ESPECIALLY DURING THE pandemic, especially with the crashing economy, especially with Boeing proceeding with its long goodbye to the Seattle area, we will always have memories of the 747.
Let’s remember this marvel of engineering that nearly 51 years ago emerged from the company’s Everett plant and caught the world’s imagination.
Do you remember the first time you stepped into one? Or the first time you were at an airport, and saw one of the jumbo jets pull up at the gate?
This was an aircraft that was nearly three times larger than the largest jet flying at the time. The plane would stretch between the 10-yard lines at CenturyLink Field. With its distinctive hump at the nose and its elegant lines, it instantly made you stop and marvel. Flying in one has been described as like being on a cruise ship.
Dixie Deans, of Arlington, was an 18-year-old back on Oct. 15, 1980. That was when his entire family — mom, dad, seven siblings — was moving from Ireland to the United States. It was because of that common immigrant dream. “My dad wanted a better opportunity for the kids,” he says.
The London-to-Chicago leg of the trip, which would end up in Portland, was on a 747.
“It was the biggest plane I had ever seen in my life. How cool was that?” he remembers.
Fittingly, Deans now works as a maintenance mechanic at the Boeing Everett plant. He says his job should be secure thanks to his seniority. Walking into the factory, and still seeing a 747, he says, “It brings back the emotions. It still blows my mind, something that big: Can it really fly in the air, that distance, and all that weight?”
Then, he says, looking at the giant, “This is all ending. How sad.”
BOEING HAS PRODUCED 1,556 of the planes; that will end in 2022. The Airbus A380 that competed with the 747 is ending production in 2021.
Says a Sept. 8 Wall Street Journal story about the end of the jumbo jet era, “The pandemic sped up their demise, which seemed inevitable regardless. There’s little doubt air travel will see weaker demand for several years, which is a killer for enormous airplanes that require strong demand to fill seats. The losses will be mourned by many travelers and will be particularly hard on airplane aficionados for whom these incredible machines represented jet nirvana.”
Everything about the plane was memorable.
There was the famous deck on the hump, the one in which photos show jet-setters hanging out at a bar and lounge, later replaced by first-class seating to bring in more money.
Deans never saw that, although his younger siblings did get to visit the cockpit, those being the more innocent days before wariness set upon us.
His family was in the vast economy section, the one credited with helping bring airfare to the masses. There were two aisles, with four seats in the middle, and three on each side.
The Deans’ took up two rows in the middle.
A TYPICAL 747 airline passenger configuration had more than 400 seats. Whatever the number, around 75% of those seats were economy. By 2019, Boeing would tout that 747s had flown more than 5.9 billion people.
Rick Steves, the famed Edmonds-based travel guru who began his business in 1976, remembers the 747. He’s always traveled economy.
“I thought it was a great thing. The democratization of air travel coincided with my career. It was pushed along by the 747. I’m all about affordable travel. You need the economy of scale. You’ve got to pack the plane, pack the tour bus, pack the concert hall. If you can’t, it becomes less affordable,” he says.
By democratization, Steves means how much air travel used to cost.
A September 1964 National Geographic ad from Pan Am listed an economy round-trip Los Angeles-London airfare for $589.
Sounds good, until you use the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. That’s $4,923 in today’s dollars.
Meanwhile, Expedia lists current prices for such a round-trip flight in the $880 range, if you could take that flight in the pandemic.
Here are a few statistics about affordable air travel:
● In 50 years, because of cheaper fares, the percent of Americans who had flown quadrupled.
● In 1965, only 20% of Americans had ever flown, according to a June 25, 1965, Time article reporting on a meeting by the airlines’ marketing executives. The execs were trying to figure out what would lure more customers, as if the answer weren’t obvious.
● Fifty years later, in 2015, with cheaper prices, 81% of American adults had flown, according to a survey for the industry group Airlines for America.
THE STORY OFTEN has been told of the three men mainly responsible for the creation of the 747.
