Final Goodbye - Singapore Airlines’ Last 747 Passenger Flight

Last month, Rob Neil accompanied the last ever passenger flights by Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 747s—SQ747 and SQ748 from Singapore–Hong Kong–Singapore. Rob reports on the flights and the celebrations, while Rudi van der Zwaal looks back nostalgically on his experience as a Singapore Airlines B747 pilot.

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In September 1973, Singapore Airlines invited the world on board its brand new Boeing 747s and showed everyone that it was, indeed, a great way to fly. During the next four decades, the Boeing 747 became an integral part of Singapore Airlines’ outstanding success story, and took the airline from its tiny Southeast Asian island home to six continents and the soaring heights of service.

Singapore Airlines was one of the earliest major customers for the 747 and it operated every major version of the 747—the -100, -200, -300 and -400—all with great success. Among a number of “firsts” in Singapore Airlines’ successful history, in 1984, its 747s became the first to fly non-stop from London to Singapore and, in 1989, it was the first to operate a commercial flight across the Pacific in a 747-400.

On Friday 6 April 2012, nearly 40 years after Singapore Airlines invited its first guests aboard its first 747, the airline invited another group of guests aboard its very last passenger 747 to share a fond and emotional farewell to this beautiful and iconic aircraft.

After a well-planned celebration and breakfast at the Singapore Airport departure lounge for SQ747’s guests—Pacific Wings among them—Flight SQ747 departed Singapore at 08:30 and arrived in Hong Kong at 13:15. After a brief stopover in Hong Kong and a repeat of the morning’s celebrations, the Hong Kong passengers boarded the last ever Singapore Airlines Boeing 747 passenger flight—SQ748—as it headed home for the last time to Singapore.

The end of the 747’s commercial life as a passenger aircraft for Singapore Airlines was a momentous milestone in the history of both the aircraft and the airline. The “Queen of the Skies” had lived with Singapore Airlines since almost the time of the aircraft’s birth and nearly the entire period of Singapore Airlines’ existence as an independent company (after Malaysia-Singapore Airlines split in 1972). Not surprisingly, the 747 had become almost a symbol of the airline; Singapore Airlines and the Boeing 747 had well and truly “grown up together”—and it had been a very happy family.

As a passenger, I have always considered the 747 to be a particular favourite. Furthermore, I have made several flights in Singapore Airlines 747s over the years, and that particular combination of aircraft and airline rates higher for me than any other except the 747 in Air New Zealand service. So while I was glad to be a part of the historic occasion, my heart was heavy as I looked out of the departure lounge window to see 9V-SPQ standing faithfully at the gate awaiting her last ever call to service. It seemed impossible—and prompted a lump in my throat—to think that the gentle giant would really be leaving Singapore service. Unaware that her days were over and that she was to be assigned to Singapore Airlines’ history (albeit a proud one), the elegant lady stood waiting silently, looking impassively through the window at those within as they celebrated the end of her glorious working life.

With those kinds of emotions manifesting themselves in casual passengers like me, it was not surprising that some of the Singapore staff—many of whom had spent entire careers working with the 747—shed a few tears at the ceremonies in Singapore and Hong Kong.

It might not have been quite as historic as attending the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, perhaps, but for anyone for whom aviation is in the blood, this was a truly memorable event. For those of us fortunate enough to be invited aboard SQ747 and SQ748, Singapore Airlines more than lived up to its reputation for service and treated guests on the final flights to champagne service from start to finish. Meals in economy class were as good as some of the business class fare in lesser airlines and cabin crew didn’t need to do anything different from the way they usually do in order to impress; as it has always been in my experience with Singapore Airlines, customer service was exceptional.

Part of Singapore Airlines’ well-deserved reputation as one of the best airlines in the world is based on its commitment to maintaining one of the youngest fleets in the world; the average age of the aircraft in its 100-strong fleet is just over six years. On long routes where it still needs significant capacity, Singapore now operates Airbus A380s and services its other routes with Boeing 777s, Airbus A330s and Airbus A340s. In the near future, it will be adding Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s to its fleet.

