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Storied American jetliner languishes in obscurity — in South Korea

The Juan T. Trippe, the first commercial 747 ever made, was briefly converted into a restaurant outside Seoul; now it sits idle and rusting. But aviation buffs have expressed interest in resurrecting the once-proud bird.

December 06, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Namyangju — The big jet looks forlornly out of place perched in the near-deserted suburban lot, as if it just skidded off a nearby airport runway or crash-landed minutes ago.

But this plane has long been grounded, a retired icon of a bygone golden age of air travel. The 4-decade-old former Pan Am jet, the first commercial Boeing 747 ever built, could well be ensconced in an aviation museum, maybe next to the celebrated planes piloted by the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh.

Instead, it sits on a lot 25 miles northeast of Seoul, far from its U.S. birthplace, an ignominious end to a storied career.

Purchased by South Korean investors from a Southern California airplane graveyard a decade ago, the airliner — dubbed the "Juan T. Trippe" after the Pan Am founder — endured years as an aviation-themed restaurant. Then that venture failed.

Now it languishes, all but forgotten, its insides musty with old menus and upended chairs scattered across the floor. Its owner winces each time she stands beneath the big fuselage, which reminds her of a business miscalculation of colossal proportions.

"We have no regret in purchasing the plane, just sadness — a feeling of emptiness," said the owner, a 50-ish woman looking smart in a brightly colored scarf who declines to give her name because of her embarrassment over the lost gamble.

Boeing officials say the Trippe was the second 747 of the 1,000 the company produced. The first was used for test flights only, with the Trippe the first to ferry actual passengers.

"This plane helped shrink the world," said Michael Lombardi, Boeing's corporate historian. "It brought people together, making it possible for anyone anywhere in the world to get on a plane and go anywhere else in the world."

The Trippe went into service in October 1970. The plane's current owner has a photo of then-First Lady Pat Nixon smashing a bottle of champagne to christen the aircraft, as well as the plane's depiction on the Jan. 19, 1970, cover of Time magazine.

The airliner was shown at the 1970 Paris air show before spending the next 21 years on transatlantic flights for Pan Am, a record interrupted only by a two-year loan to an air company in Zaire.

The niche website www.airliners.net contains numerous photos of the Trippe in service, including a touchdown at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Nov. 1, 1991, that marked Pan Am's discontinuation of transatlantic service to the airport. When the Trippe later took off for California, it received a water-cannon salute and performed a ceremonial flyby.

The "tired old bird" went on to be used in cargo service before ending its airborne career with Aeroposta, an Argentine charter airline, according to the website.

Eventually retired to a Southern California aircraft lot, the Trippe soon began yet another life.

A South Korean couple purchased the jet in 2000 on the wings of a trend here that used real airplanes to house theme restaurants. The couple scouted planes in Australia and Russia before making a Washington connection, "the chief PR guy who ran George W. Bush's election campaign," the owner recalled.

They paid more than $1 million for the Trippe, betting that the plane's history would draw customers. Then they peeled off $100,000-plus to have the jet disassembled and shipped to South Korea in 62 40-foot containers.

The couple had the airliner reassembled on a lot outside Seoul. They cut off the right wing, which would have overhung a nearby road, but the landing gear and original engines were all preserved.

"The proudest moment was when we finished reassembling the plane and put it up here," the owner said. "Having the world's No. 2 747 in our own backyard, that was cause for celebration."

The airliner-restaurant trend quickly crashed. Several other similar restaurants shut down, and the couple found it difficult to make ends meet — it took a barrel of fuel oil every two days to heat the big plane. The location was also unfortunate because it is difficult to reach from a nearby freeway.

In 2005, the couple closed the restaurant and opened a noodle shop in a small building next to the plane.

Meanwhile, the Trippe has gained a cult following on the Internet. Visitors began stopping by to ask questions about the plane, which sits rusting in the open air, its body propped on giant steel supports.

Aviation buffs have recently expressed interest in the Trippe, including some Japanese businessmen who might want to display it at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

Lombardi said Boeing's first, test-flight-only 747 is housed at the company's Museum of Flight in Seattle. But for now, the Trippe is in for another cold winter outdoors.

"If it ever gets a new owner," its current owner said, "I hope it finally gets the historical recognition it deserves."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ethan Kim in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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