(Flown on October 1, 2016)
Last October, I had the chance to take the last Cathay Boeing 747 scheduled passenger flight. Cathay Pacific made sure the Queen of the Skies was sent off in style, and so the flight was well worth taking. My report about the flight has been featured in Airliner World magazine a couple of months ago.
Now, you can also enjoy it below.
Cathay Pacific and the 747
When Cathay Pacific Airways received its first Boeing 747, a 747-267B (VR-HKG, cn 21746), in 1979, it was a regional carrier connecting Hong Kong with other Asian cities and with Australia. With the opening of its route to London in 1980, Cathay Pacific started its transformation into a global airline.
Within a decade, routes to Frankfurt, San Francisco, Vancouver, Paris, and other European and North American destinations followed. It goes without saying that this expansion was enabled by the 747. Over the next decades, the 747 turned into the backbone of Cathay Pacific’s global expansion and its long-haul fleet.
From 1979 to date, Cathay Pacific has operated over a hundred 747 airframes, ranging from the classic “-200” all the way to the latest “-8” version, in both passenger and cargo configurations.However, with a growing need for aircraft smaller and more economic than the four-engine Jumbo Jet, the aircraft type that helped transform the airline was set to be phased out in 2016 – at least in its passenger form.
Flight CX543 from Tokyo Haneda was set as the last revenue flight of the type, and its arrival in Hong Kong at 3:04PM on October 1, 2016, marked the end of an era for Cathay Pacific. A week later, the aircraft flew a special farewell charity flight for the airline’s employees before being phased out completely.
Sayonara, Cathay Pacific 747!
When I arrived at Haneda airport shortly after seven on October 1, 2016, the check-in for CX543 was still closed, but there was already a line of passengers waiting. At 7:35AM, exactly three hours before the scheduled departure time, the passengers, largely consisting of enthusiasts, started to be processed.
As soon as I received my boarding pass, I headed directly to the flight’s departure gate, gate 142. At the gate, B-HUJ (cn 27595), the 747-467 that would have the honor of operating the historic flight and that arrived at Haneda as CX542 from Hong Kong the day before, was already present in all its glory.
Inside the terminal, more and more passengers started arriving at the gate, taking photos of the aircraft and enjoying the complimentary drinks to celebrate the occasion. Outside on the apron, a group of winners of a social media contest was given a chance to explore the aircraft from up close one last time.
Shortly before nine, the operating crew started arriving at the gate together with four cabin crew ambassadors each wearing a different uniform from the Cathay Pacific Airways’ 747 era. A photo session with the ambassadors followed before the farewell event was officially kicked off.
First, the general manager of Cathay Pacific’s Japan office, Lionel Kwok, handed bouquets to the flight’s two key crew members: Captain John Graham and Inflight Service Manager Chaivaree Chitrakorn.
Next, it was the general manager’s turn to address the crowd and praise the Queen of the Skies.
How many of you dreamt of traveling the globe when you were a kid? I did. And this aircraft made my dream come true. And looking back, how many times have this aircraft brought us to unknown horizons, life adventures, new career heights, success, or even sometimes, failure.
At the end of his speech, he invited Higashi Ihoto, a Japanese engineer who was part of the team that delivered the airline’s first 747-400 back in 1989, to the stage to thank him for his service. Coincidentally, Mr. Ihoto retired a week after our flight following 44 years of service with the airline.
The event was finished off with yet another photo session before the crew headed onboard to prepare for the flight. Cathay Pacific’s team even prepared signs with captions such as “Queen of the Skies” and “Farewell 747” that the passengers could hold while taking photos with the crew and the aircraft.
Onboard the Final Jumbo Flight
During boarding, which commenced a couple of minutes after ten, the four cabin crew ambassadors were handing gift bags to the passengers. Inside the Cathay-green bag was a nicely designed gift box with a flight certificate, a key holder and a notepad.
