I am less of an airplane fan than most engineers, but the news reports of Air France scheduling special “last flights” for its retiring Boeing 747 jumbo jets due to high consumer demand caught my attention. The “big bird with the hump on its back” has been in service since 1970 and represents the optimism of the time for commercial airplane travel.
The 747 was a development of Boeing’s losing entry into an Air Force transport competition that was “won” by the C5A Galaxy. That big plane is a legend too, but was never produced in quantity. Over fifteen hundred 747s have been built, with production continuing to the present day. Air France and other airlines are retiring the venerable “Queen of the Skies” due to high maintenance and operating costs. They have more options for trans-ocean flights than in 1970, with more economical engines and easier to maintain systems.
Travelers have many fond memories of the big planes; memories of simpler times when flying to Europe was not a common thing. They remember the feelings of luxury and sophistication of those times and contrast them to the hectic, cramped, and security-conscious experience of today. Even the pilots were nostalgic for the planes, recalling using sextants to “shoot the stars” in the early days of operation, before navigation systems became so advanced. The “sextant hole” was eliminated in later versions of the plane; crew members would use them for cigarette breaks when smoking was banned completely as the instrument port would evacuate the evidence.
My own 747 experience have been more of the “cattle car” type, crammed in a middle seat near the back of the huge lower deck. Having come through the early “People Express” days of airline regulation the glamor of long distance airline travel has long since been replaced by a more “bus- like” experience. I certainly don’t miss the days of getting travel authorizations from the boss, researching flights in that confusing monthly catalog, and trying to get the travel agency to buy the right tickets.
While it would be nice if the average passenger dressed like they were going to a business meeting instead of a slumber party, the convenience and low cost of today’s air travel are, in their own way, as wonderful as an early 747’s piano bar.