Often referred to as, ‘The Queen of the Skies’, the Boeing 747 has a long and illustrious history. In 2019, the aircraft is now reaching the end of its career. Nevertheless, still flying and carrying passengers, the type continues in service (for now) as the 747-800 with Lufthansa and Korean Air. British Airways and KLM continue to fly the 747-400 but their numbers are falling. As a freighter it soldiers on with other airlines but economics are what they are and two engines cost less to run than four. (above - Ted Quackenbush)
So the end is not far away. Yet remarkably the 747 has been around for no less than half a century – fifty years. The first flight took place on February 9, 1969, with Pan Am operating the first commercial service on January 21, 1970.
Pan Am was synonymous with 747, being the launch customer. The company’s Chairman Juan T. Trippe, signed the order for 25 of the type on April 14, 1966 and since the carrier named all its aircraft, unsurprisingly his name adorned one of the 747s after his retirement. Fittingly the chosen one had an appropriate registration – N747PA. It was an aircraft that had its own history.
Naturally, Jet Clipper America figured prominently in advertising campaigns.
N747PA, manufacturing serial number 19639, first flew on April 11, 1969 and was delivered to Pan Am on October 3, 1970. It was actually the second 747 off Boeing's production line and was used (along with others) throughout the testing programme so wasn't delivered until nearly ten months after Pan Am's first 747 flight. Like many of the carrier’s airliners it had more than one name and began life called 'Jet Clipper America', again a fitting one although not to last.
On 30 July, 1971, while operating flight PA845 from Los Angeles to San Francisco (SFO) and on to Tokyo, N747PA lined up on the threshold of SFO’s 01 Right. A combination of different factors saw the flight use up every last inch of available runway on the take-off roll and the 747 struck the approach lights extending into the waters of the bay at the far end of it. The aircraft was severely damaged but stayed in the air and made an emergency landing on SFO’s runway 28 Right. With the main undercarriage disabled due to hitting the runway lights on take-off, and only the wing mounted gear to support it, the 747 tipped backwards to rest on its tail. There were no fatalities among the 218 passengers and crew aboard, but two passengers were seriously injured during the impact on take-off, and during the subsequent emergency evacuation twenty-seven more sustained injuries, eight of them serious.
Left: N747PA after landing at San Francisco (Robert Vitelli)
Remarkably N747PA was repaired and placed back into service. Why? The extent of the damage might well have meant writing the aircraft off. At the time, the financial outlay was such that Pan Am, who had gone deep into debt to buy the fleet of 747s, would have been reluctant to lose a valuable asset if the cost of repair was substantially less than the cost of acquiring a new one. And in the 1970s, airlines owned the aircraft they flew – or at least owed serious money on the purchase.
Or was it the registration; the evocative name - Jet Clipper America? There was undoubtedly a symbolism to both.
Like most airlines, Pan Am had something of an over-capacity problem during the early to mid-1970s so leased some of the 747 fleet to other carriers. A little curiously perhaps but N747PA was one, going to Air Zaire on November 21, 1973, returning to the US on March 31, 1975. While with the African company the registration changed slightly to N747QC.
Left: With Air Zaire (Bruno Geiger)
During its time with the African airline, it was fully painted in Air Zaire’s colours and carried the name ‘Mont Floyo’. Once it returned to the USA N747PA was repainted into Pan Am’s livery and given the name Clipper Sea Lark.
As curious a moniker as the decision to send it out on lease to begin with, why Sea Lark was chosen for it remains a mystery, although ‘America’ had been claimed by one of the airline’s 747SPs while N747PA was dutifully flying for Air Zaire. That said the reasoning behind the Clipper names and the history of them would make for a large book.
Juan Trippe died in 1981 at the age of eight-four and it was entirely appropriate that an aircraft would carry his name; there was only one that could – N747PA.
During the late 1980s, Pan Am held the contract for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) and a number of the 747s had cargo doors installed and the floor strengthened to enable them to carry military cargo should the need arise. N747PA was one but continued to ply the airline’s routes, with no requirement for an active-service role with the US Armed Services.
Clipper Juan T. Trippe served the New York-based company for the rest of the carrier’s existence, finally leaving John F. Kennedy airport after the airline that had become a US icon and a symbol of America, closed down in ignominious bankruptcy on 4 December 1991, ending sixty years of pioneering commercial aviation history.
