Plane facts: A NASA-operated 747SP once flew for United and Pan Am

This 747SP first flew for Pan Am and then for United. Image Credit: NASA / Carla Thomas

This 747SP first flew for Pan Am and then for United. Image Credit: NASA / Carla Thomas

What happens to a plane after its finishes commercial service?

Sometimes, as we detailed last month with a Fiji Airways 747 (registration: DQ-FJK) the airplane is immediately scrapped. But other times, the plane continues flying for a decade or even longer. 

I recently came across N747NA, a 747SP operated by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — part of NASA — since 1997. According to the website touting the plane:  “NASA and the German space agency, DLR, are working together to create and operate SOFIA – a Boeing 747-SP aircraft modified to accommodate a 2.5 meter gyro-stabilized telescope.”

According to NASA, the plane was first owned by Pan Am and later United, which got rid of the early-model 747 in 1997. (Here’s a 1980 photo of the Pan Am livery, and a 1994 photo of the plane wearing United titles. 

NASA put together some interesting facts about the history of the plane. Read on to learn them.

Registration: N747NA
First Flight: April 25, 1977
Delivered: May 6, 1977, Pan Am (N536PA)
Christened: Clipper Lindbergh by Anne Morrow Lindbergh on May 20, 1977, the
50th anniversary of Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight across the
Atlantic. (Rechristened Clipper Lindbergh by Erik Lindbergh on May 21, 2007.)
Sold to United Air Lines: February 13, 1986
Registration changed: November 1, 1986 (N145UA)
Approximate Total Flight Hours: 74,500
Approximate Number of Cycles: 10,600
Acquired by NASA: October 27, 1997
Registration changed: December 17, 2004 (N747NA)

Model: Boeing 747SP (Special Performance)
Number built: 45; still in service: 14
Manufacturer’s serial number: 21441
Line number: 306
Based: NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (Site 9), Palmdale, Calif.
Staffing: Flight Crew: 3; Mission Crew: 2–6; Observers/Educators: 5–15
Fuselage Length: 177 feet (53.9 meters) Standard 747-400: 232 feet (70.5 meters)
Wingspan: 196 feet (59.7 meters)
Powerplants: 4 x Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7J turbofan engines (50,000 lbf thrust each)
Service Ceiling: 45,000 feet (13.7 km) — above 99.8 percent of the Earth’s
atmospheric water vapor
Airspeed at 41,000 feet: 450 knots (Mach 0.8 or 520 mph)
Range: 6,625 nautical miles
Mission Duration: 7 to 9 hours (standard); 12.2 hours (maximum)
SOFIA empty weight (zero fuel): 378,000 pounds (189 short tons or 171,458 kg)
SOFIA Maximum Take Off Weight: 696,000 pounds (348 short tons or 315,700 kg)
Maximum Fuel Load: 300,000 pounds (44,776 U.S. gallons)
Fuel Usage: 150,000 to 250,000 pounds (standard duration mission)
Cavity Door weight: 3,150 pounds (1,430 kg)

Source: NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy


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