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Memories fly aboard Cathay Pacific’s last 747 flight

Captain John Graham has good reason to feel a rush of nostalgia as he takes his seat in the cockpit for the last Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 passenger flight. He has flown this iconic aircraft for more than 30 years and this very machine was the setting for a meeting that turned his life upside down.

“This is a bittersweet moment for me. I love this aircraft,” he tells passengers as he prepares to take off from a rain-swept Haneda Airport, in Tokyo, Japan. “On a personal note, this is the aircraft I met my wife on. She is here with me on the flight deck so we’re having quite an emotional time up here.”

The day Boeing’s 747 arrived in Hong Kong

Graham and his wife met 12 years ago, he explains, after we touchdown in Hong Kong. “One day on a flight to LA, the cockpit door opened and this beautiful face said, ‘Captain, would you like a cup of tea?’” he recalls. Standing coyly beside him, Patsy seems embarrassed and flattered in equal measure.

“I was really quite touched,” she smiles. “I didn’t think he’d make that announcement on the plane.”

This love story seems a fitting send-off for the 747 – an aircraft that captured people’s hearts and imaginations in a way no other has before or since, with the possible exception of Concorde. The jumbo jet began life in an age when people wore suits to fly, air travel was exclusive and mysterious, half of the passengers lit up cigarettes as soon as the seat belt sign went out and the lives of captains and flight attendants seemed impossibly glamorous.

Today, of course, the many of us who regularly take to the skies plop ourselves grumpily into cramped seats beneath overstuffed overhead lockers, yank down the window blind to sleep or endure mediocre service and bad food from harassed flight attendants until it’s time to fight our way out of the air­craft to join another tedious immigration queue in another indistinguishable grey airport.

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Cathay Pacific is under pressure from budget airlines and falling profits, under prolonged assault from its pilots’ union over pay and conditions, and under fire from many customers for what they see as falling standards of service in return for premium prices. But although the fanfare surrounding the 747’s retirement may invite unfavourable comparison, the sight of the distinctive, magisterial double-decker hump rolls back time to when flying was an adventure to be savoured.

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Back then, so it seemed, love was always in the air, at least for the aircrew. The jumbo’s arrival meant long-haul flights – which meant long stopovers in exotic faraway destinations.

“For the first time, we would spend time together and go out to dinner and sightseeing,” says one former 747 flight atten­dant. “The pilots and the cabin crew had time to socialise together. It led to a lot of romance and a lot of marriages – and a lot of divorces, too.”

Cathay Pacific took delivery of its first 747 – a 200 model – in August 1979, nine years after American airline Pan Am had become the first to use the aircraft, and its first ultra-long-haul 747-400 in 1989. In 1998, the first plane to land at Chek Lap Kok was a Cathay Pacific 747-400 operating the first ever non-stop passenger flight from New York to Hong Kong: an epic 15-hour, 35-minute journey over the North Pole officially called Polar One. Fittingly, the same plane was chosen for the final Boeing 747 passenger flight last weekend (Cathay will continue to use 747s for cargo flights).

The 747, of which 1,523 have been built since 1968, was more than just an upgrade. It was transformative and revolution­ary, helping generate a boom in international travel and playing a role in turning Cathay Pacific from a regional to a global airline. It put Hong Kong within easier grasp of millions of tourists and other visitors.

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At their 1990s peak, there were more than 30 Boeing 747s in the Cathay passenger fleet and it was the workhorse for every major long-haul carrier. For those aged 30 or above, the chances are the plane that carried us on our first flight between Asia and Europe would have been a 747 and for most of us, the closest we got to the top deck was to gaze fleetingly up the stairs as we turned right on entry.

Now the plane called the “queen of the skies”, although it is more commonly referred to simply as the jumbo jet, is being phased out by major airlines in favour of smaller, quieter and more economic twin-engine planes. Air France has retired its 747 fleet and British Airways is expected to phase out its remaining 747s by 2020.

Nevertheless, its place in modern history is such that it wasn’t just plane spotters who bought tickets months in advance and headed to Tokyo for Cathay’s 747 send-off, on October 1. Everyone wanted to be on board, it seemed.

