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Delta Air Lines and the Boeing 747-100

Delta Boeing 747-132

Delta only bought five 747-100s from Boeing, which they operated from September 1970 to April 1977. But the legacy of those aircraft looms large in Delta’s history.

As the 1960s drew to a close, Delta was in the midst of transition on several fronts. First, as a result of the Southern Transcontinental Route Case, Delta was able to add new routes that allowed the airline to offer transcontinental services for the first time. For years, Delta was predominantly a southeastern US-anchored network. The outcome of the Southern Transcontinental Route Case, which was decided by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1961, meant Delta could add routes to California.

Delta Route Map

Delta opened up a range of non-stop services to San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco from Atlanta, Dallas, and New Orleans. Within a year, Las Vegas and Miami were also added. By 1963, the CAB permitted Delta to carry West Coast traffic to its Caribbean destinations via New Orleans and onward to Florida (Orlando and Miami) via Atlanta. In an unrelated decision by the CAB, Delta was allowed to interchange on routes to London from Washington Dulles with Pan American and soon Delta’s DC-8s were flying to Europe as part of that interchange agreement.

The second big change for Delta was the death in September 1968 of Delta founder C.E. Woolman. From Delta’s founding in 1927, no other individual was as closely identified with Delta as Woolman. He became the airline’s president and general manager in 1945 and its chairman of the board only a year before his death. Though viewed as a stern autocrat by the press, Woolman was beloved by Delta employees. On his 25th anniversary with Delta, they presented him with a new Cadillac that he kept for the rest of his life.

The last major change that frames the selection and operation of the Boeing 747-100 by Delta was its 1972 merger with Northeast Airlines. Throughout its history, adversity plagued Northeast which always seemed be hobbled by the CAB with a small network. When it finally did broke out of New England in 1968 with new routes to Florida, it ran squarely into the crosshairs of Eastern, the incumbent giant of the United States’ East Coast at the time. With Northeast literally going from cash crisis to cash crisis, its New England route authorities soon proved ripe for acquisition via merger. The first suitor was Northwest Airlines in 1969.

The CAB approved the merger in 1970, but excluded some of Northeast’s more attractive route authorities like Miami-Los Angeles. As a result, Northwest withdrew its merger offer in 1971. Eastern and TWA then offered merger terms, with Eastern in particular seeing a merger as a way of knocking a competitor out of the New England-Florida market. Those negotiations also fell through and ultimately it was Delta’s merger offer that met with the approval of the CAB. President Richard Nixon was required to signed off on the Delta-Northeast merger because foreign routes were involved, which he did on 19 May 1972. These three events had an enormous influence over Delta’s order of the Boeing 747-100.

Before the launch of the Boeing 747, the “big jets” of the day were the Douglas Super Sixty series DC-8s, which surpassed the Boeing 707 in utility and passenger capacity. Boeing was keen on launching an aircraft that would capture the “jumbo” jet title from the DC-8 Super 61/63. Delta representatives visited Boeing to view the progress on the 747 program and were suitably impressed with the aircraft. Despite their favorable views on the 747, it was clear to Delta’s management that the 747 was too much airplane for an airline with a predominantly short- and medium-haul route network whose longer routes suitably and cost-effectively served by the DC-8 fleet. But on the other hand, two of Delta’s biggest competitors, Northwest and American, had already placed orders for the 747 and Delta’s fellow “southern transcontinental route” airline, National, was expected to do the same. The writing was on the wall: Delta’s DC-8s were no match for the expected spacious comfort of the big Boeing. The prudent move was to get the 747 as well, even if was just a small number on a temporary basis.

In April 1967, Charlie Dolson, the airline president of the time, announced Delta’s order for three 747-100s for $20 million each with options for two more aircraft. It marked the very first time that Delta had ordered from Boeing. Preparations were made at six Delta destinations and three alternate cities for operation of the massive jet. When Pan American launched the world’s first 747 passenger services in January 1970, Delta had two representatives aboard the inaugural passenger flight.

“The 747 is totally unlike any other aircraft, piston or jet. A triumph of American technology, the 747 will bring to our passengers a standard of comfort and convenience no longer limited by the size of an aircraft cabin.”

Delta Senior Vice President of Marketing T.M. Miller

While Delta was making preparations for the arrival of the 747, it was also carefully considering its future widebody needs, which were better met by a smaller aircraft in the form of either the Douglas DC-10 or the Lockheed L-1011. Delta’s technical staff liked both aircraft. Delta had had a long association with Douglas Aircraft, the product of a friendship between C.E. Woolman and Donald Douglas. As a result, it used both the DC-8 and DC-9 extensively in the 1960s. But Woolman’s death, along with the financial and technical difficulties at Douglas that forced Donald Douglas out of the executive suite, effectively made Delta a “free agent,” no longer as closely tied to Douglas as it had been. And Lockheed, eager to put its repair its reputation after the issues with the Lockheed L-188 Electra, pulled out all the stops with its Tristar program, engaging potential airline customers aggressively and early on in the Tristar development. As a result, Delta felt Lockheed had developed an aircraft practically custom-built for them. In the end, Delta ordered five DC-10 Series 10s as insurance against the Tristar program when Rolls Royce ran into serious financial trouble during the development of the RB.211 engine used on the Tristar.

