Farewell to The Queen
Flying United’s Last Boeing 747! (Part 1-Getting There)
INTRODUCTION-Where and Why:
How do you say farewell to a Queen? Well, when The Queen is a 200 ton piece of metal also known as the Boeing 747-400, you say farewell by experiencing her majesty one last time. Most people probably look at a 747 and see just another airplane, maybe with a funny hump at the front. For a lifelong aerophilie like myself, I look at the 747 and I see a lifetime of memories and experiences with wings and a tail. My family has been a United Airlines family for as long as I can remember. Our first time at 35,000 feet was on a United flight from Cleveland to Chicago in 1979 and while I can’t remember that flight, my mother says we put on quite the show. Through the years United has safely showed us all corners of the globe from the east coast of the US to the west coast, from Hawaii to Europe, Asia and the South Pacific and many of those flights were aboard The Queen. The versions varied from the -100 and -200 to the latest version United flew, the -400, but there was always something special and comforting about boarding a United 747. So, how do you say goodbye? Well, you plan about nine months in advance when you hear that your favorite airline is retiring your favorite airplane. Word in the blogosphere was that the last United 747 flight would be from Seoul Incheon to San Francisco on October 29th, so in February I booked a roundtrip from Chicago to Seoul via San Francisco leaving on October 25th, returning on October 29th.
The Queen’s Last Few Days, Getting From Chicago to Seoul via San Francisco:
Our farewell to The Queen started with a very early wake up call and when I say early, I mean 3AM early! The one good thing about a 3AM wakeup call is the lack of traffic on the roads which meant the drive to O’Hare just flew by (pun totally intended there). By 4:17AM we were in a terminal 1 that was still waking up.
True aerophiles always have to print a paper boarding pass so of course I had to print a paper boarding passes.
The TSA check point was pretty deserted but that didn’t stop one of the TSA’s finest from bringing his nasty A-game. I can only imagine what a charmer he must be after working a few hours when the crowds are shoulder to shoulder. Anywho, I wasn’t going to let him muck up my mood, I was going to visit The Queen and there was no way I was going to let him get me riled up.
Past TSA, it was time to head to The United Club for a quick snack and to send a few early morning emails.
I decided to bring my mother and oldest daughter along for the ride because my mom is the original Queen in my life and she took my brother and I on our very first 747 flight (on United of course) over 35 years ago. My oldest daughter came along because she loves K-Pop and I figured where better to celebrate everything K-Pop than South Korea. Do not ask me how a black girl from the suburbs of Chicago got into K-Pop but she did, so pack your bags sweetie!
I fired off a few emails while slamming back a few carbs, but to be fair, I did balance the carbs off with a little bit with the grapes.
By the way, I am loving the new United Club motif with the pics of classic airliners.
We left The United Club at T-minus 15 minutes before boarding. With the C-concourse Club being rehabbed, we had to journey from the B-concourse to gate C-11 where our flight was departing. We hopped into the very long group 1 boarding line, which at this point stretched waaaaay out into the main walkway, and right on time at 5:35AM boarding was called. Today we were flying N37420, a 2008 built Boeing 737-900 that served it’s early life with Continental Airlines.
Well hello Bowling Alley, always nice to see you!
I stretched out my legs enjoying the 38 inches of pitch while checking out MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
We pushed back on time and made a bee line for the active runway. This blasted iPhone has trouble focusing when there is the combination of background darkness, motion and small bright lights, which meant that all of my taxi shots were blurry. With my Canon stored in the overhead, this was the best that I could get. Lets just call this takeoff shot Artsy.
We were soon rocketing into the still dark skies above Chicago. While Chicago doesn’t have natural attributes like mountains or oceans (though we do have a nice lake), there is something beautiful about the flat landscape all lit up at night from above.
After breaking through the cloud layer, the hints of a beautiful sunrise and a great new day ahead were visible. Sunrise at 35,000 feet is always one of the most sublime, centering times for me. From that perspective, the day just seems so full of potential! The flight attendant came by to take breakfast orders and with the ambient cabin noise all that I heard was “eggs and protein”. At the time that seemed like a good choice.
