Monday, October 9, 2017

God Save the Queen! Flying on the last domestic Boeing 747 flight (or so we thought)

Photo by Joe Pries, used with permission.

This is one of those times where I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts into words, considering just how special and epic this adventure was.  I'm going to start from the very beginning, and just crawl my way from there.

This all started in early June when I first heard about the one-off flight on one of the websites I routinely follow as a travel agent.  It simply said that Delta is putting the Boeing 747 on it's final trek home to Detroit from Asia via Honolulu and Los Angeles on September 5th.  I was floored.  I took a look at how much the fare would be to get onto this particular flight, and I was heartbroken.  The fare was over $800 one-way just doing Los Angeles-Detroit.  Well, that's that, I was thinking.

A few months later I get the invite from a higher up to come out to the California for an impromptu meeting.  He also mentioned that we will also be heading down to Los Angeles for an "event held by Delta Airlines".  I thought nothing more of it and it didn't even hit me it was the same date as the retirement.

So the day before the sendoff I flew to San Francisco for the meeting, then down to Los Angeles, going back to connect through Salt Lake City in the process.  Why would I do something like this?  Well, it was allowed, and I needed to rack up a few more miles.  So I finally made it Los Angeles, and was whisked away to my home away from home, the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena to spend the night.

After yet another fantastic and flawless stay at the Langham (where I actually had some time to wander around the property for once), not to mention the higher than incredible welcome back chocolates waiting for me in my room when I checked in,  I ended up at LAX quite early since I wanted to get some spotting in (it's been a while), so my first stop was the iconic In-N-Out burger joint on Sepluveda Blvd. for lunch while watching the planes coming into land over us.  Awesome place, definitely one of my favorite spots in LA, not just for the avgeek in me, but anyone in general should visit this place, but get in line, it'll be packed to the gills when you get here!

After lunch I made my way to Terminal 2, part of Delta's new home in LAX (giving up the long held Terminal 5 from Western Airlines to be over run by the Ultra- Low Cost Airlines), and checked in about 8 hours early for my flight.  I was under the impression I was just a tad too early, but the agent checked me in and took my bag. Phew!  Off to Security screening, and the inevitable pat down.

Delta recently moved from their former long time home of Terminal 5 to both Terminals 2 and 3 (the former iconic TWA terminal seen in countless movies), giving them more space and flexibility, or so they say.  They have Sky Clubs on the upper levels of both terminals with great views of the ramp and the North runways (but seriously, whats up with the Cup Noodles?).  These clubs have become my favorite go to spots for spotting inside the LAX terminal complex.  Free liquor, snacks, and you get to watch planes all day long?  What more could you ask for?  Needless to say, I hung out in the T3 SkyClub for a few hours spotting until I saw the Queen arrive from Honolulu into the Sunset.

Once she touched down and taxied past the SkyClub windows to her gate at T2, I finished what I was doing and made my way to the inter-terminal bus leaving out of Gate 35P, looking at the Delta branded Porsche pull up to the Terminal with no doubt a Diamond Medallion member catching his next flight.  The ride over to T2 was neat, with a Delta A330 just having pushed out of its gate and on it's way to Atlanta, and our bus driver scooting us by well under the wing of the big bird.

I don't know why, but I got confused and almost lost looking for the elevator up to the third floor of Terminal 2.  I thought I had seen it on my way to the gate, but I asked a Delta agent in the middle of the concourse and she pointed right at it.  Upon first glance, the elevator is almost hidden by the gift shop next to it, and it threw me for a loop.  So up I went into the SkyClub, and after check-in there was a big sign stating the retirement of the 747 and the room to the left was blocked off for a private party.  A few of the folks at the entrance saw the shirt I was wearing with my big, red, Northwest 747 on it (where Delta inherited their fleet from) and was invited in.

Turns out I had unknowingly crashed the farewell party the Diamond Medallion members were throwing.  Since I had my upgrade to Delta One in hand, I was invited with open arms.  The high flyers had taken up ALL but one (my seat) of the 48 Delta One seats on the Queen.  Everyone in the lounge was in good spirits and I met several incredible people that brighten up my news feeds on a regular basis.  The SkyClub was gracious and had food and drink aplenty on hand, and there were cameras all around.  I only stuck around for a good 45 minutes before having to find a quieter corner of the SkyClub and get in touch with home.  Chatted with the family for a bit, then gathered my stuff and headed down to the gate to meet another friend from online that was also on the flight.

By the time I got down to Gate 25, the waiting area was completely packed.  Found my friend and hung out with the crowd around him until boarding, The mood in the gate area was definitely MUCH different than any other flight I've ever boarded.  Everyone was in a good mood and happy, even those not flying to celebrate the Queen, just getting from point A to point B.  The gate agents came on several times to announce the flight and that boarding will begin earlier than normal due to the circumstances and special occasion.  Finally, the gate agent came on and began boarding the flight, with SkyTeam Priority and First Class passengers (yay me!) first.  I scanned my boarding pass and down the jetway I went, phone in hand and video rolling.