There was Juan Trippe, the pioneer founder of Pan American Airways. He envisioned an age of mass air travel, and his airline was the first to offer discount international fares. He was in a continual fight with his own industry about fixed air prices.
It was Trippe who in 1965 asked Boeing President Bill Allen about designing the largest aircraft on the market.
According to the International Air Transport Association’s website, “The Boeing 747 was born with a legendary exchange: ‘If you build it, I’ll buy it,’ said Trippe, to which Allen replied: ‘If you buy it, I’ll build it.’ ”
The third man responsible for the 747 was the late Joe Sutter, a legendary Boeing engineer. At a time of recession, with airline orders drying up, the company stuck it out, going into deep debt.
Using a workforce of 50,000 that called itself “the Incredibles” because of their momentous task, they built the 747 in less than 16 months.
In his 2006 book, “747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation,” Sutter told about the historic Sunday morning of Feb. 9, 1969. At Everett’s Paine Field, model No. 1 of the 747 made its first flight:
“I saw Boeing’s new jet as 75,000 drawings, 4.5 million parts, 136 miles of electrical wiring, 5 landing gear legs, 4 hydraulic systems and 10 million labor hours … A lot of so-called experts had been saying the 747 was too big for airline pilots to get it safely back onto the ground. How could pilots judge the landings, these critics said, when the cockpit was three stories off the ground? … Before my eyes, it descended to the runway with the stately majesty of an ocean liner.”
BUT IF PAN AM and its 747s helped bring economy fares to the masses, the airline also is uniquely associated with luxurious first-class travel.
Kathryn Wheeling, of Yelm, has been a flight attendant for nearly 50 years. She flew with Pan Am from 1971 to 1991, and then with Delta, which bought most of Pan Am’s assets when it filed for bankruptcy.
She was a college student in California who was bored and liked to travel. She certainly did. In those five decades, Wheeling figures she’s been to 50 countries. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” she says.
She remembers the food service in first class.
“Roast beef, lamb — we’d carve it right in front of the customer, like in the Ritz. We served in china and crystal. It was like taking a five-star restaurant and putting it on an airplane. It was elegant,” says Wheeling.
And the customers in those early days of transitioning to the cheaper fares?
“You never wore bluejeans, never wore sweatpants. It was a big deal to get on an airplane,” says Wheeling.
Pan Am cared about the details, even down to nail polish. An April 1972 bulletin gave flight attendants this tip: “To clarify policy and in an effort to keep current with the changing fashion scene, you may now wear the newer, brighter shades of nail polish … Colors may be bright but not harsh.”
To illustrate how you dressed up, Steves provides a 1971 photo of a family trip on SAS from Seattle to Copenhagen. There, standing alongside Steves in front of a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-62, is his late mom, June Steves, and his sister, Linda Stevenson.
He’s wearing a yellow dress shirt, a striped tie and plaid sports coat, and that awkward smile boys put on when asked to pose for a family photo. “I am sure a dorky 16-year-old,” he notes.
AT THE NORTHWESTERN University Transportation Library, there is an entire collection devoted to the 747, including its menus. In first class, all the major airlines were competing with their offerings.
Lunch on a 1983 British Airways flight from London to San Francisco included such offering as, “Cutlet of fresh scotch salmon, poached in white wine with herbs then chilled. Garnished with prawns, asparagus spears and cucumber salad. Served with mayonnaise and caviar sauce.”
Dessert included, “Crisp, bitter-sweet chocolate cup filled with fresh strawberries and Cointreau flavoured orange mousse.”
Bryce Evans, a food historian at Liverpool Hope University in England, has a new book specifically about one airline: “Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: the Pan American Ideal.”
In an email interview, he tells how Pan Am collaborated with French chefs from Maxim’s of Paris in designing dishes. The high-end Pan Am meals filtered into the economy section, says Evans.
“Some proved as appealing as first-class options, stuffed guinea hen being one of the favorites,” he says. “Now, in economy class, like first class, food was served on a plate with entrees and accompaniments cooked separately. In an era predating meal carts, flight attendants would carry trays individually by hand, placing the meals — each finished with a signature garnish of parsley — straight to the passengers’ lap. For some economy fliers, this was their experience of anything like restaurant service.”
