Tag Archives: N406US

Jay Selman’s An Inside Look: Farewell to 406

Guest Editor Jay Selman

Guest Editor Jay Selman

Farewell to 406

by Guest Editor Jay Selman

In over 50 years, I have lost count of how many airplane flights I have taken. I’ve flown on airliners, military airplanes, corporate jets, private aircraft, and helicopters. I’ve flown in just about every airliner from the Comet to the Concorde. I’ve flown from Greensboro, North Carolina to Winston-Salem, a 7-minute (maybe) hop, and I’ve flown from New York to Hong Kong. I’m saying this to say that I have taken some memorable flights, but the vast majority of the airplanes I’ve flown in don’t stick in my mind.

One flight that I do vividly remember occurred on September 15, 1988, when I flew on N406US (man 23876), from Boeing Field in Seattle to Greensboro, North Carolina. 406 was a Piedmont Airlines Boeing 737-401, just one of well over 12,000 737s that have been built or are on order. What made it special was the fact that it was the first 737-400 in the world to be delivered to a customer, and I was privileged to be on that delivery flight, 26 years ago.

Piedmont 737-400 N406US (88-1st 737-400)(Grd) BFI (JET)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jim “Jet” Thompson. Boeing 737-401 N406US is towed out at Boeing Field on a cloudy Seattle day with a special “First Boeing 737-400” banner.

Piedmont was one of the early operators of the 737-300, a vastly-upgraded version of the venerable 737-200. Powered by a pair of CFM-56 engines, the 737-300 represented a tremendous advantage in terms of economy, power, and lowered noise levels inside and outside the cabin. The -300 was an immediate hit with airlines and passengers. A year after the first -300 entered service, Boeing offered the -400, featuring a 10-foot fuselage stretch over the -300. Needing a replacement for its fleet of aging 727-200s, Piedmont became the launch customer for the -400, with an initial order for 25. In 1987, USAir announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire Piedmont. 20 737-400s of Piedmont’s original order were delivered, and USAir ordered an additional 35 of the type and, in all, the company eventually operated 55 737-400s.

By the time that 406, named the Thomas H Davis Pacemaker in honor of the founder of Piedmont Airlines, was ready to leave her nest in Seattle, Piedmont was heading toward a merger with USAir, and she was delivered in a hybrid color scheme of a bare metal fuselage and a Piedmont blue cheat line. As a useless bit of trivia, only four Piedmont 737-400s were delivered with a blue stripe: 406, 407, 408, and 409. The rest came on property with the red USAir cheat line.

Piedmont 737-400 N406US (88)(Ldg) CLT (JS)(LRW) 10.88

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. N406US wears the Piedmont metal transition livery as it lands in Charlotte.

Boeing did a nice job of catering the first-ever delivery of a -400, and there was cause for celebration. It was, indeed, an historic event. Yet, the mood among most of the Piedmont people was a bit subdued, as reality set in that the company we loved was on its way toward non-existence. William Howard had recently stepped down as President and CEO of Piedmont, and his replacement, Tom Schick, was onboard, along with a number of other airline dignitaries, most of whom were, for all practical purposes, in a lame-duck environment. 406 was even delivered with a USAir registration, rather than its originally-allocated N404P. While it was still an historic and exciting moment, there was not complete joy.

For me, the highlight of the entire flight was after we landed in Greensboro. As we came to a stop, I looked out the window and saw Piedmont founder Tom Davis himself standing at the bottom of the airstairs. Not only was he a legend, but also a true gentleman. He also had a gift for remembering faces and names, and as I reached the bottom of the steps, he shook my hand and, without hesitation, told me, “Jay, I expect to see some good pictures of our new plane from you.” (He got some!)

