Aviation News

December 2, 2014

Boeing 747 Flies Once More From Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Boeing 747 has long been a fixture at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. She has been in service over 44 years, primarily with Northwest Airlines and now with Delta. With the Delta purchase of Northwest and Delta restructuring its fleet, MSP has seen their three-to-four times a day 747 service dwindle down to twice a month maintenance or charter flights.

Boeing 747-151 N608US Northwest AirlinesBoeing 747 service at Minneapolis-St. Paul started when Northwest Airlines received the 27th 747-100 in April of 1970. Soon, N601US had 12 siblings taking Minnesotans to exotic destinations including Narita, Seoul, London, Paris and Anchorage. NWA has operated over 50 747 variants (this includes 15 747-200F operated by Northwest Airlines Cargo). The -100 soon gave way to the -200s, with 16 of this version operating for Northwest Airlines.

During the 1980s there was also a lot of charter activity with Northwest Airlines flying many flights to Germany and other Department of Defense locations. The -200 primarily had the gray over red livery, also known as the bowling shoe livery. Other operators, such as MartinAir, ITA vacations (using a People Express plane) and KLM also brought their flagship 747s to Minneapolis.

n661us-400When the 747-400 series arrived in 1989, Northwest Airlines was the US launch customer for it, with aircraft N661US operating in the spring of 1989. Fifteen additional airframes were added, replacing the less efficient -200. When Delta acquired Northwest in 2008 it was not long before the red-tailed jets were repainted in the current Delta livery. The traffic patterns at Minneapolis changed with the Delta takeover and soon widebody operations dwindled. Soon after, plane spotters at Minneapolis only had the once daily flight to Narita as the only scheduled 747 traffic.

In 2013, MSP lost scheduled 747 service when the Narita flight was transferred to a Boeing 777-200. The spotting community was mourning the loss of the queen and wondered if she would ever grace the skies of Minneapolis-St. Paul again.

In early November, Delta surprised us all by adding two domestic MSP-ATL 747 flights on Thanksgiving weekend in order add capacity on the holiday weekend. The MSP spotter’s page lit up and before you could say “fly Delta jets” several of us had booked a rare domestic date with the Queen.

On November 30, Delta Flight 340 arrived in a chilly and gray Minneapolis on time and at gate F12. The ground and gate crew would have to work fast as the ground time was only one hour, five minutes. The gate was packed with passengers, most just trying to travel at the end of a busy Thanksgiving weekend, but many with cameras and cell phones out and at the ready. As arriving passengers de-planed the gate area was filled with chatter and smiles. Flight 340 brought many aviation enthusiasts up to the frozen tundra. Some would turn around and re-board the flight directly; others would spend a few hours at the Mall of America. In this day and age of cell phone cameras and social media, many were taking selfies with the Queen. The Atlanta aviation enthusiasts were easy to spot, as they were the ones with the big smiles and happy demeanor. They had just experienced something special; it affected them in a positive way, and they wanted to share it with a fellow traveler or aviation enthusiast.

Those weary from too much turkey and stuffing and just trying to get home wondered what all the hubbub was (“it’s just a big plane!”). The Delta gate staff knew it was a special trip and handed the gate microphone over to Captain Steve Hanlon for a special pre-boarding announcement. Our aircraft was none other than N661US, the first 747-400 for Northwest/Delta and actually the first -400 off the production line! He mentioned that the aircraft had just spent the past few days on some military charters, bringing troops home for Thanksgiving and that our flight was a very rare domestic flight with a 747. Captain Steve told everyone how we were in for a special trip today.

Flight-deck-N661USPrior to take off, I was able to visit the flight deck and visit with our pilots for the day. Delta had two of its senior captains on this quick domestic hop. Captain Steve Hanlon and Captain Joe Fowler brought the ship up from Atlanta and were also taking it back to finish the first round trip. Together they have 59+ years commercial flying experience. We were in capable hands for our two-hour ride to Atlanta.

