Remembering United N4713U

Back in May, I published ‘Death of an Airliner’ – the, oh, let’s call it ‘surprising’ post-accident life of Boeing 747-122 msn #19875/89 which, as United Airlines Flight UAL 811, suffered an explosive decompression out of Honolulu in February 1989.

You may recall that the aircraft was safely recovered to HNL through the skill of Captain David Cronin and his crew. Despite substantial damage, she was repaired and returned to the United fleet, eventually proving far more dependable than her subsequent owner.

Back in it's heyday, #19875 as N4713U at LAX, in April 1982. (Ted Quackenbush | airliners.net via wikipedia)
Back in it’s heyday, #19875 as N4713U at LAX, in April 1982. (Ted Quackenbush | airliners.net via wikipedia)

The story has attracted a lot of interest, including from several pilots who flew the airliner either before or after her brush with disaster. They are united in their praise for this Queen of the Skies.

One of the best stories came from Rick Broome which – not least because Rick has the photos to go with it – deserves a follow-up post of it’s own. It also comes from the aircraft’s very first days, making it a fitting bookend for the earlier article.

I’ve also been lucky enough to contact one of the United A&Ps who repaired N4713U after the accident, and will be bringing you that side of the story soon, too.

Before ‘The Big Orange’

Rick Broome's 727
The forward 47 feet of Boeing 727-222A N7266U inside Rick Broome’s studio at Colorado Springs, CO (© Rick Broome)

Nowadays, Richard Broome is a widely recognised aerospace artist, working from a studio that includes the forward 47 feet of an ex-UAL Boeing 727-222A (N7266U – CO # 21413, Line Number 1351). The fuselage section was bought in near-mint condition from a California movie studio, and is decked out in business jet luxury.

But back in November 1970, he was a 24 year old A&P with United Airlines, working on the ramp at LAX. However he was also good friends with a Braniff International 707 Captain, Len Morgan.

Braniff 747 Big Orange
The Big Orange… Braniff’s 747-127 N601BN being pushed back at Heathrow in Sept 1981. This aircraft went to Polaris in June 1982, then LT Metro in March 1983 and Tower Air in December 1983. Its career ended in March 1993 and it was parted out. (Tim Rees | wikipedia GNU 1.2)

At the time, Braniff was waiting on their first 747-127, msn 20207/100. Painted bright orange and dubbed ‘747 Braniff Place’, but more often called ‘The Big Orange’ or (less kindly) ‘The Great Pumpkin’, the aircraft would be the flagship of Braniff’s fleet when it entered service on January 15th, 1971 – and such was the big jet’s caché that Morgan had given up his left seat on 707s to co-pilot the jumbo.

Of course, that meant extra training. Because the global 747 fleet was still small (20207 was only the 100th built), United contracted with Braniff to provide a 747 for check rides.

Rick Broome in 77
Rick Broome in the Flight Engineer’s seat, as Braniff Captain Len Morgan (right seat) prepares for the flight. The hand belongs to the Flight Engineer, taking the photo. (© Courtesy of Rick Broome)

And so it was that, on November 7th, 1970, the aircraft United assigned Len Morgan and fellow Braniff Captain Wayne Pennington was their brand new N4713U, under command of UAL Captain Dick Boland.

A very lucky – and happy – Rick Broome was invited to come along in the jump seat.

The 747 was so new it had only been test-flown byBoeing 18 days earlier, on October 20th, and United wouldn’t put passengers aboard until the following Wednesday.

But how better to spend a SoCal Saturday night, than joyriding in a jumbo jet?!

I’ll let Rick take up the story…

Joyriding in a Jumbo

United 747 pushback LAX
United ground crew connect the tug, ready to pushback their brand new N4713U from LAX Gate 76 on 7 Nov 1970. (© Courtesy of Rick Broome)

Braniff Airways had contracted with my old line United for the training and rating rides for the first two 747 Captains and Copilots, plus two Flight Engineers, in preparation for receiving their 747-127.

Both Pennington and Morgan traded their left seat Boeing 707-327 seats for the right seat of the 747 so they could crew the first flights once ‘Big Orange’ entered service in January 1971. We departed LAX just as the sunset and flew a short distance to Ontario (KONT) where Pennington shot a couple touch and goes. He was a few numbers senior to Len Morgan.

Ontario kicked us out of their airspace so we headed over to Las Vegas for the remainder of the check rides. It was quite an experience and during one of the touch and goes that Pennington made I decided to go all the way to the back of the main cabin and run forward against all the power available due to our very light weight. (Incidentally, the carpets and all the seats were still covered in protective plastic.)

UAL Capt. Dick Boland
Check Captain for the Braniff pilots on their 7 November ride, United Training Captain Dick Boland, who was comfortable enough to conduct the flight in a T-shirt, and give Rick a turn at the controls. (© Courtesy of Rick Broome)

Imagine my surprise when all of a sudden I felt the brakes being applied and saw engines 3 & 4 going into reverse thrust.

Boland had called for a rejected takeoff and I was bouncing off seat backs and tumbling up the right-hand aisle as the Boeing came to a very fast stop!

Then Len got into the right-hand seat and flew an amazing checkride. On one touch and go with number 4 pulled back the vibration gauge for number 3 started dancing around 5 so the call was made to pull back 3 on climb out.

She flew fine on two engines but Len had almost full rudder input because of the asymmetric thrust.

Short finals for the parking lot

The last landing attempt was the now obsolete NDB approach. Well, Len blew the NDB approach, being far off the right side of the runway. At minimums, Capt. Boland called for a missed approach and the little aluminium plate that prevented forward visibility was slammed down hard as Len brought up the power.

