As United prepares to say goodbye to the 747, a pilot shares his memories of the iconic bird

For nearly half a century, the Boeing 747, the world's first commercial jumbo jet, has occupied a special, almost mythological place in the world of aviation. Today, marking the end of an era, United announced it will fly its final scheduled 747 route sometime in the fourth quarter of this year. When it does, United will be the last U.S.-based passenger carrier to retire the venerable aircraft in favor of more environmentally friendly and economical widebody planes.

In a heartfelt letter to employees, United's President Scott Kirby described the decision to cease flying the Queen of the Skies as bittersweet. “There's something very special about a Boeing 747," he said. “It's the one aircraft that even casual travelers can easily identify. And we know that the experience of traveling on one, or flying one, is unforgettable." Scott went on to set the stage for what's to come, saying, “We'll be working with all of you who fly or work on the 747s to ensure a smooth transition to other fleets. And of course we'll honor the 747 with an unforgettable retirement celebration."

Like our customers, many of our employees forged a unique bond with the 747 during its heyday. Take United Captain Jon Russell, who started flying the 747 as a first officer in the early 1990s. Even now, 25 years later, he can vividly recall that introduction.

“I remember waiting in the jetway while the plane was being brought over from the hangar," he said, “and it was an incredible experience – I could hear it approaching from the noise of the engines. Then the nose of the plane came into view, and in short order the fuselage enveloped the entire opening to the jetway. At that moment, I realized the enormity of the aircraft; it was pretty dramatic."

When it rolled off the line at Boeing's Everett, Washington, plant in 1969, the double-decker 747 was not only an engineering marvel, it was the culmination of everything that the “jet age" represented in American culture - an airplane with the capacity to democratize air travel, previously a luxury unattainable for many would-be fliers. But it also signaled a new leap in commercial aircraft performance with its power and long-range capabilities. Calling them “rope starts" (a nickname for the early 747 models), Jon recounted the fun of piloting the behemoths. “That airplane could fly really fast. I remember sitting in the right seat of a 747-100, and I looked over at the captain and said, 'Do you know that you're doing [Mach 0.90] (almost 700 miles per hour)!'"

United and Continental's original 747s, which they began flying in 1970, were assigned to each airline's West Coast - Hawaii routes. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, United boasted the largest fleet of domestic 747s, with 18 in circulation throughout the United States, making the plane synonymous with the airline in the minds of customers in those days.

“It's an iconic aircraft, probably the most recognizable airplane in the sky," Jon said. “Being in one was such a neat experience because of that upper deck – it was almost like an airplane in an airplane."

In spite of the many miles he logged in 747 cockpits flying all over the globe, Jon's fondest memory is from a short trip out of San Francisco to central Washington. “My dad flew with United and flew the 747 just before he retired. He took one up to Moses Lake (site of one of Boeing's testing facilities) with some of United's instructors, and I sat in the jumpseat while he made three 'roller landings.' It was so cool because you had these big commercial airplanes doing pattern work all around you, not to mention the fact that I was there with my dad." The 747 has captivated imaginations and inspired a sense of wonder about the world for generations of travelers but, as so often happens, progress dictates change. “It's like an old friend that you don't want to see go," Jon said. “It's been such an iconic figure around our airline for so long. We'll probably never see another four-engine aircraft on the property; it's the last of something special."