Queen of the Skies

by John Delach

I can remember the advertisements Boeing used during NFL games in 1967 and 1968 to introduce the concept of their new giant of the skies. The exterior of this jet liner wasn’t shown. Instead, Boeing concentrated on its theme that their new creation was more than just another airplane. Instead, Boeing promised that it would revolutionize trans-Atlantic travel and they boldly insisted their queen of the skies would replace traditional ocean liners like the SS United States, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 and the SS France.

The Seattle based airplane manufacturer had come a long way from introducing the first airplanes capable of crossing the Atlantic, the B-314, Pan American’s Pre-World War II flying boat and the  post-war four engine Stratocruiser that replaced these elegant, yet obsolete airplanes.

 Boeing’s share of the commercial airplane market waned as advanced models of Lockheed’s Constellation and Douglas’ DC-6 and DC-7 erased the Stratocruiser’s appeal.

The firm abandoned this sector in favor of developing a jet transport and airborne tanker for the Air Force, Douglas also bid on this contract, but Boeing’s design won out, The USAF deemed the cargo version, the C-135 and the tanker version, the KC-135.

That Air Force contract gave Boeing a head start on the competition allowing the early introduction of its civilian version, the 707, the first  successful commercial jet capable of flying passengers in comfort and safety all over the world.

Boeing followed this success by introducing the world’s first jumbo jet with a sales pitch using the slogan that their 747 was: “The airplane that is a ship, and the ship that is an airplane.”

December 12, 1969 found me in the cargo area at JFK International Airport. I was employed as a cargo surveyor for Donald M. Lamont:

That September. Don had asked in his Scottish brogue, “Don’t you live in Queens? How close are you to JFK (Airport)?”

“Don, I’m in Middle Village. I can drive to JFK in less than a half-hour.”

“ Great,” he replied. “I have a good number of requests to perform surveys at the airport for lost cargo and baggage. “I hereby designate you to be my JFK surveyor of record. I will make you a beautiful, fake ID that will get you in to every airline cargo operation and all of the freight forwarders located outside the airport.”

My reply: “Fantastic.”

That adventure is a tale for another blog. But Don’s decision found me at JFK when the first 747 debuted. Boeing pilots taxied their charge over to the massive Pan Am service hanger that was also their warehouse for lost cargo.

I was sitting in the parking lot when I heard the commotion, I looked up to see the biggest airplane I had ever seen moving down a taxiway in my direction. I jumped out of the car,  my 35 MM camera in hand and began taking photos of this beautiful bird.

I had the privilege of watching the ceremony where Boeing turned over the first operational 747 to their lead customer The queen arrived  with Pan Am’s name written along the massive fuselage and their logo on the tail. Unfortunately, my black and white film failed to capture a Boeing produced abnormality. Instead of the stripe that encircled the hull below the windows being Pan American’s baby blue, the painters at Boeing had made it red, Pan American chose to name this airplane: Young American Clipper and re-paint the stripe before sending it off to Paris. 

I turned my black and white photos of Young America’s arrival over to Lamont who used them in a brochure touting our ability to find lost or missing cargo at JFK.

Pure chance had put me in the right place at the right time.

First 747 Flight

I left Lamont and surveying in 1971 and joined Marsh & McLennan as a marine broker. My first experience on a 747 took place in November of 1974 when I accompanied our Director of Marine Insurance, George Handley, and my immediate boss, Charlie Robbins, on a Pan Am flight from JFK to San Juan for a meeting with a major marine client. Befitting Handley’s status, we all flew First Class. Our Pan Am Clipper had an upstairs lounge, but it wasn’t in service as the airline was in the process of adding additional seating there.

This was the only opportunity I had to travel with Handley as he died of a massive heart attack  a little more than a year later. We did have an excellent dinner that night and a fabulous stay at the Caribe Hilton. But the next morning, the manager of our San Juan office informed Handley that the Executive Director of this client had excluded  brokers from participating in this meeting.

Handley was stunned and embarrassed. We were ready to propose improvements to their insurances at a lower coat. Now the trip was simply a waste of time. To this day, I don’t know who screwed up, but if I had to bet who it was, I’d pick Luis M, our San Juan manager. 

Suddenly off duty, Charlie and I also screwed up when George asked, “What do you think we should do?”

“We jointly replied, “Go to the beach.”

Handley, always on duty, let us go, but he spent the day with Luis M. I guarantee that Charlie and I had a better time the rest of the day than Luis did. But we too paid the price for this screw-up. Neither of us were allowed to go to San Juan again until after Handley passed in December of 1975.

I retired in 2000 and between that flight in 1974 and my final 747 one in 20031993, I flew 152 flights on that airplane.

Soon, I will report on the most memorable of those flights.