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January 31, 2013

Always a Kid: First Time On A 747

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By: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren
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The author's plane lifts off. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)
The author's plane lifts off from Tokyo Narita in December of 2012. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)
Flying, at least commercially, is sort of humdrum for me these days. I guess that when you fly at least four times a month for two years, the magic of rocketing through the sky five miles up in a chair wears off. It doesn’t help either that there isn’t much I haven’t done, when it comes to flying. Aviation has been incredibly good to me over the years in that regard. I’ve checked off everything from the tiny little Saab 340 to the newest 787 Dreamliner, the old 737-200 classics to a factory fresh 777. I’ve flown on most of them many, many times over. But there was one that was always missing: the 747.

A Dreamy Quest

Family vacations often brought us through Chicago during the hub and spoke days of the 90s. While everyone else in my family dreaded connecting through delay ridden O’Hare, I was thrilled to have the chance to see the battleship scheme jumbos of United at the gates, bound for exotic destinations far, far away. I marveled at the airplane’s raw power with every window-shaking departure. I reveled in its ability to fly half way around the world and look sexy while doing it. Yeah, that’s right, the 747 is a sexy airplane. It always has been, and it always will be. And I dreamt about being on one, ticket in hand to some place new, exciting, and far from home.

Yet for years it has evaded me. In days past I used to look up crazy itineraries, hoping for a good price, in a bid to get aboard one on the cheap. I’d look up Boston to New York – via London, or a weekend in Tokyo. Unsurprisingly it never worked out. So with most of my travel being domestic, I got to fly an endless number of A320s and 737s instead. They got boring, and flying got kind of boring with them.

Meanwhile, most of my first flights on the big Boeing jets were while working events for NYCAviation. Both the 777 and 787 went down this way. So while it was awesome to fly on them, I can’t say I was paying all that much attention (yeah, I know, cry me a river). Even still, the 777 and the Dreamliner just don’t connect with me in the same way the 747 does. They don’t have the same elegance or the same obvious raw power, nor have either served as the symbol of global travel for decades. Maybe what I’m saying doesn’t make sense, but the 747 is just different. At least for me, it represents everything there is to love about flying: the beauty of flight and the promise of adventure.

In any case, while the first twenty-six years of my life were devoid of luck, the twenty-seventh turned out to be the charm. Thanks to some clever routing and help from the good folks at Delta, I finally scheduled up my first flight on the jet late in 2012: Tokyo to Detroit.

The 747-Plane Cometh

There it was, sitting at gate 23 of Tokyo Narita, basking under a partly cloudy sky: a big, beautiful 747-400. In my hand, a ticket on Delta 276 service to Detroit; seat 74K. Detroit wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I dreamt about going somewhere exciting, but at least coming from my first visit to Japan made it close enough. The gate agent merely called out our flight number and I felt myself getting excited about going flying for the first time in awhile. After snapping a few pictures from the terminal I stepped on board. I spent a good long time admiring the iconic forward cabin (the nose) for the first time, before pressing onward to my seat on the upper deck. While putting my things away I noticed the flight deck door was ajar. Never missing an opportunity to visit an open cockpit, I ventured on up and asked if I could pay a visit. Thankfully the pilot said yes.

After a few minutes of gawking and talking, two young kids sheepishly knocked on the door. Their father – in tow – remarked it was their first time on a 747. They beamed with excitement when our pilot not only invited them in but offered them each a chance to sit in his seat; quintessential pilot cap included. Both kids were clearly over the top. Pictures were taken, smiles shared, and a short while later the family was off to their seats.

Admittedly I was sort of jealous of their ability to be so unabashedly excited. It was my first time on a 747 too, I thought, and I’ve been looking forward to this day longer than they’ve been alive – combined. I was crazy excited about it just like they were, but didn’t want to show it for fear of looking, well, childish. After all, I was in the first class cabin with all the prim and proper international business people, most of whom had probably flown on the Queen of the Skies for years by now. As a result I spent the entire time boarding the plane trying hard to contain my excitement. The effort probably resulted in this creepy half smile that left fellow passengers thinking I was nuts, but that didn’t occur to me then.

