GSTP is lucky to have wonderful friends and readers with unique experiences in aviation and trave.Today we’re thrilled to share a love letter to the Boeing 747 from one of the planes more frequent guests over the last 46 years, Gary Buchanan.
In hindsight it was obvious that I was going to fall in love with aviation. Aged five, my
parents hauled me aboard my first flight at London Gatwick bound for a holiday in Jersey. Having tackled the cabin’s steep incline from the rear door and settled into the comfy leather seat, the stewardess gave me a postcard of the plane.
On the back of it I wrote that I was flying on British European Airways’ ‘Pionair’ class Douglas DC3 (Dakota), registration G-ALTT named ‘Charles Grey’. As we gathered speed the fuselage levelled out and the reek of aviation fuel filled the cabin. It was 1959 and the young geek had got his wings.
By a masterstroke of happenstance the return journey introduced me to flying first class.
We were heading to Edinburgh via Heathrow; the Vickers Viscount was delayed leaving Jersey which meant we wouldn’t make our onward connection to Edinburgh. At the ticket desk the BEA agent advised my father that the next available flight was full in ‘tourist’ class, at which point I nearly burst into tears with joy. It was my first successful upgrade blag. Two hours later we were ensconced in the first class cabin at the rear of a Vickers Vanguard enjoying afternoon tea with dainty pastries and fresh strawberries.
The benevolence of the aviation Gods returned ten years later when for no discernible reason we were all upgraded to first class as we checked in for our holiday flight, this time to Tenerife. This was serious stuff. On the tarmac at Gatwick a ground agent escorted us past the powerful Spey engines at the rear of the gleaming British United Airways VC-10 to the front steps.
On board flight BR685 the friendly cabin crew had no hesitation serving this 15 year-old with Mumm Cordon Rouge champagne, sadly the miniatures of Drambuie or dinky packs of five Rothmans never came my way. I was now in love with the high life and could tell a 707 from a 720.
Enter: The Boeing 747
But it was another member of the Boeing family that would keep my flying lust sated
for 46 memorable years. The first Boeing 747-136 to fly for the British Overseas
Airways Corporation (BOAC) Airways, G-AWNF took off from Heathrow bound for
New York on 14 April 1971. It was to be more than three years until I bagged my
place on the iconic aircraft and by this time BOAC and BEA had merged to form this thing called British Airways.
In tandem with my proscribed reading list for my final school exams I would often
visit a local travel agent to get the previous month’s edition of the ABC World
It was the size of a phonebook but far more revealing than any modern classic. It was here I discovered that while 747s were the flagship aircraft deployed on long-haul routes, there was any number of shorter sectors operated by the jumbo jet. So there I was in Frankfurt on 30 October 1974 eagerly boarding G- AWNM named ‘Ullswater’, the designated 747 operating the final leg of the daily flight from Johannesburg, BA 21. I was in economy for the trip to Heathrow which lasted just over an hour but it was long enough to fall in love with this colossus of the skies.
Thanks to a generous inheritance that came my way when I reached 21, I started
reaching for the skies in a big way and was determined to do it in style. My long association with the ‘Queen of the Skies’ had begun in earnest.
Consulting my trusty ABC, I discovered it was possible to experience the delights of first class aboard a Qantas 747 between London and Amsterdam. It never fails to surprise me how many cocktails my equally geeky flying buddy Ken and I were able to consume in the spacious Captain Cook Lounge in the ‘bubble’ during the 40-minute trip across the North Sea.
Over the next decade I would be a regular visitor to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and
Zurich – European hubs that in those heady days regularly welcomed 747s belonging to a host of flag-carriers who enjoyed fifth-freedom rights. Imagine kick-starting the day with a Bloody Mary aboard a South African Airways 747 between Frankfurt and Amsterdam whilst nestled in the carrier’s sublimely comfy Blue Diamond First Class? On another occasion I enjoyed Lufthansa’s legendary Senator in-flight service on their LH450 service to Los Angeles via Amsterdam – no guesses where I got off!