I decided to buckle and buy the wifi, which at $12.99 for the entire flight wasn’t too unreasonable. Once I connected to the wifi, I got this message. While I appreciate all communication regarding flight changes, the flight had departed the gate about 30 minutes ago and the gate was listed as being C-11 since the night before. Any who, thanks for the update UA!
For all the naysayers here is the proof, I was indeed on N37420 and we were scheduled to land about 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
Looked like a nice weather-free morning for crossing the nation.
And we were apparently doing so at 480mph at that moment.
First Class was full this morning and ORD-SFO is probably a Global Services heavy route so I wasn’t sure if I would get my first choice. When breakfast came the whole “eggs and protein” thing made a bit more sense and I knew why I did in fact get my first choice. Apparently this was a high protein breakfast with boiled eggs, nuts, salmon, fruit and yogurt. The breakfast was definitely a bit unusual but all I could think of when I looked at it was 16 hours in the air and how this was a receipe for horrible gas. Oh well, a brother has to eat, so gas would have to be in my future.
As I chowed down the flight attendant came out of the kitchen like an angel with wings and glad tidings. Yes, he was bringing the warm sweet rolls and yes, I did partake.
Once the breakfast dishes were cleared, I took one last shot of the slowly unfolding sunrise that slowly chases you whenever you fly west bound in the early morning. Now it was time to enjoy a quick nap that was only periodically disturbed when we hit a bit of chop or when announcements broke the otherwise ambient cabin calm.
Overall I slept pretty well and only fully aroused as we began our initial descent through some pretty rough Northern California air. Guessing this is San Jose airport? What say you northern California fellow aerophiles?
Landing at SFO from the east you fly over some pretty picturesque bodies of water.
As we started our final descent I spied a Virgin American Airbus on a parallel landing.
Got some pretty good air-to-air shots.
Even with the iPhone and it’s sometimes mediocre zoom quality the pics were decent. Unfortunately the Airbus slowed down quite a bit so he fell behind pretty rapidly meaning no true parallel landing for me. Oh well, we all know Boeing belongs in front anyway! Just kidding Airbus fans, I’m an equal opportunity lover who just happens to have a soft spot for Boeing.
We did in fact land a full 30 minutes ahead of schedule which at SFO almost always means going to the penalty box while waiting for another plane to push off of you gate. And to the penalty box we went, but today I was actually glad to be there. As we sat, engines idled, who taxied past me? Yes! The Queen herself with the special “747 Friendship” titles. The very Queen that would be taking us to Seoul in a couple of hours!
In the immortal words of Beavis, or was it Butthead?; anyway, in the immortal words of Beavis or Butthead……”heeeey baby”.
In a couple of hours I’m going to be inside of you. Oh boy, I hear the collective sighs, too far?
The time in the penalty box wasn’t too long and within five minutes we were parking at gate 60.
I couldnt get a really good shot at the gate in Chicago and the shot here at SFO wasn’t much better. None-the-less, here she stood. Thanks for the safe ride to the left coast!
We headed to The United Club for another quick Carb loaded bite to eat, a little bit of wi-fi and the use of a clean bathroom. Remember the whole “protein and eggs” thing?, so did I!
After a brief respite from the bustling terminal (though to be honest the United Club is usually pretty bustling as well), we headed over to gate 99 in the International terminal.
Apparently gates 98 and 99 have almost no view of the aircraft parked at them. How could you hide this beauty behind walls United?!
As the Tokyo Haneda flight started boarding next door at gate 98, boarding for UA893 to Seoul Incheon was called right on-time.
It was time to fly and more importantly, it was time to visit The Queen for the next to last time.
