Historic 747 reaches a grim destination

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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, a South Korean couple, gave up a frustrating, decade-long battle 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 requested that their names not be used — asked a bystander.

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


Ever since that venture failed in 2005, the couple have sought a buyer for the plane, which has languished in a suburban lot 25 miles northeast of Seoul, its fuselage battered by the elements.

As its condition worsened, looking forlornly out of place next to a row of apartment buildings, the jet 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 to dismantle and ship the Trippe to South Korea, the couple, — who run a noodle restaurant on the premises, — 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.

Inside the noodle restaurant, the owners looked on with opposite emotions. “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, with the Trippe the first to ferry actual passengers. After The Times recently featured the plane in a story, readers e-mailed memories of the Trippe, including a onetime head flight attendant aboard the jet.

“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 would-be buyers — including Japanese businessmen who want to display the Trippe in Tokyo as well as a group who wanted to move the plane and turn it into a church. When the religious group finally backed out, the owners despaired. The jet’s demolishing came exactly 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 many South Koreans only concentrated on the money the couple has lost in the venture, while foreigners who visited their restaurant often marveled over the jet’s long history.

The owners kept the plane’s world clocks as well as a miniature model of the Trippe as mementos.

Ironically, they said, it didn’t cost a dime to finally dispose of the plane. Workers are doing the five-day job for free in exchange for the scrap metal they can salvage.

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 open, now ascending to nowhere.

Inside 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.”

Freelance photographer Matt Douma contributed to this story.