In September, B-HUS – the airline’s last Boeing 747-400BCF freighter – left Hong Kong for its final flight to the Arizona desert.
While the last passenger 747 was retired in 2016, Cathay Pacific still operates a 20-strong fleet of 747 freighters, 14 of which are state-of-the-art 747-8Fs.
The 747-400BCFs (Boeing converted freighters) were former passenger aircraft with strengthened floors and a cargo door cut into the rear fuselage, though they had a lower payload than purpose-built freighters and lacked the opening nose that enables outsized cargo to be loaded.
The BCF retirement flight was led by Captain John Graham, who has spent his entire career flying the 747 for Cathay Pacific and has a model plane from Boeing, signed by the original 747 designer Joe Sutter, recognising him as one of the longest serving 747 captains. He too retires in February, with a memorable entry for his flight logbook.
The defining characteristic of the 747, as the nickname ‘jumbo’ suggests, is that it is big. Pinal Airpark, the aircraft’s final resting place, is not. It has a short, narrow runway and an uncontrolled airfield – there is no-one in the control tower and none of the normal visual or navigational aids. Once you leave controlled airspace at 10,000 feet, you’re on your own.
‘Landing there is quite a challenge, but a retirement flight is an exceptional experience so it was a privilege to lead it,’ says Graham.
For another challenge, after dropping its final cargo in Los Angeles en route to the boneyard, the aircraft was lighter than normal. ‘You would think that when a plane is fully loaded and heavy that it’s a handful, but with a 747 it’s actually the other way around,’ says Graham. ‘When it’s empty, it does not want to descend.’
But with experience on his side, Graham was able to safely guide the aircraft to its final resting place.