Bernd Tietzel was captain on Lufthansa Cargo's B747-200F for seven years. He was head of training, instructor, and fleet manager of the jumbo freighter fleet, of which Lufthansa Cargo
once operated eight units. The aircraft marked the beginning of the company's rise to become one of the most influential and respected cargo airlines in the world. On the occasion of the last
B747F, which has now left Boeing's production plant in Everett, USA, we asked the Hamburg native to take us on a journey with the iconic B747 freighter aircraft.
For more, please view: The 1574th and final Boeing 747… but the prospect of a huge 787 order, published in our Short Shot section.
When I first stood in front of this man-made behemoth, I desperately looked for explanations; how could it be possible that such a huge machine was able to take to the skies? Absolutely astonishing and fascinating. Four massive engines would push this mélange of technology, fuel, payload, and us as crew up to an altitude of about 12 kilometers and accelerate the jetliner to 85% of the speed of sound, prevailing there. 850 kilometers per hour would then be the cruising speed over many hours, taking us and the cargo on its main and lower decks, from continent to continent.
This impressive aircraft offers the market an uplift capacity of 110 tons of cargo. It can accommodate up to 200,000 liters of kerosene. Its maximum take-off weight is 377,000 kg.
It originally required a crew of three to safely fly this majestic jetliner: captain, first officer, and flight engineer. In today’s aircraft, flight engineers are redundant.
An unbelievable feeling of joy overcame every pilot who personally flew this aircraft. Despite its heaviness, the Jumbo operates very precisely, which comforts pilots. Even measured by today's technical standards, it meets high requirements, despite having been developed in the 1960s.
A good-natured and efficient aircraft
Personally, I owe a lot to the airplane. From 1995 to 2002, the B47-200F took me around the globe. For example, from Frankfurt via the Pole to Fairbanks in Alaska. The next day, we continued circumventing the globe, but this time “downhill” so to speak, heading to Tokyo. Not only did we cross various time zones, but also the International Date Line. The following day, we returned, crossing the date line once more. Theoretically, the crew had become younger by crossing the date line twice, but due to the night flight and limited sleep, we looked much older, in fact. Once back in Frankfurt, everybody felt completely worn out. Flying over 16 time zones, including passing the International Date Line, was a massive challenge for body and mind.
Other intercontinental routes we served with the B747-200F from Frankfurt were Hong Kong, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo, among many others. In addition, we operated many flights to North America, predominantly New York, Miami, and Atlanta.
Missions to the African continent were particularly exciting. I fondly remember a flight to Upington in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, with its longest runway in the southern hemisphere (4,900m), which served as an alternate airport for the American space shuttle in the event of an unplanned emergency landing. Loaded with 50 test vehicles from a large German car company, and including its driver crew, a flight mission from Frankfurt with a constant southern course took us to South Africa at that time. The test area for cars was in the immediate vicinity of the runway. In the evening, after completing the final tasks on board, we enjoyed a zebra steak with red cabbage and spaetzle. A bottle of tasty South African wine from Stellenbosch rounded off the evening.
However, we also experienced some rather uncomfortable flight missions with the B747-200F. I was once assigned to fly fuel rods for a nuclear power plant from Stockholm to Moses Lake in the State of Washington, USA. It was an unpleasant feeling knowing that one-sixth of all the entire fuel rods of a nuclear plant were placed right behind me on the main deck. And yes, sometimes we experienced technical hiccups. For instance, an engine failure during take-off at Frankfurt forced us to dump 90 tons of kerosene over the neighboring region before returning to the airport. An aborted takeoff for the same reason, but years later, led to 12 flat tires! But we were well trained to master situations like these.
From Boeing to Airbus
In 2002, I changed fleets because I wanted to familiarize myself with the new fly by wire technology from Airbus. Considering the astonishing development of this manufacturer in the 1980s, one could only marvel at the kind of computerized aircraft they produced. However, for some Boeing 747 aficionados, they might have gone a bit too far with automation. Are pilots downgraded, will computers take control? These were the recurring questions at that time!
Compared to the new Airbus models, flying a B747-200F still resembled a real campfire. Computers took over more and more functions, such as monitoring and controlling hydraulic systems, power generation, fuel supply, pressurized air-conditioning systems, and so on. Airbus came up with a two-man cockpit. Boeing followed suit shortly after. Flight engineers were no longer needed in the cockpits.
Despite the new developments in aircraft construction, I still like the campfire feeling of the Classic Jumbo's three-man cockpit, including the round instrument gauges. Also, optically, the incommensurable fuselage of the B747 is much more impressive compared to the countless models of today's aircraft generation that look like two peas in a pod.
I miss the B747F, the marvel of engineering from the 60s. It is heartbreaking that the last ever produced B747 left the Everett/Washington plant just a couple of days ago. An era without new Jumbos connecting the world: Getting used to that is difficult.
Cpt.i.R. Bernd Tietzel
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