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The Boeing 707 – 50 years of Passenger Operations – An Anniversary Party "Off the Beaten Path"

By Manuel Kliese
November 28, 2008

Manuel Kliese travelled to Tehran with 13 enthusiasts from around the world to experience and report the Boeing 707’s 50th anniversary of passenger flight! Their day didn’t exactly go according to plan…

On Sunday morning, 26 October 1958, 111 passengers checked in at New York’s Idlewild Airport (today known as JFK). They shared the desire to cross the pond from west to east, from New York to Paris. On any other day, they would be preparing to embark upon the demanding flight in a propeller-driven long range aircraft such as the DC-7, which would take them 3600 miles to Paris in approximately 13 hours, with a service ceiling not high enough to fly above the rough weather of the North Atlantic. But something was very different about this day! When arriving at their departure gate, a military band was playing and dozens of journalists were watching these lucky 111 passengers holding Pan Am World Airways boarding cards in their hands—the feeling of a great day was in the air. What was different? It was the beginning of a new era in long distance passenger flights. A new baby was born, learned to walk its first steps, and was now ready to do its first mile. At Idlewild, the first jet aircraft ever to carry passengers was prepared to perform its first ever passenger flight, bringing those 111 across the pond in about half the time—around seven hours.

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Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen

Boeing 707-121 “Clipper America” (N710PA) was ready to forever change to world of air travel! The passengers on this maiden flight could probably even smell the change in the air!

On Sunday morning, 26 October 2008, 164 passengers checked in at the domestic terminal of Tehran Mehrabad Airport. Most of them shared the desire to visit the holy Shia Imam Reza’s shrine in the Eastern Iranian city of Mashad. They came from all over the Muslim world: old Iranian men from the Zagros Mountain countryside; Chador-covered women from the conservative southern areas of Tehran; a large group of Pakistani Shia Muslims doing their pilgrimage to the shrine–they all met at the gate that morning, holding their boarding cards, ready to enter a flying legend without knowing it! They booked their flights with Saha Air maybe because it was a bargain, or maybe because the other flights for that busy leg were sold out, or maybe because they got it as a part of a pilgrimage package tour to Mashad. Among this group of passengers waiting for their pilgrimage to start, suddenly a group of 14 strangers from the West—“farhang” as the Iranians say—popped up at gate 4 for boarding. Some Iranians, especially the ground personnel handling the boarding procedure, considered this a suspicious activity, as groups of Western tourists in Iran are a very scarce on Saha’s flights. In fact, the ordinary Westerner would probably refuse to board when seeing the filthy, dated plane that would be taking him through the skies at 560 mph. But to us, the 14 strangers, that 707 was something truly special, and we knew something great was about to happen!

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Our group of 14 aviation enthusiasts came from Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and even the USA. We assembled in exotic Iran to celebrate one of the greatest anniversaries of civil aviation! You be thinking that the same things from 50 years ago is about to be described in this article—the band, the journalists and a couple of Boeing officials praising their accomplishments—but this experience was special and unique.

The Anniversary Flight(s)

As we boarded the Saha Air passenger bus (by the way, a very modern Cobus 3000…), which drove us over the busy Mehrabad apron, we became increasingly eager to get things started and fly the legendary Boeing 707 as “ordinary” passengers, exactly 50 years after the first Pan Am New York-Gander-Paris operation! We were all impressed and amazed that this anniversary was actually taking place.

Boeing 707-3J9C EP-SHU with cn 21126/914 was delivered to Shah Reza Pahlavi’s Iran Air Force on 31 August 1976 and is still wearing its military registration 310 (complete 5-8310) close to its nose, as Saha Airlines can be considered a semi-military carrier (comparable to Argentina’s LADE), even if she is registered as a civil aircraft now. Except for her titles and the Saha Air logo on the tail, she still wears an Iran AF military livery—of course no one would invest giving Saha Air’s fleet a completely new paintjob! During her military life she mainly served as a tanker, probably busy during the Iran-Iraq war, during peaceful times often stored over longer periods on the military apron at Mehrabad, activated and used for training flights in Iranian airspace. In 2003, most of the tanker equipment was removed; the cabin fitted with an antique B707 cabin interior and Sigma Aero Seats for 164 passengers. The special tanker frame construction at her tail was not removed, except the booms used for in-flight fuelling operations with fighter aircraft. A very special sight is the original B707 tanker fuelling observation window, which can be found within the normal row of pax windows on both the left and right hand side in row 29.

