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747 vertical fin Future of Flight Aviation Center Gallery 2005

The Tale of the Tail

The Tale of the Tail by Melanie Jordan

A question had been asked. I gazed up from my paperwork and much to my shock all eyes around the board room table were on me. I suddenly realized I had silently been elected by the leadership team to obtain (through donation), remove, transport and install the vertical fin of an airplane on the floor of the new Future of Flight gallery. Not just any airplane, but the Queen of the Skies, the iconic Boeing 747. More than 40 feet tall, this aluminum billboard was to serve as the focal point in the new facility’s exhibit hall.

Funding was nonexistent, but the generosity of our partners and a list of retired B747-100s made the task easier. Off I went to Pinal Airpark at Marana, Arizona, known in the industry as a “bone yard.” I knew that many aircraft parked there would wind up being scrapped, and a former British Airways “Classic” was no exception. Flown in and parked without log books, it was on the chopping block. After a few hearty chuckles about how I was going to get this feat accomplished, the owner, Mountain Air Services, generously donated the tail – with the stipulation: take it away within three weeks.

Boeing’s AOG (aircraft on ground) Team, that world renowned group of expert mechanics who specialize in getting airplanes repaired and back into the air fast, was loaned to us for the removal. Seeking shelter from the 114 degree heat and scorching sun, I stood under the airplane’s wing and phoned the AOG leader, wanting to make arrangements for our first meeting. He was polite but firm. “Are the tools there? We can’t start until the tools arrive.” With a question in my voice, I told him I’d look around and let him know if I found his tools (thinking about Dad’s big red metal chest filled with tools in the garage). His reply: “You’ll know them when you see them, and don’t call again until they show up!”

Every morning I’d trek out to the airport checking for “tools” and after several days I began to get anxious. Where were these “tools”? The clock is ticking on the deadline. Then I heard chugging diesel engines and along the taxi way came a line-up of eight long-haul flatbed trucks with their load of huge wooden boxes. The “tools” had arrived!

Early the next morning, the AOG Team arrived and the process of dismantling the fin began. After fumigating to kill all the desert critters that made it their home and positioning lifts to access its full 60’ height above ground, they went to work removing fairings, elevators and the rudder.

In the meantime, I was zooming up and down the freeway in search of a suitable rail car siding from which the tail could be shipped by train to the Boeing Everett factory. After several rejections, I found one just over a mile away as the crow flies from where the fin was being snatched from the fuselage. Wanting to reduce the many obstacles of transporting a tall, wide and heavy load by road, I hopped in my car, received tower clearance to drive across the active runway, dashed past the graveyard of planes and out the back of the airport property, and drove across the desert to find a path of transport.

Success! Other than a few shallow dry gulches to cross, this route eliminated the many risks of road transport. I was elated and literally danced with excitement as I told my newly recruited trucking firm of my plans. “Have you ever heard about our monsoon season?” asked Christine, the owner of the company. “They’re unpredictable and if they hit while you’re in the desert, you’ll be stuck up to your axles in muck. I’d recommend the road.” Darn, it was such a neat idea, but we went ahead and planned the 35 mile road journey knowing it would be predicable and safe. Or so we thought. Day of the move weather forecast: thunderstorms, heavy rains, lightning!

With the most rainfall in the shortest period of time since 1952, I was very happy we weren’t in the desert with my “neat idea”! In parade-like fashion, with a police escort and flashing lights, we headed out. Flaggers helped us navigate up, over, under and around obstacles until we came to the underpass. Since the time of last “running the route,” another layer of asphalt had been applied to the road, reducing our clearance. Could we make it? Foot by foot the truck slowly crawled through, flanked by spotters standing up in the back of pickup trucks and eyeballing the clearance on both sides. With just four inches to spare, we squeaked through. Whew!

Next came the dip in the road, now serving as a flood wash with a shallow but fast-moving stream of muddy water. We plowed right through. We arrived at the rail site joyous with our successful run, until we saw the cranes. Hired to lift the load, they were parked in low profile ; lightning strikes were a worry. We waited. Two, four, six hours. Finally the storms passed and in the late afternoon the two cranes worked in concert lifting the fin from the truck and placing it near the railroad line for loading in the next couple of days. We didn’t know then that Hurricane Katrina would impact our project, and loading wouldn’t occur for more than a month!

Flat rail cars are hard to come by, and the very low profile ones are very difficult to schedule. Used to transport big and heavy equipment, all available were needed to move equipment into hard-hit Louisiana in the aftermath of the hurricane. Continuously up against the ticking clock for installing this exhibit in the Future of Flight gallery before the grand opening, we were very anxious to get this fin up north. Weeks passed, phones calls were made, and finally, with the help of one of our partners, a railcar was delivered.

The process of rigging, placing, securing and scheduling the pickup had begun – but not before a rescue. A 747 vertical fin has a crawl space large enough for a person to use to access the inside of the assembly. It was the perfect spot for an immigrant to set up temporary housing. When found by our crew, he was dehydrated, hungry and scared. We gave him food and water and gently handed him over to the authorities.

Hooked up to a Northern Pacific train, the tail wound its way on a special route north to Everett. The separation from its mother ship started in August with the project plan of just a few weeks. The tail finally arrived back to its place of origination, Paine Field, in late October.

Cutting the steel cables holding the tail and removing the locks on the tooling initiated readying of the fin for placement in the gallery. Red tagged and isolated from new parts, the tail was “flown through the factory” to various work areas to be cleaned, repaired, painted and polished. During that time, another team of engineers was working on the challenges of installation and securing the fin to the floor, while the marketing department revved up its press releases. The tail of jumbo jet #48, built and delivered in 1970 to British Airways, was coming back home. Home to serve out its life as the point of inspiration at the Future of Flight!

Each and every time I walk in the door of the Future of Flight, I’m thrilled by the sight of that vertical fin. It makes me smile knowing that I played a small part bringing this magnificent representation of commercial aviation to the visiting public. But it couldn’t have been done without the continuous support of our leadership team, the Future of Flight partnership, and the many hardworking professionals who dedicated their time, ingenuity and skill to bringing it home for all to enjoy. Many thanks and great appreciation to those who made the Tale of the Tail possible.