United 747 Cockpit
A second photo of Rick, with his mentor Len Morgan preparing for departure in the background. No glass cockpits or EFBs in those days! (© Courtesy of Rick Broome)

I was hanging on behind the left seat and looking out the windows at the time, and the view was totally amazing. We were only a few hundred feet up, on very short finals for the parking lot at Las Vegas, when Boland called for the go-around. I can only imagine what all the folks on the ground must have thought as a Jumbo Jet flew so very low over their heads!

After Len finished up his Rating Ride and Boland was writing up the Temporary paper Type Rating on a clip board from the left seat, Dick turned around to me and asked if I wanted to fly the jet back to SOCAL? Wow! This was a real dream come true. I had the Captain’s seat adjusted within seconds of fastening the seatbelts!

The flight back to LAX was VFR with flight following at perhaps 16,500 feet. After ‘feeling out’ the controls and climbing at a very modest 1500 FPM, I pushed up the thrust levers and watched the mach meter as it steadied somewhere around 0.8. (Thanks to John Dalet for checking the math on that airspeed.)

Vale, Captain Len Morgan

Capt. Len Morgan
Len Morgan confers with UAL Training Captain DIck Boland. Despite checking out as a 747 F/O, Morgan had been flying since the early 1940s, and captained C-47s and C-46s during WW2. (© Courtesy of Rick Broome)

Len asked me what I thought of flying the Boeing 747 and I replied that it reminded me of a C-47. He exclaimed “You’ve flown a DC-3?!” Yes, I had indeed flown an Air Force C-47 from Lowry AFB to the Air Force Academy and back (from the left seat), when I was a Civil Air Patrol Cadet in the summer of 1961.

Len Morgan kept enormous log books with many extra columns for notations. He’d bought a stack of them when, as a relative kid, he’d gone to fly and fight with the RCAF well before December 7th, 1941.

We were first introduced by United Airlines Training Captain Ed Mack Miller in early 1966, and Len became like a father to me. Len would go on to be a noted author, as well as columnist and contributing editor for FLYING Magazine. In 1990, I was honoured to present the Morgan family with  a painting of Len’s first flight in Big Orange, taking off from Dallas Love Field.

Len Morgan logbook
Photos of Captain Len Morgan’s logbook, showing the details of his 747 F/O check ride on November 7th, 1970. On the right hand side, a note that Rick was along as Additional Crew Member, and checkout confirmation on the back of a UAL postcard! (© Courtesy of Rick Broome)

Sadly, Len Morgan died from cancer on March 11th, 2005, but our two families remain close to this day.

I’d like to dedicate this story to Len, Ed Mack, and all the other great aviators who have flown west since those free and easy days…

Art for life

727 Cockpit
While the cabin of Rick Broome’s 727 sports bizjet comforts, the cockpit is still retains all the essentials. …Nice place to have a meeting, or Friday drinks! (© Rick Broome)

On March  3rd, 1971, Rick was furloughed out of the Boeing 727 and decided not to return to United when  he was recalled the following year. Instead, he chose to pursue a full-time career as an aviation artist which he has done successfully ever since.

He continues to live and work with his family, studio, 727 forward fuselage and wildlife reserve in Colorado Springs. He is also an active pilot and has recorded 48 different types (to date) in his log book. You can read a great article about him here.

Thanks for sharing your memories, Rick!

Want more?

Read the remarkable story of N4713U’s repair after the UAL 811 explosion, in Requiem for an Airliner, part 2. Coming soon.

[Go on… subscribe now so you won’t miss it!  😉 ]

8 thoughts on “Remembering United N4713U

  1. Great post! It amazes me how an airplane can be the flagship of the whole airline, something a captain would gladly downgrade to the right seat just to have an opportunity to fly, and after a few years go by she’s put out to pasture as yesterday’s garbage — literally recycled into beer cans.

    1. Agreed. Even though I understand all the rational arguments, it still seems incredible that such an expensive and prestigious asset would be fit for scrap after 20 years. My Dad drove his car for longer.

      But at the other end of the lifecycle, I think it must be hard to appreciate from this distance just how much draw the 747 had. It combined all the majesty of being impossibly big with arguably being the last really new airliner concept the world has seen.

      Even though Braniff went out of business much sooner than The Big Orange, back before they ordered her they had also paid the deposit on two Boeing SST (Slots #38 and #34, at $100,000 apiece). It all makes me wonder what their aircrew would have done to get into those left-side seats – and how different everything might have been…

      1. Those were the days when progress seemed limitless and the airline pilot lifestyle had prestige, respect, and stability. We had just landed on the moon, and had only transitioned from props to jets a decade earlier. You’re right: the ensuing 46 years haven’t moved us an inch forward except in fuel efficiency. Everything else has gone backward or remained stagnant. I think that’s a big part of why the 1970 timeframe holds so much nostalgia for us.

  2. I love first hand accounts about flying! It seems that once you get the flying bug it stays with you forever . . . And I’ve never known a pilot who doesn’t like what he does!

    1. Oh, yes! If you could read through all my emails with Rick Broome, you’d know just how much aviation passion he has! It has always fascinated me that a large proportion of professional aviators spend their time off work doing – guess what? – more flying. The only other professions where you’ll see that are all arts – writers write, artists sketch, musicians jam…aviators aviate. It says a mouthful about the nature of flying, the people it attracts, and our relationship with our ‘art’.

  3. Great read thanks. I have wonderful memories of the 747-200/300 series and had the privilege of meeting Joe Sutter in 2004.
    The 747 took 2 years 4 months from start to finish – an incredible engineering and manufacturing achievement.

    1. Hi Nick, I think we all would have loved the privilege of a half-hour chat (or much longer!) with Joe Sutter. You’re very lucky. They called his team “The Incredibles” – and with good reason.

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