hump”.
During all the commotion, a couple in the main cabin even got engaged! United ended up gifting the couple tickets for their honeymoon.
We started our descent just before 2:20 pm HST, slightly early in order to give passengers a view of Maui and Lanai on the arrival into HNL. Flight attendants served retro style candies including Good & Plenty, RedHots, and Cheery Mash.
The winners of the “Halfway to Hawaii” game were announced shortly thereafter. The first place winner, who guessed the answer within one second, received a $250 United gift card. And the halfway time? 12:24:57 HST.
We landed at HNL at 3:01 pm on Runway 8L in light rain.
Upon entering Gate 34, all passengers received a traditional lei greeting. Even our 747 got in on the act, herself receiving a giant lei as well!
Following a gate party, 747 Friend Ship got towed to the airline’s hangar across HNL airport for a well-deserved employee party.
As United’s final 747 Friend Ship, N118UA will ferry empty to SFO on November 8th as flight UA 2796. She will ultimately be ferried to VCV from SFO the next day.
Today, however, was a day of celebration as the United 747 ended her days flying revenue passengers – under the Pacific sun, safely delivering her passengers and crew to Hawaii one last time.
Ship 8418, the last of the United 747 fleet, represents so much to both legacy Continental and legacy United employees, symbolizes the legacy of both Proud Bird of the Pacific and 747 Friend Ship!
Editor’s note: Airways would like to thank United Captain Bill Sablesak for his assistance with this article.