Norm Foster shares another of his memories -

B 747 A Passionless Love Affair.

A recent announcement from British Airways stated that their B747 fleet would be retired earlier than planned. The last major airline to do so, the decision was made as a result of Covid-19.

Although inevitable, I read the article with a sadness that is a tribute to an inanimate object. But then, the B747 was special and was also my favorite aircraft in a lengthy aviation career.

tmb 550 b747

A brainchild of the 60's, she was Boeing’s answer to Juan Trippe’s request, as President of Pan American Airways, for a double decker airplane capable of carrying 400 passengers on their international route structure. However, in order to avoid the many problems inherent in a double deck configuration, Boeing proposed expanding horizontally instead of vertically and thus countered with the first twin aisled wide body aircraft to meet the same needs. Eventually convinced, Juan Trippe’s initial order of 25 B-747's started the demand for 1,557 more world-wide and became the one aircraft that every airline had to feature in their fleet to be considered a major carrier. It had me at hello!

It was in 1971 that Air Canada took delivery of its first B-747 model, and it was to be joined over the years by 12 more. The jaw dropping appearance always elicited the question “How does something that big fly?” The sheer size of the aircraft gave the impression of being at a slow lumbering speed as it approached to land, belying an actual speed of close to 175 mph. An awesome sight that never failed to capture the attention of even the most jaded observer.

Although more than just a casual observer to the arrival on the Toronto ramp of “Fat Albert” a nick-name initially pinned on # 1, the aspiration of actually flying her was then just a dream. The reality was that as a junior Viscount captain then looking forward to upgrading to the twin engine DC-9, the “Jumbo” was two aircraft types and 15 years away.

And wonderful years they were, flying the DC-9 domestically and then the DC-8 internationally. With the fullness of time the years passed and with them the source of my envious stares at B-747 crews. My seniority finally entitled me to a position on the airplane of my dreams. Further, I was about to put to the test, the declaration of Jack Waddell, all those many years ago. Jack was Boeing’s # 1 test pilot and the first to fly the B-747. As there was no flight simulator developed yet to test the new airplane’s flying characteristics ahead of time, the first flight held many questions. Of these, the last but not least, was how do you land the plane when your eyes are the equivalent of a 3 story house above the runway? On deplaning, Jack’s first statement was…. “I think the pilots will love it!”

Unlike Jack, before I could experience my first time at the controls of the real thing, there was a lengthy and extensive course in the Flight Simulator. Perfected over the years, the simulator provided the opportunity for trainees to experience an exact duplication of the flying experience and further, it provided the ability to recreate every known emergency one could possibly face, and then practice handling them to perfection. Finally experiencing the real airplane, I could echo the sentiments of Jack Waddell…… I loved it!

Three months later I became a B-747 Flight Instructor. The satisfaction in helping pilots realize their B-747 dreams became another highlight in my highlight-filled career. Following each simulator course, an empty B-747 was placed at my disposal to demonstrate and then observe steep turns, stalls, and touch-and-go landings, none of which would ever be possible with passengers aboard.

During these training trips, my sense of pride gave way to one of fun and thrills, and finally to humour watching the white knuckles of each student performing their first landing from 3 stories up. I spent the next 10 years as Instructor, supervisor, and finally back to line pilot from which position I set the brakes for the final time in July of 1997. The inevitability of a mandatory retirement age had caught up with me. The B-747 still had 2 more decades in her career. Me? I had some hockey to play!

Epilogue:

My first trip as Captain on the B-747 could not bring back the euphoria of my first solo in a Cessna 140 some 33 years earlier. However, lifting off from the same Toronto runway, with the same slow left turn, but this time heading to Paris, I did allow myself a satisfied grin. 

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