I asked about our takeoff weight and how that affected performance. Captain Steve Hanlon said, “we would be much lighter than usual, most flights take-off near the maximum take-off weight of 870,000 pounds. Today we started our journey at 556,000 pounds.” Our takeoff weight was closer to the landing weight of most of his normal flights! Our light weight and the cool Minnesotan air meant a drastic de-rating of the engines was in order. Captain Steve assured me we would get up and go. We had plenty of power available even at the de-rated settings; there was no need to stress the engines and burn extra jet fuel.

The flight deck of 747-400 is relatively large; it was originally configured to hold a flight engineer in the -100 and -200 models. Despite the large footprint, headroom is limited for the captain and first officer when seated. Captain Joe Fowler had the left seat for our MSP-ATL leg, Captain Steve Hanlon would be the first officer. It is not too often that the first officer has 30+ years being a captain! The flight deck of the 747 sits on the top level of the plane; this provided a unique view when on the ground. In our case we were actually looking down at the roof of gate F12 and the rest of terminal. Our jumpseaters arrived and the flight deck began to fill up. Exit procedures were reviewed including the use of the inertia reel ladders in case the emergency exit had to be used. Some of the small yet important details that become apparent when you build a big plane are that you have to design and build unique solutions to meet the rules and regulations.

Business-Class-N661USAs we got closer to our departure time, it was time for me to find my assigned seat. Leaving the flight deck, the upper deck was muted and calm; these lucky 14 passengers had secured some of the best seats on the aircraft. The staircase down to the main level deposited me at the main boarding door.

Boarding had gone smoothly and all 376 seats were full. Passengers ranged from families to business travelers and lucky aviation enthusiasts. Our flight DL2345 had fellow MSP spotters Nick, Jean-Claude, Aaron and others on board. I was booked in coach, Nick had managed to reserve seat 1A, and Jean-Claude was in 3K.

Soon I was buckled in, luggage stowed and electronics put away. Captain Steve made a quick cabin announcement and soon we were on a short taxi to runway 30L. Hopefully my fellow spotters had positioned themselves correctly to get a picture of a very rare departure from this runway.

Even with the de-rated engine settings we blasted out of MSP from runway 30L and began to climb quickly. A few light bumps on the climb out and the houses of Minneapolis became little dots and gave way to the snow covered landscape of southern Minnesota. The sun shone brightly as we traveled to warm Atlanta.

A few minutes after the seat belt light went off I roamed around the cabin and mingled with my fellow spotters. For a seasoned domestic traveler, the luxury of a widebody plane is immediately seen and felt with the Boeing 747. Though you do feel crammed into a small aluminum tube, two aisles allow easy passenger movement and the fuselage cross section is large enough for good headroom. The window seat passenger is not contorted at his feet or head. After a quick chat with fellow spotter Aaron, I strolled up to the first/business class cabin. Personal space was abundant and the lie-flat seats provide a level of comfort not seen on single aisle aircraft. Lunch service was concluding as I met up with my fellow spotters. Nick had secured one of the coveted first row seats that actual fit in the curved portion of the aircraft nose. Jean-Claude was nearby in row three. It was a fine way to fly! Perhaps the best part was the space; here I was able stand and mingle in quiet comfort, while outside -60F temperatures and 550 mph winds buffeted N661US’s aluminum skin. Above our heads was the flight deck where captains Joe and Steve were busy navigating our way to Atlanta.

Traveling on a wide body aircraft is a treat, especially from MSP. It brought back memories of days gone by, when NWA and KLM filed the gates with 747s, DC-10s and MD-11s. Passing by the staircase brought back memories of my youth, when I was fortunate to travel to Europe as a youngster. Those trips shaped me and left me with lasting memories.

I realized that it has been 40+ years since my previous 747 flight. In my youth, we had a family trip to England. I have vague memories of the iconic spiral staircase and piano lounge on the earlier -100 models. The lounge is long gone and has been replaced by amazing lie flat seats and personal entertainment systems. It appears that a place to mingle with fellow travelers and share stories about upcoming adventures or the events of fortnights past has been replaced by your personal cocoon with noise-canceling headphones. But the constant of travel has been and is the Boeing 747, created when engineering was done with slide rules, drafting vellum and overhead projectors. Her graceful lines, bumps and bulges are timeless. The upper deck has been stretched, engines upgraded, winglets added and a host of other subtle changes engineers have made, but her form and lines are timeless and truly iconic.

