At the end of the 60s the age of the widebody was fast approaching and all the major US airlines were on a new equipment binge. The 747 was the first new widebody and everyone felt they had to have some or suffer the consequences of being left behind. In fact all the trunk airlines operated Jumbos (except for Northeast and Western) although, considering only Pan Am, Northwest and TWA had international routes, they mostly lacked sensible ways to utilise them. Eastern, unusually, went down a more considered path than everyone else but still ended up with 747s for a time.
In the end the attempt to digest the overcapacity brought on by the new 747s, along with the oil crisis, proved almost terminal for several of the majors, especially Pan Am and TWA. Unable to fill such a large aircraft they were forced to operate piano lounges, multiple bars and other ideas to fill up the empty room. Within a few years American, Continental, National and Delta trimmed back or deleted their 747 fleets altogether, whilst Braniff kept its single Jumbo on the Hawaii route.
Eastern, despite being one of the big four trunk carriers, had a network largely made up of North-South short haul services and partly due to this, and partly due to its torrid history, had struggled for profitability for years. This didn’t stop Eastern from also ordering 747s but it did at least mean that common-sense prevailed before they entered service.
Eastern ordered four 747-125s on June 12, 1967 but sensibly it settled on the smaller Lockheed Tristar as its widebody airliner instead. Rather than trying to support fleets of two widebody types as everyone else did (except Braniff who never succumbed to the charms of the DC-10 or L-1011) Eastern sold its 747s before they entered service.
Eastern’s four 747s were sold to TWA and built as 747-131s, although technically in an unusual arrangement Eastern took delivery and then immediately sold them to TWA. The four aircraft had been earmarked to be registered as N401Q-N404Q but instead became N93113, N93114, N93118 and N93119.
It wasn’t a sensible purchase for TWA who by the mid-70s was on its knees and struggling to pay payroll. All four of the additional 747s were sold to the Imperial Iranian Air Force, via Boeing, along with five other TWA 747s. As it happens however the last frame, N93119, was bought back by TWA a year later and re-entered service. Unfortunately this was the airframe that would be assigned TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996.
Eastern had never had routes that could sustain a Jumbo but the turmoil in the Tristar programme, caused largely by Rolls-Royce’s problems, left Eastern vulnerable to competition. National had taken delivery of a pair of 747s in September/October 1970, Delta had three by the end of 1970 (and five by the end of 1971) and American had 10 by the end of 1970 (and 16 by the end of 1971). Eastern took action and leased a trio of 747-121s from Pan Am, itself groaning under the weight of its 747 expenditure.
The first and second aircraft, N735PA and N737PA respectively, arrived on November 26, 1970 and January 1, 1971 and wore full Eastern hockeystick colours. The last aircraft, N731PA, instead wore a hybrid scheme with Eastern titles but a Pan Am cheatline and Eastern Falcon on the tail. The 747s were put onto the trunk routes connecting Chicago and New York with Miami, and New York with San Juan.
The 747 leases ran through until April and May 1972 with N737PA the last to depart on May 5. By this time Eastern had finally taken delivery of their first Tristars, although the type would prove to have an extremely difficult service entry period, which cost Eastern both money and customer satisfaction.
NOTE BELOW: It looks like Gemini used the wrong registration on this model and it ought to be N731PA not N737PA
Eastern was in near constant turmoil throughout the 1960s and early 1970s but the 747 was one decision that they made correctly. If it were not for the delays to the Tristar programme then spotters would never have got to see an Eastern 747 in service, although as is well known an ex-Qantas 747-238B was painted into Eastern colours in 1980. See below for the details:
During her subsequent PA career N737PA was named Clipper Red Jacket and Clipper Ocean Herald . N735PA operated as ‘Clipper Spark of the Ocean’. Both stayed with Pan Am until its collapse but N731PA, ‘Clipper Bostonian’, was sold to Tower Air in May 1987.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: