The past lives of famous airplanes
Several recent stories have detailed “last flights” of venerable commercial aircraft, particularly the famed 747, which first captured the traveling public’s imagination when the original test model rolled out of the Boeing factory 50 years ago, in September 1968.
United operated its final 747 passenger flight on Nov. 7, complete with 1970s-era retro uniforms, menus and in-flight entertainment on its last run from San Francisco to Honolulu. Then in December, Delta Air Lines flew its final scheduled flight with a 747, from Seoul to Detroit.
Delta Air Lines retires its last Boeing 747 to the Arizona 'boneyard'
But operating scheduled flights for big airlines is just one form of duty for large jet aircraft. Many commercial airplanes have historic timelines that extend both before and after their days flying for the majors. They may wind up carrying celebrities or international potentates, or toiling for foreign air forces. During my own airline career at Overseas National Airways, Tower Air and Pan Am, I encountered dozens of airplanes that had rich histories.
Breaking the code
Sometimes the backstory of a commercial airplane is embedded in its “tail number” registration, which on all U.S.-registered aircraft begins with the letter N. Every airline in the world is assigned a two-letter designator code by the International Air Transport Association, such as AA (American), DL (Delta) and UA (United). Many but not all registrations include those two letters at the end of the tail number, as in N123AA.
Take Tower Air, a JFK International Airport-based carrier that flew hundreds of thousands of passengers on scheduled, charter and military flights for 17 years up until 2000. Between 1987 and 1990 I was the System Manager of Operations Control and then System Manager of Ground Operations, when the centerpiece of our fleet was N601BN. That was a Boeing 747-127 series that was first delivered to Texas-based Braniff Airways (BN) in May 1971, when it was officially named “747 Braniff Place” and marketed as “The Most Exclusive Address in the Sky.” That machine, which originally featured an upper-deck lounge staffed by flight attendants in stylish Emilio Pucci outfits, soon established a world record, exceeding 30,500 flight hours in six years.
That 100th 747 became rather famous, because Braniff painted it in a carrot-colored motif that eventually had the entire industry referring to the plane as “Big Orange.” Earlier nicknames included “The Great Pumpkin” — often used by air traffic controllers — and “Fat Albert.” Nearly 50 years later, N601BN is still celebrated on a Facebook page.
By 1983, the Great Pumpkin had been passed from Braniff to two other carriers before launching Tower Air in white-and-blue livery as the first aircraft flown by the start-up airline. Unlike subsequent members of the fleet that were registered using Tower’s two-letter code FF (N602FF, N603FF, etc.), N601BN kept the BN registry as homage to its history. In the late 1980s I rode N601BN across six continents, overseeing hundreds of flights on civilian and military fields, and airline old-timers often noticed the tail number and asked me if that white-and-blue 747 truly was the original Big Orange. It was scrapped in 1994, 24 years after its first test flight in 1970.
Other 747s in the Tower fleet were previously or subsequently operated by airlines as diverse as Pan Am and Overseas National Airways, as well as TWA, Continental, Avianca, SAS, Saudi Arabian, Lufthansa, Egyptair, Zambia Airways, Qantas, PEOPLExpress, El Al, British Airways and many others.
Scenes from United Airlines' final Boeing 747 flight
Even the shiniest livery paint job doesn’t mean the airplane you just boarded is a new airframe. Planes are acquired by airlines in a variety of ways, and it’s not always outright purchases, but very often through complex leases with other airlines, third parties and financial firms. I once had an aviation analyst tell me: “General Electric and Citibank are the country’s largest airlines.”
Consider Southwest, which operates a fleet of 706 Boeing 737s. Many were delivered directly to Southwest, but others joined the line in roundabout ways. Like N7805B, which according to AirFleets.net, first flew for Virgin Blue, currently Virgin Australia Airlines. It then spent five years operating for Aerolineas Argentinas, before joining the Southwest fleet in 2016. Or N7830A, which flew for three carriers based in Denmark — Maersk Air, Sterling Airlines and Jet Time — before it began operating for Southwest in 2015.