While its passenger 747s have now gone, Singapore Airlines Cargo (a wholly-owned subsidiary) operates a fleet of 13 747-400 freighters.

The Boeing 747—a brief summary

When Boeing first developed the now iconic 747, it was a massive gamble for the company, which had to borrow heavily to complete development of what was then the world’s biggest aircraft, and to establish production facilities for it. The programme could easily have ended in financial disaster for Boeing—had the 747 not been arguably the greatest airliner of all time. Since the type’s first flight, Boeing 747s have carried more than 3.5 billion passengers—equivalent to half the world’s population—and travelled a distance of more than 42 billion miles, equivalent to more than 101,500 return trips to the moon.

The first Boeing 747-100 (s/n 20235) first flew on 9 February 1969 and the first aircraft entered commercial service less than a year later, in January 1970, when Pan Am took delivery of its first 747. Despite arriving on the international scene just in time for the 1973 oil crisis, the 747 changed the face of global air travel.

Although its size was its most distinctive characteristic, it was the 747’s range that attracted many airlines to buy it, particularly those having to cross the major oceans. For many years, its instantly recognisable shape was synonymous with international travel, as the 747’s range allowed airlines to cross the world’s biggest oceans with ease. It was only when ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) extensions began in the mid- to late 1980s that the 747’s reign came under attack from increasing numbers of modern, reliable, economical twins.

With the continual increases in ETOPS allowing large twins—like Boeing’s 777 and 787, and Airbus’s A330—to cross oceans with increasingly less restriction, the 747 has gradually lost much of its previous range advantage for many airlines and the cost of feeding its four engines can no longer be justified. For example, the biggest 777 (the 777-300ER) has even better range and uses around 20% less fuel than the 747-400 while carrying only slightly fewer passengers (360 (three-class), 450 (two-class)) compared to 416–520 passengers in the 747-400.

Despite moves by a number of airlines to trade their 747s for twins like the 777/787 or Airbus 340/350—almost entirely for economic reasons based on the rocketing cost of fuel—the 747 remains an outstandingly reliable and effective airliner, and is universally loved by both crews and passengers alike.

Nevertheless, I don’t think there can be much doubt that the 747’s days are numbered in passenger service with the world’s airlines. Except for a few high-capacity routes where the 747’s size still works in its favour, the economic reality of feeding four (now elderly) engines to do a job that two more modern engines can do far cheaper no longer stacks up.

The latest 747-8I (Intercontinental) is a different story and the new aircraft (an “Empress of the Skies” to replace the “Queen of the Skies”?) is simultaneously larger and more economical than the 747-400, so the 747 will still be with the aviation world for many more years as a passenger aircraft.

While it will gradually be retired from passenger service in many airlines (including Air New Zealand, which is currently replacing its 747s with 777s), the 747 will live on for decades yet as a highly effective freighter. Indeed, many of the world’s retired passenger 747s might end up being converted into freighters.

Memories of the 747

By Ruud van der Zwaal

I first flew the 747 in 1982 and still remember, as if it were yesterday, the first takeoff I made in a 747 SP during the aircraft’s training detail with Saudia. Before then, the biggest aircraft I had flown was the Lockheed L1011, which, although it was a genuine “wide body”, could not be compared to the 747.

It is almost a given that in any movie or advertisement involving an aircraft arriving or departing from an airport, it is usually a 747. The greatness and beauty of this aircraft is unsurpassed, and it will remain an icon of luxurious travel and adventure for a long time to come.

If you were to ask any pilot with a few thousand hours in different wide bodies which aircraft they consider to be the best plane he or she ever flew, I can guarantee the answer will always be the same…the 747.

