Capt. Karl Jensen – To have flown the Boeing 747-400 is a privilege beyond description for any dedicated aviator and any report on this aircraft can only be a list of superlatives.

Karl Jensen and son Wayne who came to greet his Dad after shut down at JNB.

I FLEW BOEING 747S of all marques (Classics 747/200 – 300 – SP and Combi) for 27 years, four years as a Co-pilot and 23 years as a Captain in the then functional SAA. I also flew them for airlines that had wet leased SAA’s B747s such as Lion Air, Air Mauritius, and Air Namibia.

I was assigned for training as a Captain on the B747-400 in October 1992. This was to be a ‘Differences Course’ that involved technical training at SAA, by Willy Williams, a brilliant lecturer, as was the norm in the SAA Training Section. Willy was a big fan of the 400 – I remember him chirping that the aircraft was the most powerful machine in the world, except for his Chevvy.

Various other instructors covered Flight Planning, Emergency Procedures, Dangerous Goods etc. This was followed by 64 hours of simulator training in a Full Flight Simulator with a two-hour pre-flight briefing prior to four hours in the simulator and a two-hour debrief after each session. At the age of 49, I had to apply myself fully to absorb the mountain of information to be proficient.

I regarded myself as reasonably computer literate, but I admit that I battled initially with the FMS (Flight Management System) and ACARS (Air Crew Alerting and Reporting System) by being too analytical. The change from a 3-man flight deck that included a Flight Engineer on the Classic 747s to 2-man flight deck without the FEO on the 400 was also a major adjustment. In SAA, the FEOs were dedicated Flight Engineers as opposed to many other airlines who had pilots act in this capacity. They were a wealth of information when needed.

‘immense wonder at the power of this aircraft’

SAA’s Redifon Concept 90 B747-400 Full Flight Simulator was the first simulator I experienced where one carried out all the flight training, including circuits and landings, emergencies, and blind landings to CAT IIIB levels (no decision height and only 75m Runway Visual Range in the touchdown zone which was accurately measured by strobe lights).

After successful completion of the course, I stepped into the aircraft on a commercial flight with passengers. Of course, this was with a Training Captain in the right-hand seat. The Training Captain determined when a pilot was ready to do a check flight with a Check Supervisory Captain. The entire process in my case involved eight sectors under supervision and 34 flying hours.

My first flight after the supervision stage was literally a baptism of fire. That particular aircraft had required a boroscope inspection of one of the Rolls Royce RB211 engines. The flight was scheduled to fly from Johannesburg to London. Naturally the aircraft was at maximum weight for the 10 hour 50 minute flight with a full passenger load for the high altitude take off (5575’ above sea level) on a hot summer evening in December 1992.

We departed on time and as we became airborne, an engine fire alarm sounded with aural warnings and red lights. We carried out the appropriate Engine Fire/Failure Checklist and flew towards the east where we could jettison fuel down to the maximum landing weight of 287,400 kgs. The engine fire indication extinguished, and we returned to Jan Smuts, as the airport was then still called.

A Welch plug used for the boroscope turbine inspection had not been refitted correctly and enough hot gas, at take-off thrust, escaped to set off the engine fire warning system. My great appreciation of the 400 reached a higher notch through this incident. At maximum weight, the aircraft performance with the loss of a single engine at a critical phase of flight was quite manageable, as was the subsequent jettison of fuel while keeping ATC informed as well as our passengers and crew and the SAA Ops Centre. I must admit that it did generate a flood of adrenalin in my system.

It took a mere 45 minutes on the ground to rectify the problem and refuel the aircraft before we could proceed uneventfully to London. With the computer assistance, the mass of the aircraft was always known, and jettisoning fuel to max landing weight could be carried out accurately so as not to waste fuel by dumping too much.

‘The -400 is a magnif icent engineering marvel’

When flying a loaded 747-400 at maximum weight, the amazing sensation flying this magnificent airliner, as so may have said, is one of immense wonder at the power of this colossal 394,600 kg aircraft in your hands, especially during takeoff where it seems that there is still such a reserve of power available. You are always aware of the immense machine. After a few years of flying airliners, they seem to shrink in size as you become familiar with the aircraft, but not so the Boeing 747, which to me has always been a massive machine of superb beauty.

Another great thrill were blind landings – I guess in all I carried out about half a dozen at JFK, London, and Jo’burg. The elation and satisfaction of landing a massive airliner blind in all weathers on the other side of the world and parking it at the terminal building within millimetres of the required spot, takes some beating.


A clever yet legal flight planning system that was used to operate extraordinary long distances is a process called ‘Redispatch’.

This required the fuel flight plan to be calculated to an en-route airport, not more than 20% of the total distance from the destination airport. If weather conditions at the desired destination and performance were within limits, we then diverted to the required destination with less than normal but still legal reserves.