With a boarding pass stub and the gift bag in my hands, I headed down the jet bridge to board a Cathay Pacific 747 for my second and last time. When I got onboard, many of the passengers were already walking around the cabin, taking photos and recording the announcements.
Soon, however, everyone settled in their seats allowing for a pushback at 10:35AM – exactly on time. A short taxi to runway 05 followed before the four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines spooled up and lifted the Cathay Pacific Jumbo into the Tokyo skies one last time at 11:02AM.
As soon as the seatbelt signs were switched off, it was back to “party mode.” Passengers left their seats to hand their log books and certificates to the crew for signing, to take photos of every nook and cranny of the aircraft and to just enjoy their moments onboard the Queen of the Skies.
The aisles were, in fact, so clogged by excited enthusiasts that it was impossible for the cabin crew to do the meal service. With requests from the cabin crew not being enough, Captain Graham came on the PA soon in a friendly, yet authoritative way: “I don’t want to put the seatbelt sign on, but could you please sit down for 30 minutes so that the crew can serve you some meal?”
In no time, majority of the passengers were in their seats having their choice of chicken or fish. My choice, Chinese-style chicken dish with rice, was tasty and came in a large portion which was more than enough to fill a passenger on a four-hour flight.
After finishing off the meal with a dessert, it was time to enjoy the flight itself again. I headed to the back of the aircraft where I joined a group of other enthusiasts who were taking a look at the crew rest located above the cabin.
Over the entire cabin, enthusiasts were spread out and surrounding the cabin crew members with cameras. Chaivaree, the Inflight Service Manager, summarized it very well when she said “now I know, how movie stars feel,” while being photographed by me and a dozen other passengers.
Unfortunately, the flight went by very fast and before we knew it, we were getting close to Hong Kong. The seatbelt signs were switched on when we began our descent at 2:25PM Hong Kong time, and the gear was lowered 25 minutes later.
At 2:54PM, we touched down on Hong Kong International Airport’s runway 07L. Slowing down and exiting the runway, we taxied to our parking position just as it was beginning to rain outside. At the same time, the Captain was bidding a farewell to the passengers on the PA and also explaining the weather. “Even the heavens started to cry for losing such a beautiful plane,” he concluded shortly before the aircraft stopped at its gate at 3:04PM, marking the end of the Jumbo Jet in Cathay Pacific’s passenger operations.
Longest Deboarding in Cathay’s History
Even though the flight had officially arrived, it was far from over. While some of the passengers got off the plane quickly, the more enthusiastic ones stayed onboard to get their last shots of the aircraft interior.
I got in a line that led to the upper deck, to the cockpit. After some minutes of waiting, I reached the stairs, eventually reaching the upper deck. While waiting for my turn to visit the cockpit, the aisles got so full once again that even though the crew was asked to come out of the aircraft, all the members on the upper deck could do was announce “we’re stuck in the upper deck” over the PA.
As the line progressed, at 3:30PM, the Captain passed the narrow upper deck aisle and headed down to leave the aircraft. Couple more people visited the flight deck afterwards. Unfortunately, the line was cut off two people in front of me by the ground staff that wanted to finish the deboarding as soon as possible.
As such, reluctantly, I headed down to the main deck, and out of the aircraft as one of the last commercial passengers to deboard the Cathay Pacific 747. Later, I learned that at 45 minutes, it was the longest disembarking that Cathay Pacific remembers.
While I thought that getting of the aircraft would bring the flight to an end, I was mistaken. Outside the jetways, the Captain together with the rest of the crew were still interacting with passengers – taking photos, chatting, and signing various memorabilia. Throughout the flight and after landing, they must each have given out hundreds of signs, all of that with smile, excitement and pride for being part of the historic moment.
More than an hour after landing, I waited for my turn to get my flight certificate signed by Captain John Graham, took a quick photo with him, and headed towards immigration to enter Hong Kong knowing that my subsequent visits to the airport would not be the same.