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?
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.
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).
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.
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.