Farewell to The Queen-Flying United’s Last Boeing 747 (Part 3-The Farewell!!!)

 

Farewell to The Queen-Flying United’s Last Boeing 747 (Part 3-The Farewell!!!)

 

Idries J. Abdur-Rahman, MD
www.TwinDoctorsTV.com
@TwinDoctorsTV

 

 

 

The morning of October 29th started bright and early with a beautiful view of Mount Namsan and it’s striking fall foliage. Flight UA892 was scheduled to depart Incheon airport at 4:55pm, but hoping that United would have some sort of celebration of the last regularly scheduled 747 departure, I was planning to get to the airport nice and early. A quick buffet breakfast in the Executive Lounge (yes I skipped the gym, don’t judge!), and we were on our way downstairs to checkout and catch the KAL Limousine bus to the airport.

 

It was a beautiful fall day in Seoul with temperatures in the mid-60’s (Fahrenheit). Apparently it was the type of day that just made you want to pull your lover closer and steal a kiss. After about five minutes of watching these two lock lips, the KAL bus pulled up. As we attempted to board, the driver, in somewhat broken English, stepped down and made a X with his arms while he said the word “full”. Apparently the bus still makes every stop even if it is full and while the next bus would be along in 15 minutes there was no guarantee that this or any of the subsequent buses would have room for us. So we decided to go to plan B and catch the free airport shuttle bus back to Seoul Station to take the AREX Express train to the airport.

 

The noon shuttle had us at Seoul Station in plenty of time to catch the 12:35 train and by 12:36 we were on our way to Incheon Airport. Like the trip into the city, the trains were comfortable and the free wifi was a nice bonus.

 

As we neared the airport, my excitement was building. Now, I wouldn’t be a true aerophile or AvGeek if I didn’t have some sort of United 747 paraphernalia on or with me so that day I was rocking a t-shirt with a 747 in the battleship gray livery. I’m more partial to the Saul Bass livery that harkens back to my childhood but anything saying United 747 would do. Do I look excited?

 

A 12:35pm train meant that we were at the airport by 1:15pm and while I had checked in online the night before, you know that I had to go to the check-in counters to get a keepsake paper boarding pass. Despite long general lines, the Premiere line moved quickly and with short subsequent wait for security and immigration, we were quickly approaching gate 111 where I saw this commemorative banner being put up.

 

True enough this was the last United 747 flight departing from Korea, but this flight was much more. UA892 was United’s last regularly scheduled 747 flight and really United’s last 747 flight. No sour grapes here, but I really don’t consider the one time party flight from SFO-Honolulu as the last flight. I see it as more of a commemorative gimmick, but something that would be fun to do none-the-less. Anyway, I felt like the banner that was being placed over the doors to gate 111 was getting warmer, denoting this flight as “United Airlines Boeing 747-400 Farewell Service Last International Flight” and I was glad to see that United was acknowledging this flight for the true milestone that it was.

 

With an hour or so before N121UA, the inbound aircraft from San Francisco, was scheduled to land, I decided to walk the terminal and do some plane spotting. Being a person of color with an Arabic name, I’m not always super comfortable taking tons of tarmac pics in an airport, but there we so many fellow aerophiles in the boarding area and terminal also taking pics that I actually felt pretty comfortable that day. The star of this pic is the Jin Air Boing 737-800, I love it’s lime/neon green livery. Jin Air is a South Korean LCC that has a fleet of 737-800’s and 777-200’s flying throughout Asia as well as Cairns in Australia and Honolulu in the US state of Hawaii.

 

It was nice to spot this KE Boeing 747-8i. While the 747-400 fleet around the world rapidly dwindles, it’s nice to know that The Queen will soldier on for decades to come with the 747-8i.

 

Being so focused on the heavies in the distance, this Eastar Jet almost snuck past me. Eastar Jet is another South Korean LCC and it flies a fleet of Boeing 737-700, -800 and -900 aircraft domestically and throughout Asia.

 

While the Airbus A380 doesn’t look as hideous as it did to me when it was first unveiled, it just doesn’t have the graceful curves and appearance on the 747. Having said that, it is a pleasure to see any heavy and I have to admit that the A380 did win me over from a passenger’s perspective when I first flew on it with SQ from London to Singapore many years ago.

