Air France lets go of the 747: The plane that changed air travel forever

Story highlights

  • Air France retires its fleet of iconic Boeing 747 jumbo jets
  • The 747 was the first wide-body airliner, spurring global travel for a generation
  • On a final flight, pilots reminisce about the so-called "Queen of the Skies"

Paris (CNN)As round trips go, it was more of an oval: Paris to Paris with no ground stop in between, and it had grown men and women getting all misty-eyed.

For Air France and its Boeing 747s, it was time to say goodbye -- but the airline and its personnel were having a hard time doing so.
    The last scheduled Air France 747 flight had landed days earlier, but here we all were at 8 a.m. for the first of two separate "last 747 flights" around France which, in fact, were just a prelude to a few more "last 747 flights" around Le Bourget airfield.
    When Air France announced it was abandoning its last three 747s because they are just too expensive to maintain, the airline switchboard was overwhelmed.
    Some 30,000 people tried to get on board for one of those last flights.
    Why such nostalgia for the Boeing with the back bump?
    A French aviation specialist said he believes it's because the plane was the first to "democratize" flying.
    When the 747 first entered service with Pan Am in 1970, it gained a distinctive flair and had a certain amount of elegance.
    Remember that winding staircase to the upper deck with its open bar? What class -- first, of course!
    Its unrivaled seating capacity and range spurred international air travel for an entire generation, earning the nickname "Queen of the Skies."
    The jumbo could carry so many passengers to so many far-off places that more and more people had their first adventure abroad thanks to a 747.
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    In fact, a 747 holds a record for the most passengers ever carried by a commercial aircraft, according to Air France.
    In 1991, Israeli airline El Al evacuated Jews from Ethiopia on a 747 carrying more than 1,080 passengers.
    Two babies were born en route.
    For 37 years, the 747 was the biggest commercial airliner in the world, until the Airbus A380 appeared in 2007.
    As engineers design more efficient planes, Delta Air Lines and other carriers are expected to follow Air France and phase out their 747s in the coming years.
    For the pilots, many of whom, active or long retired, were on our "last" flight, the plane represented the last real flying experience before the computers took over.
    Pulleys and cables run the length and breadth of the aircraft to connect the flight deck controls to the control surfaces on the wings and tail.
    The pilots say they had a feel for the plane in a way the more modern, computer-driven aircraft with their electronics and servos just cannot duplicate.
    And the veterans had stories to tell.

    One remembered how much time he had to spend in taxi school, practicing how to maneuver this giant thing on the ground.
    The cockpit was so far in front of the nose wheel that pilots had to learn a turn gave them a sensation of traveling sideways instead of moving straight ahead.
    What's more, airports weren't immediately equipped to handle such a big plane.
    Runways and taxiways had to be widened and redesigned, and clearances for the wingtips were sometimes tight.
    Another pilot remembered smoking near the sextant hole.
    In the early days (if you can imagine a time before GPS), crew members used a sextant for celestial navigation to determine their position when outside radio range.
    The 747s permitted a lot of such long-distance runs -- over the poles for instance. So the plane came equipped with a little door in the cockpit ceiling for star observation with a sextant.
    The sextant was retired but not the port.
    And when smoking was banned on planes, crew members who had a hard time quitting could sometimes be found lighting up near the sextant hole, which sucked out the fumes.
    But enough nostalgia.
    We had flown from Paris to Marseille, across to the Bay of Biscay, up the west coast of France to Mont-St.-Michel, and now we were on the approach for landing right back where we started from: Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.
    A 20-year-old, studying to become a commercial pilot (his grandmother paid the cost of his 220-euro "last flight" ticket) lamented he would never have the chance to fly a 747.
    The cabin attendant choked up making the announcement for landing. And then Capt.
    Thierry Mondon made what had to be one of the smoothest "last 747" landings of his career.
    The airport firefighters turned out to give us a water canon salute.
    The ground crew snapped photos.
    And after the plane had finally come to a halt and the "fasten seat belt" sign went off, one grizzled old Air France pilot sitting in front of me refused to unbuckle.
    "I am attached to this plane," he said, "and I am not letting go."