Flying on United’s Last 737 Flight

On October 28, 2009, I joined scores of enthusiasts and airline employees and flew on United Airlines’ last Boeing 737 flight (appropriately with flight number UA 737) from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO).  UA 737 farewell flight flew on an east to west routing stopping at United hubs along the way.  The flight started the day in Washington Dulles (IAD) with stops in Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver (DEN), Los Angeles (LAX), before final destination of San Francisco (SFO).

As an aside - the 737 is affectionately known by pilots as the “guppy” due to the squat and pudgy appearance when compared against its contemporaries like the DC-9.
I arrived at United’s Terminal 7 at LAX with plenty of time to spare, as I wanted to get flight UA 737 arriving from Denver.  There were some worries earlier in the day regarding her flight status due to Denver being hit with a large snow storm.  Apparently this did not deter the flight from being on time, even with the deicing process.
Arrival screen:
Showing an on time departure to SFO:
Ground staff was still setting up the Gate 70 area when I arrived.  When compared to other gates, Gate 70 was a good location in terms of lighting and views to the ramp.  Some forethought was made in choosing this gate, I’m sure. 
The reception table at the gate was set up with cookies and drinks along with 737 photos.  People got a big kick out of the crab figurine on the table. 
Flight UA 737 arrived at Gate 70B shortly after 3 pm.  I managed some good photos as N331UA taxied up to the gate.  Excitement was felt all around - both on the ramp and at the gate.  Rampers, gate agents, and other employees gathered to have their photos taken in front of the old guppy. 
The ORD-DEN-LAX-SFO segments were flown under the command of Captain Robert Russo.  Capt. Russo, who loves the hand-flying qualities of the 737, had decided long ago that whenever United retires the 737, he would retire as well. As a result, this flight will also be Capt. Russo’s last commercial flight.
Departure monitors displays at the gate noted this special occasion for both the 737 and for Capt. Russo.  There was an aura of excitement all around.  Since flight UA 737 was offered for sale by United just like any other flight, some passengers did not realize that they had booked on a special flight and had to be explained of the significance of this flight.
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21 standbys were trying to fill 18 remaining seats.  I’m pretty sure all of them were employees trying to be part of their company’s history.
Of course, I had to get my photo taken in front of the guppy!
Boarding commenced on time at 4:37 pm, 30 minutes prior to departure.  Boarding was done in the same order as any other United flight: Global Service/1K/First Class followed by Premier Executive followed by Seating 1, when I boarded. 
Next to the boarding door, there were stickers from each hub signed by employees.  People stopped to take photos of the stickers.
After speaking briefly with Robin from United Media Relations, I made my way on board to take photos of the pilots, Capt. Russo and First Officer Fletcher.  I introduced myself to Capt. Russo and told him I was working on an article for Airliners Magazine.  The captain perked up and said he was a charter lifetime member of the magazine.  He enthusiastically posed for my photo!
I made my way to my seat 18F.  A memorabilia packet consisting of a 737 trading card, 737 factsheet, and 737 last flight certificate had been placed at each seat.  The cabin and seat condition on this aircraft was surprisingly clean and nice, as opposed to some tired and worn out United 737s I had flown previously.  The audio system was working and sound quality and volume were actually nice and clear, absent of the buzzing typically heard on my other United 737 flights (when it was working, of course).  United had to be commended for using elbow grease spiffying up this aircraft for the last flight.  I had only two complaints about my seat.  One of the windows had dried water spots inside the window pane, making photography out the window difficult to impossible.  The other complaint, the bottom back seat fabric of the seat in front of me did not stick on the seat, creating a “skirt” in my foot and carry on space.
Throughout the boarding process, the purser made announcements about the significance of this flight for both the 737 and Capt. Russo.  Shortly before departure, Capt. Russo made a routine announcement about the flight time and weather to San Francisco (one hour four minutes, 70 degrees, clear skies).  This was followed by a formal remark by another Captain regarding Capt. Russo’s retirement and the 737s retirement, which concluded with applause from the passengers.  
Channel 9 (Air Traffic Control radio on the in-flight audio entertainment system) was available, as one would expect on this historic flight.
At 4:38 pm, we pushed back from gate 70B, one minute behind scheduled departure time.  A “real” safety demonstration was performed by the flight attendants - something unique on the 737 since United guppies do not have a video system.  Rampers took photos of us as we taxied out.  We were given instructions to taxi on the north route to Runway 24L.  As I later found out, this disappointed many spotters staked out at Imperial Hill (at the south complex) hoping for a Runway 25 departure.
We made a long taxi to 24L, riding the “50 yard line” parallel to Tom Bradley International Terminal and then passing north terminals 3 through 1. 