Above: Arriving home at JFK, New York. Note the cargo door for CRAF use behind the wing
N747PA was the last to leave. Inscribed with the signatures of many of the remaining Pan Am employees, the aircraft was given a water cannon salute as it taxied out for its last departure still in the familiar white and blue colours. Having been acquired by the General Electric Capital Corporation leasing company, it went to South America’s Aeroposta in 1992, then returned to Africa for short spell with Kabo Air before going back to Aeroposta a second time.
Left: While with Aeroposta, the registration and the name remained (Torsten Maiwald).
With its lease to the South American carrier up, N747PA returned to the US and was stored until 1999. Clipper Juan T. Trippe’s last stop in the land of her birth was San Bernardino, California (SBD) and destined to be scrapped – however, the story does not end there. Most of the fuselage and parts of the wings were shipped to Seoul, South Korea. N747PA was reassembled in Namyangju, a suburb of Seoul. It was painted in colours that resembled Air Force One and opened as a restaurant which closed in 2005.
Reports suggested that N747PA had finally met its end in Seoul in 2010, despite a campaign to save the aircraft. However, the December 2017 edition of Airways magazine carried an article written by Cody Diamond.
Diamond wrote the following:
‘Fast forward to October 2017. I was traveling to Seoul to ride on and cover United’s last intercontinental 747-400 flight for Airways. I thought of N747PA and proceeded to do some research. Perhaps the whole airplane had not been scrapped. I had a few days in Seoul and wanted to see if I could at least find where the airplane had been located in Namyangju. Not only did I find where it was, a search on Airliners.net revealed that an unidentifiable 747 was now being converted into a church in Namyangju—the same suburb where N747PA was reportedly located and destroyed. The photographer did not know what serial number the 747 was. I was able to trace its address and went on an adventure to see if perhaps part of N747PA was still around.
After a 20 minute ride to Namyangju, the unmistakable hump of a 747-100 came into view.
Painted in Korean Air colors without titles, up close, it became very clear to me that this could be no other 747 than N747PA. The fuselage marks where the airplane had been cut to be put into containers when it was shipped to Korea identically match those in known photos of N747PA as the restaurant. It is very easy to spot metal patches over where there had been pillars holding up the airplane when it was a restaurant. There is an elevator attached to just outside the 2L door. I took the elevator up and went inside the airplane. Inside, and beneath the floor boards, scrapped bits of baby blue fuselage from when it was painted as Air Force One can easily be seen, leaving zero doubt about the identity of this airplane. The airplane is being converted into a joint church and aviation museum.
I spoke to one owner of it after leaving, and he confirmed it was the same airplane. The airplane had been partially scrapped in 2010, but not completely, as the article had suggested. Three major fuselage sections were saved and spliced together, making it slightly shorter than a 747SP. Awkward looking, but nonetheless, the famous N747PA is still around at least in one form.
I was very excited to be able to go aboard. I’ve heard so many stories about this very airplane growing up in aviation, and my hope is that people will be able to visit this airplane should they choose to. I know many Pan Am people that would love to see this famous airplane just one more time. If you would like to check it out, GPS instructions in Seoul to its location are as follows: 1052-15 Wolmulli, Namyangju-si, Gyeonggi-do, Seoul, South Korea.’
Left: Looking very weather-weary, N747PA as a restaurant
That of course was in 2017 – and now? A look at Google Maps entering the location details given by Cody Diamond doesn’t reveal much but then it’s the proverbial needle in a haystack search (even in satellite mode). Perhaps there may be somebody in Seoul who can enlighten us.
Whatever the ultimate fate of N747PA, it was the aircraft that rose from the waters of San Francisco Bay and flew. It honoured the name of the airline’s creator and the man who revolutionised air travel by ordering it and its sister aircraft. Clipper Juan T. Trippe may be a memory now but the legend lives on.
Above: The 747 was quickly seen around Pan Am's network, as here visiting Amsterdam
Above: At Frankfurt, where 747 flights connected to the Internal German Services network to Berlin
Below: N747PA was a frequent visitor to London Heathrow (Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)
Above: As a restaurant (Danleo-Wikimedia Commons)
See also related article - 50 Years of Jumbos:
Pan Am was the second biggest operator at Heathrow and London to New York remains to this day the busiest route between the two airports.
Kevan James' new book, Heathrow Airport 70 years and Counting features not only the history of the West London airport but also an in-depth look at Pan Am and the devastating impact of events leading up to the airline's eventual closure.
With an introduction by the airport's Director of Communications, Nigel Milton, this is the complete book on Heathrow
Hardback, size 6 x 9
Available from November 1, 2019
enquires to: email@example.com
© Kevan James 2019
With grateful thanks to the photographers and others who contributed to this article.