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Onboard the Final United 747 Flight

Nov. 08, 2017
13 min read
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Aloha from Waikiki! What a crazy 30 hours or so it has been since I first left my house near Houston early yesterday morning and started a journey that would ultimately touchdown in Honolulu on the final United 747 flight to ever fly passengers.

Flying West before sunrise to meet up with the final United 747 flight

As special events usually go, this one was a little bit of a blur because as much as you want to soak everything in, things happen so quickly with so many friends new and old to meet and share stories with. In the end, I think that was my favorite part of this epic final flight were the stories. The Queen of the Skies has many, many stories, and so did the several hundred passengers who were onboard her final United flight.

From the couple next to me that got engaged on the upper deck during the flight, to the fantastic retired Pan Am flight attendant who flew in her full Pan Am uniform, to the United Four Million Miler who had flown the 747 hundreds of times all around the world, to the United pilot one row over who was catching a final ride on the 747, to the travel agent I was seated next to who had won his seat on this historic flight, to the former United flight attendant who worked United 747 flights to Hawaii who was seated behind me, to the dozens and dozens of #AVGeeks who had dropped everything when this flight went on sale to purchase a seat, to me, who was simultaneously flying both a first and final United 747 flight, it was quite the collection of stories. Stories that were openly shared and happily received.

While it was the passengers and their stories that will stay with me the longest, the main reason that the stories flowed as freely as they did is because United did an amazing job making this very special flight into a very special event. I wish you could have all been on this flight, but I'll do my best to share some moments from United's Final 747 Flight that flew as United Flight Number 747 on November 7, 2017, from San Francisco to Honolulu.

A 70's Themed 747 Retirement Party in San Francisco

United brought in the big guns, the retro decor, and of course the cake to create a 70's themed party atmosphere before the final flight ever got off the ground. Beginning at 9AM before an 11AM departure at Gate 86 in SFO we had everything from a speech from United CEO Oscar Munoz to pictures with 'retro' flight attendants, and retirement cake, punch, and cards to sign.

It was very chaotic, hot, crowded, and fun at Gate 86 yesterday. Those 90 minutes before boarding was the perfect chance to mingle with friends who were going to be on the flight, say hello friends who just came to experience the on-ground portion of the event, and of course begin to meet and share stories with others who have a real appreciation for this aircraft.

When it was time to board, United staff cheered as you walked by, lots of photos were taken, and Oscar Munoz even scanned some of the boarding passes. It was perhaps the longest Group 1 boarding ever, but one totally absent of complaints. All the way back in Group 2, I had the privilege of boarding behind the woman who was dressed in her Pan Am flight attendant uniform, which was a ton of fun as she got quite the warm reception by everyone.

Retro boarding pass holders
Group 1

A Bag of United 747 Swag

Once onboard, waiting in our seats were United Polaris pillows, blankets, and a bag of 747 swag. Almost no one used the pillows and blankets on this flight, but the bag of swag was a hot ticket item.

Inside the United 747 swag bag were themed snacks including a personalized United Flight 747 Coke bottle, pop rocks, and a Chick-o-Sticks.

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Beyond the snacks were the really fun goodies like a United 747 themed amenity kit, pins from United and Boeing commemorating the 747, as well as a Pratt and Whitney coin commemorating the final United flight. The coins and pins were outstanding, but I have to admit I was hoping for a certificate to go along with my 787 inaugural flight certificate. I'll have to use the boarding pass and United 747 magazines included in the bag to create something. Of course, the United 747 safety cards were no longer really needed after this flight, so I think most of them left the Queen that day as we made our way out.

Hurry up and Wait, A Final United 747 Delay

Once on board, the anticipation really started to grow as this was getting real and the final 747 flight was indeed about to takeoff...with us inside.

Greetings from seat 35H

Seated in front of me was a team from ABC in San Francisco, and they let us know that they had a helicopter that was live streaming the takeoff of the flight, so naturally many passengers headed to Facebook to watch a Facebook Live of our flight taxiing for takeoff.

It was surreal to watch your own plane taxi for takeoff on Facebook, but it highlighted that this was a much bigger event. When you are sitting in your seat it can be easy to forget that there are way more people interested in this flight than simply those onboard. Another happening that really brought home the significance of this day was when you looked out of the windows and saw dozens and dozens and dozens of ground and maintenance staff literally running to get a glimpse of the plane as she taxied by a final time.

Other United planes were stopped and pointed at ours with the pilots waving from the cockpits. It was an emotional honor to be onboard as those that helped make her fly waved goodbye. We headed all the way down to the far end of the runway and saw firetrucks flashing their lights as their own goodbye to the queen. SFO won't waste water on a water cannon salute, or I suspect that would have been present as well.

The anticipation of takeoff was pretty great at that moment and then things stalled and started to slow down. We sat longer than we thought would be normal. The fire trucks started to give up on takeoff and drive away. The mood slowly crumpled a bit and what was first pointed towards as a paperwork issue, eventually was admitted to be a maintenance issue.

