Chasing the Queen

In my opinion, there is no aircraft more iconic, or more recognized around the world than the Boeing 747. It goes by many nicknames such as, Jumbo Jet, Whale, and the Seven Four. However to many diehard aviation fans, it becomes a “she”, and not just any she, but The Queen of the Skies. She has captured many aviation lovers’ minds as far back as 1968, and has continued to wow fans of all generations since.

It is hard to say why people love the 747. Perhaps it’s the graceful way it pulls off being one of the largest aircraft in the sky, or perhaps it’s the unique two-deck design. It could be the fact that every takeoff is proof of the miracle of flight as over 800,000 pounds launches, seemingly effortlessly, into the sky. There’s also the fact that its long range helped it become one of the first aircraft to genuinely make the world seem like a smaller place.

Regardless of the reason, and despite the adulation it receives from passengers around the world, the 747 is a dying breed. A victim of being too big-boned in a travel market that now seeks the efficiencies of slimmer, more nimble aircraft. As the saying goes, the writing is on the wall for the 747. Airlines may continue to fly it for a while, but orders for new aircraft are dwindling. Even its much younger sibling in the land of giants, the Airbus A380, is experiencing a wee bit of turbulence.

It’s for that reason that I, an aviation photographer in a region that sees fewer and fewer 747s, title this post “Chasing the Queen.” I seek her out whenever I can because I’m not sure when my last opportunity will come to photograph her. I am based out of Minneapolis, where Delta Airlines rules, and Delta has already committed to phasing out its 747 fleet by 2017 in favor of cheaper, leaner, Airbus aircraft. The time may have already come, where my only hope to see one in my hometown, will be an unscheduled diversion from a nearby city that still receives regular visits from her majesty.

My Chase

What follows are some of my favorite shots that I’ve captured during my chase of this majestic aircraft. The first couple of shots you see below were taken a few years after I first took up photography as a serious hobby. I had been an avid aviation fan for many years of flying on the 747, but hadn’t had an opportunity to capture one after having studied the art of photography. The Queen had also been absent from Minneapolis for a long while until Delta thankfully returned her to scheduled service on a Minneapolis to Tokyo run. As soon as I heard that she had returned, I raced to the airport to catch a glimpse. These shots were taken that day:

The Queen of the Skies, a Delta Boeing 747-400, makes a rare appearance in Minneapolis as it departs for Tokyo.

A Delta Boeing 747-400 turns and burns out of Minneapolis on its way to Tokyo.

These next two shots came as I was waiting for the biggest plane in the world to arrive, the Antonov 225 Mriya. It was a special treat to be able to capture the Queen that day as well. Not only did I get a nice shot of her clean, elegant lines, I also managed to get a great shot of some tire smoke as she touched down:

Once considered the flagship of most fleets, and soon to be rare sight worldwide, a Delta Boeing 747-400 arrives in Minneapolis after a flight from Tokyo.

Before there was A380, there was 747, the original jumbo jet. A fine example of the 747-400 series arrives in Minneapolis with a blast of smoke after a fight from Tokyo.

The following shot is actually one of my most popular images on Instagram. I think the reason is that it really shows off the unique shape of the nose, and the massive size of the aircraft. It was taken (along with the image that follows it) the day my family and I were at the Minneapolis airport waiting for our flight to Chicago (on a much smaller Embraer 175). As it happens, there had been a serious storm in Chicago the night before, resulting in a lot of diversions to Minneapolis. In this image, a United Boeing 747-400 (originally scheduled from Shanghai to Chicago) had just been towed to the gate in preparation for a very short and unusual (for a 747) one hour flight to Chicago:

A rare sight in Minneapolis, a United 747-400 pulls into the gate on July 1, 2014 in preparation for a short flight to Chicago. The flight was originally scheduled for Shanghai to Chicago and diverted due to powerful storms in Chicago on June 30, 2014. I've always loved the shape of the nose on this aircraft.

I call this next one “Frustration”. My two-year-old son saw the 747 being towed to the gate and started screaming “Ahhhmin, Ahhhmin” (Airplane). This is despite dozens of aircraft going by outside the windows, but I think this one was finally big enough for him to notice it. He was frustrated that he couldn’t go play with the giant toy airplane, so he rested his head on the glass and looked longingly at it. It was a cloudy, dreary day, and my son was mostly silhouetted, so I decided to try B&W. I really like how it turned out:

A young boy laments his inability to play with the giant toy airplane sitting just outside of his grasp at the Minneapolis airport.

