When Delta announced that it was retiring its fleet of Boeing 747-400s, I knew I had to do everything I could to try and ride on the very last scheduled commercial flight.
Retirement flights are always fun, and I had flown on the last Delta DC-9 flight back in 2014, as well as several other special final flights from other airlines.
My Personal Admiration for The Queen of the Skies
Growing up, I always wanted to be a pilot for Northwest, precisely because of their Boeing 747.
When I was four years old, my Mom bought me a 1/400 scale GeminiJets Northwest 747-400 (N670US/Ship 6310), in the unique 1998 commemorative “50 Years Bridging the Pacific” Worldplane Colors to commemorate fifty years of Northwest’s Transpacific flying.
At four years old, the small 1/400 scale model was way bigger than my hand, and I can vividly remember picking that one airplane out of a little model shop and knew that I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
That airplane, in those colors, had depictions of many Far East destinations that Northwest—and later Delta—would fly to with the 747, including Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, and more. I was hooked, and all I wanted to do as a little kid was fly that “big airplane” to those faraway places.
Ever since then, the 747 has had an exceptional place in my heart, and aviation has been nothing short of a source of pure joy for me.
I grew up around Northwest Airlines and had so many great trips with my Mom on their DC-9s and 747-400s, which are my two favorite airplanes.
My fifteenth birthday present was a ride on the last ever Northwest 747-400 to fly under the NW call sign on a domestic scheduled flight from Minneapolis to Detroit on 01/03/2010 (Flight NW2221). N672US operated that flight.
Later that year, I flew on my first trip to Asia on N674US from DTW to NRT as Flight DL 275.
All said and done, and right up until before the retirement, I rode on nine out of 16 of the 747-451s that Delta had operated.
Fun Fact: Two Boeing 747-451s (N105UA and N106UA) were never delivered to Northwest, but were given to United in 1994 instead, after having been not taken up by Northwest.
I am a total AvGeek, and to this day when I commute to fly my regional jet or travel for vacation, I keep track of all the tail numbers I ride on, just as I did when I was a kid.
N670US, the plane that sparked so much of my love for aviation, still eluded me and was one of the last four 747-400s to be operated by Delta in December 2017.
Trying to be on the last commercial flight
I had booked a seat on the last planned revenue flight, DL 158 from Seoul-Incheon (ICN) to Detroit (DTW) on December 17.
In the last month of operation, the last scheduled route for the 747-400 at Delta was only DTW-ICN-DTW, alternating each day between an A350 and a 747-400. Before that, the other final two Asia routes were DTW-NRT and DTW-Shanghai (PVG).
I had booked a seat on the A350 over, as I had not been on one in a few years since riding on a delivery flight of Finnair’s first A350. I was hoping N670US was going to operate the last flight.
The other three last operational 747-400s were N666US—built in 1989—N669US, and N674US, the youngest airplane left, built in 1999. I had flown on all those, except for N670US!
Just days before the retirement, and one day before I was supposed to leave for ICN, Delta announced that the 747-400 would operate one more round trip to ICN, retiring it on December 19 instead of 17.
I quickly changed my flights and elected to leave for ICN on Saturday on the A350 and come back on the new last flight, returning on a Tuesday.
On Thursday afternoon (December 14), I looked at what ship number was due to operate Friday’s DL159 to ICN, just out of curiosity.
Initially, it was N666US. But just before going to sleep for the night, I checked once again, and it was N670US!
I changed my reservation, yet again, to Friday’s 747 instead of Saturday’s A350, knowing that Ship 6310 was not likely to make two round trips to Seoul just because of the timing of the arrival back from ICN.
Flying to Seoul on the Plane that started it all… for me!
Sure enough, on Friday morning in snowy Detroit, N670US lay parked at Gate A46. I was beyond excited to get a ride on the airplane that started it all for me.
After settling in onboard, we pushed back with a full complement of 376 passengers and deiced, right next to a Delta A350 that was bound for Narita.
Our flight was planned for 12 hours and 42 minutes, initially at 28,000 feet, with step climbs planned up to 37,000 feet eventually.
We were filed on one of the Polar routes, planned as far up as 79 degrees North, with entry into Russian airspace in the Magadan region.
We thundered down Runway 22L and into the overcast, weighing approximately 868,000 pounds, and carrying about 360,000 pounds of fuel. Our burnoff to ICN would be just over 320,000 pounds.
Shortly after takeoff, dinner was served, and the sun began to set for a short night as we headed northwest. The sunset off of the left side of the airplane as we chased it for a bit was one of the most beautiful ones I had ever seen.
After flying through the night and a pre-arrival service, we descended into ICN on a beautifully clear afternoon, with the captain making a beautiful landing that seemed effortless, on Runway 34.
After a few more pictures, it was time to say goodbye to N670US. I was so overjoyed to get a ride on the airplane that quite literally sparked my love for aviation.
Returning to Detroit on the real last flight
Fast forward three days later to the final revenue passenger flight, DL158 from ICN to DTW, on December 19.
This flight would undoubtedly prove to be a special one and had one of the most dedicated groups of AvGeeks onboard that I had ever seen.
The reason for that, I think, was because of the flight being changed from the 17th to the 19th. Everyone onboard who had gone to Incheon just to ride on the last flight had scrambled to change their reservation once Delta had announced the schedule change.
Almost the entire upper deck had moved their reservations, plus dozens on the lower deck. DL158 was a flight that many were worried was not going to operate with the 747.
The day before, the inbound flight 159, had canceled due to a lack of staffing for the flight. The airplane remains typically overnight in ICN. Alas, Delta was determined to operate the trip with a 747.
