Reflecting on China Airlines’ 747 Passenger Plane Retirement

Last October I did a post about British Airways’ retiring its last passenger 747 plane. This time I am reflecting on the news that this week it was China Airlines’ turn to retire its last passenger 747 planes (it still has some freight ones). That another airline has retired its 747 passenger planes is not a massive surprise – a shame, but not a surprise. Had I had a blog site back then, I would probably have written about when JAL and ANA retired their 747s, and I should probably have done one for when KLM retired its 747s in October 2020. Perhaps I will write these another time – click here for the one on ANA and here for one on KLM.

So why am I writing one about China Airlines retiring its 747s? There are two reasons. First, due to the route that one of the last planes took and second as it was a China Airlines 747 that took me to Japan for the first time.

There have been a number of stories about the retirement on the internet, and I don’t propose to quote extensively from these or summarise them. The one which I found most useful/interesting was With a view of Mount Fuji, China Airlines bids farewell to 747. As you can probably imagine, the title itself is partly what interests me about this story. Here is the flightpath taken from that story…

Screengrab from FlightRadar24 showing the flight path of CI2747.

Not only does this retirement route interest me as it did a fly past of Mount Fuji and went to Japan due to my research interests relating to Japan, but the fact that China Airlines chose this route seemingly as there wasn’t a more symbolic or interesting route that it could do around Taiwan, for example.

That it did this route to Japan is particularly interesting for me, since, as I mentioned above and have touched upon in another post about some of my flying experiences, I took China Airlines on the first trip I did to Japan. Although this wasn’t the first time that I’d been on a 747 (having used them the previous year when going to Singapore, Australia, and Hong Kong), it was the first time I used them travelling by myself and to Japan.

While my trip started in the UK, I had to take a flight across to Amsterdam to pick up the China Airlines service. Back in the days before digital photography, you never knew what the quality of the picture would be like until you got them developed, so it’s a shame the end results were not better, but these photos show the departure board at Amsterdam and the plane that I took.

There are a couple of things to point out from the departure board. First, if you look near the bottom you will see that there was a flight going to Osaka via Anchorage – this was still the days (actually the last year) before most flights between Europe and Japan started flying over Siberia. Second, you will see that my flight – the first on the list was going via Dhahran. Back in 1989 many of my relatives hadn’t heard of Dhahran when I got back and told them that the plane had gone via there – a little over 12 months later, most people had heard of Dhahran as it became a key base during ‘Operation Desert Storm’ and the liberation of Kuwait.

Anyway, I had no idea that the plane would be leap-frogging across the planet, in much the same way as the planes in the Indiana Jones movies tend to. On the way to Japan, we went via Dhahran and also I think Hong Kong. I have a vague memory of getting some local currency to call a friend – though I cannot remember who this was or whether it was successful or not. The plane then went on to Taipai. My memory is that as we approached the island we were seemingly looking up at the cliff at one point, but perhaps we weren’t that low. But in many respects, the main memory from the Amsterdam to Taipei stage (I have no memory of the approach to Hong Kong’s notorious Kai Tak airport – I remember the previous year, but not 1989) is that, on the first leg, when we were offered drinks, my cup was filled to the brim in the same way as the person’s next to me – the only difference was that he had asked for white wine whereas I had whisky. Only a few minutes after I finished my drink, we were told that alcohol could not be served any more as we were entering Saudi airspace and that at Dhahran we were not to say that we had had any alcohol! Had a match been put near me I would probably have ignited.

Anyway, at Taipei I got my ticket for my onward flight to Tokyo. All along my Japanese friends had told me that China Airlines flew to Haneda not Narita (due to the political issues in relation to Japan, China and Taiwan). The travel agent assured me that I’d be going to Narita. Well, at Taipei I discovered that I would be going to Haneda. I quickly got some Taipei dollars and tried calling my friend in Tokyo (who lived relatively close to Haneda) to let him know about what was happening. I didn’t get through to him, but did get through to another friend who then managed to relay the message, so in the end there were no problems when I got to Tokyo.

Note that these were still the days when there were smoking seats on planes – luckily I got non-smoking on all my flights during this trip (as far as I remember) and particularly on the leg from Amsterdam to Dhahran!

As I mentioned in the other post about some of my flying experiences, I took two domestic flights in Japan on JAL. I then picked up China Airlines for the next leg of my trip. My only memory of this was that there was a delay at Haneda due to a mechanical problem with the plane. Given how I later developed a fear of flying (or rather crashing), it is odd now to reflect on the fact that I know my thought at the time was ‘great, a bit longer in Japan’ rather than any concerns about the air worthiness of the plane. Anyway, we took off without problem and I continued my trip onto Singapore. From there (after a few days) I took overland transportation to Malaysia and eventually onto Bangkok, the last stop on the trip. From Bangkok I picked up China Airlines again (having not used the flight portion between Singapore and Bangkok). Again the plane didn’t return to Amsterdam directly, stopping off at Cairo on the way. I have a vague memory of possibly seeing some pyramids, but I cannot be sure now. My main memory is what happened when we got to Cairo. The plane didn’t go to a terminal. Instead we seemed to be sat at the end of a taxiway and a crew came on board to vacuum and clean the cabin. I’d never experienced something like this before (nor since). It was particularly memorable due to futility of the actions as the door through which the ‘cleaning’ crew boarded was left open, and thanks to it being windy, the efforts of the ‘cleaning’ crew were made totally ineffective as sand came through the cabin. Anyway, the plane was ‘cleaned’ and we then continued onto Amsterdam, from where I caught another flight across to London (from where I returned home and the next day got my A level results which confirmed that I would be going to Sheffield University to start a degree in Business Studies and Japanese).

Given my research about the JL123 crash, and that this post is largely about China Airlines and 747s, I feel that it’s worth noting the China Airlines Flight 611 accident. As the summary on Wikipedia says, China Airlines Flight 611 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight from Chiang Kai-shek International Airport (now Taoyuan International Airport) in Taiwan to Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong. On 25 May 2002, the Boeing 747-209B operating the route disintegrated in mid-air and crashed into the Taiwan Strait, 23 nautical miles (26 mi; 43 km) northeast of the Penghu Islands, 20 minutes after takeoff, killing all 225 people on board. The in-flight break-up was caused by improper repairs to the aircraft 22 years earlier. As that page notes later on, the previous accident was due to a tail-strike landing which was not properly repaired – just as a tail-strike landing by JA8119 and improper repair probably led to the JL123 accident (although questions still remain about whether the accident happened exactly as the official reports concludes in relation to the ‘probable’ cause). Although not a 747, also see my post about the China Airlines Flight CI140 Memorial in Japan.

So another company has retired its 747 passenger planes. It’s a shame to see the Queen of the Skies becoming a part of history. I just hope that I get to fly on a 747-8i before they disappear.

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