American Airlines was once a relatively big operator of the iconic Boeing 747 jumbo. Flying 19 aircraft over a span of 24 years, none have been operated under the AA brand since 1994. What happened to these beautiful birds, and where are they now?
The Queen’s early exit from the US market
The iconic Queen of the Skies was once a common sight in airports worldwide, including in the US. But, on January 3rd, 2018, the very last passenger 747, operated by Delta Air Lines, touched down in the Arizona desert, ending almost 50 years of service with numerous American carriers.
The very first Boeing 747-100 was delivered to Pan Am in January 1970. Over that year, a number of other airlines joined the 747 parade, including TWA, Lufthansa, and Northwest Airlines. In July 1970, American Airlines joined the crowd, taking delivery of its first Boeing 747-100, on lease from Citicorp.
By December 1994, just 24 years later, the last Boeing 747 had left its fleet. Over the years, American Airlines had operated a total of 19 of the type, 16 of which were the 747-100, one 747-200, and two 747SP that joined the fleet for a short while in the mid-80s. Let’s take a look at where they went.
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The first arrivals
The very first 747-100s to join the fleet mostly had a long life with AA. The first, N9663, was returned to the lessor in February 1984, having flown for American for 14 years. It had a brief stint with National Airlines in ’84 to ’85 but was taken on by Cargolux in late 1986. It flew for Air Afrique, Caribbean Airways, and AA rival United Airlines for some years before being withdrawn from use in 1999.
Other early deliveries had similar outcomes, operating for airlines including Avianca, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, and Dominicana before retirement. Several were converted to cargo and went on to have long lives as load shifters, a couple only withdrawn from use as recently as 2006.
It is notable, however, how quickly AA was falling out of love with the 747. The models delivered in 1970 through to around ’75 and ’76 all served for between 10 and 15 years at the airline. However, those arriving in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had much shorter lifespans, with some just in the fleet for a handful of years.
We should mention the one 747-200 that AA once flew. N749WA was actually a World Airways aircraft, and was only with AA for around five months, serving one summer season in 1984. That was the year of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, so it’s likely it was just leased as a capacity boost for that period.
Also worth mentioning are the two baby 747SPs that were used from 1986 for around eight years. Both were ex-TWA 747s and were specifically used on American’s route from Dallas (DFW) to Tokyo (NRT). When the MD-11s proved to be a better fit on the route, the SPs were sold. One went to Kazakhstan Airlines, while the other was converted to a VIP layout for Dubai Royal Flight, where it stayed until it was withdrawn in 2004.
Stars of the show
There are a couple of Boeing 747s that had a home with American Airlines and went on to do some pretty cool stuff.
The first is N9668, which was one of the first to join AA’s fleet in 1970. It was sold to NASA in July 1974, where it underwent heavy conversion to become part of a very special project. It became the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), used to ferry space shuttle orbiters from landing sites back to the launch complex at the Kennedy Space Center.
Re-registered as N905NA and known as NASA 905, it flew 70 of the 87 ferry missions during the shuttle program’s operational phase. It was used by NASA to undertake some intensive studies into wake turbulence also. By its retirement in late 2012, it had flown 11,018 flight hours over 42 years, both as a commercial jetliner and as a NASA space shuttle carrier, and had made 6,335 takeoffs and landings. It is now on display at the Space Center Houston visitor center.
The other star in the fleet was an aircraft that spent a little time as a movie icon. N9675 was temporarily leased to Universal Studios, where it was stripped of its livery and became “Columbia 409,” a fictitious flight doomed to disaster in the film “Airport 1975”.
Surprised I didn’t see this mentioned: N9675 was re-striped, the “American” fuselage and tail logo were scrubbed, and this bird became “Columbia Airlines” flight 409 in the disaster film “Airport 1975.” Shot at Salt Lake, the aircraft appeared in a few scenes of the movie, including landing shots and emergency slide evacuations. At one point, Charlton Heston took the controls of the jumbo for a scene, an experience not many old aircraft can attest to.
Sadly for the aircraft, it had a less glamorous end to its life, working as a converted ‘American Freighter’ for several years with UPS before being retired to the desert in 2005. She was reportedly broken up in 2011.
Did you ever fly on one of American Airlines’ Boeing 747s? Let us know about your memories in the comments.