Back on the flight deck our pilot then turned to me, asking if I wanted my picture in the captain’s chair; quintessential pilot cap included. I get this offer often in my visits to the front office, and almost always pass it up in an attempt to act my age. But the cap; the cap was rare. I couldn’t recall the last time I was offered to wear the cap. And this was my first flight on a 747. The weight of the offer, which I figured may never have happened again, became too much. So just this one time, I caved.

I stepped into the left seat, sliding it forward until my feet reached the pedals with ease. My right hand reached out for the throttle, with all four fingers slipping onto their own lever. My left hand took hold of the yoke, and I glanced out the windshield imagining the view our crew would see shortly. Our pilot handed me his cap, snapping me out of my av-geek induced haze. I put it on—instantly feeling the same age as the kids who just visited—turned to the camera, and smiled.

I chatted with the crew for a little while longer before reluctantly wandering back to my seat for departure. Settling in for the long flight ahead, I couldn’t control the excitement anymore. The smile that started on the flight deck had extended from ear to ear by now, and wouldn’t go away. I looked excitedly around the cabin, soaking in every detail and likely scaring fellow passengers who wondered why I was smiling so widely. My eyes transfixed on a wing with two engines out the window, we climbed out of Tokyo and headed east into the night.

I felt like a kid again; occasionally laughing quietly to myself all the way up to cruise. The last time I was this excited to be on an airplane had to have been many years ago. Truth be told, it felt great. It felt great to let go and enjoy it for all it was worth. It felt great to remember why I love to fly. It felt great to live out a dream.


  • John Mayson

    I got to fly on a 747 (N182UA) serving as UA 869 SFO to HKG last year. It was my first and only ride on a 747. I can now say I have flown on everything from a 717 to a 777.

    Unfortunately it wasn’t the greatest flying experience. Because I booked so late I ended up with a seat in very back (57H). It was still 3 seats across, but the aisle narrowed. I’m 6′ 6″. During the entire flight, flight attendants kept bumping into me. Also the plane just looked old. The seat was worn and uncomfortable.

    My return flight was great! As a kid I was always fascinated with Continental Micronesia. I thought it’d be so cool to be a pilot for them, hopscotching across the Pacific. I did get to fly them, although by this point the Guam-based crew and plane were part of United. I flew up to NRT and had the best flight ever on a 777 back to SFO.

    • http://twitter.com/alanbdahl Alan Dahl

      Actually there’s one Boeing jetliner numbered between 717 and 777 you probably haven’t flown but it’s very rare and kind of a red-headed-stepchild that even Boeing tends to forget at times, the Boeing 720. The 720 was a shortened 707 with a modified wing originally given the designation 717-020 as it was based on the KC-135 which was called so internally. United Airlines suggested 720 as a name instead and it stuck and they were called such by all operators that flew them.

      Back to the 747 I remember flying to Hawaii in them many times when I was a kid. My dad was a UAL pilot until 1968 flying DC-8s and as a result we could fly easily once he retired. When I was 9 I even got to ride in the cockpit for a while in-flight the one time that I road along when my dad was pilot and that’s something that I will never forget!

  • daben

    Oh boy, you’re lucky. Had a lot of 747s in my childhood when living abroad but nowadays it’s like you say. Mainly A320 and 737, plus CRJs, E-Jets and the odd Fokker. Am very much looking forward to fly the A380 next month though…

  • David J Delgado

    I was able to fly the 747 last year on the SFO – ICN leg for the first time, a year younger than you (25). It was UA flight 893 departing at 11AM sharp. I have flown a ton of 737′s, a ton of 757′s, a few 767′s, 1 777, but never the 747. I was like a little kid with a new toy. The sheer size amazed me when I saw it parked at the gate. My flight to SFO from JFK on the 757 (which is my favorite aircraft) didn’t even phase me, all I looked forward to was the 74. While I didn’t get to fly F/C or B/C, I did get a nice window seat in Eco+ and had a nice Korean couple next to me for the entire 13 hours. On the flight back (892) we had a mechanical cancellation which gave me a free night in Incheon, but the next day, I had the entire row empty, so I was able to lie down and relax. I was amazed at how seamlessly the plane took off! I can’t wait to do it again…