“I HAVE SO MANY memories tied to this plane,” says man­age­ment consultant Boris Van, who bought a business-class seat for the final flight. “When I was a kid, whenever we went on a holiday we would always go on this plane, whether it was short haul or long haul. So there was always a sense of excitement.

“It’s not just another plane. The [Airbus] A380 doesn’t come close. The new planes don’t have the sense of grandeur and majesty. It is the design and the history of it. It was always such an experience being on this plane.”

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Polish-Australian twins Paul and Bogdan Wlodek, 49 – who both work as ground staff for Qantas in Canberra – flew up specially to join the flight.

“Our very first flight was on a 747, from Sydney to Bahrain,” says Paul. “This aircraft is an icon and it’s getting harder and harder to fly on it.”

One 14-year-old expatriate boy, who studies at an inter­national school in Hong Kong and who I agree not to name, is playing truant to be on board the 747’s last passenger flight to Tokyo and back.

“I just wanted to be on this flight because it’s the last one,” he says, as he prepares to board with his flight-attendant father, who helped him skip a day of school. The teenager says his ambition is to work as a flight engineer. When I ask him what makes the 747 so special, he replies instantly, “The hump.”

“The shape is very distinctive,” agrees Tony Britton, a senior Cathay Pacific engineer and aircraft project manager. “The only airplane I see people taking an interest in when it comes into the terminal is the jumbo. It has this presence about it and people are drawn to it like magnets.

“Everyone gets out their phones and cameras and suddenly 10 people will be videoing it as it comes in. A [Airbus] 330 or a 777 doesn’t quite have the same impact.”

Britton, who has worked on 747s since he was an apprentice engineer in Britain more than 30 years ago and helped see off the last 747 flight out of Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport, in 1998, took his own two sons, aged 13 and 16, on one of the aircraft’s last flights to Tokyo and back.

“My youngest son got the biggest kick out of it,” he says. “We were very lucky and managed to get on the upper deck. He put his bed down flat and he was lying on his tummy up against the window just looking out and he thought it was so cool.”

Britton would be back at work on the ramp as the last flight took off from Hong Kong.

“It’s the end of an era,” he says. “The 747 opened up a world of travel for so many people. It turned an exclusive club into something accessible to the general public. Suddenly you had 330 seats in one plane and it can go so much further.”

In the 1980 spoof disaster movie Airplane! – a huge hit in the year Cathay Pacific took delivery of its second Boeing 747 – a kindly old lady sees the passenger beside her gripping the sides of his seat before take-off. “Nervous?” she asks. “Yes,” he replies. “First time?” she continues, patting his hand reassuringly. “No,” he says. “I’ve been nervous lots of times.”

That scene captures one of the essential differences between air travel in the early 747 era and now.

“When I was trained, one of the topics we had to cover was to be observant and look out for ‘first flighters’ because, in the 1980s, a lot of people hadn’t had the experience of flying,” says Le Le Ng, Cathay Pacific’s manager of inflight service standards and safety. “We had to observe and take extra care of them because they might be nervous about flying. They might not know the features of the plane. They might not even know how to press a button to call the flight attendant.

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“Now, nearly everyone who walks in has flown more than we do. Before, when people walked into a 747, it was a huge plane and flying was rare so everyone was excited and happy and the atmosphere was very different. Now, it’s just another flight. It’s nothing special.”

Mark Hoey, Cathay Pacific’s general manager operations and a former 747 chief pilot, says, “There’s never been this fanfare when we’ve retired other aircraft but the 747 has touched so many people, so many passengers.

“People have come up to us in the past couple of weeks, when they’ve heard about it. I’ve heard of it happening at other airlines but I didn’t think it would happen here. They come up to you in the terminal and say, ‘Is it true; Cathay is getting rid of the 747? Who made this decision? Why are you doing that?’

“I don’t think anyone involved with the 747 hasn’t shed a tear over this, and the passengers feel that, too. From a pilot’s perspective, it’s just an amazing aircraft and flying it is a little boy’s dream. When the weather gets a little bit rough it rides like nothing else.”

