On 18 September, a piece of aviation history rose into the skies above Hong Kong for the last time. The aircraft was a Boeing 777, B-HNL as she was registered in Cathay Pacific colours. Why “historic”? This was the first ever 777 off the line, with the manufacturer’s number WA001 (affectionately pronounced “wah-wun”).
She wasn’t destined for Cathay Pacific at all. On a spring Seattle day in 2000, Peter Gardner, Cathay Pacific’s then Vice-President of Engineering in the US, received a call from Hong Kong. They needed another aircraft to deal with anticipated demand during the Christmas peak season.
Barging into the production queue for a new 777 wasn’t on the cards. But Peter’s eye had been caught by a bedraggled airframe in the corner of Boeing’s production facility. “It had been there for years…it had no engines, no flight controls, no avionics, no seats, nothing,” he says.
It was WA001. Having completed the rigorous test programme she had been cannibalised. Peter approached Boeing to see if she could be rebuilt at a reasonable price – and quickly.
In the end nearly 5,000 people contributed to its construction, incentivised by a prize draw for 30 winners who would bag a place on the delivery flight for a Hong Kong Christmas shopping trip.
“As we were walking towards the gate through the terminal we heard a tremendous noise,” recalls retired Captain Andy Maddox, who was part of the cockpit crew that day. “As we got closer, we saw there was a bar and it was the sound of the Boeing people having a jolly good time.”
‘I turned to the flight officer saying that I’d never felt so confident because whatever happened on the flight there’d be someone who could fix it.’
B-HNL landed safely in Hong Kong to start her 18 year career with Cathay, operating more than 20,000 flights. She will be spending her retirement in the Arizona desert as a centrepiece of the Pima Air and Space Museum.
She was flown there by a team led by Captain Mike Evans. His first memory of WA001 was sitting on the cockpit floor in the Boeing factory as she was being built, testing the undercarriage with engineers. Now she has gone; but with so many firsts to her name, she won’t be forgotten.