 

Perspective really is a funny thing. From this vantage point, the A380 tail doesn’t look all that large and it definitely doesn’t look 48 feet tall. I’m an inch shy of 6 feet tall which means you could stack another 7 me’s on top of me and you wouldn’t quite be as tall as that tail.

 

Am I the only one who doesn’t understand why the Osaka based Japanese LCC Peach has a fleet of Airbus 320’s that are pink and purple? Things that make you go hummm?

 

This KLM Boeing 747-400 taxied by on it’s way to gate 109. That meant that two 747-400’s would be side by side once N121UA arrived.

 

I do like the Boeing 777 though I am getting a bit fatigued of all the bi-jets in the long-haul arena. I have to say that I am a fan of KE’s livery, it’s simple but attractive.

 

As this OZ A380 lumbered past, the excitement was building at gate 111 as more and more people arrived. Folks were talking pictures next to and under the signs and banners and many of my fellow aerophiles were tracking N121UA as UA893 from SFO as it was nearing it’s arrival.

 

I started to scope out the activity on the runway where landings were taking place and caught this Cargo Lux Boeing 747-8i on final approach.

 

Nice to see ya my friend, always glad to see a 747 in action.

 

By now the activity at gate 111 was at a fever pitch as we all tracked N121UA which was now on it’s final approach. Most of us made our way to the end of the terminal where a wall of windows provided a direct view of the runway where landings were taking place.

 

 

And here are some of my fellow aerophiles awaiting the arrival of our Queen.

 

Spotting that unmistakeable silhouette was easy even at that distance. N121UA was on short finals

 

C’mon baby….

 

come to papa.

 

There ya go, just glide on in here.

 

And just like that, N121UA made her final international landing.

 

This beauty has probably seen every continent, save Antarctica, and she just touched down on foreign soil for the very last time.

 

At this point I rushed back to the gate where the ground crew was bustling to get everything ready for the taxing jumbo. I know what you are thinking, this guy doesn’t look like he’s bustling but trust me, they were bustling.

 

Forgive the horizontal orientation, I don’t want to blame my daughter but blame my daughter, she was doing the videography while I snapped pics.

 

Soon after landing, N121UA was gracefully making her way to gate 111 where an excited crowd was now assembled including the crew for our flight and other UA officials.

 

I have always loved just starring at the 747 in action. Starring at N121UA as it approached and knowing that this was probably the last time that I would see a 747 in United colors, made the moment sad but it was still a moment that I also wanted to savor.

 

I would have loved it if UA painted N121UA in the Saul Bass livery but that would understandably have been way too expensive to just give us aerophiles a thrill. None-the-less I was still happy that they choose to put a retro Stars and Bars inspired title on the front.

 

By far, the hump is my favorite part of the 747, it’s what makes the 747 special.

 

When you walked up to the window of your gate and saw that distinctive hump and that graceful silhouette, you would just fill with excitement…

 

and today was no exception. The excitement was there X 10, even if it was mixed with a bit of sorrow.

 

By now all of the folks that were at the end of the terminal with me taking pics of her landing were lined up with the rest of the people at gate 111 just watching and documenting her arrival.

 

How many times have we all watched a United 747 pulling up to the gate?

 

I’ve seen this site while waiting for flights to LA, San Francisco,…

 

Honolulu, Frankfurt,…

 

Sydney, Tokyo and Seoul and now….

 

this would be my last time seeing this view.

 

And just like that, she was docked at gate 111 and the preparations were being made for her fairly quick turn around.

 

I have to admit that when the 747-400 first hit the scene, I wasn’t a huge fan of the winglets. I actually hated winglets on any airplane but now…

 

the winglets are just iconic and while the gentle swoop of the 747-8i wing in slick, the winglets will definitely be missed when the very last 747-400 flies off into the sunset.

 

Now it was time to join all the folks who were taking pics in front of the sign and under the banner.

 

Yup, I was there! I wonder if anyone would have noticed if I just jammed this into my carry-on luggage? What do you think?