I’m always happy to board a 747, but I’m even more so when I get to board through the first boarding gate. That’s right, I was flying on the upper deck of this beauty today! Before heading up there however, I did have to make a quick stop in Economy to drop off my mother and daughter. Now, wait a minute, I can hear all of your judgmental comments, but to be fair I booked my ticket almost ten months ago and I only decided to bring my mother and daughter two weeks ago by which time there were no upgrades available. So you guys can stop judging me and this guy can just take his judging eyes off of me as well! I. Have. No. Shame! Okay, bye y’all!
One quick pic of the massive wing on the port side of the aircraft. Okay, now it really was time for “bye y’all!”
Soon I was climbing the stairway to heaven aboard N121UA, a 1999 built Boeing 747-400 that spent her entire almost 19 year flying career plying the Friendly Skies. I was excited to be flying on the upper deck since this was actually my first upper deck 747 flight in over 50 747 flights!
The atmosphere on board was pretty festive and I would guess that at least half of the people on the upper deck were fellow aerophilies who also came to bid farewell to The Queen.
Some folks were milling about taking pics while others made cockpit visits. I chatted with a flight attendant who said she was asked by a colleague to switch to this Incheon flight at the last minute, an opportunity that she gladly jumped at.
I came to seat 12K, the first row of the upper deck, to find a commemorative “Celebrating the 747” amenity kit. Cool!
Pre-departure beverages were served along with two chocolates that probably had way more calories than I needed to eat. None the less I ate them while I…
checked out the Polaris Business Class menu. Yes, my stomach knows no boundaries!
The menu looked descent, only thing left was to check out the execution.
I don’t drink but for those of you that do.
I woke the in-flight entertainment system up so that I could tune in to my favorite channel, the moving map. TV awake, I reviewed the United 747 safety card for one of the last times. I don’t know how three of those fell into my bag on the flight home, I swear!
I enjoyed the view from up top while watching the next generation of airliners move about the airfield. I’m going to miss the 747 but I’m sure you and I will fall in love over the decades as well.
There was something kind of poingnent about watching this new United Boeing 777-300 from the upper deck of the plane that it is replacing. 🙁 It wasn’t a face off, it was just more of a silent nod to the past and acceptance of the future.
As we pushed off of the gate…
I explored the side bins unique to the upper decks of the 747 and the A380 thanks to the curvature of the fuselage.
There were more storage bins than you could shake a stick at which is good because the overheads were actually pretty small.
I warmed up the in-flight entertainment system and put up my legs but all I really wanted to do was…
gaze out of the windows enjoying the sites at an SFO that was hopping by now with heavies and non-heavies alike starting or finishing their journeys.
Another nod to an aviation chapter soon to end. Soon Virgin America will be no more as it disappears into the Alaska Airlines brand.
We had a pretty short taxi to the active runway and in a classic SFO shot, we lined up on runway. Without holding at the thresh-hold, those beautiful Pratt & Whitney’s came to life.
As we started our 53 second take-off roll it really struck me how much I’m going to miss the unique hum of those engines while gazing at the unique profile of that 747-400 wing and winglet. We zipped past a Virgin Airbus that held short as we crossed paths almost as if to pay it’s respects to The Queen, though it may have just been to avoid a collision.
We passed a bunch of United heavies just as we began to rotate and…
with style and grace, The Queen effortlessly slipped the surly bonds as we glided over a beautifully clear San Francisco morning.
More UA heavies chilling under that California sunshine.
Given the full load of passengers and fuel…
our climb out was slow which was all right by me!
Classic SFO departure shot, The Golden Gate Bridge.
Soon we were crossing the coastline starting our 11 hour 34 minutes trek over the 5,651 miles between SFO and Seoul Incheon.
The one drawback to being in the first row of the upper deck is how difficult it is to get a good wing shot. Don’t cry for me though, I was just fine.
The beverage service started along with the warmed nuts. Forgot to get a shot of the nuts be we all know what mixed nuts look like. What I did catch however was a shot of the dish-ware and how it all bears the United globe branding.
