Bon voyage, Boeing 747!
I’d be lying if I said that I shed a tear when I read that the last Boeing 747 ever had left its factory in Everett, WA. I draw the line at developing emotional attachments to mechanical devices, no matter how impressive. Nonetheless, the event marks a milestone of sorts. It’s been a half-century since the first one made its maiden commercial flight. A lot has happened in the meantime; not just in aviation but also in my modest life.
And the massive 747 was impressive. So impressive there were doubts it would work. I don’t recall whether it was my first flight on one or not, but I remember looking at my fellow passengers, hundreds of them, ten to an aisle and thinking, “This thing is never getting off the ground.” It did but it required a lot of runway to get airborne and as it did it seemed less to be employing the laws of aerodynamics than defying them.
The plane was famous for its distinctive hump. That lent it a bit of personality, made it feel companionable, even something of a loveable misfit compared to predecessors such as the 707; the personification of the Jet Age with its supermodel slim body. On some versions that hump housed an upper deck with a lounge that one accessed by a spiral staircase.
I don’t know whether the bar was available solely to first class passengers, but my only encounter with it occurred when I flew first class. That a born and bred economy class passenger can speak from experience is possible only because I’d been bumped from my intended flight. It was memorable in other ways, too. Fresh out of college and working for NBC News, I was flying to California to cover that state’s 1976 Presidential primary. To make amends the airline – I can’t remember which one it was – put my colleagues and me on the following flight, upgraded us to first class, and comped us tickets on a future transcontinental flight.
What made the voyage memorable wasn’t just that the lounge had a bar and lots of legroom – I didn’t drink, at least not that early in the morning – but also the ostentatious sophistication of the experience. This was the way you always imagined travel was supposed to be. It felt as if the future was coming true. And sitting across from me was star Today show anchor Barbara Walters. Ms. Walters passed away on December 30th. She was 93.
I remember her presence for one embarrassing reason. I’d approached her at the terminal to introduce myself. After all, we were colleagues, weren’t we? So what if she was a famous TV personality and I was a lowly election researcher. Ms. Walters, who was poring over briefing books, her hair in a kerchief and wearing little if any makeup, didn’t take kindly to the intrusion. She looked like she desired nothing more than to be left alone, and greeted me less effusively than I’d anticipated. Subsequent encounters over the decades were much friendlier. Maybe she just wasn’t a morning person.
I also recall that flight for a second embarrassing reason. I naively returned my free ticket to NBC. My work colleagues couldn’t believe it. Why would I relinquish a free ticket? Did I mention this was my first job out of college? The ticket didn’t belong to me, or so I believed, it belonged to the network.
When I returned from California –Jerry Brown, its governor, won in a landslide but that didn’t prevent Jimmy Carter from securing the nomination and going on to win the Presidency – I visited NBC’s business office and conscientiously returned the voucher. They appeared as flummoxed as my co-workers. But they couldn’t very well turn it down. What became of it I don’t know? Maybe one of them used it. I doubt the money was returned to the network’s coffers. Perhaps it went towards Barbara Walters’ next first class ticket. Except that she left the network for ABC shortly afterwards.
Needless to say, it was a hard lesson well learned. I’d never make that mistake today. Not that I recall a similar opportunity arising again. Even so, it was a small price to pay for the experience of ascending that spiral staircase to the first class lounge mid-flight.
The 747 ushered in the age of affordable air travel. I don’t know whether that’s to blame for the current cattle car experience – with zero legroom, snacks for purchase and unruly passengers. The plane has also been supplanted by the more economical wide-bodied, twin engine 777 that can haul almost as many passengers.
These days to achieve an experience that rivals that of the 747’s first class lounge you’ve got to fly private, or perhaps on Air Force One. That’s a pity. Part of what made aviation’s golden age golden was that it was a communal experience that came with champagne and an embedded sense of achievement. You were defying gravity, flying above the clouds and perhaps even rubbing shoulders with a celebrity or two. And when you landed you were none the worse for wear.
It’s bittersweet that the 1,574th and final Boeing 747 to roll out of its massive hanger was bought to haul cargo, not passengers. But I suppose we’re all cargo now.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
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