 

More proof, see, I really was there!

 

Guess who I saw milling about with all of the other passengers and crew? Here’s a hint, he is a famous aviation photographer and blogger and he let me check out his Saul Bass and Battleship gray United 747-400 paintings.

 

Yup, I met Sam Chui.

 

I’m not usually the kind of guy who asks to take pics with folks but today I had to make an exception because I really love his work and he couldn’t have been nicer!

 

As the time to boarding drew nearer, the crews took pictures in front of the signs and banners and….

 

Here Sam Chui directed the crew in a farewell to the United 747.

 

they seemed to be having as much fun as we were. I think everyone wanted these last moments before boarding the final flight to last just a little bit longer, but times marches on and soon it was time for UA892, United’s final regularly scheduled Boeing 747 flight to board.

 

Boarding United’s last regularly scheduled Boeing 747 service

 

Crossing the thresh-hold for the last time.

 

Flying home to the USA usually means a secondary security check at the gate and today was no exception. My daughter got the dreaded SSSS on her boarding pass so we had to hold short for a few minutes while she joined the line of the SSSSpecially chosen few.

 

Secondary check checked off, it was time to board N121UA and my very last United Boeing 747.

 

We were greeted by a pleasant crew member at the L2 door which was only a few steps away from my seat, 19A. If you have to sit in Economy (or in this case Economy Plus), row 19 is the row to have. Bulkhead with nice legroom and a descent view. I came to fine a blue envelope placed on top of the pillow and blanket.

 

While the cabin was relatively empty I decided to just walk around and…..

 

just take in the sites and sounds of a United 747 cabin for the last time. There were tulip wearing UA fans everywhere.

 

The cabin of a 747 has a few distinctive features including the overhead bins and the flat ceilings.

 

The 3-4-3 arrangement used to be pretty unique to the 747 as well, but unfortunately more and more Boeing 777’s now have a tight 3-4-3 arrangement.

 

Now, I have a thing for doors, don’t ask me why, I just do. Now the rear door of the 747 has a unique shape because of the curvature of the cabin as it nears the end of the aircraft. Seeing it instantly brings to mind many flights from Chicago to London sitting at the back of a BA 747-100by the lavs playing cards with my friends.

 

UA892 was a flight like no other that I have been on and let’s just say that I definitely was not the only aviation enthusiast on board and I wasn’t the only person just walking the aisles experiencing the plane for the last time.

 

As the cabin became more crowded I decided to head back to 19A and settle in for the 10 hour flight back to San Francisco. I always thumb to the back of the in-flight magazine to check out the fleet page and today I knew this would be the last time that I would see a 747 at the top of that page.

 

I was planning to purchase wifi on this flight because I was hell bent on getting some of this trip report done.

 

My daughter had a great time K-popping it up in South Korea but she just didn’t appreciate the historic significance of this flight no matter how many times my mother and I tried to explain it to her. I think she got a kick out of seeing her dad geek out though. Oh well, the threesome was buckled up and ready for that last takeoff.

 

I opened the envelope and found this really cool card. I really appreciate the fact that United did make the big deal out of this last flight that it was.

 

United was getting warmer with the banner over the gate and I think they got red hot with this card. I really did see this as the farewell flight for the 747-400 and I thought this card was a fitting tribute to this beautiful bird and this historic flight. 1970-2017, 47 years of service with United Airlines.

 

As we boarded the plane, we were all given this small magazine “Saying Goodbye to the Queen of the Skies”. It detailed the history of the 747 and particularly the history of the 747 with United. These keepsakes were definitely going into my aviation keepsake chest.

 

I remember when I was a child how huge the wing of the 747 looked from the cabin. From either side, this view never gets old! Long live the 747!

 

I usually don’t keep boarding passes but this boarding pass was also going into my aviation chest. Soon boarding was completed and and for one last time, it was time to fly.

 

For once I din’t feel odd taking pictures of what many see as routine parts of flight and there was no way that I was not going to document my last United 747 safety video. No one will argue that this bird is regal, but at times she can also be a bit temperamental. A non-functioning main cabin screen meant that after a few attempts to reset it, we got an…..