Now The Queen is still a regal lady but sometimes she shows her age bit and today was one of those days. As soon as the purser said they would need to re-boot the entertainment system I knew there would be trouble. Sure enough three re-boots later the entertainment system was dead. At least the in-flight map still worked, so things could have been worse and if you downloaded the United app, the streaming entertainment and wifi were still working. So really, only the premium cabins were affected.
Next up was the appetizer or starter course. The salad was huge and pretty darn good. It had pumpkin seeds, oranges and baby spinach. The chilled shrimp was also flavorful and you don’t even have to ask about the garlic bread and pretzel roll!
My entrée (main) was a bok choi chicken which wasn’t my first choice, but I’m actually glad I had it.
The portion was just right and the chicken itself was moist and flavorful. Here it is un-masked.
Next up was the desert cart and lets just say….
with a little prompting from the cheerful flight attendant, I tried a little of everything. They are still serving the sundaes in the paper cups but the appearance didn’t affect the taste. Sometimes a simple caramel sundae just hits the spot. The petit deserts were also quite good. There was a mini-Apple pie which was warmed, and two types of cheese cake (I think).
Sufficiently satiated, I reclined my seat preparing to catch a few ZZZ’s and that is when the distinctive 747 passenger service unit caught my eye. The no smoking sign flashed me back to a rather unpleasant BA 747-136 flight, my first intercontinental flight, from ORD-LHR in 1990 when the smoke wafted from the smoking cabin to our non-smoking cabin.
Sufficiently stuffed and with no in-flight entertainment and a cabin darkened by closed shades, there was nothing to do but sleep (or work but what can I say, I choose sleep). United’s pre-Polaris Business class seat is definitely a step behind the current competition, hence the new Polaris seating, but the flat beds are still quite comfortable and conducive to getting descent rest and so I did.
I woke up about half way to Seoul and decided to stretch my legs on the lower deck.
There were snack carts set up in Business Class on both decks which lead me to do something I really didn’t need to do….eat more desert.
I checked out the galley in Business Class on the main deck and…..
got that iconic wing shot that will soon be a thing of the past in the Friendly Skies.
I went back to Coach to check on mi familia and thankfully Mr. 20D had his judgey eyes on his laptop!
I kept checking the United Wifi page and at just under three hours out, we were clipping along at just over 500mph.
I climbed The Stairway to Heaven and busted out the laptop and got some writing done until the cabin lights came back on. Hot towels and beverages soon followed.
Dr. I always preaches hydration on long flights so water it was for me.
This idea of the second meal on daytime trans-Pacific flights being breakfast I believe is a vestige from Continental and it honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It’s late night at the point of origin and afternoon at the destination so why the heck are we eating breakfast?! Anywho, breakfast it was. I opted for the Western option which consisted of fruit, breakfast breads, chicken sausage, potatoes and yogurt.
Landing cards were distributed and….
the crew began to prepare the cabin for landing as we started our initial descent. Definitely going to miss the view of the clouds from the upper deck of a United 747. Descent continued and we soon…
broke through the cloud layer to find an overcast South Korea.
We were soon seconds away from a smooth touch down at Seoul’s Incheon airport and
after a quick taxi, we parked surrounded by fellow Star Alliance tails.
Debarkation was quick and….
I soon bade farewell to The Queen. Thankfully South Korean Immigration move quickly and…
soon we were in the Arrival’s hall. Seoul Incheon had a nice, modern feel and nothing says Welcome to Korea quite like a sign saying,well, “Welcome to Korea!”
Doing this long weekend on the cheap meant that we would be taking the AREX express train from the airport to Seoul Station.
At 21,000 Korean Won (about $19US) for three tickets, the tickets were a great deal especially because….
the trains were clean, quick and even….
had free wifi.
From Seoul Station, the Millenium Hilton had a free hourly shuttle and after a ten minute ride we were checking in to our room for much needed showers and rest. Welcome to Seoul!
Check out part 2, Our Time in South Korea HERE
Check out part 3, The Final Farewell Flight HERE