So Long, Senior Fleet
The Captain and I had completed the ritual briefing discussing and debating topics such as the scattered CBs (cumulonimbus clouds. -ed) between Hong Kong and Taipei, lazily floating along in the humid, hot tropical air of Southeastern Asia. Runway closures were discussed, lest we tempt fate like an ill advised Singapore Airlines crew so many years earlier. Fuel loads were calculated, and discussed until all parties were happy. The formality of this meeting of the minds carried out in “Despatch” was a precursor to the formality of the entire operation. And the operation was no small task. As the girls formed their receiving line, three hundred and fifty individuals were boarding a Cathay Pacific B747-400 for their quick flight to Taipei, a flight as short as they come in an airplane destined for the farthest corners of the globe.
As we all gathered on the bus at Cathay City, perfume wafting through the aisle, our very proper British Captain introduced us once again and provided our flight details and concerns for the flight. Our driver navigated the twisting back roads of Chek Lap Kok, and eventually pulled out onto the ramp at Bay 69. As we descended the steps of the bus, there sat a most inspiring image, our Rolls Royce RB211 powered, Cathay Pacific B747-400 towering overhead as regal as ever. The Captain glanced over, and in the smoothest, most proper British accent remarked, “Your Sector”, the two most beloved words a B747-400 pilot could hear.
Cathay Pacific’s B747 fleet got its start in 1979, when the airline was awarded the Hong Kong-London Gatwick route. The fleet began with one B747-200, and would eventually add B747-300 and B747-400 models, almost all exclusively powered by Rolls Royce engines. In later years, Cathay would add B747-400 Freighters, as well as the B747-8F freighter. I spent the majority of my time flying the freighter models, but a few times each year, I would have the opportunity to experience flying the passenger jet. For seven years I was privileged to have the occasional opportunity to fly thousands of passengers on Cathay’s B747-400 fleet throughout Asia, across the Taiwan Straits into Taipei, down the Vietnamese coast on the way to Singapore, over the steamy jungles of Laos on the way into Bangkok, and across the frigid waters of the North Pacific on the way towards Vancouver. I’ve visited the snow covered mountains of Sapporo, witnessed the chaos of traffic in Manila, and wandered aimlessly through beautiful Japanese temples in Tokyo. I’ve crossed the equator at M.85 headed south, with a winglet out my window, and a cheese and fruit platter on my lap provided by the best cabin crew in the world. Without having flown the B747-400 passenger jet I would not have had those experiences
During my time at Cathay Pacific(2007-2014), the B747-400 passenger fleet was considered the “senior fleet”. I found this nomenclature slightly ironic because all of our aircraft types could be considered “senior” at any other airline in the world. Because of that designation at Cathay, I flew with some of the most senior captains in the entire company. This is the way it should be. To quote, the late TWA Captain Bob Buck, “ To fly the 747 is to fly with dignity,”. These Senior Captains, mostly from England, but many from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the occasional American, had earned their Four Bars the hard way. They had earned the right to fly in the left seat of the B747-200’s, B747-300’s, and B747-400’s that served Cathay’s passenger fleet, by battling typhoons in the South China Sea, negotiating monster thunderstorms in the Straights of Malacca, and blizzards in Sapporo. Every single one of them that I flew with had tales to tell about the experience of flying in and out of Kai Tak on a daily basis, hand flying the most graceful aircraft in the sky between the open windowed flats in East Kowloon. The sight of a Jumbo passing through the buildings of Hong Kong on it’s way past the checkerboard into Kai Tak remains timeless. Every aviator wishes they could have done that, and in a B747 no less. If they say they don’t, they are lying.
With their experience and mission oriented mindsets, some of the senior Captain’s on the B747 fleet fell into the “Skygods” caricature. Most were absolute top notch gentlemen(I personally never flew with a female B747 Captain at Cathay, but that is not because we did not have any). Some, however, were feared. Names are not important, but there were a handful most didn’t want to see for fear of being screamed at for doing something wrong, or heaven forbid having made up the bunk incorrectly! Cathay’s B747-400 fleet was an all business fleet. It was serious business and that culture came from the top down. Unfortunately, that meant not a whole lot of time to stop and smell the roses. Once we were off the bus, it was straight to work, and when you fly a B747-400 everyday, it can become like anything else, not that big of a deal. For myself, getting the opportunity to fly the passenger jet a few times a year brought me out of the monotony of mostly flying the freight. We didn’t get much time to truly appreciate the size and scale of her during our working hours, but I always tried to appreciate the scale of the airplane and the mission during my exterior preflight inspection. It was one of the few moments where the B747-400’s size was truly apparent. I would try to walk the cabin before boarding it there was time, but usually that wasn’t a possibility with all of our preflight preparations. With the exception of sitting 30’ off of the ground, the flight deck did not offer any indication of the size of the craft stretching out behind. In fact, when sitting in the right seat, I always felt the cockpit was cramped. Yes, it was a spacious flight deck, particularly when looking aft, but in the seat it was tight.
Over the years, Cathay’s B747 fleet has had an impeccable safety record and it is a shame to see this iconic aircraft’s days come to an end for this airline. RASMs and CASMs have taken their toll and the four grossly overpowered Rolls Royce engines are no longer efficient enough going forward to please the accountants, or the environmentalists. The Grand Dame of Cathay’s fleet is being put out to pasture, and for the passengers, not much will change. They will still fly one of the most advanced widebody fleets in the world, and they will still receive the same excellent service from the delightfully scented young cabin crew. However, when they deplane they won’t see four engines, or the graceful lines of that massive wing and six foot winglet. They won’t see the iconic upper deck, the most desired and sought after seat on any aircraft worldwide for pilots and passengers alike, and that is a shame.
The shuttering of B747-400 passenger jet service at Cathay Pacific is the end of an era. The fleet served London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Sydney, Paris, and many other glittering metropolises around the world. It was a grand airplane, flying for a grand airline, to parts near and far. It was an iconic jet, flying for an iconic airline, in and out of an iconic city, Hong Kong. Hong Kong itself is a city that was and still remains completely appropriate for a Boeing 747. It has character like no other, a uniqueness pulsating through it’s existence, and a grace and beauty that cannot compare. This could be said about the jet, or the city.
My last “sector” flying the airplane was in January of 2014, and I will remember the experience of flying 747’s for those seven years for the remainder of my life. When I sit here in my home on Long Island, it still seems unfathomable that a young kid from New York could have experienced what I did on Cathay’s B747-400 fleet. The freighter fleet will live on, but let’s face it, everyone wants to have flown the passenger jet. I was fortunate to have experienced the “dignity” of flying the B747-400 passenger jet for a brief moment in time. It was great while it lasted, but now that experience is gone forever. So long, Senior Fleet.
Justin Schlechter is a Captain for a major airline, and lives with his family on Long Island, NY.
Photos courtesy Justin Barlow.