A final maintenance delay for the United 747

All told I believe the delay took about an hour, though in that hour we were told we were heading to the hangar for repairs, so it started to look like this could be a long hold. This was a problem for a number of reasons, but two big ones were that many folks on board were turning straight around in Honolulu to fly home that night so a delay meant risking connections, and additionally, lots of people were gathered to watch her takeoff in SFO. It is asking a lot of those folks to wait around potentially for hours to see her take flight. Fortunately, after an awkward hour or so and ultimately no trip to the hangar, the problem was resolved by the "team in Chicago" and we were again rolling towards takeoff.

While unfortunate, the delay was fitting as the plane isn't being retired because it is at its peak. We are saying goodbye for a number of reasons, and one of them was highlighted on this final flight.

Let the Party Begin

Once we were airborne, a collective cheer was heard and then the party really began. We took a scenic tour over San Francisco and those on the lefthand side of the plane were in for a real treat as the pilot tipped the plane's wing towards the Golden Gate Bridge. I couldn't really see the full effect from the right side of the plane, but I saw a lot of red out of the windows across the aisles so it felt like we were even closer than we probably were. It was impressive from the air, and I'm sure also from the ground. A photo from the left side of the plane was airdropped around the plane, and I'm more than happy to share it here, though I have no clue who originally took the photo.

Shortly after takeoff, a champagne toast to the Queen was served.

With the seatbelt sign off, we were then permitted to enjoy the plane, explore the other cabins, and mingle.

I took a brief respite from my seat in 35H and tried out Johnny Jet's business class seat before watching Seth Miller from Wandering Aramean do an interview for ABC 6.

Not surprisingly, before too long the flight attendants needed us back in our seats so they could do the full meal service. This would be a constant "struggle" of sorts on this flight as lots of drinks and meals were served, but people also were also wanting to explore and mingle.

While in our seats we could watch 70's themed programming including Grease!

Dinner is Served

It took a while to get everyone properly served on this 747 full of exploring passengers, but it was worth the wait. There were fancy mai tais up front, and less fancy but still good Trader Vic mai tais and more in the back.

To go along with the drinks, in economy you had your choice of braised boneless beef short ribs with sweet potatoes and green beans or the hibachi chicken with gingered rice and sauteed baby spinach. Included with both were a cucumber and carrot namasu salad, a cold shrimp cocktail, and a luau ambrosia parfait.

The food was really good, certainly better than anything you will find in United economy on a "normal" flight and better than most premium cabin food, too. Word from those in business and first was that their food was even more outstanding. I'm sure it didn't hurt to have a United chef onboard.

After the meal, the entire plane was treated to an ice cream sundae cart with all the fixings including chocolate sauce, caramel, pineapples, macadamia nuts, whip cream, and more.

Fancy after dinner drinks in business class

Moving on up to the Upper Deck

A personal mission of mine on this flight was to make it to the upper deck of the 747. The hump of the second deck is easily identifiable, and I wanted to get a feel for this famous second level. It was a challenge to get up to the second level as the line to visit would grow and then the flight attendants would shoo everyone away so they could do their service, but with some persistence and luck my friend Ben and I finally made up the famous stairway and to the second level of the 747.

With the retro flight attendants in the picture, it wasn't hard to imagine this area in its heyday complete with a bar and lounge.

Seeing the wings from above is a unique perspective that is worth experiencing if you ever get the chance.

Of course, the business class seats up top weren't too shabby either.

The entire feel of the second deck was so very different from the main deck. It was calm, exclusive, and certainly felt like this small cabin held many stories within its walls.

To Hawaii We Go

All good things must end, and after about five very quick and festive hours in the air, we got a flyby of Maui and Lanai and then landed in Honolulu for a Hawaiian goodbye to the Queen. We all received leis and warm greetings from the ground staff in Hawaii.

There was Hawaiian music, dancers, more cake and punch, more media, speeches by Hawaiian officials, and even a lei fit for a Queen.

I was deliriously tired by this point, so after soaking it in for a moment, I retreated to a cab, hotel room, and eventual sunset in Waikiki.

The Boeing 747 changed how we travel, it changed people's lives, it was a big part of people's lives, and that was honored and celebrated in the proper fashion on her final United flight yesterday. After this, she will reportedly return briefly to San Francisco without passengers to be exited from the fleet (aka stripped of anything possible) and then will continue on to an airline resting place in Victorville, California.

While the 747 has completed her mission with United, she will undoubtedly live on in the hearts and minds of all onboard yesterday, and with countless others who enjoyed her smooth longhaul flying or perhaps were just inspired by her grace and stature on the ground.

I hope to never forget the stories shared by those on that final United 747 flight yesterday, and I am thankful to now have a United 747 story of my own.