At 4:51 pm, we taxied on to 24L.  An Air France 777-200 zoomed past us landing on 24R.  The guppy then made a spirited run down the runway, rotating next to the Air France triple holding short for us. 
We turned right to the north towards San Francisco.  
We had light turbulence on the way to cruising altitude and the flight attendants were asked to stay in their seats a bit longer. 
The first officer announced that we would be receiving a water cannon salute upon arrival at SFO.  He explained the tradition behind this and told everyone not to be concerned.
Along the way, other flights heard our flight number on the radio and recognized the significance of our flight from newspaper articles.  They offered us best wishes.
Cabin service started from the rear.  It was beverage service only, as one would expect on the shuttle flight.  There was no special snack or meals to mark the special occasion. 
The mood was festive.  Photos were clicking off everywhere and people were mingling around. 
Plaques were awarded to two passengers – one for the most annual miles (one million plus miles lifetime in one year) and another for most SFO-LAX segments (31 segments in one year).  The winners were thanked for their loyalty to United.  Three random seats were chosen where the winners received the Age of Flight history book about United.  One of the winners sat in the row behind me – darn – so close!  Members of the travel forum flyertalk were also asked to identify themselves where they received an additional small momento from the flight.
The drink cart made its way to the back to the rear galley with flight attendants offering “last call” along the way. 
Final cruising altitude was 28,000 feet.  We slowly made our descent over Monterey Bay, towards the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Norcal Approach then told us to expect a 45 minute delay into San Francisco.  There was a moment of silence followed by a question of the reason.   The approach controller then told us it was a joke and just wanted the Captain to hear that one last time.  This was met with laugher all around!
We are chasing the setting sun, appropriately so.
Descending over the Sunnyvale, Mt. View, and Moffett Field:
Over San Francisco Bay and the Dumbarton Bridge:
At SFO’s Runway 28L, an airport mobile unit along with United photographers was told of our approach progress.   At 5:55 pm, we touched down on 28L, rolling past the Super Bay and large tanks marked “S F O” for the last time.  Everyone on board applauded.  SFO Tower gave us some words of congratulations before handing us off to Ground.
Above photo copyright Mark Durbin
Click for Flightaware track of UA 737 from LAX to SFO
We taxied around the “finger” at Terminal 3 to the back side between Terminal 3 and International Terminal G.  We held short of the awaiting fire engines presumably for more photos.  We then slowly taxied up to find not just two fire engines but FOUR giving us our dousing!  I have never seen (or heard of) a quadruple water cannon salute!  Everyone applauded once again.  The Ground controller remarked “that is now one clean 737!”
Above photo copyright Mark Durbin
Above photo copyright Mark Durbin
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All four fire trucks leaving ramp after spraying us off:
We pulled into gate 72 and wheels stopped at 6:02 pm, three minutes behind schedule.
Announcements were made for passengers to thank Capt. Russo for his service.  The purser thanked everybody for their enthusiasm making this flight so memorable.   She remarked not all flights go like this. 
Passengers slowly made their way off the aircraft.  The real travelers just wanted to get off into the terminal, while enthusiasts just got in their way.   Finally, the crowd thinned out.  Good number of diehards remained on board to get Capt. Russo to sign items or to take photos of the last passenger off the plane (who himself was taking photos with the flight attendants in the rear galley).
Flight attendants were accommodating handing out fresh Safety Cards and additional last flight certificates as souvenirs.  I, along with others, posed for photos next to the door stickers and waited for the crew to finish up and gather for a group photo.
Capt. Russo and the crew finally made it off the plane.  The captain signed next to the ORD sticker next to the door, shook hands and made his way to the gate. 

At the gate, he was met with an enthusiastic chant “Russo, Russo…” by the crowd gathered at there.  Capt. Russo made a short speech, cut two cakes – one in honor of him and the other in honor of the 737.  The good captain was unable to enjoy the cake as he was busy shaking hands and signing people’s stuff.IMG_1328-copy
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In the end, N331UA sat all by herself at the gate, unattended.
The next day, she and another sistership would be ferried to Victorville for desert storage, ending 41 years of 737 service at United Airlines.
I thoroughly enjoyed this flight and thank United Airlines putting on this event celebrating a milestone in their history.  The guppy can go down in history with dignity.  Kudos goes out to the United ground and in-flight staff for accommodating the enthusiasts.  A personal note, though – I won’t miss flying on the United 737s.  :) 
Happy trails, Captain Russo!

Unless otherwise noted, all photos copyright Ben Wang, and may not be used without permission.


  1. Great report Ben ! It brings me back memories of Chicago to Colorado Springs and return flights for Airliners International 1997.
    Thank you very much !


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