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.
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’
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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! 😉 ]