Cathay Pacific had to fight a prolonged and very public campaign to get permission to use its 747s on the London route, long monopolised by British Airways. When in 1979, British Caledonian, Laker Airways and Cathay applied for traffic rights on the route, to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), only Caledonian was successful. Cathay finally succeeded in June 1980, when the British government over­turned a CAA decision to deny the airline access to the route.

“Hong Kong was trying to emerge outside being a colony and here was a regional airline whose mother country at that stage didn’t want to let it happen,” Hoey says. “It’s a fascinating period of time and it was a triumph of the ingenuity of Hong Kong.”

The plane had to be modified to carry more fuel to fly to London at a time when the airline was unable to cross Chinese or Russian air space.

“It was our die-hard spirit that made it possible,” Hoey says. “We got the airways and the altitude because no one else was doing it.”

By a poignant coincidence, the retirement of the Cathay Pacific 747 passenger fleet came just weeks after Joe Sutter – the man who designed the 747 and its distinctive hump – died, at the age of 95.

“I was privileged to attend his memorial service in Seattle – there were people there from all around the world,” says Hoey. “He was one of the engineering masters of the 20th century and he did it all with a slide rule. When they updated the 747, they couldn’t improve the fuselage. The core shape hasn’t changed over all these years. There are few other things man has made that have stood the test of time so well.”

That is a sentiment Graham would agree with as, with his wife at his side, he bids the 747 an emotional farewell at Chek Lap Kok.

“Thank you for all the memories,” he says. “It’s a wonderful aircraft. I’ve flown through typhoons, storms, dust storms, war zones even, across the highest mountains, and I’ve never once felt this aircraft would fail me. I’ll miss it like hell.” Red Door News Hong Kong

A 747 pilot recalls the good old days

“The 747-400 and I joined Cathay Pacific at about the same time, in 1988. The jumbo could easily take 363 passengers to London non-stop instead of having to refuel and change crews in Bahrain. Then, Cathay flew three times a week to London. Now it’s six times a day.

“When you sit in the cockpit you just feel at home. It’s a pilot’s aircraft: responsive, powerful, slick and solid. If you had to land in typhoon conditions at an airport like Kai Tak, turning low at night over Kowloon City’s rooftops with Lion Rock whistling past your side and perhaps a 55km/h bumpy, gusty crosswind, then the 400 was the plane to be in.

“It was Cathay’s first aircraft with the now-standard six digital TV-style glass displays. All of us were more used to the old dials and round indicators that even the Wright brothers would have had. It was also Cathay’s first aircraft that could land automatically in fog – a common occurrence in London in winter.

“The cabin crew managed the first proper inflight entertainment system that was a stack of VHS cassette players about two metres high. We used to kid them that they hadn’t turned on the correct switch to put the movie on in the cockpit. Another novelty was the crew had proper bunks – two in the front for the pilots [two working, two resting] and eight in the tail for the 18-strong cabin crew. My longest flight was back from Los Angeles in the winter with a block time of 15 hours and 25 minutes; it used to be the longest scheduled sector in the world. Bunks were an absolute necessity to remain fresh and sharp for the landing.

“The 400 has a few tales to its name. Colin ‘Burner’ Baldwin had an engine fire on take-off at Kai Tak one night and magnificently managed to dump fuel, turn the aircraft around and land safely within 11 minutes. Mike Lowes flew the world’s first non-stop transpolar flight in July 1998, from New York to Hong Kong’s brand new Chek Lap Kok airport, taking over 16 hours.

“Ken Carver’s 45-minute flight from Xiamen to Hong Kong in January 2000 should have been a non-event. However, they suffered total instrument failure on take-off and only superb airmanship and skill recovered the aircraft safely through cloud for a successful landing. The 400 – regis­tration B-HOX – had just been painted in the ‘Spirit of Hong Kong’ livery, adapted from the idea of an SAR teenager, Ho Sin-yee. The Boeing 747-400: ‘Spirit of Hong Kong’ – apposite indeed.” As told to Simon Parry

Nigel Demery is a former Boeing 747-400 captain and president of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association. He retired in 2009 after 20 years with Cathay Pacific.