Johannesburg Jumbos: Where Did SAA’s Boeing 747s End Up?

South African Airways (SAA) has frequently been in the news in recent years owing to its ongoing financial difficulties. This has seen its fleet shrink to just 12 aircraft, all of which are Airbus models. However, in years gone by, SAA has also operated Boeing designs, including 28 examples of the iconic 747. But what happened to these aircraft?

SAA Boeing 747-200M
SAA ordered its first five 747-200s in March 1968. Photo: Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons

First orders and deliveries – the 747-200

SAA‘s first 747 variant was the -200 series, of which it placed an initial order for five aircraft in March 1968. According to Planespotters.net, the first of these arrived in October 1971, with the next three joining the fleet the following year. A 747-200M combi then came onboard in 1980, followed by another standard 747-200 in 1988. Finally, 1994 and 1998 heralded the arrivals of a pair of second-hand cargo-carrying 747-200s.

These planes respectively went on to join MK Airlines in 2000 and Northwest Airlines in 1999. They were the only 747-200s to see service after their time at SAA. Of the remaining six, three were scrapped, and two have been preserved. The last, ZS-SAS, crashed into the Indian Ocean after a fire in November 1987, tragically killing all 159 occupants.

The 747-300 joins the fleet

The 747-300 was slightly less numerous than its predecessor, with SAA having operated six examples of this variant. It received its first two examples (ZS-SAT ‘Johannesburg’ and ZS-SAU ‘Kaapstad’) in May 1983, with a 12-year gap until the next 747-300s arrived.

South African Airways Boeing 747-300 Getty
ZS-SAT ‘Johannesburg’ was SAA’s first 747-300. It arrived in May 1983, and served the airline for 20 years. Photo: Getty Images

1995 and 1996 saw SAA take a 747-300 in each of these years, before a pair arrived in September 2000. As far as the fates of these aircraft are concerned, the two ex-Singapore Airlines 1990s arrivals were scrapped after leaving SAA, and broken up at Johannesburg in 2008 and 2010 respectively.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned ZS-SAT served SAA for 20 years before eventually leaving for Air Atlanta Icelandic in December 2003. This was the same fate as one of the two September 200 arrivals, with the other returning to US Bank before being scrapped. SAA’s final 747-300, the aforementioned ZS-SAU, left for TAAG Angola in September 2004.

Eight 747-400s

The 747-400 was SAA’s joint-most numerous jumbo variant, and it operated eight examples as was the case with the aforementioned -200 series. These aircraft joined the fleet throughout the 1990s, in 1991 (two planes), 1992 (one), 1993 (one), and 1998 (four).

South African Airways Boeing 747-400
SAA received eight 747-400s throughout the 1990s. Photo: Simon Butler via Flickr

These aircraft served SAA for periods lasting between 10 and 15 years. The 1991 arrivals were the first to leave, joining Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific in March and June 2006. Four of the remaining six aircraft went to lessor Wells Fargo Bank Northwest in 2007 (one aircraft), 2008 (two), and 2011 (one). Finally, 2010 saw SAA’s remaining two 747-400s join Russian carrier Transaero. These departures took place in June and December that year.

A rare 747SP operator

SAA’s remaining six 747s belonged to the rare, short-fuselage 747SP variant. This figure represents a relatively high percentage of just 45 production examples of the 747SP. Five of these arrived at SAA in 1976, with the last joining the fleet the year after.

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South African Airways Boeing 747SP
Boeing produced just 45 747SPs, of which SAA operated six. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

ZS-SPD spent just nine years at the South African flag carrier before moving on to Royal Air Maroc. Having since also flown for Corsair, it has now been preserved for use as a training aid for France’s National Gendarmerie Intervention Group.

SAA’s other five 747SPs spent their entire careers at the airline, although this does include leases to the likes of Air Mauritius, Air Namibia, and Luxair. ZS-SPC has been preserved at the South African Airways Museum Society in Johannesburg since September 2006. Meanwhile, the remaining four examples were broken up between 1999 and 2008.

Did you ever fly onboard one of SAA’s Boeing 747s? If so, which variant(s) did you travel on, and when? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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