A very Special 747 collection trilogy — Part 2: Africa and Asia

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Written by Fabricio Cojuc

The B747SP’s ability to serve very long haul routes made it a natural choice for geographically challenged airlines, such as South African Airways (SAA), one of its earliest and second largest adopters with six ordered. Its long range capabilities were required to overcome political airspace bans imposed by several countries on SAA, implying circuitous routings and technical stops, and enabled nonstop service in key markets, such as JNB-SYD and JFK. SAA performed the world’s first SP commercial flight on 4.24.76, JNB-LIS-ATH-FCO, beating Pan Am by a few hours.

Three generations of SAA liveries were applied while the SP was in use, beginning with ZS-SPF (MSN21263, 12.22.76, “Soutpansberg”), its last unit delivered. The classic white, orange and blue original delivery livery features three distinctive elements: Titles in English (port) and Afrikaans (starboard); an anti-glare elongated “mask;” and the small Flying Springbok next to a reverse L-shaped line. It was sub-leased to Luxair, Air Mauritius, Air Namibia, and Linhas Aereas do Mozambique, and retired in 2008.

SAA’s livery was modernized in the 1980s, preserving the original colors and a larger Springbok, but not the mask, with revised dual language titles, as shown by ZS-SPE (MSN 21254, 10.21.76, “Hantam”), its fifth SP delivered. It flew too under sub-leasing contracts between 1989 and 1993, and remained in service until 2003.

Due to major political changes in South Africa, in 1997 a bold branding makeover took place, with new colors and larger titles, while eliminating “Airways”, the name in Afrikaans and the Springbok. ZS-SPB (MSN 21133, 02.24.76, “Outeniqua”), the second SP to enter the fleet, displays the revamped livery. It was also sub-leased from time to time, including to Air Malawi, Cameroon Airlines and Air Afrique, and sold to Panair in 1999.

In March 1976 ZS-SPA (MSN 21132, 1.27.76, “Matroosberg”), SAA’s first SP, set the record for the longest nonstop commercial aircraft flight upon its factory delivery, from PAE to CPT, which stood until 1989. In 1995 it also gave birth to Alliance, renamed Alliance Air in 1998, a joint venture between SAA and the airlines and governments of Tanzania and Uganda. ZS-SPA’s paint scheme on the model is a slight variation of the original one, which featured “Alliance” titles, a larger lion head and the flags of the founding nations involved. The “Special Performance 747” and “SAA Associate” titles in the lower aft fuselage were preserved. Alliance Air later acquired a stake in the national airline of Rwanda, hence the revised paint scheme featured four flags, all visible under the titles. ZS-SPA was wet-leased from SAA, based in EBB with routes mainly to Europe, and the company’s only aircraft. It was returned to service at SAA after Alliance Air went out of business in 2000 and scrapped in 2002.

The SP found great popularity in Asia. Iran Air, then a top Boeing customer, was an original proponent of the type and the first operator in the continent, with a fleet of four. EP-IAB (MSN 20999, 12.16.75, originally named “Kurdistan”) shows the airline’s 1990s livery. It features a dark blue cheat line; the iconic “Homa” Iranian mythical bird; the name “Khorosan” (adopted in 1992) in the lower front fuselage; and titles in Arabic in the front and back. The SP enabled the airline’s first nonstop JFK-THR service (eastbound only). It was stored in 2012 after close to four decades in service as a pillar of Iran Air’s fleet.

Further East in Taiwan, in 1991 China Airlines set up subsidiary company Mandarin Airlines, as a political workaround to the PRC’s boycott of China Airlines, due to its display of the ROC flag. China Airlines transferred several aircraft to Mandarin, including B747SP B-1862 (MSN 21300, 2.28.77) in 1993. The flag-less livery features Chinese and occidental titles, light and dark blue cheat lines, and as a stylish Chinese mythical gyrfalcon. It was deployed primarily in long haul sectors such as TPE-SYD and YVR, in lieu of China Airlines, until 1999.  The aircraft operated with six different airlines and was last spotted in derelict condition in Sharjah (UAE) wearing Kinshasa Airlines’ livery.

Stay tuned for the final chapter of my SP tribute trilogy ….

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