Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The First Boeing 727 Prepares for its Last Flight

Roll-out of E1 (N7001U) from Boeing Renton Plant, 27 Nov 1962 - Photo: Bob Bogash

Roll-out of E1 (N7001U) from Boeing Renton Plant, 27 Nov 1962 – Photo: Bob Bogash

More than 27 years after it was gifted to the Museum of Flight, the first Boeing 727 is still being restored at the museum’s Restoration Center at Paine Field in preparation for its last flight down to Boeing Field.

This plane first rolled out of the factory on November 27, 1962, and took its first flight (from Renton Field to Paine Field) on February 9, 1963. It was then used for a year as a Boeing test flight aircraft before being delivered to United Airlines on October 6, 1964.

With United, it flew 64,495 hours, with 48,060 take-offs and landings. After being repainted to its original livery, N7001U flew, in January 1991, from Boeing Field to Paine Field, where it has been sitting ever since.

This is N7006U, but N7001U sported this same livery in 1964 - Photo: The Boeing Company

This is N7006U, but N7001U sported this same livery in 1964 – Photo: The Boeing Company

Restoration work has stopped and started more than once over the years. Some restoration work started in 1997, but was hampered by the lack of 727 parts. (United had removed any usable components to support their other 727s still in service at the time). Sadly, the plane was left open for several years after it was delivered, and many parts “disappeared” during that time, as well.

A new restoration effort started in May of 2004, after the donation of N124FE (aka Marcella) from FedEx. That plane had the majority of the components needed, but additional parts were taken from three other 727s as well.

The sheer number of components has required a major effort to secure donations from many contributors. While United and FedEx have made the most visible contributions, it does take a village for such a large restoration project to succeed. The good thing for N7001U is that there is quite the village looking for it to get some love!

The tail is sanded down and masked, ready for a new coat of paint. - Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

The tail is sanded down and masked, ready for a new coat of paint. – Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

Unfortunately, this 727 has been sitting outside, exposed to the elements. Obviously, Seattle isn’t exactly Victorville in terms of climate, so corrosion has been a major issue in the course of the restoration. It has been sad seeing the plane start to look worse and worse, but it was very exciting seeing the old bird, get a new coat of paint.

When I made my visit last week, the 727 was in the process of being prepped and painted. Working outdoors presents challenges in the painting process, but they seemed to have a pretty good solution.

The underside of the wing has already been painted, since it's always in the shade. Also notice the mesh needed to keep out the birds - Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

The underside of the wing has already been painted, since it’s always in the shade. Also notice the mesh needed to keep out the birds – Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

Due to being outside, the paint must be rolled instead of sprayed. Rolling is more time-consuming, and also requires a different approach; they’re not just spraying one color at a time, like they would be in a hangar.

At the same time, the elements are also a factor in when the painting can be completed. It can’t be first thing in the morning, because of the dew, but later in the day, they also can’t paint the side of the plane that is in the direct sun. In more ways than one, getting the 727 re-painted, truly is an art form.

Working in three teams of two, the painters applied the red, blue, and black paint to the tail at the same time - Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

Working in three teams of two, the painters applied the red, blue, and black paint to the tail at the same time – Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

During my visit, I sat down with TC Howard, the Crew Chief for the project, to learn more about the history of the plane and the restoration work that has been completed so far. I was most impressed to learn that the restoration work to date has been completed 100% by volunteers, except for the painting. Especially considering the number of years the restoration has been underway, it shows the level of commitment to the project by everyone involved.

An example of a corroded part removed from the 727 - Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

An example of a corroded part removed from the 727 – Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

After our chat, we took a walk through the parts area on our way to the plane itself. Once we were outside, I had the chance to take photos and watch the paint crew work while they were masking and painting the starboard side of the tail. Who knew that watching paint dry could be so fun?

BONUS: Additional photos of the Restoration Center+ the interior of the first Boeing 727

I also had a chance to meet Bob Bogash, the Project Manager. His personal website has a lot of great photos and detailed information about the history of the project, and it is obvious that he is very passionate about the aircraft. He told me that he has been personally involved with it since 1984, including his efforts to secure the donation from United originally.

The finished colors on the tail - Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

The finished colors on the tail – Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

The ultimate goal is to fly the aircraft one last time to Boeing Field, to be displayed at the Museum of Flight. However, there are still some significant items that need to be completed before a ferry flight is possible. For one thing, it would be awfully difficult to fly without engines. Fortunately, FedEx is donating engines removed from planes at Victorville, which are due to arrive this week. They are donating five engines, to allow for two spares.

The new engine mounts are waiting for the engines to arrive - Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

The new engine mounts are waiting for the engines to arrive – Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

Another major component is the horizontal stabilizer. It is already at the Restoration Center, but requires specialized help to install. That work is currently planned for September. In addition, the fuel tanks need to be cleaned out, a 727 flight crew must be secured, and additional work may be required on the wheels, brakes, and tires.

The horizontal stabilizer is ready to be installed - Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

The horizontal stabilizer is ready to be installed – Photo: Lauren Darnielle | AirlineReporter

With so many items left to complete, there isn’t yet a definitive date for the ferry flight, but hopefully it will be sometime in October. Safety is, of course, the primary consideration, so there is no rush to complete the work by a particular date.

I have seen this amazing piece of history many other times, just sitting at Paine Field. I know there were always plans to get the plane airborne again, but it seemed more like a dream than reality. However, with the hard work and passion coming from those who have been working on the 727, it is quite likely that the plane will have one last flight. I hope that is the case and of course we will be following the progress of the last flight, for the first 727.

Lauren Darnielle – Correspondent

Lauren took her first flight (a DC-10 to HNL) when she was a year old and has been an AvGeek for as long as she can remember. She lives in the Seattle area and loves flying all over the world visiting new cities and collecting (or redeeming) frequent flier miles.

| other stories | lauren@airlinereporter.com

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