This enabled us to fly the JFK-JNB route non-stop in the -400 on redispatch, making this the longest non-stop scheduled service in the world. (This distance was later increased by nearly 600 km on the Atlanta- JNB service). Of course, nowadays this is old hat with the much more fuel efficient twin-engine wide body airliners such as the Boeing 777, 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A350. These modern twins were the demise of the B747-400, as they are able to carry similar loads, but with about 60% of the fuel burn of a B747-400.

On 14 September 1996, I operated B747-400 ZS-SAY ‘Vulindlela’ from Miami to Cape Town. Due to prevailing westerly upper winds, this was the only occasion where the inbound flight from Cape Town could not make the flight non-stop and had to route via Ilha do Sal in the Cape Verde Islands for refuelling. The sector I flew back to Cape Town was of course the benefactor of those same winds. We operated the aircraft at normal economy cruise, taking a mere 12 hours and 7 minutes airborne time. A reporter on board suggested that this was probably a world record for the distance. I took a printout from the on board ACARS after parking at the Cape Town terminal. I submitted this to the Aero Club of South Africa who in turn passed it to the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Air Sports Federation). The FAI confirmed this as a ‘World Speed Record over a Commercial Air Route in excess of 6,500km’ at a speed of 1019.6km/hr. Of course, the Concorde could exceed double this speed, but not over that distance of 12,339 km. The official FAI and Aero Club of SA certificates hangs in my gallery at home. The airline management was not too happy about this award, as they claimed others might attempt to beat it at the cost of extra fuel burn.

Flying the -400

How did I enjoy flying the 747-400? To sum it up in few words, it was a dream aircraft and very easy to fly: it seldom presented technical defects, and if handled accurately and with due care, was an unforgettable treat for all who flew as crew – and as passengers.

The -400 is a magnificent engineering marvel and a very strongly built aircraft. Initially, there was no crosswind limit for landing, only a demonstrated crosswind capability of 44 knots – later reduced to a 35 knots crosswind limit.

The five multi glass computer screens on the flight deck were inter-switchable. Due to SAA’s long-distance network, forward of the post 9-11 bomb proof flight deck entry door (this weighed 480 kgs) we had a double bunk crew rest cabin with its own environmental control, two First Class seats where the pilots could dine away from the controls and instruments location and the luxury of our own toilet.

We generally flew with a flight deck crew of Captain and Co-pilot on short sectors and with a Third Pilot, termed rather derogatorily the Boy Pilot, regardless of gender, on sectors of more than eight hours. On sectors of greater than about nine hours, an additional Senior First Officer enabled the primary crew to rest.

Operating through Ilha do Sal, essentially at night, there was always a crosswind with very little peripheral reference from lighting in the village of Espargos, where the Amilcar Cabral Airport (GVAC) is located. This made landing there a challenge into what is termed ‘The Black Hole Syndrome’. This requires intense concentration to avoid spatial disorientation. My final flight in SAA was from Atlanta via Ilha do Sal to Johannesburg in 2003 when I was forced to retire at the then mandatory retirement age. I was presented with an embroidered towel at Sal with part of the inscription ‘…301 landings at Ilha do Sal’

SAA operated eight Boeing 747-400s: six custom-made to SAA’s specifications with Rolls Royce engines and two additional 747-400s that were built for Philippine Airlines who were unable to fund them when there was a financial problem in that country. The ex-Philippine aircraft were powered by General Electric CF6 engines

In my time, I flew the SAA 747-400s to Luanda, Windhoek, Abidjan, Lisbon, London, Manchester, Frankfurt, Zurich, Jeddah, Hong Kong, Perth, New York, Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Atlanta and to the major airports in South Africa. I crewed on a test flight from the Boeing factory in Seattle for testing and certification to Moses Lake in Washington State. This was followed by the actual delivery flight as far as Ilha do Sal where another crew took over the aircraft to Johannesburg. Flying on short sectors such as JNB to Durban or Cape Town and back was a special treat as we always used the minimum power required for takeoff yet the performance of the -400 would not be unlike that of a jet fighter.

It is now more than 18 years since I had to retire and I regard myself as being hugely privileged to fly Boeing 747s, especially the -400. It is with sincere appreciation to Joe Sutter as the original design engineer of the 747 and to the wonderful airline SAA, where I flew for 36 years. I am often asked if I miss that pre-retirement life – I certainly do, despite the many challenges of the career, so much so that I often jokingly say that I regularly climb into my clothes cupboard with a vacuum cleaner to pretend I am in the crew rest of the Boeing 747-400. To add realism, my wife brings me cold tea every two hours after banging and crashing to simulate the galleys at full mealtime service tilt.

They were the best of years – in the best of planes.

Leave a Reply