What Happened To American Airlines Boeing 747’s?

The iconic ‘Jumbo Jet’ was once a common sight in airports around the world but, for a while now, the Boeing 747 has been conspicuous in its absence from US airports. US carriers like American Airlines were some of the first to use Boeing’s flagship passenger jet back in the 1970s. They were also some of the first to retire it from service. So what exactly happened to American Airlines’ 747s?

An American Airlines Boeing 747
In the US the Boeing 747 is not the common sight it once was. Photo: aceebee via Flickr

Arriving in the early 1970s, the Boeing 747 was far from an immediate success. At first, airlines struggled to attract enough customers to fill flights and many 747s were converted for use in a cargo transport capacity. This slow take off was a big worry for Boeing, which had amassed a record $1.2 billion bank debt to fund the 747s development.

As passenger numbers increased and various new iterations of the 747 came along, the aircraft gained its status as an icon of the sky. Nowadays, the 747 is mainly used in a freighter capacity and as of April 2018, 56% of the 505 747s still in service were freighters.

American Airlines was one of the first US carriers to drop the 747 from its fleet, selling its last unit back in the mid-90s. The 16 747s delivered to American Airlines have since gone on to lead varied and interesting lives.

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A freight modified Boeing 747 being loaded
The Boeing 747 has proven itself a talented freighter. Photo, Karelj/Wikimedia

American Airlines 747 alumni

Following the same path as many other 747s, a number of American Airlines 747s were converted to freighters in 1974/75/76, going into service with Flying Tigers and UPS.

The 747 had not realized its full passenger potential at this early stage in its life, and conversion to freight made economic sense. Many other American Airlines Boeing 747s were converted to freighters after completing longer stints as passenger aircraft with other airlines.

Star of the class

One American Airlines Boeing 747, in particular, went on to great things after leaving AA service.

Alongside a Boeing 747-SR46, which entered service with Japan Airlines under the registration JA8117, American Airlines N9668 was purchased by NASA. Both of these aircraft were then heavily modified, becoming the famous Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA).

A modified Boeing 747
N9668 was renamed N905NA and entered service with NASA as one of two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Photo: Eric Salard via Flickr

The two modified SCA 747s were used to transport Space Shuttle orbiters from their landing sites back to the NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. N905NA was kept in service until late 2012, after which it was preserved as a monument alongside a replica Space Shuttle at Space Center Houston.

Due to heavy internal and external alterations, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft had significantly reduced range and altitude capabilities. They also had to carry ballast when flying without the Space Shuttle to maintain stability.

However, the retirement of the N905NA didn’t mark the end of the iconic 747s use as a rocket transporter. Virgin recently announced its plans to use a 747 named ‘Cosmic Girl’ to launch rockets into space.

Honorable mentions

Although N9668 went on to become the most famous of the ex-American Airlines Boeing 747s, a couple of others also took interesting paths.

N602AA was bought by AA from TWA in 1986 and then sold to the UAE government in 1994. It was then used as a VIP transport aircraft under the registration A6-SMM.

Finally, after stints in service for a number of different airlines, including Iran Air and Caribbean Airways, N9663 operated the last 747-100 service for United Airlines in 1999.

7 comments
  1. Enjoyed your article. Please remember the airlines were under regulation at the time of the 747 roll out. Under a regulated business environment the airlines were granted antitrust immunity to set prices. In return the government basically told the airlines were they could fly. The only way to complete was in service. That is the reason American rushed into the market. American flew the 747-100 from 1970 to about 1984. The one exception was in 1987 they leased two former TWA 747SP’s for their new route from DFW to NRT. Once the MD11 was introduced about five years later the two baby 747’s were sold.

    1. C. Richards –

      Do you know the history of the MD-11 as used by American? I flew it once – ORD to NRT, around 1998. The return flight was a 777. I have always wondered what juggling was going on.

      1. Replying to your question on the MD11. By the late 90’s American was replacing MD11 with 777. You probably flew at the time of the transition.

  2. No mention of USA’s Air Force One, the Pope’s personal 747 or a dozen other 747’s used by other heads of state.BIG OMISSION!

    1. What are you talking about?

      The Two Air Force One Boeings were bought brand new as the modified VC-25. They weren’t 4x AA 747s. I’ve never heard of the Pope having a personal 747 and I don’t see any record of any ex AA 747 being used by any heads of state.

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