There is no greater pleasure than climbing the stairs to the upper deck and walking into the comfortably cosy cockpit. Despite the rest of the aircraft’s size, the 747’s cockpit is far less spacious than one might expect but there is something purposeful—almost agricultural or military—about the 747’s flight deck (especially in the pre-400 models) that endows it with a sense of solidity and strength unmatched in anything else I have flown.

The first time you climb into the pilot’s seat, you realise that your shoulder is quite close to the side window and there is not as much space as you might have expected in such a big aeroplane, but it is a nice-fitting secure feeling; you know that this is a real aviator’s aeroplane. The cockpit might be a little agricultural and noisy at times, but you quickly learn the tricks to things like keeping the sun out and your shoulder warm; at the end of the day, I think it is the best seat in the house.

With a real control column in front of you and controls that have large movements, you can see and feel what the other pilot is doing. It has throttles that really move and that give you the feeling that they are “connected” to the engines. If you want more power, you move the throttles forward; if you want to reduce power, you pull them back. Having flown 747s for more than 22 years, I spent the last five years of my career flying Airbus 340-500s, so I feel qualified to compare the two different “flying philosophies”. While I was perfectly happy flying the A340s, I suspect you might be able to read between the lines as to what my personal preference was.

Sitting in a 747 cockpit almost gives you a slight feeling of superiority as you look down over other aeroplanes around you or parked at other gates. It was always a fantastic sight to walk up to the gate in Singapore and see our “Big Top” (and later “Mega Top”) looking down on us those of us who were going to fly it and those who were being flown.

Despite the 747’s size, taxiing it was a pleasure, as the steering tiller was very responsive and was actually easy to use. The main body landing gear incorporated additional steering to reduce turn radius and also prevented tire scrubbing, and this was a valuable feature that undoubtedly contributed to the 747’s benign behaviour on the ground.

The only thing that required some getting used to on the first few flights was the fact that the aircraft’s nose wheel sits a long way behind the cockpit. This makes turning on narrow taxiways or making 180-degree turns to backtrack on narrow runways unusual, as the cockpit is well over the grass or outside the runway edge. It requires good briefing and practice to keep the wheels on the pavement. I cannot help thinking back to our night arrivals and departures in the Maldives and Mauritius, which required 180-degree turns at the ends of the runways.

There is nothing quite like taking off in a 747: lining up, standing up the throttles, engaging auto thrust, hearing the roar of the engines and feeling the—initially slow—acceleration of up to 400 tons of aeroplane…it is most probably one of the most exciting things you can do. At maximum takeoff weight, the plane accelerates to somewhere around 175 knots (325 km/h) before getting airborne—all in about 3,000 metres of runway.

Although the 747 is a heavy aeroplane, it flies very nicely and is very responsive, especially considering its size and inertia. I always loved to hand-fly the aircraft to at least 15,000 feet before engaging the autopilot. Then it was a matter of sliding the seat back, undoing the shoulder harness, getting a little bit of paper work done (no more than about three minutes!) and having a look at the menu. The forward galley stewardess would ring the doorbell, come in with coffee or whatever drink we had requested earlier, and take our orders for lunch, breakfast or dinner, depending on the time of the day; life was sweet!

On longer flights—and in Singapore, almost all of the flights were longer ones—we had three pilots and two engineers in the -100, -200 and -300 models or, in some cases, a complete double crew in to meet duty and rest requirements.

When it came time to rest, we either rested in a business class seat in the cabin or in a little room behind the cockpit, where we had two bunk beds for the resting crew. I personally liked the bunks and slept many comfortable hours in them as we cruised our way around the world to our various destinations.

About half an hour before top of descent, the command crew resumed its place in the cockpit and began preparations for landing. In the Classic models, this required you to do some calculations in your head to determine your “top of descent”. In times before we had all the fantastic gizmos in the cockpit to work everything out for us, we had to do simple old fashioned arithmetic; provided air traffic control did not impose restrictions on us, a normal top of descent worked out to be roughly three times the altitude in (thousands of) feet. Thus, if we were cruising at 36,000 feet and the airport we were descending to was at sea level, we would begin our descent at around 108 miles from our destination (36 × 3).

