A requiem to Boeing 747

It was with immense sadness that I read about Air India’s last remaining Boeing 747 making its last flight. Since the aircraft had been phased out gradually and the last passenger flight was in 2021, the event passed mostly unremarked. This last flight was a cargo flight. And thus, something truly great and beautiful passed into India’s aviation history. The plane was originally designed to carry heavy cargo for the US army. But in 1966 the now defunct Pan Am, known earlier as Pan American Airlines, decided it wanted an aircraft that could carry 250 passengers and with engines that consumed 25 percent less fuel than the old Boeing 707. In 1966 it placed an order for 50 jumbo jets, as the 747 came to be known.

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan
TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

Soon Air India followed suit and placed a much smaller order, for six. The first of these was delivered to it in 1971. We were in college in Delhi then and would go to what came to be known as jumbo point — the spot where the planes passed directly just 100 feet overhead. It was amazingly thrilling, especially if you had some girls along with you. Nearly all the jumbos landed after midnight. That added to the excitement.

Watching a jumbo take off and land is like watching a top-class ballerina. There was power, of course, but also the most extraordinary grace as it left the ground and slowly climbed away or as it glided in to land with the wind hissing over the wings. The roar at take-off or when the engines were reversed when it touched down, was deafening and the earth trembled. But inside the aircraft you could speak in a whisper and be heard across the aisle. As engineering goes, the 747 was a marvellous achievement. After all, you were sitting on four gigantic engines of immense power. Each engine had enough power to blow away a tank weighing five tonnes for a half a km distance.

The jumbo even had thayir sadam (curd rice) on board after a prime minister from the South asked for it. He has long gone but the thayir sadam stayed on as an unlisted item.

In 1975 I had my first experience on the 747. That was also the first time I flew. I had applied for a job in Air India and after the usual rounds of tests and interviews they gave me a free ticket to attend the final interview in Bombay, as it was called then. We boarded at 830am and took off at 9 on a cold December morning. Then they served breakfast. It was the most sumptuous breakfast I had ever had. The omelette and rolls, and the cheese and the jam simply melted in the mouth. I was uncouth enough then to ask for a second round, which the stewardess happily supplied. It was the last leg of a New York-London-Delhi-Bombay flight and most passengers weren’t in the mood for a heavy breakfast after an overnight flight. Since then, like everyone else, I flew on it many times, including, unlike the others, five times with two prime ministers. Believe me, that’s the way to fly.

It used to be business class configuration with first class service. They even had thayir sadam (curd rice) on board after a prime minister from the South asked for it. He has long gone but the thayir sadam stayed on as an unlisted item. I should mention here that only the flights were free for us journalists, usually no more than 30, and our newspapers paid all other costs. On the way back to India the prime minister would mingle with us for about half an hour. You got to see his human side. The most unforgettable was drinking a toast to someone proposed by the prime minister. We were flying back to India and it was nearly midnight — and he was wearing a lungi and banian and was barefoot. It was great PR for the PM.

There were many funny episodes, too. Once a German bus driver dropped us journalists at the wrong security gate and went off. On another occasion a Korean driver couldn’t find our plane and left us on the tarmac. Once we watched the Chinese premier board his plane from almost touching distance while waiting to board ours. There was zero security. These and many others were highly memorable occasions.

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