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Historic 747 reaches grim end in South Korea

The frustrated South Korean owners of the first 747 jetliner to carry commercial passengers, unable to profit from their piece of aviation history, have it demolished.

December 13, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Namyangju, South Korea — There will be no more takeoffs for the Juan T. Trippe.

The first 747 jetliner to ferry commercial passengers and a symbol of the golden age of air travel was demolished here Sunday as its owners gave up a frustrating decade-long attempt to make a profit from the mammoth piece of aviation history.

"So, you've come to take part in the funeral," one of the owners, who asked that their names not be used, said to a bystander.

After decades of flying to nearly every continent, the Trippe, named after Pan Am's founder, was bought in 2000 from a California airplane graveyard by the South Korean couple, who transformed it into an aviation-themed restaurant.

Since that venture failed in 2005, the couple said they had unsuccessfully sought a buyer for the plane, which languished in a suburban lot 25 miles northeast of Seoul, its fuselage battered by the elements.

As its condition worsened, the jet, looking forlornly out of place next to a row of apartment buildings, soon became an Internet curiosity — as well as a bitter reminder to its owners of a monumental business miscalculation.

After spending $1 million for the plane and $100,000 more to dismantle and ship it to South Korea, the couple, who run a noodle restaurant on the property, finally punched the plane's final ticket Sunday.

On a cold afternoon, two cranes straddled the big jet, their jaws ripping into its fuselage as workers on the ground sifted through the plane's twisted wreckage looking for scrap materials. No plans have yet been announced on new uses for the space.

In the noodle restaurant, the owners waited. "I try not to look out the window in the direction of the plane," the wife said. "I know we can't just let that plane sit there forever."

She paused, examining her fingernails. "But seeing it go, well, it's just hard to watch," she added.

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

After the Los Angeles Times recently featured the plane in a story, readers, including a onetime head flight attendant aboard the jet, e-mailed their memories.

"I recognized the photo of the Juan Trippe like gazing upon the face of a dear old friend," she wrote. "If her walls could talk, her listeners would not believe the incredible stories she would tell from the golden age of travel which has long since passed into the history books."

In recent months, the owners had been contacted by several potential buyers, including Japanese businessmen who wanted to display the Trippe in Tokyo as well as a group that wanted to move the plane and turn it into a church.

When the religious group finally backed out, the owners despaired and decided that it was the last straw. The jet's demolition came 10 years and four months after they purchased the Trippe with high hopes.

The wife said the husband cried, but he denied shedding tears over what he called a bad business investment. "Last night, she felt distraught and I said 'Stop your crying,' " he said. "The moment the cranes dug into the fuselage, I felt this great relief, this lifting of a burden from my chest."

The husband said that although many South Koreans concentrated only on the money the couple have lost in the venture, foreigners who visited their restaurant often marveled over the jet's long history.

The owners kept a few mementoes: the plane's world clocks and a miniature model of the aircraft.

Late in the day, in the fading light, cranes crunched over broken metal, sounding like tanks at war. The red-painted spiral staircase that once led to the cockpit was bared, now open to the elements, ascending to nowhere.

In the noodle shop, the wife peeked out at the Trippe as her husband waved his hand. "There's nothing about this plane I really want to remember," he said. "It was a disaster."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Freelance photographer Matt Douma contributed to this report.

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