Kevan James reviews the history of N324F, the star of the movie 'Airport' that became the world's most famous Boeing 707.
In 1969 Universal Studios headed east from the usually balmy temperatures of California to the snowy winter found in Minnesota to spend the month at Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP), filming the movie ‘Airport’.
The film was a big-budget blockbuster based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, with an all-star cast and most commercial aviation aficionados will be familiar with the movie, the book and its storyline of a snowbound airport struggling to stay open in the teeth of a vicious mid-winter storm and a bombing attempt, resulting in a crippled airliner attempting to make it to the airport.
Less familiar may be the aircraft used in the film. In the days just before the Boeing 747 was due to enter service (its imminent arrival is mentioned in the script) the Boeing 707 was still ruling the airways as the aircraft of choice for many airlines.
The movie’s Boeing 707-349C was operated by Flying Tiger Airlines and came with a cargo door but also passenger carrying capability. Registered N324F, the 707 was number 503 on the production line (msn 19354), first flew on June 9, 1966 and was delivered to Flying Tiger later that month.
N324F with El Al Israel Airlines (Michael Sender)
El Al Israel Airlines leased the 707 for a time, although the aircraft retained its US registration and basic FT paint scheme before Universal Studios leased the aircraft on January 28 1969, and it spent the next few weeks carrying the livery of the fictitious Trans Global Airways (TGA). In the movie the 707 became stranded in the snow after its pilots misjudged a taxiway turnoff after landing, and also played the stricken Boeing flown by Captains Vernon Demerest and Anson Harris on which D O Guerro lets off an home-made bomb. Despite the damage inflicted by the explosion seen in the film, N324F was returned in one piece to Flying Tiger on March 8, 1969, its fame assured.
Flying Tiger then sold N324F on April 1, 1969, to Aer Lingus and it was re-registered in Ireland as EI-ASO, named St Canice and went into service on long-haul routes while also being leased to other carriers by the Irish airline.
The 'Airport' 707 serving with Aer Lingus (Pedro Aragão)
Qantas used it as VH-EBZ, it came to the UK as G-BAWP with British Caledonian, 9J-AEC with Zambia Airways (three times) and S2-ASG with Biman Bangladesh. Libyan Arab Airlines and Arkia of Israel also leased the 707 while it retained its Irish registration.
After seventeen and a half years with Aer Lingus, the Boeing was sold to Omega Air on October 30, 1986, and became N324F once again. Omega then leased it to TransBrasil as a cargo hauler registered as PT-TCS and it served in Brazil until March 21, 1989. On that fateful day, the world’s most well-known Boeing 707 met its end in a fiery crash two kilometres short of the runway while on approach to Sao Paulo.
Something of an ironic twist of fate for an airliner that had starred in a movie, playing the role of a crisis-hit aircraft twenty years earlier.
‘Airport’ was panned by the critics but loved by cinema-goers, became Universal’s biggest money-maker, won Helen Hayes an Academy Award as best supporting actress and was nominated for another nine awards. Hayes’ award was not really a surprise as not only was she a fine actress but also had some of the most memorable lines as well as playing the most memorable character, that of Ada Quonsett, a habitual OAP stowaway.
Having been caught on one flight without a ticket, when asked by Customer Service Agent Tanya Livingston why she didn’t pay for her flights, Mrs Quonsett replies; ‘Oh my dear, I couldn’t possibly afford a ticket!’. She then describes the various methods she used to gain illicit entry to flights and says that her late husband was a geometry teacher who always said to think of every angle.
After assisting with an attempt to overcome the mentally unstable D O Guerrero (having stowed away again on the flight) she is rewarded by free flights and first class tickets and ends the movie by sighing, ‘You know, it was much more fun the other way…’
Burt Lancaster Mel Bakersfeld, airport manager
Dean Martin Captain Vernon Demerest
Jacqueline Bissett Senior Flight Attendant Gwen Meighan
Jean Seberg Customer Service Agent Tanya Livingston
George Kennedy Joe Patroni, Chief Mechanic, TWA
Helen Hayes Ada Quonsett
Van Heflin D O Guerrero (his final film role)
Barry Nelson Captain Anson Harris
Maureen Stapleton Inez Guerrero
Dana Wynter Cindy Bakersfeld
Lloyd Nolan Harry Standish, US Customs Senior Officer
Barbara Hale Sarah Demerest
Gary Collins Flight Engineer Cy Jordan
Jessie Royce Landis Mrs Mossman (her final film role)
As well as being the final roles for Van Heflin and Jessie Royce Landis, the film was also the last for composer Alfred Newman, whose health was failing as he wrote the score and he passed away before the film premiered in New York in March 1970. Newman received his 45th Academy Award nomination posthumously for the film, the most received by a composer at that time.
‘Airport’ had three sequels, ‘Airport 1975’, Airport ‘77’ and ‘Airport 80 – The Concorde’. None had anything to do at all with airports although George Kennedy reprised his role as Joe Patroni in all three. The 1969 original is generally regarded as being the film that heralded the age of the ‘disaster’ movie as well as resulting in the spoof ‘Airplane’.
Text © Kevan James