After 16 years as a captain on Northwest Airlines 747s, Steve Bowen retired in 2005 and has since flown to many places around the world on vacations. But until now, none of those trips was on the plane he knows best.
Bowen is a passenger on one of the last flights of a 747 by Delta Air Lines, which acquired a fleet of them in its acquisition of Northwest Airlines nine years ago.
He flew from Minneapolis to Seoul last week so he could be aboard a Seoul-to-Detroit 747 flight arriving Sunday morning. “I’m sad to see it go because I loved that airplane,” Bowen said before the trip.
For two generations, Northwest took Minnesotans around the world — and brought the world to Minnesota — on the 747. But Delta is the last U.S. airline that flies the planes, and now it is retiring the last four in its fleet.
On Monday, Delta will start a tour of its base airports for employees and retirees to see a 747 one last time. On Wednesday, two will land at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, the airport from which Northwest started flying 747s in 1970 and that was the maintenance base for Northwest-turned-Delta 747s right up to the end.
From the start, the plane awed. The 747 was about twice the height and length of any other plane then, and it still towers over most airplanes today. The second deck that extended from the cockpit back over the first third of the plane gave it a hump that made the 747 instantly recognizable and inspired a nickname, the Whale. More elegantly, the 747 became known as the queen of the skies.
“The big ones are here,” said a headline in the Minneapolis Star that accompanied a picture of the two 747s Northwest received in June 1970. Another photo showed a 747 parked sideways inside a hangar at MSP that was too small for it.
On the day the first one arrived, Karen Melchior, then a Northwest flight dispatcher, got a call from a colleague who told her to go to the roof of the company’s office near the airport. “Wow!” she said she remembers thinking as it passed overhead. “It was just ‘Wow’ when people saw it.”
Just out of college, Michael Niland in 1995 took his first flight from MSP to Tokyo on a Northwest 747. “Obviously, for somebody who was 22, it was a breathtaking experience to get on a plane like that,” said Niland, who flew Northwest 747s dozens of times over the years as an Asia-focused executive for St. Cloud-based Microbiologics and other companies.
“Minnesota is always fighting its image as a flyover state,” Niland said. “I always felt a little pride to be able to say to someone in Japan that we’ve got a direct flight.”
Steven Nelson, who built the Asian offices of the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney, first started regularly flying 747s through Northwest’s Pacific hub at Tokyo’s Narita International in the 1980s. “I think it added a great deal to the ability of Minneapolis-St. Paul to grow as a business center,” Nelson said.
Northwest in 1947 became the first U.S. airline to fly to Japan and, by the late 1960s, operated a Pacific route system that competed chiefly with Pan American World Airways. With its first 747s, Northwest rebranded itself Northwest Orient and used that name on some aircraft into the 1980s. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the 747s that flew in and out of Northwest’s hub at Narita moved about 5,000 people a day between the U.S. and major Asian cities.
“It was a very efficient system because you could go from any of six or seven cities in the U.S. to the Narita hub and then go on to eight or 10 Asian cities,” Nelson said.
It was also lucrative, delivering nearly half of Northwest’s operating profit in some years. For a time, Northwest owned and flew more 747s than any other U.S. airline and was Boeing’s launch customer for the 747-200 and 747-400 versions of the plane. United Airlines, after picking up Pan Am’s Pacific routes in 1985, eventually owned a bigger 747 fleet.
About a decade ago, new widebody planes emerged from Boeing and its European rival Airbus with two engines instead of the 747’s four. They were more fuel-efficient and profitable.
After its purchase of Northwest in 2008, Delta began replacing the 747s with the newer widebody planes on the Pacific routes. In 2013, Delta executives announced they would phase out the 747 by the end of this year.
United retired its last 747 last month, making Delta the last U.S. airline to fly the plane in passenger service. Airlines in other countries — such as Korean Air, Lufthansa and Qatar — continue to fill 747s with passengers. But most airlines only use them for cargo now. Boeing continues to build about one or two a month.
Delta flew a handful of 747s for a short time in the 1970s but didn’t have them in its fleet again until it bought Northwest. Former Northwest employees and retirees, particularly those who spent years working on the plane, feel possessive of the 747 in its twilight moment.
“The 747 means more to those of us from Northwest,” said Ellen Bowen, a former Northwest flight attendant who met Steve Bowen on a 747 and later married him.
Earlier this fall, Delta advertised Sunday’s Seoul-to-Detroit trip as the last one in regular service for its 747, leading Steve Bowen and other 747 aficionados to book a seat on it. But last week, Delta’s flight planners decided they needed a 747 for one more round trip and scheduled one to fly out to Korea again Sunday afternoon and return Tuesday.
Delta will likely have two 747s at MSP on Wednesday, with one arriving with frequent flyers and employees on a special charter from Atlanta. The airline will host a party that afternoon at the 747 hangar on the southwest corner of the airport, near I-494 and the Mall of America, an event that filled quickly.
The Bowens and other retirees decided to also host a party Wednesday evening at the Crown Plaza Aire Hotel, home to the Northwest Airlines History Center. “I don’t know if it will be 50 people or 500 who come, but no one will be excluded,” Steve Bowen said.
The history center is a mini-museum filled with uniforms, plane models, signage, photos and even a gong used on Northwest commercials. Larry Daudt, a retired Northwest 747 pilot from Boerne, Texas, visited the history center this month and sang the old jingle, “Fly Northwest Orient,” banged the gong and continued, “Airlines.”
Daudt, who also trained 747 pilots, said one destination tested pilots like no other: Hong Kong’s old airport, Kai Tak, which closed in 1998. The airport had one runway and one of the approaches to it required a sharp right turn a mile before landing. Pilots aimed at a checkerboard on a hill before making the turn, then skirted over rooftops. Northwest required all 747 pilots to fly the approach with a trainer first.
Gary Pisel, president of the Retired Northwest Pilots Association, a few years ago rented time in a 747 simulator in Anaheim, Calif., to see if he could still handle that Kai Tak approach. “That’s a beautiful approach,” Pisel said.
He said 747 pilots competed with one another to land the plane without passengers feeling it. “You learned how to make a landing so that nobody knew you were on the ground,” Pisel said. “There was always a contest to see if you could do that.”
No Northwest 747 ever crashed. The most harrowing incident happened in 2002, when a flight from Detroit to Tokyo lost control over the Bering Sea west of Alaska. The lower rudder on the plane’s tail was knocked out of its position by a piston, a first for a 747. The senior captain, John Hanson, had just started to nap after relinquishing control to the second crew. But the second crew brought the first crew back into the cockpit. All four pilots then played critical roles keeping the plane in the air for the two hours it took to get back to Anchorage, the nearest airport.
Hanson, who retired in 2007, today remembers how a passenger leaving that flight threw her arms around him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“You don’t really sit in the airplane and think that there are 400 people back there,” he said. “You just do what you’re trained to do and fly the plane. But that really drove home that these people really count on you.”
Through the end of the year, Delta has chartered its last four 747s to fly pro and college football teams to games. By Jan. 3, all four will be done and flown out to an airplane “boneyard” in Arizona. The planes will initially be stripped for their usable parts. Eventually, they will be torn apart and recycled.
Delta’s chief line pilot, Steve Hanlon, doled out assignments for the last flights of the 747s and reserved the final one for himself.
“Rank has its privileges,” he said.