That beautiful, shabby old bird was now parked right in front of us, ready for a short 1h10m flight—IRZ 160—from Tehran-Mehrabad Airport to Mashad’s Shahid Hashemi Nejad Airport.
Our thrilling flight experience was scheduled for take-off at 6:00 am. As often experienced when using Saha’s services, everything goes smoothly and much focus is put on an exact on-time departure, which gives you a feeling of how military operations were handled! As soon as we boarded, the doors were closed, and the engine began to whisper smoothly while a quick and regimented emergency demonstration was given. Just few minutes after boarding, we were ready for a fast taxi to runway 29R at THR.

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Quite the Shabby Tail

And now, with all four engines simultaneously roaring with all their power, with the brakes set, just before take-off, the fascination and awe of flying the Boeing 707 it at its peak. As Mehrabad is located 1208m above sea level, we enjoyed a long and smooth take-off using a whole lot of 29R’s 3992 meters, followed by some rather poor climb performance, leaving us passengers with the impression of a high speed low-pass over Tehran’s houses!

At 6:01 am we were airborne, and Saha Air’s operating discipline still amazed us!

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But just minutes after that fantastic take-off, as we left the Tehran suburban area, climbed further, and headed for the first waypoint on the way to North-Eastern Iran, …here we go… the unexpected happened—our ears began popping, a deafening passenger announcement in Farsi blared over the speakers, and our fellow passengers became visibly nervous… After a few minutes, our flight attendant Mohammad told us he had bad news—we would be returning to Tehran-Mehrabad due to some “minor technical problems.” What was happening now was another demonstration of the concentrated, disciplined attitude of our Iranian SAHA crew, handling the unusual procedure with impressive calm, focus, and efficiency.

The cabin was cleared and checked thoroughly, and the cabin crew was very busy but extremely calm—we had the feeling they might be expecting a rough landing. Large items were removed from the open overhead compartments, and everyone’s fastened seatbelts were double-checked. As we went downward in a very steep but controlled descent towards Mehrabad, the calmness within the cabin and among the seated flight attendants was overwhelming! Shortly thereafter, things began to unravel as our approach for runway 29R (the longer 29L with ILS was is closed) became more unstable.

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The flaps of our lovely bird were slowly… very slowly reached their low-degree angle and were set in different positions on the left and right hand side of the aircraft. Our heading was now changing quickly—EP-SHU had quite a nose-down attitude and was approaching the ground quickly and at an obviously very high speed, making us all very concerned about what would happen next! After a few quick corrections, we soon passed over the perimeter fence and glided over THR’s 29R—still at a very high speed. The pilot in command seemed to be trying to find the best compromise between the risks of an early but hard overly fast touchdown with a heavy aircraft (carrying a full pax load and return fuel), and using too much precious runway by simply not touching soon enough. A second later, our captain found the moment he was waiting for, and put the main gear on the ground. Every second that followed seemed dramatic: the spoilers were barely extended and we did not really feel any decrease in speed as we raced along 29R, even the wheelbrakes did not seem to work… We kept on running and running with the nose still pointing upwards, using hundreds and hundreds of meters of valuable runway! The symptoms during approach and landing seemed to point to a serious hydraulic fault. A moment later, one of the strongest and longest thrust reverses I have ever experienced was applied to prevent us from overrunning 29R during this emergency landing. Engines 1 and 4 overheated quickly and sprayed large, 1-2m long flames, and the smell of burned oil rushed into the cabin. By using everything at their disposal, plus a good amount of luck and chance, our flight crew prevented us from ending up in the Kan River, flowing right behind 29R (This was the fate of EP-SHE on 20 April 2005).

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The scene on 20 April 2005

The Boeing 707’s anniversary flight—the very first flight of the day of her 50th jubilee of carrying passengers—was an unplanned roundtrip from Tehran to Tehran, ending with an emergency landing that hardly avoided “hitting the road,” using something like 3962 of the 3992 meters of the runway after only 20 minutes in the air! At 6:22am, we again taxied on the way to the military apron at Mehrabad.

I want to thank the crew of Saha Airlines flight IRZ 160 for performing on 26 October 2008 in a way saved both our souls and the spirit of the greatest passenger jetliner – the Boeing 707!