Back when we did not have to think too much about the price of fuel—and when arriving on or even before schedule was an important factor in planning—I liked to make high-speed descents and approaches, and cut some 10 minutes off the flying time.

I have never flown an aircraft that was so stable in all phases of flight and so nice to handle—especially in turbulent conditions—as the 747. Only the 747 SP was a little more temperamental, particularly in pitch attitude, and it needed a little bit more attention. Flying an SP at maximum takeoff weight with a full fuel load always felt like driving a big truck pulling a trailer.

There is an old joke that a 747 on final, with full flaps, gear down and Vref +5 (final approach speed) is so stable that you can easily get out of the cockpit, get a cup coffee, get back in your seat and flare! In my experience of numerous airliners, the 747 is one of the best-handling of all of them.

Boeing’s test pilots had a great input in every stage of the aircraft’s development, all the way from its design through to the testing and flying of all the different models, and I felt the human–machine integration was almost perfect. I believe Boeing achieved a perfect balance of automation in the 747-400, where the pilot still remained an integral part of the machinery.

One of the great pleasures of flying 747s for Singapore Airlines during the 90s was that you could be scheduled to fly either passenger or cargo aircraft. It was always nice to fly cargo occasionally because you never had to wait for missing passengers and cargo never complained if you flew the aircraft a little bit more “enthusiastically” than usual.

If I sound like one of these people who talks about “the good old days”, I am not. Nor am I one who complains wistfully that “They don’t make them like they used to”. I’m not one of these vintage car nuts trying to tell you that the Jaguar E-type is the best car ever produced. Many years and billions of dollars of research and development have given us economical, efficient and reliable modern vehicles far superior to the “good old E-type”. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding like a classic car or aeroplane enthusiast, I still dare to suggest… the 747 is the best plane cruising the skies.

Working for Singapore Airlines

When I joined Singapore Airlines as a direct-entry captain on the 747, I knew I was joining a company with a top-ranking product and a top-ranking reputation for service and equipment. I wondered whether the same qualities by which the public knows and respects Singapore Airlines would be reflected at the workers’ end. They were.

Singapore Airlines is no different from any large company in that there are great things, good things, not-so-good things and bad things about it. However, having once worked for one of the richest airlines in the Middle East, I was very used to lots of not-so-good things and downright bad things; it was very much better at Singapore.

Looking back on my career in review, joining Singapore Airlines was the best thing we ever did (my wife Caroline also worked for Singapore Airlines, as a cabin safety trainer). Obviously, having come from the Middle East, there were some differences we had to get used to, but I always felt that we were appreciated and throughout the terms of our contracts, we were always treated exactly the same as the local pilots.

In my 44 years of flying, I have had my share of different chief pilots and directors of operations, but I consider the overall quality of management in Singapore Airlines to have been very good, with most of the bosses having a very easy open-door policy. I particularly remember my last chief pilot (then on the Airbus A340 fleet), Rohan Chandra whom I consider to be the best fleet manager I ever worked for.

I warmly remember the regular fleet meetings the airline held every three or four months, where we discussed company business and rumours, and were updated on happenings in our respective fleets. After the meetings, there was always “makan” (food) and drinks and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues one mightn’t often see otherwise; the nature of the rostering and shift work meant we all went home when normal people went to work or left for work as others went to bed.

A particularly good policy of Singapore Airlines was to make its simulator available to pilots during the early morning hours, when it was not being used for scheduled training. Pilots could book and use the simulator for so called “self-help” which allowed them to increase their proficiency; this had a very positive effect on the outcome of mandatory checks by giving us all a chance to keep current. This is no small thing in an ultra-long range fleet where it can be difficult to do enough takeoffs and landings every 90 days to stay current.

I have only fond memories of my time at Singapore Airlines, and it was one of the worst days of my 44-year flying career when Rohan symbolically cut my tie and I joined the ranks of retired airline captains.