 

old fashioned live safety briefing. Remember this was a cabin full of nostalgic areophiles so applause erupted when the video was abandoned for this manual safety briefing which made the cabin crew and many of the passengers laugh.

 

Take it away ladies, rock those flotation devices!

 

Again, with a cabin full of AvGeeks, the camera shutters were a clickin’ as we slowly taxied to the runway. Here we have an Air Asia X Airbus 330 also taxing at Incheon.

 

We passed this Asiana whale jet before reaching the thresh-hold of the active runway. As we sat for a moment, the cabin was quiet as everyone waited to hear that familiar Pratt Whitney whine for one last time. As those four engines came to life most of us were glued to our windows trying to take in and savor the sights, sounds and experience.

 


End of taxi and take off of UA 892, United’s last regularly scheduled Boeing 747 service.

 

With a gentle bump, The Queen took to the skies one last time, climbing over South Korea as dusk fell.

 

We made a 270 degree turn and soon Incheon airport came into view in front of our port wing.

 

N121UA bade Seoul and the entire Untied network a fond farewell. Tomorrow, the future of UA at Seoul would begin in the form of Boeing 787-9 operations on the SFO-Seoul route.

 

As soon as the seatbelt sign was released I was joined by other aerophiles exploring the cabin of this beauty for. While I’m no fan of sitting in the rear of the aircraft, this is an iconic 747 wing view that only those in the rear get to enjoy.

 

As we flew east into the rapidly setting sun, we were….

 

treated to spectacular views!

 

As everyone got settled in for the nighttime trans-Pacific crossing, I decided to get up and explore one last time before the dinner service started. Not so sure this guy wanted to be in the picture he just walked into.

 

I wanted to capture all the obvious memories like the distinctive silhouette, the winglets and the cabin but I also wanted to memorialize all those little details that I would otherwise likely forget with time. I remember when the 747-400 was the modern, new kid on the UA block and now so many features like the amenities cabinet and toilet look so antiquated.

 

The bathroom was clean, though less than an hour into the flight I expect that it should be. The bathroom was spartan and a bit devoid of amenities other than the bare minimum.

 

As I exited one of the mid cabin lavs I had to get a quick shot of the L3 door. Hey, I told you I had a door thing okay!

 

As I settled back into my seat I caught a view that I don’t remember ever seeing in hundreds of night flights. I saw a complete row of lighted windows reflecting on the #2 engine. I think that was an indication of how special this flight was, apparently even though night had fallen, nobody wanted to close their shades.

 

The cabin crew were phenomenal, especially the purser who stated that she herself was an “AvGeek” and they were all remarkably patient and understanding of the excited passengers milling about the cabin. The purser requested that we draw our window shades “once we were (are) done enjoying the view outside of the window”. Once night had completely fallen and there was nothing but darkness to see, I decided to draw my shades as sunrise would occur within hours.

 

I’m sure I’m not the only person who is going to miss seeing a 747 at the bottom of a UA flight status page. We pushed off of the gate on time and we were scheduled to arrive 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

 

Soon dinner was served, and while I appreciate that UA has stepped up the quality of it’s meal service in all cabins, I feel like the portions could be better on these longhaul flights.

 

The options were the standard chicken or beef though with a bit of a twist. I choose the Kung Pow chicken which although a bit spicy was pretty good. The chicken was accompanied by fried rice, a salad that I believe was a shredded potato salad and a dinner roll. The salad was odd in appearance but was also pretty good.

 

Yes, wifi and personal device entertainment were on board and no, neither was working well. The wifi was spotty and the personal device entertainment was not working either. Most of us were not on this flight for the entertainment however and the $300 travel voucher I received when I landed in SFO more than made up for the lack of entertainment on a flight that I slept a good part of anyway.

 

Meals completed, the cabin crew offered ice cream (strawberry cheesecake tonight) and a bottle of water.

 

The ice cream was hard as a rock but with a bit of time and perseverance, I was able to solider through.

 

A couple of hours into our Pacific crossing and it was time to explore the cabin one last time before catching a few ZZZ’s.

 

Most folks were also settling in but there was still a significant number of people like me milling about the cabin just exploring.

