Ducks, Bridges and a Running Start

By Paul Markey

August 2016

As a military family in the 1960s and through the mid-1970s, we traveled many times between Europe and the U.S. during family moves. It seems that every flight we took -- always on Pan Am Airlines -- we flew on a Boeing aircraft.

Our first flight that I can remember was to Belgium in the summer of 1967. We flew a Boeing 707 out of JFK bound for Brussels. Apparently there had been an incident shortly after takeoff where a duck hit one of the engines. It must have not caused any problems at first, but we were finally diverted to Shannon, Ireland, for repairs. We boarded the same aircraft a few hours later to complete our journey.

Our return-home flight was in the early summer of 1970. The Boeing 747 had just gone into service only a few months earlier. Many people in Belgium were afraid to fly such a large aircraft, but we were eager to fly it. The Brussels airport had not yet been fitted out with gangways large enough to handle the 747, so we had to walk the tarmac to board using rigged-up stairways to the doors. I remember walking up the aircraft from underneath. It was massive! When we boarded, I noticed that there were very few passengers, and we seemed to have free run of the aircraft (young boys got nice treatment from aircrew).

As we taxied for takeoff from Brussels, the Pan Am pilot told us that we were in for a "special treat." Brussels also had not yet built the longer runways that had been deemed necessary for larger aircraft. To remedy that, the Belgian ground crew placed chocks under the landing gear on both sides attached to tractors with long chains after the pilot backed up the plane to the very end of the runway. Then the pilot throttled up the engines to a massive roar, whereupon the tractors pulled the chocks out at the same time. The 747 immediately leapt down the runway and almost instantly went nose-up as it rolled. We basically did a military-style takeoff to clear the other end of the runway.

Our flight was not a direct flight to New York, our final destination. The 747 landed first in Amsterdam. The runways in Amsterdam were across a small highway from the main tarmac, and planes had to cross bridges to get to the tarmac. When the 747 began to cross the bridge, the traffic below came to a full stop. People began to get out of their cars and gaped up at us as we looked down on them from our seats. I can only imagine what they may have been thinking, seeing such a huge aircraft for the first time crossing a bridge!