Before March of this year, I was flying across the Atlantic with a fairly remarkable frequency. I needed noise at home to simulate noise from the plane, with both equally familiar. For years, British Airways received the lions share of those journeys, and that meant countless hours logged on the Boeing 747.

Even with 50 years of age behind her, there was still something special every time the Boeing 747 was listed as the operating aircraft, and each journey had that little something extra to it. Here are some of my greatest memories with British Airways Queen of The Skies…

1A For The Win

I had just finished watching Mad Men, shedding a tear in the final scene as Don came to his awakening. I turned up at the gate for a rare flight in first. I was usually business, premium or back of the plane, but had upgraded to first and couldn’t wait.

Due to the odd behavior of someone at the gate next to us, a gent started chatting with my wife and I. It was John Slattery, aka Roger from Mad Men and I was trying so hard to keep the excitement in. 1A, John Slattery on the same day? Too good.

I turned left into First, and saw John head up the stairs into the Upper Deck bubble. Thinking of the 747 coming into its time during the era of Mad Men, it all felt right in the world for that flight, with fictional Roger, the ad baron up in the bubble, and against all odds, me up in the nose, sitting in front of the pilots with a near perfect view of the runway for take off and landing.

To add an even greater level of excitement, we flew the Canarsie approach into JFK, landing onto Runway 13L, which if you ask any pilot who flies the sector, will tell you its among the most riveting landings still left, after the loss of Kai Tak in Hong Kong. Cheers to that. As covid-19 decimation continues,  I feel so incredibly lucky to have flown first in British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa’s Boeing 747 nose.

Northern Lights On Upper Deck Flights

You’ll never forget the first time you witness the stunning Aurora Borealis, aka northern lights from an airplane. It’s magic on the ground, but almost even more surreal from the sky, and if you’re lucky, and you’re on a fairly northerly route, you sometimes stand a fair chance, if you’re on the correct side of the plane.

I always loved seat 62K, spending an odd amount of time in my life deciding whether I prefer A or K seats. Anyway, I was in 62K, my favorite upper deck seat with literal buckets of storage, endless legroom and lots and lots of privacy. I was exhausted from a brief work trip to NY and had managed to fall asleep directly after take off, or maybe even before.

Waking up about 3 hours into the six odd hour transatlantic flight, I think I nearly leapt out of my seat. It was my first time seeing the Northern Lights, and they were everything I’d hoped. Over the years, seeing them on and off from time to time, I gained even greater appreciation for just how good they were on that particular evening.

It’s one thing to see them, it’s another to see them from the Upper Deck bubble of a 747. I knew even then, years back that this was increasingly rarified air, and I needed to soak in every minute. I snapped away, thankful to have remembered my DSLR camera with a slow enough shutter to capture them properly and stare blankly at the photos from time to time.

Landor And The IAC Paint Factory

For many, Landor was the all time classic British Airways livery. The paint job is just class, and though BOAC gives it a solid run for its money, Landor was an amazing transition from the past to the present Boeing 747 livery, with some sharp lines.

As horrible as it is to say, I don’t get quite as excited about many things in aviation as I once did. Once you’ve done a delivery flight for a new plane, or flown a few inaugurals, there needs to be an x-factor to get any special feelings going, at least for me. A new 787 is now just an aircraft that’s been around for close to a decade. Sorry!

But when British Airways invited me to join them at the IAC Paint Factory in Dublin to watch the Landor 747 retro livery get rolled out for a ferry flight back to London, the excitement was flowing in droves.

I wouldn’t be riding back on her, but would get to peek around from ground level in the facility and snap some photos. One of which lead to the really cool print collaboration, of which there are still a couple colorways available.

Ground level photos was supposed to be the theme, but a rather nonchalant Irish guy working in the factory said go ahead and climb up the scaffolding. How many times are you going to get this up close and personal with every angle of a 747, without a soul to tell you off?

Once I made it about 30 feet up, I definitely had an “oh ****” moment, as I teetered toward the edge of the wooden board to get up close and personal with the Upper Deck from a new angle, realizing a little slip would probably be death, but my goodness it was awesome.

What I cherished from this memory was an opportunity to see the Queen from all angles. Directly below, in front, behind, sideways, from elevation. I feel as if I know the Boeing 747 with a level of intimacy typically only reserved for pilots and maintenance teams, and it’s the reason I feel so profoundly emotional to see it go today.

Every Flight Deck Visit

British Airways was quietly always one of the most amenable airlines toward requests to visit the flight deck. If you were patient, or flexible, most crews and captains would find a time to let you come visit, either pre-flight or post.

One thing I’ll really miss was the opportunity to see an airport from the captains chair on a 747, even if only parked at the gate. Talk about a feeling of height. The cockpit was so unique and ahead of its time in design and any aviation geek can spot it from a mile away.

There will always be something exhilaration about seeing four throttles, not two, and that’ll probably never happen again. I’m grateful to every flight deck team who ever granted the request from a tragic 30 something who still loved every chance to put on the pilots hat, particularly on the Boeing 747.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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8 Comments

  1. The first plane I ever remember traveling on (as we wee ba’by), forget flat bed seats… I slept on top of the storage bins under the windows on the upper deck.

    More recently though….. It was very cool to have been able to fly in 1A on the special retro BOAC livery aircraft. Something my mum and wife roll their eyes at and can’t quite get their heads around whilst my Dad is just a bit jealous of 😉

  2. In fact to add…. somewhere I’ve got a “pilots book” from this time. It was a little BA book that the Pilots used to sign for young flyers who were allowed to visit the cockpit (maybe even sit the captains seat) inflight !!!

  3. Around 10 Feb 2001 was on last leg of London to Sydney with my girlfriend, now wife.
    Sitting at the very back I received the most wonderful birthday surprise of a trip to the flight deck over the Northern Territory, couldn’t believe quite how tight it was, but the view was breathtaking.
    Last 747 flight was 26 June 2019, a handy upgrade into First – how times have changed!

  4. My first experience with the 747 was on PanAm flying in First Class. The Upper deck did not have seats rather it had tables where the meals were served like in a restaurant. I’ve also of course flown in coach many a time.

    My last 747 flight was on Delta in Business class with a lie flat seat in the upper deck between the US and Japan.

    Airlines that I have flown on a 747 in no particular order: PanAm, Delta, Continental, American, TWA, Qantas, United

    God I miss those days.

  5. To add to Queen memories:
    from flying one if the first KLM 747’s as an 18 yr old to JFK in 1971, in the back, half full plane, plenty of alcohol, to PanAm 54/55 back and forth to AMS via LHR to BOS (first drink in the bubble, benches along the wall). Then as an adult, with kids, on Braniff BOS-AMS many times as well as TNTC BA 62 A or K 90’s and 00’s for work. Delta(of course first with NWA) to the Far East, quite spartan in comparison even in first.
    1A on BA special, only a handful of times…..but memorable.
    and I agree on Northern Lights as well as Kai Tok. Unique views from the Queen of the Skies!

  6. Many, many years ago I was invited to sit in the cockpit of a 747 out of Sydney to Colombo, as we climbed towards cruising altitude we slowly raised ourselves through the clouds into
    the most beautiful blue eternity, I nearly took up religion.

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