Arriving in Atlanta brought our trip to a close. My date with the Queen was over, but N661US had two more segments to fly before her day was done.

In the skies, the Boeing 747-400 is graceful and sleek, transporting hundreds of people thousands of miles with ease. On the ground and at the gate, her size becomes apparent. It was a unique perspective to be looking at the top of the terminal from the flight deck when we were parked at the gate.

The Boeing 747-400 is a big plane. A few comparisons to put things in perspective:

  • My car seats 5 comfortable, this 747-400 is configured for 376 passenger seats and it brought us to Atlanta at 39,000 feet while going 550 mph.
  • My car takes 17 gallons of gas to fill up; a 747-400 can carry up to 57,000 gallons of fuel.
  • My car weighs in at about 4400lbs.; the maximum take-off weight of N661US 870,000 lbs.

The 747-400 does amazing things; the ability to cross continents or oceans non-stop are all in a day’s work for this amazing aircraft. Among those that were brought to Atlanta by N661US, a handful were making a “mileage run” on this special aircraft, others had been brought home, others were starting their workweek and the lucky ones were off on the vacation of a lifetime. For the aviation enthusiast like me, this routine two-hour flight was my adventure. While the aircraft seemed to defy the rules of physics (getting a 556,000lb. plane airborne and touching down with barely a bump), my personal adventure was filled with awe, laughs, new insights, new friends and more than my share of Biscoff cookies.

Our two-hour flight from MSP-ATL had burned 44,000 pounds of fuel and added one more take-off and landing cycle to this 26-year-old airframe. Airframe N661US is the oldest 747-400 in the fleet. Even at 26 years old, the heavy C and D checks and a cabin upgrade make her seem new and fresh; most passengers guessed we were flying a 5-10 year old plane.

N661us-leaving atl-3Unfortunately, the clock is ticking for N661US. Delta is scheduled to retire all its 747-400 aircraft by 2017. As business needs change and as more efficient aircraft are available, the smart business decision is to retire the old guard. For me, this trip was a great opportunity to fly on a truly large aircraft, but it was so much more than just being on a transportation appliance carrying me from point A to point B. Today’s trip was about meeting new people, reliving old memories, remembering the wide eyed awe of young child traveling. I am a lucky man living in interesting times where technological advances make it possible to cover great distances, and new innovations change our world at a dizzying pace. But every now and then I stand in the presence of greatness, an engineering marvel of aluminum, titanium and composites.

I hope this was not my final date with the Queen of the skies, but our time together was special. She showed many others and myself the joy of aviation. From the captains, passengers and crew, we all knew we were on a special journey.

I would like to thank Delta Airlines for the media access that made this article possible.

Jeremy D. Dando is an avid spotter and aviation photographer based in Minneapolis. His photographs have been published in several books and corporate publications. He enjoys photographing all types of aviation, but has a passion for cargo operations and warbirds. 

 



About the Author

Jeremy Dando





 
 

 

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  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Is a 30L departure that rare? It went off that way quite a bit when it was in frequent service to NRT over the summer.

    I was bummed to have missed this. Delta ran some similar routes around this time last year and I’d asked if they could specifically communicate if they did the same this year.

  • No Fly Zone

    Before long we’ll be planning to ride the “Final” scheduled passenger flights on a major carrier’s 747. Not yet, but it is coming.
    Thanks for the fun report. I too have not seen a 744 in domestic service for several years. Nice to know that Delta has the fleet flexibility to swap airplanes, assign very senior crew to add seat capacity for a busy holiday route. Get the last ones while you can… -C.

  • Douglas

    Last night marked her last flight for passenger service with Delta, HNL-ATL. She will be on static display at the museum in the upcoming quarter.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Excited to catch this flight tomorrow!