On August 5, 1989, Piedmont Airlines ceased to exist, as everything Piedmont became USAir. Altogether, USAir operated 55 out of the 482 737-400s that Boeing built. Still, I always found myself smiling when I would see 406. I knew she was special. Fast forward 25 years. Years ago, under the leadership of Stephen Wolfe and Rakesh Gangwal, US Airways (as the company had since rebranded itself) elected to hitch its wagon to the Airbus narrow-body product. Slowly but surely, 737s were being replaced with a mix of Airbus A319s, A320s, and A321s.

US Airways 737-400 Patches (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Metal patch on N406US.

During her time in service with Piedmont/USAir/US Airways, 406 served the company well. She was not involved with any significant incidents, although the number of patches on the fuselage suggests there may have been more than a couple of minor issues throughout her life. She did suffer some minor damage when a loading bridge came in contact with the pitot tubes and angle-of-attack indicator located just in front of the forward entry door. This was not an uncommon problem with the 737 Classics, and a loading bridge operator always has to take extra care with these model 737s. Altogether, seven different engines hung on each wing of 406, and a total of 17 auxiliary power units (APUs) were installed in the tail of 406, and over its lifetime, she underwent many B-Checks and C-Checks. These numbers are fairly consistent with the average maintenance activities of a 737 of this age. For the record, 406 was the first 737-400 to wear the final US Airways color scheme.

US Airways 737-400 N406US (05)(Apr) CLT (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. A nice flying portrait of N406US in the final (2005) US Airways color scheme.

Her last revenue flight occurred on August 1, when she arrived from Pittsburgh at Charlotte. Maintenance personnel worked on her for three days, getting 406 ready for her last flight. Finally, early in the morning of August 5, 25 years to the day of the Piedmont/USAir merger, 406 was ready for her last flight as a US Airways-operated trip.

US Airways 737-400 Data Plate (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. The original Boeing data plate.

I met Captains Gene Thomas and Doug Christen, who were going to do the honors of flying “Cactus 9240” from Charlotte to Tucson, Arizona. Each of them had several thousand hours in the 737, and although both of them had plenty of seniority to hold positions on the company’s “big iron”, they elected to stay on the 737 until the very end because of their love of the aircraft. Captain Thomas retired shortly after ferrying 406 to Tucson, and Captain Christen has moved on to the Boeing 757/767. They both praised the 737 as being a real “pilot’s airplane”, and will miss flying them. They were both struck by the historic significance of both aircraft 406 and the date, August 5.

US Airways 737-400 N406US pilots for final flight (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Captains Gene Thomas and Doug Christen.

As the pilots cranked the engines, it felt a little strange sitting in Row 2 of an empty airplane. Brakes were released at 9:20 am local, and Captain Thomas guided 406 to the end of Runway 36C at Charlotte. A few minutes later, Cactus 9240 was given takeoff clearance. With no passengers or cargo onboard, we were airborne in around 3000 feet at 9:27 am. 406’s final flight had begun.

US Airways 737-400 Jay in cabin (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay in the empty cabin of N406US en route to the desert.

Since this flight was operated under Part 91 rules, the pilots were permitted to leave the door of the flight deck open, and I was able to enjoy a view not only of the cockpit, but the world beyond the cockpit windows. The pilots were kind enough to take time to explain to me a lot about what goes on behind those perpetually-closed doors. They both talked about their love for the 737. Along with both of them agreeing that it is a plane that pilots fly, rather than program, they both commented on the robustness of the 737 airframe. As one of them noted, “Quite a few of our old 737s have been converted to cargo carriers, and will continue to fly for quite a few years. How many A320s have been converted to freight dogs?”

US Airways 737-400 N406US cockpit (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. The cockpit of N406US.

Unlike the nicely-catered delivery flight 26 years ago, I sat alone in 406’s cabin, eating a Jersey Mike’s sub that I brought along, and drinking a bottle of water that catering left onboard after stripping the interior of any equipment that could be used on other aircraft. It gave me a chance to wander around this historic airplane and savor this one last flight in her. Truth be told, I was probably one of handful of people who really appreciated the significance of 406, but that’s okay. I was given the chance to fly on her this one last time. I am not one who keeps a log of all the planes I have flown in, but I do know that I’d flown in 406 at least a dozen times over the years.