The heroes of IRZ 160 on 26 October 2008 are:

Saha Airlines Crew:
Captain: MOHSENI
First Officer: JAAFARI
Flight Engineer: MIRAKHORI
Flight Purser: ASHURI
Load Master: SHAFIEI

After experiencing this dramatic happy ending on the first flight of the Boeing 707’s great jubilee day, I remembered how Boeing decided to celebrate this momentous accomplishment – this great technological milestone that had served the people of the world so greatly… A few weeks before the flight, Charles Kennedy, a member of our tour group, phoned Boeing to ask if they were planning on sending someone to celebrate this great jubilee of their product. The answer was simply, “no comment”! Of course, the location was wrong. The location is the reason why even the aviation-related media did not report this milestone.

Of course I felt very sad for the Boeing 707 because she experienced such inglorious emergency conditions on her birthday. But let us think of it another way: why is a such an over-aged and outdated jet aircraft even experiencing its 50th anniversary in passenger traffic in 2008, when so much more advanced technology exists in the world? United States sanctions prevent Iran from getting new aircraft into their fleets; even European models cannot be purchased due a ban to use U.S.-built avionics in Iran. At the same time, the demand for domestic travel in Iran is strongly increasing. This leads me to the following conclusions:

Western sanctions preventing the technical renewal of the civil aviation sector of a large country like Iran, which depends very much on civil air transport, does not at all prevent that country from ceasing its nuclear programme and it does not prevent people from flying or needing to fly. The only thing these sanctions prevent is the safety within the civil aviation sector of Iran, and the safety of the lives of innocent passengers. When an aircraft crashes in Iran, simply nobody is going to blame this to the above-mentioned sanctions and nobody will be knocking on the Iranian governments door to say: “the aircraft that killed my loved one crashed because you wont stop your nuclear programme and therefore do not receive modern aircraft, avionics and spare parts from the west.”

Business always finds its way—even if safety is compromised—operations go on and on and on! As one Saha Airlines captain said to us on one of our earlier tours to Iran to fly the Boeing 707, when asked how long they might continue to fly these aircraft: “until we crash it”!

As an aviation enthusiast I can only appeal to those in charge against continuing to use these types of pressure against Iran—there must be alternatives that can accomplish the same end without endangering the innocent people of Iran.

A couple hours after our unscheduled return to Tehran, EP-SHU was “repaired” by the maintenance personnel of the IRI Air Force and got a second chance to perform her 50th anniversary flight without any emergency. She did it, hanging by a thread, just like every other day, thanks to the amazing performance of the personnel and crews that fly her!

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Written by
Manuel Kliese

Manuel Kliese became an aviation enthusiast at 25, after living in Longyearbyen, on the remote, Arctic archipelago of Svalbard for a few years. Only connected to the mainland by air, Manuel became fascinated with aviation after flying in tough conditions, rough polar weather and during the polar night. Now living near the Düsseldorf Airport/Germany, he is one of the members of airevents.com, which organizes special flights and aviation tours for other enthusiasts. Manuel was one of the organizers of LT9999, the first Arctic & North Pole Flightseeing tour ever, in an LTU A330-200 on 1 May 2007. This is his second article on airliners.net.

15 User Comments:
Username: Irobertson [User Info]
Posted 2009-01-10 07:16:44 and read 32768 times.

Fantastic article Manuel, I would give anything to fly to Iran and take Saha - even after reading of your emergency landing. What an adventure!

Username: Tinkerbell [User Info]
Posted 2009-01-11 13:10:07 and read 32768 times.

Hi Manuel
Fantastic experience you had. I bet you had a few nervous moments in between as well.
I sympathise with these countries that are all flying these old"Coffins", but that said, these countries are not really too worried about their aviation safety record, neither the safety of their passengers. In a country like Iran, where the "suicide "bomber concept originated, LIFE, as we know it and cherish, obviously cannot mean much, and nuclear power there is seemed as a weapon, and not a commodity.
At the end of the day, sad as it may seems, it is these Governments of the day, that chooses the path of sanctions, thus resulting in stupendous shortcomings,and the outside world can hardly be blamed for the shortcomings of the choice these governments seem to make.
You would have really thought that Boeing, at least would have some sort of 50 Years of 707 commemoration, what with Pan Am non-existent.

