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'Queen Of The Skies' Bids Farewell At Its Birthplace

Nostalgia is flowing freely in the skies this week as Delta Air Lines takes its remaining Boeing 747 jumbo jets on a farewell tour. They're the last of the iconic jumbos in U.S. passenger service.

The swan song stopped at Delta's main hubs, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It also landed at the jet’s birthplace, Boeing's wide body assembly plant in Everett.

Delta Air Lines will replace its retiring 747s with more fuel efficient twin-engine wide body jets such as the Boeing 777 and the new Airbus A350.

"In addition to fuel efficiency, the new aircraft are more quiet and more comfortable,” said Tony Gonchar, Delta’s vice president for Seattle. “They have greater opportunities for things like putting an espresso machine in the galley, which we have on the A350 now. Having pods on planes that have doors that close for a more comfortable cabin experience."

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Delta employees and frequent fliers bid for seats on the farewell tour, including Monday's segment from Detroit to Everett and SeaTac.

Delta is the last U.S. passenger airline to fly the 747. Rival United Airlines retired its last 747 earlier this year. But the iconic jumbo will not disappear from Northwest skies altogether. International carriers such as British Airways and Lufthansa and cargo airlines like UPS fly the 747—including to Seattle, Vancouver, BC, and Portland.

And Boeing 747 Program General Manager Bruce Dickinson pointed out with some emotion that the assembly line north of Seattle is still running.

"The '47 has a lot of long years still in front of us,” he said. “Not as a passenger airplane for Delta as we are celebrating today, but it still has a long history to come."

Boeing currently makes 747s at a rate of about one per month. The latest generation of the model sells to cargo airlines mainly. Boeing has recorded six new orders and eight cancellations for the model this year.

Plane spotters staked out high ground by the runway at Paine Field in Everett to get one last shot of a Delta Air Lines 747 before the last of the fleet goes to an aircraft boneyard in the Arizona desert. Then hundreds of Boeing workers, aviation enthusiasts and Delta Air Lines staff gathered for a short ceremony to bid farewell to the "Queen of the Skies."

They later went outside to sign their names on the belly or engine cowlings of the parked jumbo jet.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Delta Air Lines and Boeing workers sign the 747 before it flies into retirement.

Boeing assembly worker Bill Dunn helped build this model series, the 747-400.

"It's just kinda surprising. It doesn't seem that old. It's what, 18 years old? And they're already putting it to pasture," Dunn said with a bemused chuckle.

Dunn can still muster a sense of wonder at the mammoth, four-engine jet with its distinctive hump behind the nose.

"It's truly still amazing that something that big can fly,” he said. “It still boggles the mind."

It's going on 50 years since the Boeing 747’s maiden flight in 1969. It gets credit for making the world a little smaller and for ushering in more affordable flights. Former Northwest Airlines, now Delta, Captain Paul Gallaher started flying them in 1989.

"It's a sad time because it's going away, but it's also a great time because there is innovation,” he said. “There is new technology. Better airplanes are coming along. It's the Darwinian evolution of all things."

Gallaher is choosing this moment to retire too. His said his final flight in the cockpit will be to deliver the last Delta 747 to indefinite storage in the Arizona desert in early January.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Delta's remaining 747 will be retired by the end of the month.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.