US Airways N406US final approach TUS (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. The final “Final Approach” as US Airways for N406US.

Captain Thomas said that during her final flight, 406 performed flawlessly. She did not produce a single squawk during the flight, and every flight parameter was met or exceeded. Sooner than I would have wanted, we began our descent into Tucson, where we followed an Air Force KC-135 on visual approach to Runway 11L. Captain Thomas greased the lightly-laden 406 onto the runway at 10:09 am local time, and we then taxied back to the facilities of Ascent Aviation Services. Ascent is a premiere narrow body maintenance and storage center located at Tucson International Airport. Several ex-US Airways 737s are stored there, where they will either be readied for a new operator, or broken up and sold for parts. The fate of 406 is uncertain as of this writing. Captain Christen said that typically, a plane will sit for two or three months as their owners look for another operator. After a certain point, it will be scrapped. I would certainly like to see her fly again, as she has plenty of life left in her, but the fate of 406 has yet to be determined as of this writing.

US Airways 737-400 N406US aircraft in storage TUS (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Aircraft in storage at Ascent Aviation Services in Tucson awaiting their fates.

At 10:15 am, Captain Thomas shut down the engines of 406 for the last time as a US Airways flight. Over nearly 26 years, she had accumulated 69967.4 total flight hours, and 47032 cycles. We climbed down the airstairs, and posed for a couple of final pictures. And that was it. The Ascent technicians hooked 406 up to a tug and towed her to a spot in between two other 737s awaiting their fates. I took one last photo of an historic plane, and a special airliner to me, and then I hopped into a truck to take me to the terminal for my flights home. This had been one flight I won’t forget.

US Airways 737-400 N406US towed into position at TUS (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. N406US is pushed into its storage spot at Tucson (TUS) next to a Solaseed Air Boeing 737-400 which was just retired.

Boeing 737 Slide Show: AG Slide Show

US Airways: AG Slide Show

Jay Selman’s Inside Look: US Airways operates the last Boeing 737 Classic revenue flight

Guest Editor Jay Selman

Guest Editor Jay Selman

An Inside Look: The End of a Classic Era

by Jay Selman

When I was hired by Piedmont Airlines (Winston-Salem) in 1981, the Boeing 737 reigned supreme. We were taking delivery of brand new Boeing 737-200s, and oh how I loved those birds. They were short and fat, and NOISY in an era when noise was still acceptable! In the early days of my airline career, I was on an airplane virtually every weekend. Those were the days when an airline could make money with a 50% load factor, and on those rare occasions when a flight did fill up, there was usually room in the cockpit for a company employee. I’d venture to say that 95% of my flights during the first 10 years of my career were in 737s.

Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum/AirlinersGallery.com. Boeing 737-201 N736N (msn 19420) of Piedmont waits for its next assignment at Atlanta. The -200 is painted in the original 1974 livery.

By 1985, the 737-300 had joined the Piedmont fleet. Although it still had the 737 designation, it seemed to be a whole new animal. Those CFM-56 engines were massive compared to the JT-8Ds on the -200s, and the 737-300 promised significant increases in payload and range, as well as significant reductions in fuel burn. Oh yes, and they were QUIET. In fact, a common complaint among crewmembers flying the -300 was that they had to lower their voices so that passengers would not join in their conversations. The cockpits of Piedmont’s -300s still had the old “steam gauges” but they also had greatly improved avionics, and even a lovely feature called “Autoland”, which the company was never actually certified to use.

Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum/AirlinersGallery.com. Boeing 737-301 N307P (msn 23259) of Piedmont wears the updated white top 1974 color scheme.

Piedmont was the launch customer for the Boeing 737-400, essentially a stretched -300, and in September, 1988, I had the good fortune to fly on the delivery flight of N406US, the first 737-400 in the world to be delivered by Boeing.

