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What made the 747 special? A chat with a former pilot

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When British Airways flew its iconic 747-400 out of Heathrow for the last time earlier this month, it was really the end of an era. The BA 747 retirement also means there are now very few passenger 747s left flying. So it’s nice to take the chance to talk about the 747 and reminisce about what it made special. To that end, we had a chat with Mark Vanhoenacker, former 747 pilot with British Airways and currently a Senior First Officer on the 787. We asked him to give us a sense of what the 747 was like, what it meant to him and what made it so special.

Vanhoenacker will be well-known to some. He’s talked to Flightradar24 in the past including on this episode of the AvTalk podcast. He is an author, a columnist for the Financial Times and a contributor to other media as well. You can head to his website for all the details. In the meantime, here’s what Vanhoenacker had to say about the 747.

British Airways 747 pilot what made it special
A British Airways 747-200 back in 1995.

FR24: What are your thoughts about the 747 and what made it special?

I’ve loved the 747 ever since I was a little kid. I drew it, hung posters of it, assembled models of it. I remember my first flights on it better than anything about the place where we were going. A number of my fellow pilots on it dreamed only of flying the 747 when they were young; they didn’t want to be any pilot, only a 747 pilot, and how many kids will have a dream like that come true? Every time I stepped onto it I felt lucky. I should also point out that I flew it only for 11 years. When I was researching my first book, Skyfaring, I was surprised to learn that the first 747 took flight in 1969, only months before the moon landing. Some of my colleagues flew it for three decades or more. They, like the 747 itself, had a career like no other.

FR24: What was it about the 747 that so captured the public imagination?

I think it was the size, first of all—it was so much larger than anything that flew before. The combination of two aisles, two decks, and that unique hump in the nose made it a design icon. (The hump allowed for a cargo door in the nose; in the late 1960s it was feared that the future of passenger airliners was supersonic, and that the 747 would be primarily a cargo aircraft, which is, in fact, how it will finish its service.) The size of the aircraft, in turn, helped bring down ticket prices, which made long-haul travel a middle-class aspiration for the first time in history.

So this plane was not only beautiful, but was associated with making the world seem smaller and more connected. I think that explains why those three famous digits remain a shorthand—in songs above all—for dreams of travel, which we all have more reason to turn to this year. I hope the 747 will remain a cultural touchstone long after the last passenger 747 has landed.

British Airways 747 pilot

FR24: What is it like to fly?

It was a joy to fly. In aerodynamics there’s a trade-off between maneuverability and stability—think of being on a speedboat versus a cruise ship. You’d think a 747 would feel more like the latter, but in fact it managed to feel both maneuverable and sturdy. The designers did an amazing job of threading that needle, and the jet’s beautiful form follows that function.

FR24: Any good 747 stories to share with us?

I’m actually not very good at recognizing celebrities, but the 747 was so large, and flew to such globally prominent places, that it was common to discover a very famous person among our three or four hundred customers. But I was even more pleased when the cabin crew told me that someone I had a personal connection with—several old friends I’d lost touch with, neighbors, readers of my first book—had recognized my name or my voice when I’d made an announcement. Then I’d go down to say hello, and ask them how they were enjoying their flight on such an amazing aircraft.

FR24: Many feel the skies will be a lot less interesting without the 747 flying. Do you agree or do you think there’ll be plenty of unique and interesting new airplanes to come in future as well?

I love flying the 787, and I definitely think it looks good—especially the stretched versions like the -9 and the -10. I think the A350 looks great, too, especially with its “sharklet” winglets, which are so striking that it’s hard to imagine they’re also practical—they help reduce fuel consumption. But I think pilots are a nostalgic bunch, and something beautiful will be gone when the last 747 has landed.

British Airways 787 dreamliner
A company Boeing 787-9

FR24: How did things progress for you after you finished flying the 747?

Two years ago, after my last flight on the 747 (to Cape Town; I was lucky to finish on a high note) I started training on the 787. My first flight on it, a few months later, was to Kuala Lumpur, a city I’d never been to before. Since then a number of other 787 destinations have been firsts for me—Calgary, New Orleans, Seoul—and this new aircraft has offered me a chance to remember what it was like when I first started flying, and nearly every city was new to me.

Featured image © Fred GN

Further reading on the 747

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