A Look Back: United Flew Its First Boeing 747 50 Years Ago

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It has now been half a century since United Airlines first took on the Boeing 747. The Chicago-based carrier first flew the icon on July 23rd, 1970, and the type remained with the company until November 2017. During their long-term partnership, the pair had an eventful journey together over the years.

747 United
The Boeing 747 is one of the most revolutionary planes in aviation history. Photo: United Airlines

Ushering United into a new era

On June 26th, 1970, United received its first 747-100, which was incidentally on the same day that Continental Airlines, which many decades later would merge with the firm, started service with the model.

By the end of that year, the United held a total of nine units of the 747 in its fleet. The first United commercial flight with the Queen of the Skies was a trip from San Francisco to Honolulu that summer. This operation happened in the same year that Pan American introduced the plane into service.

The 747 was used on key routes transcontinental such as Los Angeles to New York and San Francisco to New York. Flights from the west coast to the likes of Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Charlotte, and Washington D.C. were also taken on by the quadjet.

During the 1980s, the company expanded its 747 services internationally. The flights from Seattle and Portland to Tokyo-Narita were exciting services for the firm. Other destinations across the Pacific Ocean included the following:

  • Guam
  • Bangkok, Thailand
  • Brisbane, Australia
  • Cairns, Australia
  • Hiroshima, Japan
  • Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • Hong Kong
  • Naha, Japan
  • Niigata, Japan
  • Okayama, Japan
747 Interior
It was an extra classy affair onboard the Boeing 747 aircraft during its early days. Photo: United Airlines

Significant moments

On April 22nd, 1985, United announced its goal to acquire the Pacific routes that were being handled by the then-struggling Pan Am. Additionally, it wanted to take on 11 Boeing 747SPs as part of the move. These planes featured a 48-foot-shorter body and fly higher, faster, and farther than the standard 747 variants of the time.

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Subsequently, at the end of January 1988, Friendship One, a United Boeing 747SP, had set the around-the-world air speed record of 36 hours, 54 minutes, and 15 seconds. This unique flight raised $500,000 for children’s charities through the Friendship Foundation. Tickets to board the operation were priced at a minimum of $5,000.

Boeing 747 Interior
The amount of space onboard the Boeing 747 was groundbreaking for its time. Photo: United Airlines

Moreover, some of the special guests onboard were test pilots Bob Hoover and Lieutenant General Laurence C. Craigie, Moya Lear, who was the widow of Lear Jet founder Bill Lea, and astronaut Neil Armstrong. The following year, United took on its first Boeing 747-400, which would continue the widebody revolution once again with its increased range.

Speaking of astronauts, in September 1996, a former 747SP that United previously flew, underwent a transformation into NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). It carried a 17-ton, 8-foot-wide infrared telescope mounted behind a massive sliding door.

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Time for a change

According to Planespotters.net, in total, 88 747s were part of United’s fleet over the span of 47 years. The type was the first widebody jet in commercial service and shook up the aviation industry when it entered the game.

For many of the carrier’s passengers, the 747 would have been the first aircraft that they boarded. The increased capacity and efficiency of the plane allowed fare prices to drop considerably, opening up opportunities for more members of the general public to hit the air.

United 747 Classic
A Boeing 747 with United Airlines’ classic livery. Photo: United Airlines

The final flight before retirement for United’s 747 aircraft was a fitting one as it the farewell was also a homecoming. Flight UA747 operated by registration N118UA, left San Francisco International for Honolulu on November 7th, 2017, bringing flashbacks of the inaugural service nearly five decades prior. Altogether, United holds the record of performing the longest continual 747 operations of any US-based airline.

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An emotional goodbye

According to a statement seen by Simple Flying, at the time of the farewell, former United CEO and current executive chairman Oscar Munoz said that the 747 has helped his company fulfill its shared purpose of connecting people and uniting them to a wider world.

He added that the retirement invoked a powerful feeling of nostalgia in its customers and employees. This is because of the plane’s unique role in the airline’s history.

“With its unmistakable sloping silhouette, it came to embody the spirit of the age — allowing more affordable international travel and opening the skies to more people than ever before,” Munoz said, as per the statement.

“In that way, its legacy lives on in the next generation of aircraft that will follow in its path. Even so, it will always be ‘Queen of the Skies,’ and while it will be succeeded, it can never be replaced.”  

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United 747 Farewell
The farewell of United’s last Boeing 747 saw the aircraft be painted with special livery. Photo: United Airlines

Leaving behind a legacy

The businessman also said that United would continue to honor the Queen’s game-changing legacy of connecting people with its next-generation of long-haul aircraft. Since 2017, the 747 is continuing rapidly disappear from the skies. Several airlines were already planning to retire the jet and replace them with more efficient models.

However, the global health crisis has catalyzed the process. Subsequently, the likes of KLM, British Airways, and Qantas have all announced the retirement of the jet.

United 747 Jet
United isn’t the only carrier that has let go of the Boeing 747 aircraft in recent years. Photo: United Airlines

Moreover, Boeing has been planning the end of the type’s production as the last 747-8 may roll out of its facilities in the next two years. Therefore, it would now be a genuine rarity to see the Queen at an airport going forward. It is the end of an era in aviation history. However, the 747 has left a legacy that undoubtedly won’t be forgotten for generations to come. Above all, it helped shape United’s operations and maintained the operator’s position as one of the industry’s powerhouses.

What are your thoughts about United Airlines’ Boeing 747 operations? Do you have any fond memories traveling on the aircraft over the years? Let us know what you think of the plane in the comment section.

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