Friday October 13, 2017

'The plane that changed the world': Pilot pens loving tribute to Boeing 747

Mark Vanhoenacker is a senior first officer with British Airways. As airlines start to retire the Boeing 747, Vanhoenacker professed his love for the iconic plane in an article for The New York Times.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a senior first officer with British Airways. As airlines start to retire the Boeing 747, Vanhoenacker professed his love for the iconic plane in an article for The New York Times. (Mark Vanhoenacker)

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The Boeing 747 is flying off into the sunset.

The iconic aircraft is being retired from American passenger travel this year. The first 747 took flight in 1969 and the "jumbo jet" has been making long-haul flights ever since.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a senior first officer with British Airways and the author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. He  has written a tender tribute to the plane in the New York Times this week.

Vanhoenacker spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what it means to say goodbye to his beloved 747. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

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Mark Vanhoenacker was 14 the first time he flew in a 747 and he remembers ever detail of the flight — even his seat number. (Mark Vanhoenacker)

Mark, when did your love affair with the Boeing 747 begin?

I think it started when I was a kid. I grew up in western Massachusetts. I was just obsessed with airplanes. On my desk at home, I had a big light-up globe and I had lots of airplane models. They were mostly 747s. Occasionally, we would drive down to Kennedy Airport. I would see these 747 tails all around me, mostly Pan-Am in those days, and they just looked like a dream to me. They looked like everything I dreamed I might some day have as a pilot — that sense of spanning the world and connecting far-off places with this really beautiful machine. Pilots often joke that we're on really good terms with our inner children and my inner child is definitely still looking up at a 747. 

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Mark Vanhoenacker is a senior first officer with British Airways and the author of "Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot." (Mark Vanhoenacker)

It's interesting that you point that out, because we board these massive planes, but we just go down a ramp and cross over to get into it. You can't feel the size of it unless you're on the ground. For a boy,  it must have been — well, the tail is like tall as a building.

That's initially why it was so famous. It was so large. It was two-and-a-half times bigger than its predecessors. The length of the plane is nearly twice the length of the first flight of the Wright Brothers, which certainly puts it in perspective. It was considered a liner — almost in the ocean liner sense of the term. It really was a scale change in air travel and that's initially what it was so famous for.

When was your first flight?

The very first time I can remember flying on a 747 was a flight from Kennedy Airport to Amsterdam. I remember everything about that flight. I was 14. I was in seat 33A.

You remember the seat number?

I remember the seat number. I probably still have the boarding pass somewhere in a box of childhood belongings. One of the other reasons I remember it, probably, was it was the first time I flew with a Walkman. It was the first time I listened to music while flying. There was something about listening to music on my headphones while taking off or landing that was somehow tied with the romance and majesty of that 747. I remember the wings. When you're in a window seat and you just look out at those wings — a hundred feet of shining metal that's holding you up. It's just an amazing thing to see, especially when you're a kid who might someday want to be a pilot. 

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Mark Vanhoenacker in the cockpit. (Mark Vanhoenacker)

I think for passengers everyone feels that thrill. But what was it like to actually be in the cockpit and be hurdling down the runway and flying one of those birds?

That's a flight I remember pretty much as well as I do that first flight as a passenger. It was a flight from London Heathrow to Hong Kong in 2007. Obviously, we had done plenty of training for it in the flight simulators. But when you're doing it for real, it's just unbelievable. The sense of power. There's something about the 747 engines where at their highest power they actually seem to get a little quieter. They seem to be something that you feel more than hear. As we went down the runway and lifted off, that little kid in me, I'm sure he had a big smile on his face. It's a highlight of my career, for sure.

It was absolutely a game-changer for travel, and also, it started turning up in popular culture. There are songs about that plane.

Yes, the plane is so stuck in the popular imagination that it migrated into all sorts of other realms of culture. You could have a very long 747 playlist — Tom Petty, The Pet Shop Boys, Iron Maiden, Earth, Wind and Fire, Prince, and Joni Mitchell, of course. She has a song Amelia, which is actually one of my favourite songs, but it mentions the 747.

You had the 747 even featured at your wedding?

Yes, it did. The cake was a 747-shaped cake which required a little extra discussion with the baker. That almost symbolizes how innate the 747 is in our culture. I didn't even have to specify that it was a plane or a Boeing. You just say those numbers and people know what you mean. A few weeks ago, there was a Game of Thrones producer who was describing the size of the dragons in the show and he described them as lizards the size of a 747. Whether you're talking about a wedding cake, a dragon in a contemporary TV show, or a Joni Mitchell song — everybody knows what those numbers mean and I think that will change as the plane slowly moves into retirement.

And that's what's happening, isn't it? This analogy of things to 747 will not mean anything to kids in future generations. Why are the passenger planes being retired?

The passenger planes will still be flying with a number of airlines. But at the end of the day, I think that twin engine planes tend to have greater efficiencies and the plane I hope to fly next, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, is as revolutionary now as the 747 was in its day. It has a lot of features that kind of reopen the experience of flying to passengers. It has much larger windows, for example. So, hopefully planes like that will reinvigorate the experience of flying for a new generation of passengers and pilots. But I think it's fair to say there won't be anything like the 747 again. It was the plane that changed the world and I feel very grateful that I had a chance to fly it. 

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Vanhoenacker hopes Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner planes will reinvigorate the experience of flying for a new generation. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

The 787 you mentioned, the big attraction there is it's more fuel efficient, it's less noisy and it doesn't pollute as much. That's the future, isn't it? I mean, try to get a plane that has all those features.

Yes. I have some friends who fly it and the flight deck looks like something out of Star Trek. It's a revolutionary aircraft and it has a lot of technologies that make flying more comfortable. And also, as a kid who had his faced pressed to the window of a lot of planes, I wouldn't underestimate the importance of those larger windows. It means the experience of flight, of what we actually get to see when we're up there, is opened again for little kids, and not so little kids, that might be having a chance to look out the window.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Mark Vanhoenacker.