Travel

The Boeing 747 Might Be Gone, but It’s Not Forgotten

Here's how to sleep, eat, and explore inside the Queen of the Skies.

Nasa/Carla Thomas/Wikimedia Commons
Nasa/Carla Thomas/Wikimedia Commons
Nasa/Carla Thomas/Wikimedia Commons

They call it the airplane boneyard, where once high-flying craft are dropped off when they’re no longer needed, temporarily out of service, in need of refurbishing, or marked for cannibalization of their parts (RIP). These spaces must be arid and dry, conditions conducive to preserving big metal things. Therefore, long-term aviation parking lots are typically found in deserts-in the US, that usually means the Southwest.

Near Tucson, Arizona, Pinal Airpark pulls double duty as both a boneyard and an airport. Here, commercial planes interlock in rows, dormant, while on the single runway their smaller brethren fly off to explore new horizons. The largest commercial boneyard in the world (during the pandemic, when planes were grounded, the number of occupants ballooned from 89 to 400), Pinal Airpark comes with some serious history: During the Vietnam War, it functioned as the base for CIA front company Intermountain Airlines, now famous for their covert operations in Southeast Asia. Today, visitors can peer at the resident airplanes from outside the chain link fence or, even better, hop on a grounds tour -just call or email to make an appointment.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images News
Christian Petersen/Getty Images News
Christian Petersen/Getty Images News

There’s some recent history around these parts, too. Parked in the Pinal Airpark, among the sleeping Cessnas and whatnot, are a couple of worn Boeing 747-400s dating to 1991. Painted white with a stark red stripe, registration numbers indicate they were built to cart around Japanese government officials. The jets’ interiors still reflect the dominant beige and tan color scheme of the time, their wide bodies bisected by two narrow aisles.

In 2019, the planes were stripped of their engines. But if you can figure out a way around that, you can purchase them for a steal (or, at least, a lot less than the tens of millions they originally sold for). And while an airplane without an engine might sound like a giant waste of space, more than a few innovative 747 enthusiasts, it turns out, have managed to see the upside in these mechanical beached whales. Some have opted to balance one on top of a water park, like this incredible specimen in McMinnville, Oregon, while others have displayed them in aviation museums, like the Museum of Flight in Seattle. You can even turn your rescued jet into overnight accommodations-Jumbo Stay in Stockholm, Sweden makes for quite the novel airport hotel.

A solid business idea? Perhaps, but the window of opportunity for obtaining a piece of this repurposed action is sadly coming to a close. Considering the last Boeing 747 ever produced rolled off the assembly line on December 6, 2022, your chance to own one of the most influential designs in modern history is slimmer than ever. A design that, thanks to its offset upper level, kind of resembles a beluga whale. And a design that definitely defied the odds. Initially projected to cease production after the first 400, at final tally, a total of 1,574 Boeing 747s have hit the market since the airliner’s 1968 debut, spanning six variants and multiple sub variants. And every single one of them forever changed the way we fly.

Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

A lady to be reckoned with 

They call her the Queen of the Skies. And for good reason: When it was introduced, everything about the 747 screamed “royal.” With Boeing’s first iteration measuring 231 feet, she was longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight (that was just 120 feet). To build her, Boeing constructed what remains the biggest building by volume in the world in Everett Washington. They say it could hold all of Disneyland, with room to spare.

The plane’s creators christened her a superjet; it was the press that coined the nickname “jumbo.” And it fit: The 747’s tail rose as tall as a six-story building and her length dwarfed an entire generation of airliners. Armed with four engines and two passenger aisles, she was officially classified a wide-body. (Not for nothing, she was also the first plane to sport overhead bins. She is nothing if not practical.)

The 747 enraptured the public and revolutionized civil aviation. The planes were so big that runways had to be expanded; she carried so many passengers that airports were forced to reconfigure their layouts and baggage handling systems to accommodate her crowds. She expanded minds and experiences-now more people than ever could experience air travel for a lower price, to places that previously seemed out of reach, including the relatively new state of Hawaii.And those people? They traveled in style-in the beginning, anyway. You’ve probably seen pictures of vintage 747s, their upper decks filled with first class revelers kicking back in lavish cocktail bars like Qantas’s famous Captain Cook Lounge. Perched atop a spiral staircase and sporting a nautical theme-complete with a portrait of Captain James Cook hanging on the wall-there was plenty of room for chairs that swiveled and drinks that packed a punch. Singapore Airlines’s upper deck boasted seats that converted to beds. And for some airlines, luxury even spilled out into the economy rows. American Airlines converted some of the plane’s ample space into a large inflight area for coach passengers. Included in that lounge? A piano bar.