 

Slap my hand but since I was in the bulkhead I had a view of Polaris Business, so I snapped a few shots. To be honest, the crew didn’t really enforce the stay in your cabin policy because they knew they had a bunch of aerophiles who just wanted to experience this bird once last time. I never got up to Global First but I have a feeling they may have enforced the policy at that thresh hold.

 

I wanted to get a front-to-back pic of the entire Economy cabin but it was clear that this just wasn’t going to happen that night.

 

I was able to get a pretty good back-to-front shot of the Economy cabin though and as I stood there I just marveled at how massive the cabin was.

 

And here is a shot from the galley by the L4 door looking forward. And with that I headed back to 19A and snuggled under my blanket for a few hours of sleep.

 

Before I knew it I awoke to find the sun high in the sky and the flight tracker revealing that we had a bit more than 2 hours before landing. With my increasing age and the decreasing seat width and pitch on most carriers Coach cabins, I was surprised how well I slept.

 

I had to get up and explore the cabin one last time before the breakfast service started. Yup, it’s my door thing again.

 

I wonder how many crew members have used this jump seat by the L5 door through the decades.

 

This air-phone is a total flash back. I remember when these bad boys were cutting edge, now, not so much.

 

The L5 door one more time and then it was back to my seat for the breakfast service.

 

Unfortunately there was only one choice for breakfast and it was a breakfast sandwich with Canadian bacon. Being Muslim I don’t eat pork but I rarely order a special meal because I can’t remember an international flight with only one meal choice and through the years United has been good about having non-Pork breakfast meats. Not today unfortunately, so I just took an orange juice and snacked on some cookies that I had in my carry-on bag.

 

As we drew closer to SFO I wanted to take in the always beautiful views from 35,000 feet made all the more beautiful by this sleek 747-400 wing and winglet.

 

Wow! 155 gallons per minute! That is a lot of fuel really fast!!

 

Multiple windows per seat is usually a luxury reserved for First or Business class passengers but with great legroom in the row 19 bulkhead, I had 2 1/2 windows all to myself. The last window was kind of in a no mans land. More mine when the seat was reclined, more 20A’s when my seat was upright.

 

Okay, I know that I said my pre-breakfast roaming was my last time but as I saw more and more passengers from the back exploring up front, I decided what the heck!

 

Here I spied Sam Chui spying the view from Polaris Business Class.

 

I asked a passing cabin crew member if my mother and I could sneak into Business class to take a quick shot on the stairs and he kindly obliged. Another crew member took my camera and offered to take our pic together on the iconic stairs and so here we are!

 

Okay, one last shot of the cabin in daylight and….

 

one last shot of the distinctive overhead bins and 747 ceiling and it was time to head back to 19A for landing.

 

30 minutes out and we were beginning a slow descent out of 39,000 feet for SFO.

 

We were flying along at a nice clip, 577mph and…

 

it was a brisk -62 degrees outside at just under 37,000 feet.

 

As we continued out slow descent, the cabin again buzzed with excitement.

 

Soon the green of California could be seen peeking through holes in the clouds as…

 

the pitch and hum of the engines changed.

 

As we continued out descent, one of the crew members came through the cabin and distributed…

 

wings and a card with a picture of the 747-400 on the front and 747 stats on the back.

 

After a few more turns over northern California, we established short finals for SFO. The excitement was palpable though it was mixed with a bit of sadness. N121UA and the entire UA 747 fleet had plied the world’s airways for decades and now the last regularly scheduled 747 flight for United was in it’s last minutes.

 


All too soon we made a grease smooth landing at SFO to a burst of applause and with that 47 years of United Boeing 747 service was officially in the history books. Here is the last eight minutes of UA892 and United’s regularly scheduled 747 service, bringing to a close 47 years of Boeing 747 operations. Again, please forgive the horizontal orientation.

 

Here is another perspective as the final flight landed at SFO. Credit to Walter Colby who took this video and uploaded it to YouTube. His YouTube channel is wcolby and his website is waltercolby.com

 

Now SFO would not be SFO if we didn’t have to wait for our gate to become available and not even the last arrival of The Queen could not change that fact. So we held short for a while waiting for an SQ A350 to vacate out gate. While waiting, the purser gave her fond farewell to The Queen over the PA system followed by the captain who invite all to hail The Queen. The captain then explained that we would be getting a water canon salute as we pulled into the gate.