This image was actually a pleasant surprise for me. I had gone to the airport that day to try and catch a shot of some aircraft, any aircraft, with my beautiful city in the background. Just as I was setting up, I saw the Queen being pushed back from the gate. I was really excited because I thought that I had missed her. I know it is just an optical illusion, but this giant aircraft actually makes Minneapolis seem small in this shot:

Home to hundreds of passengers for the next 11.5 hours, a Delta Boeing 747-400 departs Minneapolis, bound for Tokyo.

Immediately following the image above, I decided to go in for a close crop. I’m really glad I did as I think this shot captures the “miracle of flight” that I mentioned at the start of this post. I understand the physics behind this, but it still blows my mind every time I see such an enormous mass, filled with people, just leap off the ground like a ballerina:

Through the miracle of physics, over 800,000 pounds of aircraft launches itself into the sky. Seen here is a Delta Boeing 747-451 bound for Tokyo.

The Boeing 747 isn’t just any aircraft. Its storied history has cemented its place as a classic aircraft that will live on in memories for generations to come. For that reason, I chose to go with black and white in this shot to show off the timeless beauty of this engineering marvel:

A classic example of the 747 series, the 747-451, also known as the Queen of the Skies. It is seen here in Delta livery departing Minneapolis, bound for Tokyo.

This last series of shots represent a bittersweet moment for me. Yes, I had another opportunity to continue my chase, but perhaps for the last time. They say “never say never,” but once again, Delta has removed the 747 from regularly scheduled service to MSP. There may be other airlines that bring one in for various reasons, but it will be unpredictable.

Thanks to a heads-up from a great MSP Aviation Spotting group I’m part of on Facebook, I caught wind of a very rare domestic flight of the 747 from Atlanta to Minneapolis (DL744, Nov 30, 2014). I stood out in the cold until I could barely operate the camera waiting for her to arrive. The particular airframe you see in the shots below, N661US, is the very first Boeing 747-400 ever manufactured. It was originally delivered to Northwest Airlines in 1989. The rumors I’ve heard say that this airframe will soon be retired to a museum. The aircraft had recently completed some special flights to shuttle troops to and from Kuwait, and was headed back there shortly after returning to Atlanta. Because I may never get a good chance to capture her again, I titled this one, “Goodnight My Queen.”

A soon to be retired Boeing 747-400 arrives on a very rare domestic flight from Atlanta to Minneapolis (DL744). This airframe, N661US, is the very first Boeing 747-400 ever manufactured. It was originally delivered to Northwest Airlines in 1989.

This aircraft is so large that it is very difficult to really capture all of her in one image, so I decided to get a couple of close crop shots. I call the first image “Toes” because it made me think of a queen slipping her toes into some glamorous shoes. For this Queen though, all she gets is a cold, icy, Minnesota runway:

The Queen of the Skies prepares to dip her toes into the icy Minnesota landscape.

One of the largest airliners ever built, a Boeing 747-400, prepares to settle its massive bulk onto the tarmac in Minneapolis after a rare domestic flight from Atlanta.

I sincerely hope that this won’t be the last time I get to capture the Queen of the Skies. For now, my two little boys keep me grounded. Someday they will be all grown up, and I might be able to expand my search to other airports. Hopefully carriers will still be flying this beautiful bird. If not, at least I have this short tribute to her that I hope you’ve enjoyed!

The Chase Continues!

I’ll use the space below to periodically update this post with additional images of the Queen when I’m lucky enough to catch its increasingly rare appearances in Minneapolis:

A Delta Boeing 747-400 floats down through the hazy Minneapolis air after a flight from Tokyo Japan. The 747 was replacing a 777 that was out of service due to an upline hard landing in Singapore. For this particular arrival, the 747 executed an autoland, Cat IIIa approach where the aircraft performs an autonomous landing under crew supervision.

A rare treat for Minneapolis planspotters, a Delta Boeing 747-400 arrives after a flight from Tokyo, Japan.

Buy the camera and the lens used to capture many of the images in this story: Canon T4i and Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens

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