We all know how that changed.
Spirit Airlines now offers rock-bottom airfares, but that means no reclining seat and fees for any “extras,” which include a charge for anything more than a carry-on the size of a computer bag, $10 for printing your ticket, and even for water.
THERE ARE ACADEMIC papers on the collapse of Pan Am, which declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 1991. There were the 1973 Arab oil embargo skyrocketed fuel prices; the 1978 deregulation of airlines, which meant domestic carriers were competing with Pan Am on international routes; the 1988 terrorist bomb explosion of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 259; and continually changing business plans.
Still, that now-mythical time of the airlines of old stays with us, even for those too young to have experienced it. On the internet, you can find photos and advertisements of happy passengers luxuriating in comfortable seats, great food, fantastic service.
Since 2014, in Los Angeles, a company called the Pan Am Experience has offered flights to nowhere. You sit inside a replica of a 747, having been checked in at a Pan Am airport counter and greeted by attendants in the actual blue uniforms.
Prices range from $475 to $875 a pair; you get the historic Pan Meal dinner meals, open bar and even prop cigarettes in this no-smoking era. The company says it’s been selling out, although because of the pandemic, the flights to nowhere have been “temporarily suspended.”
Here, the Museum of Flight offers its own version, with “Cocktails with the Queen” at the 747 jet it has on display. It is the first one produced by Boeing, with test equipment, not seats, in the main cabin, and was restored by volunteers.
For $225 per person, or $747 for a group of four, you get a private tour by former United Airlines flight attendant Lynda Eck, are taken up to the upper-deck lounge “normally closed to the public,” and afterward get cocktails and hors d’oeuvres “prepared from historical airline menus.”
Eck, 73, of Burien, was with United for 35 years. She explains the various details of the jet, such as the fact that the narrow spiral staircase to the deck in the first 747 was quickly abandoned for wider steps. It wasn’t easy for passengers to navigate them after a couple of drinks.
Debra Tresp, 56, of Seattle, and two friends recently took part in the private tour. She has flown plenty, but never on a 747. Working from home doing administrative work, she says, “In the age of coronavirus, we’re not going anywhere.” So why not splurge?
“It was worth every cent,” she says. In that upper deck, Tresp could just imagine “the tinkling in the glasses, the cigarette smoke, people dressed up. It was just glam.”
For her cocktail, Tresp, of course, ordered an Old Fashioned.
POST ON SOCIAL media, on Facebook sites such as Pan Am, “keeping the airline’s spirit alive!” or “World of 747 Aircraft” or the Pan Am Historical Foundation, and you can go down memory lane. The memories are considerably different than on a Facebook page like “Spirit Airline Sucks!”
Instead, you can meet someone like Don Cooper, 88, of Port Ludlow, who flew for Pan Am from 1966 to 1991.
“My God almighty, it was a beautiful airplane,” he’ll tell you. “It looked so graceful through the sky. It was a very stable airplane, easy to fly, nice smooth landings.”
Or Hollace Vaughan, 74, of Kingston, a Pan Am flight attendant from 1968 to 1978.
“Every time we got on an aircraft, there were people who hadn’t been on a 747. I do think some people were afraid something so big could not get off the ground. They were just in awe. You met amazing people. Sidney Poitier kissed me on the forehead when I was serving him breakfast. I put my number under his omelet. He never called me. He was married at the time.”
So a fond goodbye to the 747.
You can’t blame Mike Lombardi, the Boeing Company’s historian, for getting a little emotional:
“The 747 is a bridge to a romantic era of flight, an era that we should continue to aspire to resurrect. But more than that, the 747 is a reminder of the power of the human spirit and what we can accomplish with our hearts, minds and hard work. It reminds us that even though we may lose hope in a world that seems filled with strife, we can turn our eyes to the skies and see those great contrails of the Queen of the Skies crossing the heavens and know that we can still overcome great adversity and accomplish incredible things.”