 

I could spy the fire trucks waiting for us in the distance but for some reason as we approached the gate they didn’t move and the salute didn’t materialize. My guess is that they really had no room to maneuver as the SQ A350 was still sitting on one side of the alley and N121UA had pulled in on the other side. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts. As the seat belt sign was extinguished, everyone slowly gathered their belongings and made their way off of the United jumbo. I think each and every one of us probably walked a little slower and took one last look at this beautiful piece of machinery as we crossed the thresh hold into the gate. I personally wanted to thank her for brining my family and I safely to and from Seoul over the last few days and for safely taking millions of families over millions of miles for the last two decades. We will all miss the United 747 but she can now go to a rest well earned.

 

We cleared immigrations quickly and after re-clearing security, we made our way over to gate 87 for our flight to sweet home Chicago. United has a nice tribute to the history of “Flying the Main Line” and after having just been a part of UA history it somehow felt appropriate.

 

Walking down the hallway was literally like taking a walk down memory lane from the DC-3 and DC-6 to…

 

to the DC-8 right on up to…

 

the one and only 747, both in the classic Saul Bass livery with the one and only UA tulip and the ex-Continental livery.

 

And of course we can’t forget the next generation aircraft, the 777 and 787.

 

Walking down this hallway really gives you a sense of United’s rich and long history.

 

Like I’ve said, the Saul Bass livery was the livery of my childhood and it is the livery that will always say United to me. I would pay a mint for these flight bags, let me tell you!

 

A United flight attendant in the 1960’s posing at what appears to be my home airport, Chicago O’Hare.

 

As we made our way to gate 87 we had a perfect view of N121UA as she sat at the international terminal among her stablemates for the last time.

 

For your average traveler she probably looked like any other plane preparing to make another journey to some far corner of the earth.

 

As I sat in the gate area looking out at the 757-300 that would be flying us home, I saw N121UA being towed away to await her final flight to Victorville.

 

I got one last closeup as she slowly rolled into the sunset. Farewell to The Queen.

 

Soon boarding was called for flight UA698, the 1:58pm departure which was being operated by N75858 at 2004 build 757-300 that initially flew for Continental Airlines. Though my upgrade didn’t clear I had a pretty nice consolation prize in the form of seat 7A, the port side bulkhead seat with literally unlimited legroom.

 

As boarding continued and passengers got settled in, I chit chatted with one of the flight attendants who noticed my shirt, about our flight in from Seoul and the history of the 747 with United.

 

Boarding was completed early and about five minutes ahead of scheduled we pushed off of gate 87.

 

I wonder if you need a license to drive one of those things?

 

After a relatively short taxi we were powering down the runway and into a relatively clear sky above northern California and Oakland International airport.

 

The view of the rotating fan blades can be mesmerizing sometimes.

 

As we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew sprung into action….

 

starting the in-flight service which on domestic flights amounts to little more than beverages and a very light snack.

 

I was pretty tired by now but I think a combination of adrenaline and jet lag made it difficult to sleep. I didn’t swipe my card to pay for the Direct TV but that didn’t stop me from watching the screen of my neighbors that did 😉

 

There is absolutely no color manipulation of this picture. I have no idea why this body of water is so purple and I would never want to swim in it or eat from it, but from this vantage point it’s quite nice to look at.

 

As we flew east the sun quickly began to set.

 

If I find myself on a million more flights, this sight will never get old. There is truly nothing like life at 35,000 feet!

 

Soon we were on descent for Chicago O’Hare and I saw the view that always lets me know that I am home, one of the most beautiful skylines in the world!

 

Soon we were on short finals and within minutes we touched down. As the plane slowly taxied to gate C21 I remembered all of the times I saw a United 747 here at O’Hare and in my mind I once more bade The Queen a fond farewell!

 

Check out part 1, The Journey to Seoul HERE

Check out part 2, Out Time in South Korea HERE