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What Happened To United Airlines’ Boeing 747 Aircraft?

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As airlines around the world take to retiring their Boeing 747s, United Airlines was one of the carriers ahead of the game. Its last flight with the Queen of the Skies happened nearly three years ago. However, what happened to the aircraft that made up its fleet?

United Airlines 747
United Airlines’ Boeing 747-400 aircraft performed its last ever passenger flight on November 7th, 2017 when flight UA 747 took off from San Francisco, California for Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo: Getty Images

A prominent yet small fleet

Compared to United Airlines’ distinguished Boeing 737 fleet and extensive Airbus A320 fleet, the airline’s 747 fleet was comparatively small. According to Planespotters.net, in total, the airline once held 88 units of the type at various points in its history in four variants. Most popular was the Boeing 747-400, but United also had the -100, -200, and SP.

However, the airline no longer operates any of these models and hasn’t done so since 2017. The majority of the aircraft are stored but over 30 went onto new airlines.

First aircraft in the ’70s

United Airlines began its relationship with the 747 nearly 50 years ago. It acquired the first aircraft in 1970 and ended the year with a total of nine 747-100 in its fleet. Most of these aircraft were moved to other airlines. Between 1985 and 1986 United sent five aircraft to Pan American World Airways. Along with this, Pan Am had another deal with United in which it leased an aircraft registered N724PA. Pan Am kept this aircraft for just over a year before returning it to the airline in 1991.

Pan Am leased this aircraft to United Airlines. Photo: Kambui via Wikimedia Commons

But the tale of Pan Am was not a happy one. The iconic carrier collapsed in 1991. The rest of the 747 aircraft from 1970 were stored with United Airlines and have since been scrapped.

Many of the other 747 aircraft that United Airlines acquired in the 1970s were stored with the airline. The operator took delivery of a further nine units between 1971 and 1973. All of the aircraft have since been scrapped.

A momentary pause

However, before United advanced its Boeing 747 fleet, it took a pause. It wasn’t until 1986 that new orders of the aircraft returned again. In 1986, United Airlines received 11 Boeing 747 aircraft and continued to expand its fleet in the ensuing years.

Before 1990 hit, it had another 11 747s join. However, in these years, the model of the type that United acquired began to change. Whilst it still had an affinity towards the Boeing 747-100 variant, it also took delivery of three -400 variants, 11 SPs, and two -200s.

Nine of these aircraft went on to other airlines between 1992 and 2006, including Northwest Airlines, Tajik Air, and Qatar Amari Flight. Of those which were stored with the airline, only one continues to bear this status. It is registered N147UA and initially came from Pan Am but is marked to be stored and used by the FAA for testing.

Pan Am 747
Pan Am introduced the 747 type in 1970. Photo: Getty Images

Special missions

In September 1996, a former 747SP that United previously flew underwent a transformation into NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

Rgistration N145UA joined from Pan Am in February 1986. With NASA, it went on to carry a 17-ton, eight-foot-wide infrared telescope mounted behind a massive sliding door. The plane is still serving the space agency as N747NA and bears the nickname of Clipper Lindbergh, which it was initially called when with Pan Am.

The aircraft flies into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet, putting it above 99% of the Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere. This system helps scientists to study the solar system.

nasa sofia flies to hamburg
Inside the SOFIA aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

The 747-400

The 1990s was a big decade in terms of receiving deliveries of 747 aircraft for United. In total, it took nearly 50 of them over this period between 1990 and 1999. Most of these aircraft were 747-400 variants although United was still dabbling with the 747-200. It took five -200 models leaving 43 -400 variants.

The 1990s saw many 747 deliveries such as the arrival of N180UA in 1991. Photo: Curimedia via Wikimedia Commons

19 of these aircraft were then passed onto other airlines including Atlas Air, and Blue Sky.

The last bunch

According to Planespotters.net, there were 20 747 aircraft in United’s fleet at the beginning of the year that the carrier stopped flying the aircraft. Thirteen of these planes have remained in storage since 2017. Meanwhile, five of them were scrapped that year.

Registration N119UA, which arrived at the carrier in March 1999, was taken on by Atlas Air in June 2019. The cargo outfit currently operates the jet as registration N480MC.

Additionally, registration N128UA, which joined United in May 2000, was handed over to TVPX Trust Services in April 2018. MAX Air then took it on and has been flying it as registration 5N-ADM since July 2018. The Nigerian airline has since named the aircraft Alhaji Dahiru Barau Mangal.

End of an era

According to a statement seen by Simple Flying, at the time of the farewell in 2017, former United CEO and current executive chairman Oscar Munoz spoke about the legacy of the 747. The businessman emphasized how the firm and the jet helped each other to serve its joint purpose of connecting people and uniting across the globe.

“With its unmistakable sloping silhouette, it came to embody the spirit of the age — allowing more affordable international travel and opening the skies to more people than ever before,” Munoz said, as per the statement.

“In that way, its legacy lives on in the next generation of aircraft that will follow in its path. Even so, it will always be ‘Queen of the Skies,’ and while it will be succeeded, it can never be replaced.”

United Boeing 787 Getty
United Airlines and several other carriers have been putting their faith in more efficient aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner for widebody services. Photo: Getty Images

Altogether, United is just one of several airlines that have let go of the Queen in recent years. Carriers have been looking at more modern and efficient solutions to assist on long-haul operations. Moreover, the current industry climate is catalyzing the jet’s retirement across the globe.

What do you remember of United Airlines’ Boeing 747 fleet? Did you ever fly on any of these planes over the years? Let us know what you think of the jets in the comment section.



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