The flight, although canceled for the day on the 17th, was to operate on the 18th as a recovery flight, operating as Delta 9859, with a scheduled departure of 8:30 am, arriving in Seoul a little after noon on the 19th.
Instead of remaining overnight, N666US would now operate a turn and leave as the originally scheduled final DL158 about 3.5 hours late, but still operate nonetheless.
The boarding area at Gate 126 in Incheon was filled up with excited passengers with much anticipation, with many taking pictures as the airplane arrived on a stand for the last time.
Many passengers, with the delay, had flown into ICN that same morning on other flights, after having been rebooked from the canceled DL159, and were headed right back to the United States on the last 747 scheduled flight.
As N666US (Ship 6306) was quickly cleaned, fueled, and catered, the crew arrived, and boarding began rapidly after that.
There were no special gate ceremonies or any farewell items or memorabilia handed over to passengers, as they had been given out on the flight on December 17—the original planned last flight, which was indeed operated by N670US.
However, there was a small gate party, and tiny gift bags with a keychain with an engraved flight number were given out.
That flight was also the final flight for Captain Brian Hollingsworth, who had been on the 747-400 for many years.
Brian—if you are reading this, we once rode the hotel van to DTW together earlier this year, you were off to PVG in your 747, and I was off to DFW in my ERJ-170, thanks for the great conversation and congratulations on your retirement!
Ship 6306 first flew on July 31, 1989, and was delivered to Northwest on August 18, 1989. Powered by four Pratt & Whitney PW 4056 engines, she was painted into Delta colors in December 2009.
Our flight to DTW was planned for 11 hours and 28 minutes, flying due east just north of Tokyo before beginning our journey across the Pacific.
We would fly over Adak and Dutch Harbor and northwestern Canada before flying over Minot, Fargo, and Green Bay on arrival into DTW.
Pushing back at 2:58 pm, we began a slow taxi to Runway 33L. On the flight deck was Captain Steven Roddy, First Officer Dana Harmer, Captain David Haglund, and First Officer William Boynton.
Leaving ICN with 350 passengers, our gross takeoff weight was 840,390 pounds, with a planned burnoff of 292,900 pounds of fuel.
Captain Roddy performed the takeoff in ICN, and Captain Haglund the landing in DTW. First Officer Dana would also be retiring with the airplane, once it is officially done flying after several charters through the end of the month.
Captain Roddy has been on the airplane for 18 years. “It’s been a great joy, he remarked.” He is a veteran of both Republic and Northwest and is now headed to the 777.
He has been on the airplane as a captain since 2010. “It’s a beautifully responsive airplane, and I will miss flying it,” he told me.
Captain Haglund has only been on the airplane for a year and is one of the few pre-merger Delta pilots to fly the Queen of the Skies. “Getting to fly this was a dream come true, I am so glad I was able to do it,” he said.
Taking off on Runway 33L into a brilliant blue sky, we turned left and then to the East and climbed to 31,000 feet as we soared towards Japan at Mach 0.85. The sky turned into a beautiful pink hue as the sun began to set behind us.
Passing Tokyo to the North, and coasting out from there, I looked back on the wing at the ever-changing sky. I thought about what this airplane—and all the other 747s that are being retired—must have seen over the years. Endless Pacific and Atlantic crossings, at all hours of the day and night, safely delivering millions upon millions of passengers to all the corners of the globe.
Tonight was her last Pacific sunset, her last coast out from Japan, passing just North of Narita where she flew in and out of for years at Northwest’s mini-hub there.
She’s flown military servicemembers, kids with dreams, businessmen, dignitaries, and everything in between, and tonight would be her last oceanic crossing.
The sun quickly disappeared and dinner was served. About 600 miles southwest of the Aleutian Islands, we encountered a bit of light turbulence, but other than that it was smooth as rails as we sailed through the night.
On the upper deck, about 12 AvGeeks—myself included—gathered to share stories of how we managed to chase the final flight. Everyone’s story was unique!
After walking downstairs and taking more pictures, I took a brief nap and awoke to a beautiful sunrise. Passengers were invited to keep safety cards and the sign above their seat designating their row if they so chose.
One Final 747 Revenue-Making Descent
A little after noon local time, we started our descent, and all too soon we landed on DTW’s Runway 22R, 11 hours and 24 minutes after takeoff.
Parking at A40, only about two and a half hours late, Ship 6306 was shut down one final time carrying fare-paying revenue passengers, ending over a quarter century of safe airline flying and ending 47 years of scheduled passenger service by Northwest and Delta combined.
After racing through customs and rushing to catch a commute, I had to stop at A40 where we parked and get one last picture. The scene was amazing. Passengers had gathered, despite the lack of an arrival party to see the airplane one last time.
People are still mesmerized by this incredible airplane. I snapped a few pictures by the water fountain at A40 and had to run to catch my commute to Atlanta.
At A38, one gate over, today’s Delta 159—operated by A350 Ship 3501—was just pushing back, beginning her voyage to Incheon. Next to her, the 747 looked majestic as ever.
747 Memories to keep
Even though this retirement flight lacked a well-deserved celebration, has to be one of the most memorable ones I have ever taken.
Thank you 747, for inspiring me and for giving me ‘the bug’ at four years old. The 747 represents what we can do and what we can achieve when we do not give up, she is and always will be the Queen of the Skies.
It’s been a fantastic journey, and I still dream of flying one someday, somehow.
To this day, and I always hope, I am still that kid staring up at the sky wondering what faraway place an airplane is flying to, thanks to Ship 6310, and I love going to “work” to go fly airplanes day in and day out.