 

Copyright Photo: Nigel P. Chalcraft/AirlinersGallery.com. The first delivered -400, Boeing 737-401 N406US (msn 23876) taxies at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood in the bare metal 1988 livery.

At one time, Piedmont was able to claim the title of the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 737. No wonder I had a love affair with the Seven Three throughout my career in the airline industry.

In 1989, Piedmont and USAir merged and I was now working for USAir. The merger brought a large number of different aircraft types to my company, but I still loved the 737.

 

Copyright Photo: Christian Volpati Collection/AirlinersGallery.com. Suddenly the Piedmont name and brand were going way. USAir later gave way to US Airways as a brand.

Then in 1997, USAir CEO Steven Wolf shocked the aviation community by announcing an order for up to 400 narrow-body Airbus aircraft. Ultimately, this would reduce the composition of the company’s narrow-body fleet to one basic type (the A319, A320, and A321 are all the same basic airplane).

The handwriting was on the wall for the USAir (later US Airways) 737s…in fact, all of the narrow body aircraft operated by USAir. With respect to the 737s, the dwindling fleet of 737-200s was parked following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, while the last of the -300s was retired in 2013. Finally, on August 19, 2014, N435US operated the final flight of a US Airways 737, appropriately designated as flight US 737.

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. There are now no longer any US Airways 737 Classics operating out of the Charlotte hub. N406US landed at CLT with 43515 cycles and approximately 65405.45 hours. The airliner was a trusted performer for the carrier and has now been retired to the desert.

“Cactus 737”, its ATC callsign, flew from Charlotte to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Philadelphia and back to Charlotte on August 19, and I was able to fly all three legs on it. US Airways elected to keep the event low-key, since, after all, the “new American Airlines” is currently operating over 230 Next-Generation 737-800s, and will eventually own a fleet of over 300 of the type. But what made the trip special for me was the fact that the pilot in command, Captain Jeff Tarr, was also flying his last trip as an airline pilot.

US Airways 737-400 N435US at the gate (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. The end of an era. N435US sits at the gate, unlikely to carry passengers again.

 

When Cactus 737 pulled into Gate D7 at 9:48 pm at CLT, there was no real fanfare for the airplane, but there was plenty of recognition for Captain Tarr.

US Airways 737-400 Captain Jeff Tarr and F-O Robert Channell (JS)(LRW)

 

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. Pictured in the cockpit of N435US is Captain Jeff Tarr (left) and F/O Robert Channell (right). This also was Jeff’s retirement flight.

And, after all, that is the way it should be. Too often, an airline is defined by its aircraft, or its color scheme, or its catch phrase. But what should REALLY define an airline is it’s employees. For most of us who have been in this industry for any length of time, it’s more than a job…it’s a way of life. Most of us who have been here for awhile began working in the days when we were envied for our status as airline employees. We remember hearing, “You have one of the best jobs in the world,” rather than, “I wouldn’t have your job for anything in the world.” An airline is about people, and not just airplanes.
 Having said that, the Boeing 737 has been part of the airline I work for during my entire 33-year career. Admittedly, the Airbus offers many advantages to the passenger than the old 737 Classic. And, of course, once the merger is complete, I will, again, be working for a company that will be operating 300+ Next-Generation 737s.

US Flt 737 Crew (JS)(LRW)

Copyright Photo: Jay Selman/AirlinersGallery.com. The proud crew of flight US 737 that operated the flight from DFW to PHL and finally to CLT.

 

In my personal opinion, an Airbus simply cannot compare to a Boeing in terms of useful life and ruggedness. Why do I say this? Just consider this fact. There are still plenty of 737s around with 30+ years on their airframes. Many still haul passengers, while countless others have been converted to freight dogs. I have no idea how many 737s have been converted to cargo carriers, but I can tell you exactly how many A320s have been.
 So, vive la 737. You’ve given me a great ride.

 

Piedmont Airlines (1st): AG Slide Show

USAir: AG Slide Show

US Airways: AG Slide Show