Username: Newdan [User Info]
Posted 2009-01-14 14:47:13 and read 32768 times.

this is a great post

Username: Akelley728 [User Info]
Posted 2009-01-28 08:30:01 and read 32768 times.

Great article - thanks for sharing your experience. However, this is one inaccuracy in your article:

[quote=Manuel Kliese]At Idlewild, the first jet aircraft ever to carry passengers was prepared to perform its first ever passenger flight[/quote]

The 707 was actually the fifth third jet airliner to carry passengers, and the third to enter regular service. The British de Havilland Comet, Canadian Avro Jetliner, and the French Sud Caravelle, and the Tupelov Tu-104, all preceeded it, with the Comet and Tu-104 preceeding it into regular service.

Username: Jpc11 [User Info]
Posted 2009-03-01 13:20:01 and read 32768 times.

cool artical

Username: Erhard [User Info]
Posted 2009-03-03 12:54:23 and read 32768 times.

A fantastic report!
I flew the Lufthansa 707 Intercontinental regular in the 60's and early 70's when we lived in Japan and flew back to Germany for summer holidays via the North Pole route, Tokyo (Haneda) to Anchorage then on to Frankfurt.
Also flew Pan Am, American, Air France, QANTAS & BOAC 707's.
What a fantastic plane, she looks beautiful, the sounds, smells, just awesome!
I spent many hours flying in the 707's, spent time in the cockpit, once when landing in Anchorage, those were the days when there was little 'terror' in the sky's.
In those early days, there were no 'bridges', so you were bussed to the aircraft and then walked up the steps, or as in Anchorage, the aircraft was close enough to the terminal that you just walked down the stairs, across the tarmac and into the terminal, same in Tokyo as well, just great!
Thank you for bringing back wonderful memories!

Username: MotorHussy [User Info]
Posted 2009-03-26 13:27:39 and read 32768 times.

This is the aircraft I first flew round the world on with airlines including: trans-Tasman with Qantas; across the Pacific with Pan Am; around the U.S. with TWA and American and; across the Atlantic and in Europe with TWA and Pan Am.

Feeling quite nostalgic now.


Username: Iligano [User Info]
Posted 2009-04-25 11:17:29 and read 32768 times.

This very same plane was used in Vietnam as a R&R flight from Danang to other Asian cities every day. On Wednesdays to went to Kai Tac Hong Kong for those of us who picked that as our week long break. Also went to Bangkok, Manila, Tiawan, Sidney, and once a week to Siagon. Clipper Black Hawk and Clipper America worked Vietnam really hard. Clipper Back Hawk was busted up in Marana years back. I also flew this to Bangkok for an extra week of R&R for pulling extra duty for 5 months .

Username: Vaspiano [User Info]
Posted 2009-05-17 07:11:12 and read 32768 times.

live in Brazil, and would like to congratulate the Jonh actor Travolta, for having in its " quintal" wonderful a Boeing 707 in flight conditions! Debtor to the actor, for being so careful with this wonder of aircraft! Walter Luis, I live in São José do Rio Preto!

Username: Oytun [User Info]
Posted 2009-05-19 03:04:12 and read 32768 times.

Fantastic article. Enjoyed so much reading it.

Username: Fanofjets [User Info]
Posted 2009-05-19 12:25:52 and read 32768 times.

Thank you for posting this wonderful article. Most of the world has forgotten the 707, but there are still admirers around the world. The DC-8 and 707 definitely sealed my love for aircraft in the 1960s; both birds took me around the world several times, and both bring back many, many memories. How I long to board a Boeing 707 with an original 1960s interior! How few of these beautiful birds have been preserved!

Username: Sih12sih [User Info]
Posted 2009-07-11 08:29:19 and read 32768 times.

i loved hi you put video into it and the articale was amazing

Username: BasilFawlty [User Info]
Posted 2009-08-04 01:42:20 and read 32768 times.

Amazing article! On the next Iran tour I will definitely join you!

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-01 09:26:10 and read 32768 times.

so great article!!! pics and vid so cool!!

Username: MrBoeing [User Info]
Posted 2013-05-08 18:39:49 and read 23611 times.

What a great story, The 707 is and always will be the greatest airliner that ever took to the skies! KEEP FLYING FOREVER glorious wonderous woman of the skies!

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