But while the 747’s very distinctive upper hump portion became synonymous with Champagne parties for the flying elite, those beluga noses were actually conceived with a much more practical purpose in mind. In fact, when that last jumbo rolled off Boeing’s site destined for global airfreight giant Atlas Air, she was quietly harkening back to her very inception.

Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Mirrorpix/Getty Images

From products to people and back again

By the time those final cargo-bound 747s exited the conveyor belt in Everett, Washington-notably in the ceremonial presence of pilot and long-time jumbo fan John Travolta, among others-the production of passenger-oriented 747s was already a thing of the past. There hadn’t been a new one built since 2017; its last customer, Korean Air. And as beloved as she was by the flying public, the cargo lot is actually a fitting end for the Boeing game-changer.

The Boeing 747 didn’t set out to change the world. In the beginning, it didn’t set out to do anything except fulfill a simple logistical request by the Air Force. In 1960, the military wanted to develop a plane to help transport bulky cargo and troops. Boeing put in a bid for the contract. Its design hinged on the inclusion of an upper deck to house the flight crew, a modification that allowed the nose to open up for frontloading freight access.

They ultimately lost the contract to Lockheed Martin. But Boeing’s blueprints didn’t go to waste, and cargo became a major component of the eventual 747 business plan. Right up until the end, the planes were configured for both passengers and cargo, a smart move that ensured their functional longevity.

The passenger-only version’s development was encouraged by Pan Am founder and longtime company president Juan Trippe. His airline had been using Boeing 707s, but couldn’t keep up with customer demand, which led to congestion at airports. Pan Am needed a larger craft, and, in 1965, Trippe approached Boeing president William Allen with the idea. Could they build something two and a half times larger than the 707? According to Northwestern libraries, Trippe said something along the lines of, “If you’ll build it, I’ll buy it.” “If you buy it, I’ll build it,” Allen reportedly returned.

Bloomberg/Getty Images
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Bloomberg/Getty Images

So Boeing built it, and Pan Am made the first order, reserving 25 747s at $20 million each. It was Trippe that suggested they convert the top deck into a first class lounge with a bar, reached by spiral staircase-it was originally going to be a resting space for crew. (Sorry crew.)

The 747’s first test flight was on February 9, 1969, followed by a splash at the 1969 Paris Air Show, with over two dozen airlines putting in orders. Pan Am’s first 747 flight took off on January 22, 1970. Stocked with 335 passengers and an unprecedented 20 crew members, the premiere commercial 747 voyage cruised from New York’s JFK to London’s Heathrow airport.

Others quickly followed, with TWA launching its service on February 25, 1970. The next month TWA dedicated the recently constructed Flight Wing One at JFK, the first terminal specially built to accommodate the 747 with seven wide-berth gates. The head house of Flight Wing One, part of celebrated architect Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center, still stands as the gorgeous mid-century TWA Hotel.

By the end of 1971, a host of international airlines including major carriers Air Canada, Air India, and Japan Airlines had all bought into Boeing 747 mania.

Source: Quantas
Source: Quantas
Source: Quantas

Making history (even when it didn’t intend to)

Since that first Pan Am flight in 1970, some 3.5 billion passengers have buckled into the Queen of the Skies. Odds are, you’re probably one of them. The 747 facilitated the hub and spoke distribution model we use today, where airlines shuttle up to 450 passengers per plane between major “hub” cities before shunting them off onto smaller planes better equipped to service less-trafficked “spokes.” The process, developed by Delta in 1955 as an alternative to the more straight-forward point-to-point system, thrived on the ability to transport as many people as possible to those large hub airports. Toss a few 747s into the mix, and the reach and efficiency of civilian air travel increased exponentially.

And it wasn’t just us land-dwellers that benefited from the 747’s rise to glory. In 1977 a modified rendition built for NASA ferried the Space Shuttle from its landing spot back to Kennedy Space Center-and looked really cool doing it. So cool that she became the spaceship’s primary chauffeur throughout the program’s lifetime. The plane’s low-slung wings helped beat out the competition, and customizations included adding mount points, and countermeasures to thwart heat-seeking missiles.

w_p_o/Shutterstock
w_p_o/Shutterstock
w_p_o/Shutterstock

A true visionary, the 747 readily adapted to evolving business needs and a changing economy. Eventually, those opulent first class lounges gave way to more standard seating, gone entirely in most airlines by the end of the 1970s. But the images of those upstairs bacchanalians live on, eating caviar chilled by ice sculptures and flanked by flight attendants dressed in haute couture, evoking boozy- and roomyMad Men-esque glamor. They’re an undying symbol of the Golden Age of Air Travel (RIP Pan Am), a gleaming reminder of when riding a plane was a vacation in itself.