Other escapades included reclining in a complimentary happi coat in the upper deck
Sakura Lounge aboard a Japan Airlines 747 from Paris to Heathrow; tasting spicy
satays in Malaysian Airlines’ exotic lounge at the top of the spiral staircase when
flying from Heathrow to Frankfurt; bagging a Delft House during a KLM 747 flight
from Amsterdam to Athens when the crew managed to serve a savoury rijsttafel to
the three passengers seated in the blue and white themed lounge in the bubble; as
well as tasting Dom Pérignon for the first time in the Slumberette Lounge of the
upper deck atop a Singapore Airlines 747 operating SQ21 from Heathrow to Paris
Following exhaustive research of the ABC Guides, I got my tickets issued by highly-
trained staff at BA ticket desks at Terminal 3 in the Seventies before they relocated
to Terminal 4. It was thanks to them that I discovered the intricacies of ticketing rules
and with a bit of homework, they were to prove invaluable. Imagine in this era of
fettered online fares exploiting the Maximum Permitted Mileage rule where your buck
could fly a lot further.
Take as an example a simple London to Palma routing, for most folk this is a direct
two-hour flight. However thanks to the generous M25 rule (nothing to do with the
London orbital motorway) you got 25% more mileage out of the fare and for a nerd
like me this was manna from Heaven.
So a simple LHR-PMI ticket was oft transformed into a Heathrow to Zurich sector; followed by a Zurich to Geneva sector; plus a Geneva to Barcelona sector; and finally a Barcelona to Palma sector. Before you send for the men in white coats consider this, by purchasing a first class fare I sampled two 747s – BA 69 LHR-ZRH and SR 110 ZRH-GVA. By the time the lights of Palma Airport came into view I had enjoyed an indulgent day flying a carefully planned routing the components of which only ever came together on a Saturday.
BA’s Monarch Lounge in the upper deck was a short-lived affair. Only 12 ‘classic’
747-136s were fitted with the lounge and were easily identifiable as they had only
three windows on either side of the bubble. None of their 747-236s were configured
with a lounge in the upper deck, these aircraft were also easy to spot as they had ten
windows either side. In 1980 BA began converting the upper deck lounge, replacing
them with economy seats.
Fortunately I did manage to sample the comfy sanctuary on 13 March 1977 when I
flew on BA21 from Heathrow to Nairobi (via Frankfurt) shortly before the ‘classics’
At the rear of the lounge there were two bench seats at the bulkhead and after the rest of the passengers returned downstairs to sleep, I reclined across the starboard one and was captivated as a full moon lit up the Nile like a ribbon of molten silver.
The writing was on the wall for those halcyon aeries in the sky. With the advent of
the 747-300 came the extended upper deck (double bubble) – space far too valuable
for such fripperies as a lounge, so all operators of this variant used it either for
business class or added economy class seating.
A rare variant of the 747 is often forgotten, except by av geeks. The 747-SP (Special
Performance) had a shorter airframe. The first of these aircraft, ‘Clipper Freedom’ was
delivered to Pan Am in April 1976. Sadly production of this long-range model was
terminated in March 1987, only 45 had been built.
I was lucky enough to fly on a South African Airways 747-SP from Rio de Janeiro to
Cape Town. First class seating was in the nose as well as upstairs where I had one
of my most cherished memories – watching the rising sun illuminate Table Mountain
as the aircraft made a sweeping approach towards Table Bay.
I also flew on a Qantas 747-SP from Sydney to Perth and it was on this flight that I discovered delicious oaky Chardonnays during the four-hour flight over the ‘red centre’. My first encounter with a Cathay Pacific 747-300 was between Vancouver and San Francisco and it’s thanks to their in-flight entertainment system that I came across the music of Gustav Mahler. The less said about my encounter with an Iran Air 747- SP that operated IR720 from Heathrow to Frankfurt on 16 July 1976 the better.
Undoubtedly the most memorable short hop on a 747-SP was aboard Aerolineas
Argentinas flight AR115 when two friends came along for the ride. Our junket from
Frankfurt to Paris Orly was mostly spent in the upper deck lounge and after several
vodka and tonics one of my chums thought it would be a great wheeze to continue
on to Buenos Aires, I begged to differ.
Going beyond ticketed destinations is not as weird as it sounds. For many years
South African Airways was prohibited from flying over parts of Africa, and took an
overwater route on their flights from Europe to Johannesburg and Cape Town.
At the time their 747-200 and -300s couldn’t make the long journey non-stop, so routed via Isla de Sal in the Cape Verde Islands or Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. My trusty ABC Guide told me they had traffic rights on the LHR-LPA sector, so off I went.
Following a sumptuous Blue Diamond dinner I got ready to deplane. When the doors
were opened I noticed several ground staff in deep discussion with the Chief Purser
who was doing a lot of head-scratching. Turns out the ticket had been sold to me in
error and traffic rights were not applicable on the day of my journey. There was no
option; I was to continue south to Johannesburg.