Conversely, many planes that began their lives flying for domestic carriers have since found homes far from the United States. N353P, a Boeing 737, first took to the skies for Piedmont in 1988, and transitioned to USAir (later US Airways) when that airline merged with Piedmont. Since 2006 it has been based in Spain, Denmark and South Africa.
In particular, low-cost carriers often acquire older planes. Such as C-GWJG, a Boeing 737 that launched with Pacific Western in 1972 and also flew for Pan Am and several other airlines before ending service 33 years later with low-fare WestJet in Canada. N886GA, first delivered 28 years ago in 1990, has flown for six carriers and is currently with Allegiant Air.
Not-so final flights
Once a major airline determines a given airplane has outlived its service, by no means does it follow that the machine will be grounded. Commercial aircraft have found new lives in myriad ways:
• Some are pressed into government service, such as N905NA, a Boeing 747 first delivered to American Airlines in 1970, but which became world-famous as the first Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used to transport Space Shuttle orbiters after NASA acquired it in 1974.
• Others are used for scientific purposes, such as the 747 originally flown by Air France that was intentionally blown up in the U.K. in 1997 to test the effects of terrorist bombs.
• And some wind up being converted into hotels, like the South African Air Boeing 727 outfitted in teak in the Costa Rican jungle, or the 747 once owned by Singapore Airlines (and later both Pan Am and Tower Air) that’s now the Jumbo Hostel at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport.
When I was researching my book Attention All Passengers in 2011, I visited one of the most famous “Aircraft Boneyards” in the world, the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif. The dry desert climate provides a rust-free home for dozens of former commercial aircraft — some are being rebuilt or repainted and some are in temporary storage until new operators can be found. Others are dying slow deaths as they’re sold off for parts.
Famous pink slips
There’s never been a shortage of well-known people acquiring former airliners for their personal use:
• President Trump famously campaigned in N757AF, the Boeing 757 he acquired in 2011, 20 years after it first began flying for several entities, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and TAESA Lineas Aéreas--yep, the low cost airline based in Mexico.
• N240K flew for American Airlines from 1948 through 1958 and then was bought by John F. Kennedy, who successfully campaigned for the presidency in 1960 onboard the Convair 240 named Caroline.
• Elvis Presley also named an aircraft after his daughter, a Convair 880 formerly owned by Delta that he dubbed Lisa Marie. In 1984, it was put on permanent display at Graceland in Memphis.
• Hugh Hefner did things differently; the Playboy founder’s airborne mansion “The Big Bunny” was a DC-9 that he bought not used but new from Douglas Aircraft in 1969. He later sold it, and the plane flew for several airlines, but undoubtedly thousands of passengers on Ozark and Aeromexico had no idea what had transpired onboard the DC-9 that once had rabbit ears painted on its tail.
Sometimes airplanes become famous in undesirable ways. In January 1970, First Lady Patricia Nixon christened Pan Am’s N736PA when it became the first 747 to operate a scheduled flight, from New York to London. That airplane — dubbed Clipper Victor — generated headlines twice more, as the first 747 hijacked (to Cuba, later in 1970) and as one of the two jumbo jets that collided in Tenerife, Spain, in 1977, killing 583, still the highest aviation death toll, notwithstanding 9/11.
Amazingly, not all of those original 747s have been scrapped for parts or destroyed in tragic circumstances. N19667, the fifth original jumbo jet off the line, was delivered to TWA in August 1970. But it is still registered today, albeit under very different circumstances, for the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.
Aviation geek alert
Airline booking sites may tell you the type of aircraft slated to operate your flight (subject to change, of course), but they won’t provide the actual registrations of specific planes. However, when you’re staring out the terminal window you can research that tail number. Airline nerds like me have already bookmarked dozens of sites that assist when researching aircraft histories.
Here’s some required reading for planespotters everywhere:
Behind the scenes at New Mexico's 'airline boneyard'
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at email@example.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.