Delta’s 747-100 order was fulfilled quickly and N9896 was delivered to Delta on 25 September 1970. The aircraft arrived in Atlanta to great fanfare on 2 October 1970. N9897 was delivered on 25 October 1970 and N9898 on 18 November 1970. While Pan American was first to launch 747 services on 22 January 1970 on its New York JFK-London Heathrow route, mostly domestic 747 services were launched in quick succession that year:

25 February: Trans World Airlines, New York JFK-Los Angeles (first domestic 747 service)

2 March: American Airlines, New York JFK-Los Angeles

26 June: Continental Airlines, Chicago-Los Angeles-Honolulu

1 July: Northwest Airlines, Chicago-Seattle-Tokyo

23 July: United Airlines, New York JFK-San Francisco

25 October: National Airlines, Miami-New York, Miami-Los Angeles

25 October: Delta Airlines, Atlanta-Dallas-Los Angeles

21 December: Eastern Airlines, New York JFK-Miami

15 January 1971: Braniff International, Dallas Love Field-Honolulu

By the end of 1970, Delta put its other two 747-100s into service with flights to Chicago, Detroit, and Miami. The options for the two aircraft were exercised the following year; N9899 was delivered on 30 September 1971 and N9900 arrived on 11 November 1971. While Delta’s 747-100s flew between Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Miami, they were also put to use on the Pan Am interchange services between Washington Dulles and London Heathrow.

In the space of just over ten years, Delta went from a primarily regional airline anchored in the southeastern United States to a transcontinental airline operating the Boeing 747 with limited interchange services to London. This growth was unlike anything in Delta’s history. Its fleet was quite diverse as a result. By August 1972, Delta had three variants of the Douglas DC-8 in service, three variants of the Douglas DC-9, two variants of the Boeing 727, the Boeing 747-100, the Convair CV-880, the Fairchild-Hiller FH-227, the Lockheed L-100 Hercules for its cargo division, and it was anticipating the arrival of both the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar and the Douglas DC-10. In the interests of reducing maintenance costs, standardizing operations, and holding down spare parts inventories, the fleet types had to be pared down.

By this time, David Garrett had become Delta’s president and it was under his leadership that Delta streamlined its fleet and produced record-breaking profits in the late 1970s. Garrett’s primary imperative was fuel savings; the 1973 OPEC oil embargo that followed the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East caused a sharp spike in the cost of fuel.

For smaller markets and short- to medium-haul flying, Delta standardized on the Douglas DC-9 Series 32. For medium-sized markets and medium-haul flying, Delta standardized on the Boeing 727-200. It had acquired them via its merger with Northeast Airlines and found them to have superior economics to the Convair CV-880s and even the DC-8s. In addition, the 727-200 used similar Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines as the DC-9.

Thirteen 727-200s came over with the merger with Northeast, and Delta wanted more. In March 1972, Delta returned to Boeing once again, this time with an order for fourteen 727-200s. Boeing took Delta’s remaining Convairs as a trade-ins on the 727 order. By 1977, there would be 88 727-200s in Delta’s fleet. Delta’s first experience in working with Boeing on the 747-100 order was so favorable that the airline was eager to work with Boeing again. The arrival of more 727-200s allowed Delta to dispose of the Convairs and the oldest DC-8s first. While most of the Series 51s and Super 61s were sold off, a sizeable number were kept on for several more years with some of the Super 61s getting the CFM56 to become Super 71s.

By this point it was clear the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar would be the long-haul workhorse of the Delta fleet. The DC-10s were eventually sold to United. The first Tristar arrived in Atlanta on 12 October 1973 and passenger services began on 15 December 1973 on the Atlanta-Philadelphia route. By 1974, there were ten Tristars in service. Their spacious underfloor cargo holds meant they carried 25 per cent of Delta’s cargo, despite making up less than 10 per cent of the fleet. That allowed the L-100 Hercules transports to be sold off that year.

When the Boeing 747-100 was ordered in 1967, it was with the understanding it was too big but that Delta of an airplane for Delta needed it to compete in the marketplace. With the Tristar quickly proving itself, the 747-100’s days were quickly numbered and arrangements were made for the first two 747-100s to be sold off. The last three stayed until more Tristars were in service. Delta’s last Boeing 747-100 service was flown 23 April 1977 Las Vegas-Atlanta.

The fates of Delta’s five 747-100s:

N9896: Returned to Boeing 1974. Leased to China Airlines 1976-1978. Operated by Pan Am 1978-1991, then flew with Evergreen International. Preserved at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in 2010 (it’s on the roof as part of the waterpark with waterslides coming out of it!)

N9897: Returned to Boeing 1977. Operated by Flying Tiger 1977-1989 (leased to El-Al Israel for a year). Operated by FedEx 1989-1991. Operated by Air Hong Kong 1991-1996, then Polar Air Cargo. Now scrapped.

N9898: Returned to Boeing 1975, operated by China Airlines 1975-1976. Leased out by Guinness Peat Aviation 1976-1984, operated by Pan Am 1984-1991. Operated by Evergreen International starting in 1991 and converted to a water bomber “Evergreen Supertanker.” Retired with Evergreen’s bankruptcy in 2013. In storage at Pinal Air Park.

N9899: Returned to Boeing 1977, operated by Flying Tiger 1977-1989 (leased to El-Al Israel for a year). Operated by FedEx 1989-1991. Operated by Air Hong Kong 1991-1995, then Polar Air Cargo. Now scrapped.

N9900: Returned to Boeing 1977, operated by Flying Tiger 1977-1989. Operated by FedEx 1989-1993. Operated by Air Hong Kong 1993-1994. Operated by Kalitta 1994-2008. Stored at Oscoda, then scrapped 2015.

As an interesting historical footnote, the first officer on the delivery of Delta’s first Lockheed Tristar was Captain Jack McMahan, at the time one of only two men in the United States certificated to fly the DC-10, L-1011, and 747. The other pilot was an FAA examiner. McMahan was asked by a reporter about his impressions of all three widebodies. He praised the handling of the DC-10, the overall design of the 747, and the advanced systems of the L-1011. He remarked “Flying the three planes is like going out with three sisters. They have the same background but different personalities!”

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