Speaking of prestige, the 747 has been the plane of choice for Air Force One since 1990. Technically the name for any large-scale aircraft charged with carrying the Commander in Chief, just two 747s are equipped with the onboard electronics and security necessary for the job, not to mention the ability to convert to a mobile command center if needed. With 4,000-square-feet of floor space spread throughout three levels, these enormous machines are somehow also capable of refueling mid-flight, hovering for an unlimited time in the air while a fighter jet pipes in the goods.

And in the year 2000, the 747 made history yet again, albeit accidentally. Due to a weather disturbance, a British Airways aircraft caught some strong tailwinds and ended up setting a record for the fastest subsonic commercial flight across the Atlantic, narrowly beating out two Virgin Atlantic Airbuses. Its flying time from New York to London? 4 hours and 56 minutes.

Benson Truong/Shutterstock
Benson Truong/Shutterstock
Benson Truong/Shutterstock

The 747 today

By all accounts, the Boeing 747 had a good run. She was, after all, only supposed to dominate for a short period of time, before supersonic jets took over (that idea never, um, got off the ground). The bump-nosed Queen of the Skies is now one of the most recognizable-and influential-aircrafts in the world, prompting the number of air travel passengers to quadruple between 1955 and 1972 alone.

But her reign couldn’t last forever. As advances in technology allowed for more cost-efficient dual-engine planes to make longer flights, there was less need for jumbo four-engine passenger widebodies like the fated 747. Add that to the rising price of fuel-which the 747 used quite a bit of-and demand for the model began a steady decline which eventually came to a halt.

For those that have never had a chance to fly inside a 747, or at least see her glorious hump in passing, there’s still time. Though several airlines have removed the plane from their fleets, there are still 396 Boeing 747s zipping around the friendly skies today. 311 of those are freight, 41 are assigned to private or VIP use, and 44 are passenger planes with airlines like Lufthansa, Korean Air, Asiana, and Air China.

However, should you want a more unconventional interaction with one, that can be arranged as well…

Wings & Waves Waterpark
Wings & Waves Waterpark
Wings & Waves Waterpark

Splash down from a 747 waterslide

How about a 747 water slide? At the Evergreen Wings & Waves Waterpark in McMinnville, Oregon, a 747 sits atop the building, sprouting slippery winding tubes for easy transportation down to the pools below. A bonus for aviation enthusiasts: The waterpark is adjacent to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, home to the largest wooden airplane ever built, Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, which the famed magnate flew just once (probably because stuff began to fall off of it).

Wine and dine inside a grounded 747

Maybe you’d like to have a meal in a 747? A retired jumbo jet filled with red vinyl booths is the main attraction at Steak 21 in Bekasi, Indonesia. (There’s also a karaoke room-make a night of it.) And at the aviation-themed nightclub and bar Hi-Flyerz in Johannesburg, South Africa, a preserved 747 cockpit pops up from the tile floor. You can’t actually go inside it, but you can sit on a barstool and stare at it while you nurse your beer.

Get up close and personal with history-making 747s

Walk-or hop, or skip-through the first Boeing 747 ever built at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The larger than life artifact is stamped with logos from all its initial 26 airline customers, including Pan Am, the first to order the plane, and Qantas, who, at one point, only flew 747s.

Later, explore the first 747-400 (the “high-tech jumbo,” which introduced a glass cockpit and tailside fuel tanks) at the Delta Flight Museum in Hapefield, Georgia. The museum’s 68,000-square-feet also spans a 737 flight simulator and several other aircrafts, including the only Delta passenger Douglas DC-3 in existence.

Lioba Schneider
Lioba Schneider
Lioba Schneider

Spot a 747 in the wild

747s sometimes show up where you least expect them. Like at the Shijingshan Amusement Park in Beijing, where wandering through the massive plane is as amusing as some of the rides.

And sometimes, the 747s are right where you would expect them to be. Like at aviation museums including the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach, Australia, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Paris’s Le Bourget Airport, and the South African Airways Museum in Johannesburg (that one has two). Double your money at Independence Plaza inside Houston’s Johnson Space Center, which houses the original NASA 905 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, complete with a model Space Shuttle on top.

Spend the night in a (grounded) 747

You can sleep it all off at the JumboStay Hotel at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport, which lets guests actually stay inside a converted 747. The 1976 model has been given an interior upgrade, with rooms accommodating one to three “passengers.” Because why wander through a cockpit when you can make one your home? At least for the night.

And if all else fails, you can always drive by Pinal Airpark in Arizona. Tell them we sent you.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She will one day climb that spiral staircase.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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