Retaking my seat I snuggled down for the next 11 hours. Upon arrival at Jan Smuts
International (the former name of O.R. Tambo International) I was met by a very
apologetic member of SAA staff and taken to their Head Office adjacent to the airport.
Ten hours later, after a refreshing swim in a nearby hotel pool, I boarded SA230 for the flight back to London via Isla do Sal. This time my boarding pass appropriately had a big Y emblazoned on it denoting economy,, but I managed to find four empty seats towards the back of the plane and slept like a log.
It was around this time that I discovered ‘round the world’ fares.
The flexibility of these tickets, combined with the ever-obliging M25 fare rule, meant the world was truly my oyster. The possible combinations of BA and QF routings in those days were virtually limitless.
In the Eighties I circumnavigated the globe five times but nothing comes close to the 1986 marathon – a global odyssey that required no fewer than four hand-written tickets stapled together. The ticket read: LHR-JFK-SFO-HNL- NAD-MEL-SYD-AKL-WLG-AKL-BNE-SYD-KUL-BKK-LHR. My flight log tells me this journey comprised 30,050 miles; cost a cool £3,606; nine of the sectors were in first class, the first leg across the Atlantic was on Concorde!
If there’s one destination that resonates loudest in my 747 almanac it’s Hong Kong.
In an era before flight-decks were sealed tighter than an Egyptian tomb, invitations to
meet the flight crew were not uncommon.
In those days BA’s 747-236 couldn’t make the journey non-stop and operated via Delhi in both directions. It was 3 November 1986 and Cabin Service Director Jack Hawkins recognized me from a previous flight. After breakfast he whispered in my ear, “I’ve persuaded the captain to let you sit on the flight deck for landing if you want.” My response was instantaneous and I rushed up the spiral stairs and secured my jump seat harness.
The captain pointed out ‘Checkerboard Hill’ – an orange-and-white marker above a park. He then commenced a low-altitude, 47-degree turn at 200 miles per hour. I could see the threshold as we continued our approach to Runway 13/31 – eye level with people watching television in their high-rise apartments, seconds later we touched down at Kai Tak. I was in seventh heaven.
The heady days of the Eighties and Nineties gave way to the advent of the bean
counters. Every possible unused space on aircraft was seen as a lost opportunity to
earn a buck, so the hour-glass ran out on frills such as lounges in the sky.
Densification became the order of the day and first class was abolished from many
aircraft to be replaced by an increasingly indulgent business class. It was in this
arena that airlines would battle it out – none more so than British Airways.
Whilst not banished completely, first class was definitely on the endangered list. By the new millennium flying had become far more egalitarian. Low-cost airlines were in the
ascendancy and legacy flag-carriers had to adapt. Even the custom for passengers to dress smartly was fast disappearing. Latterly, if a chap below 40 was sporting a jacket and tie in the first class cabin he had probably bagged an upgrade.
Anybody reading this might question why I didn’t become an airline correspondent
rather than a writer about all things cruise and maritime.
I’ve continued to be a regular inhabitant of the stratosphere and managed to fund my forays into the forward cabin thanks to the millions of Avios and other frequent flyer miles I’ve accrued, not to mention hard-earned perks from BA known as ‘jokers’. I’ve even learned a trick or two from Gilbert, who offers daily insight in how to be a savvy
traveller via God Save The Points.
My flight log informs me that I’ve clocked-up almost four million miles during 4,469
flights since that first trip to Jersey, I was considering a gentle decent into retirement
but at the same time looking forward to indulging in a few more flights aboard the
‘Queen of the Skies’.
The sad news from British Airways in mid-July that they were grounding their entire fleet of 747-400s with immediate effect has sent me into a tailspin of melancholy. No longer will I be able to land at an airport a few milliseconds ahead of the flight crew or have the excitement of climbing the staircase to that private penthouse in the skies; I’ll miss that rumbling grind as the nose-wheel retracts into its casing as well as the truly awesome thrust of the four Rolls Royce RB211 turbofans powering the mighty bird into the skies where lurking turbulence is mitigated better than any airframe I know.
I am blessed to have amassed a respectable 313 flights on that cherished four-
engine ‘Queen Of The Skies’ aircraft with the trademark hump. But now, with fewer airlines flying the Boeing 747, I’ll have to contend with slower, two- engine Boeings and Airbuses for my globetrotting. No wonder it’s now me that’s got the hump.