At the end of the jetway I was, entering the Queen with my right foot first and my customary hand pat of the fuselage before entry, I hung a left instead of the customary right and following the other Diamond Medallions to our seats (pods if you ask me).  I was in 9D, the center seat on the port side aisle, just behind the galley and L1 entry door.  These seats were amazing (even if my fat ass STILL needed a seat belt extender on the Big Boeing), and was completely lie flat, perfect for those premium passengers that flew the Queen to far flung Asian and Oriental destinations from Minneapolis, Detroit, New York/JFK, and Atlanta all those years.  The seat isn't front to back straight, in fact, it's in a style called "reverse herringbone" where the seat is slanted what..10-15 degrees in, so you it's easier to face your neighbor, and it is incredibly private and there is a LOT of storage space!  So I got myself settled in...sort of.  The rest of the cabin filled up, and the party got started, and a few of the folks from the forward section came back, yanked me and the others out of our seats and we all marched upstairs for the cockpit visits and customary traveling fool photos.

The Upper Deck on Delta's 747-400's were the cherry seats (there's only 14 of them to begin with), and they were the very first ones to be sold.  I was fine with that, 9D was perfect for me, I was just grateful to be in Delta One, let alone be on the flight period.  There was a massive line for cockpit shots and a few of my new found cohorts were having fun taking shots crowding themselves into the super exclusive upstairs lavatory, the crew rest, and finally into the cockpit.  There was a Delta crew member from my home base of Salt Lake City hanging out in the cockpit to snap photos for the folks who wanted a pic of them on the jumpseat.

Back downstairs I go, and finally got myself settled in.  The Flight Attendants came by and took our orders for the pre-departure beverages and passed out special earbuds with the Queen on the cover as a memento for this very special flight.  With so much storage space, I stowed my laptop above me, but kept my headphones, book, and other personal articles from my pockets in the storage cubby on the center console. The In-Flight Entertainment System was a much larger screen than the ones I am used to in Coach, and with the touch of a button, the screen popped out and I was set to peg the in-flight map for the duration of the journey.   Freaking amazing setup, if you ask me, aside from the narrow confines.  We pushed back right on time, and on both sides of the plane you could see the glow of hundreds of wands from the ramp agents below lining up to pay their respects to a plane they have worked with, flown on, and load and unload thousands of times over the decades.  It was incredibly touching and more than a few of us shed buckets of tears at this simple, final gesture.  The taxi out to the departure runway didn't take long at all, and the Queen lifted off with grace and ease, and was so smooth you wouldn't notice we were taking off if you didn't look around to see the cabin tilt up or the ground outside drop from view as were hurtled over the beach and out over the Pacific.

The 747 was originally envisioned as an "Ocean Liner in the Sky", and boy let me tell you, it feels like it.  As far back as I can remember, all of my 747 flights have felt this way.  It feels nothing like a flight in say, a 767 or 737.  I laid the seat all the way down to catch a few winks before our all too quick arrival into Detroit.  I like to sleep on my side, and I had no problem turning over and getting comfortable, if a tad claustrophobic due to the distance between my nose and the sidewall. wonder the amenity kits have eyeshades in them.  I slipped one on, turned on my music from my phone (which was plugged in to the in-flight power), and dozed off until we were well into our descent.

Touchdown in Detroit was feather-light and it was still pretty dark out while we taxied around and to our gate.  Once the plane was parked at gate 54A, and the seat belt sign went off, I took my time gathering my belongings and getting off the plane.  After deplaning and giving the old girl a quick kiss before making my way up the jetway, I stopped just before the jetway door and, along with quite a few others, took a few photos of the Queen at her gate for what we thought was the final time hauling revenue passengers.  Once out into the gate area us Medallion members that were part of the group partying in LA was lassoed into an empty part of the gate area for another group photo op with the Queen right behind us.  We were also invited up to the SkyClub, but my connecting flight was leaving in about an hour and I didn't want to risk missing my onward flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and I said my good-byes and made my way to the departure gate at the other end of the concourse.

Before arriving at my gate I took a peek out the windows as the sun was coming up, and out at the remote parking stands away from the concourse was another Queen taking a well deserved rest...right next to her replacement, the new flagship of the fleet, the Airbus A350.  At the time of my adventure, there were two on property in Detroit, as that will be their first base, doing route proving and getting flight and ground crews familiar with the plane before entering revenue service.  She's a gorgeous looking bird, and I for one, can't wait to take a ride on her to some far flung Asian destination.

My flight to LaGuardia went by in a flash, considering I passed out just as we were pushing back from the gate, and woke up during touchdown.  My seatmates told me I was out the entire flight and snoring like a freight train.  I needed that nap in a major way, I had to get freshened up before catching my private car transfer to Newark Airport to meet up with an old friend before flying home on another airline.

It turns out this wasn't the 747's swan song for Delta, as just a week later, they were pressed into service hauling people and supplies in and out of the damaged areas in Florida that were hit by Hurricane Irma.  Now THAT's a fitting sendoff for a Queen.

In hindsight, this was such an amazing adventure, and I'm grateful I was given the opportunity to be along for the ride.  I met quite a few new people I'm glad to call friends on both ends of the country and from points in between.  I spent some quality time at my beloved Langham Huntington Pasadena Hotel (a HUGE thank you to the amazing staff, and to Jennifer, my go-to gal for anything and everything Langham related).  A heartfelt thank you to my higher ups that sent me on this whirlwind adventure, and to the one and only Queen, the Boeing 747-400.  I might not have covered as many miles on her as others have (my only trips on 747's were on the original 747-100 and 747SP with TWA back in the 1980's and 1990's going to visit family in Greece), but my appreciation for her place in airline and aviation history is well placed and I was glad to be there for the farewell.  Last but not least, an huge thank you to Delta, for setting this flight up the way they did, and for the Diamond Medallion (DDMF) folks for throwing the party to end all fleet retirement parties, thank you, from the very bottom of my tiny little heart.