South African Airways 747SP
South African Airways was one of the biggest proponents of the 747SP. The SAA legacy actually began in July of 1974 when South African first placed an order for the aircraft, one of the first airlines to buy the still developmental airplane.
The South African flag first took to the sky on an B747SP in February of 1976 when ZS-SPA made it’s maiden flight. A month later the plane set a commercial aircraft distance record on its delivery flight from Paine Field to Cape Town.
The delivery would be the first of five 747SPs that SAA would take in 1976. The sixth and last 747SP delivery came in January of 1977.
The long range of the 747SP instantly transformed SAA’s offerings, with direct non-stop flights being made available to London for the first time, as well as other long range flights to Sydney, Brussels, Madrid, and New York City. Through the balance of the 1970’s and into the 80’s, the 747SPs were a workhorse of the long haul fleet.
However, by the 1980’s, the writing was on the wall for the 747SP’s. Despite their utility, high seat/mile costs combined with rising fuel prices made SAA start to rethink their usage of the baby jumbo. Newer, more fuel efficient aircraft models were being introduced that could offer comparable range but with better economy. The advent of the 747-400 in the 1980’s sealed the fate of the 747SP.
South African Airways began exploring ways they could still make money with the aircraft, and to that end they began testing the lease market. ZS-SPA and ZS-SPF were the first of the 747SPs to be leased to another airline, going to Luxair for several months at the end of 1980. By the end of 1985, all six of the SAA 747SPs had been leased to one airline or another. In September of 1986 SAA managed to trim its 747SP fleet by one when it sold ZS-SPD to Royal Air Maroc. Royal Air Maroc flew the plane until 1994, before selling it to Corsair of France.
Throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s, the five remaining 747SPs moved back and forth between SAA and a variety of leasees. Airlines flying the South African planes included Air Mauritius, Luxair, Namib Air, and Alliance among others. One notable lease was when ZS-SPB was leased to Air Malawi for one month in 1985. The plane was painted into a full Air Malawi color scheme, then used to fly the president of Malawi to London. The plane was parked at Heathrow in a highly visible parking spot for a month, before being flown back to Johannesburg and eventually returned to full SAA colors!
ZS-SPC did a short stint with ill-fated Avia in 1995, being repossessed after four months of service when Avia went bankrupt.
By 1996 SAA was actively trying to find buyers for its five remaining 747SPs. It found a taker when Panair purchased ZS-SPB in June of that year. Panair then leased the plane to Air Namibia, and then, ironically, back to SAA.
In 1998, ZS-SPF was being wet leased to L.A.M. when it suffered an uncontained engine failure on take-off from Maputo. The plane managed to circle the airport and land without further incident. However, the aircraft had been under insured, and the amount of damage was substantial. As a result, the aircraft was declared an insurance write-off, becoming the first of the original six aircraft to be permanently grounded. ZS-SPF remained at Maputo for about a year and a half before being scrapped in early 2000.
By the dawn of the new millenium, South African was phasing the 747SP out of regular service. The original record setting ZS-SPA returned from a lease to Alliance Air, only to find itself being temporarily stored at Johannesburg. The plane was eventually pressed back into periodic service as a backup aircraft. ZS-SPB, which had been sold to Panair, then leased back to SAA, was by then in storage at Marana in the USA. ZS-SPC and ZS-SPE were still being used in some capacity for regular service to European destinations, and the former ZS-SPD was still flying as F-GTOM for Corsair.
In early 2002, the once vaunted ZS-SPA was retired, then unceremoniously towed into a hangar at Johannesburg and stripped of usable parts. In October of that year, the plane was chopped into pieces and hauled away.
In 2003 the remaining two SAA 747SPs were retired and parked at Johannesburg, with “Maluti” making it’s final revenue flight as SA 280/281 on October 24, 2003.
Both aircraft were offered for sale or lease by SAA, and Maluti briefly looked like it would find life elsewhere. It was sold to Golden Tattoo TRD LTD in November of 2003. However, financing fell through and Maluti stayed put.
In early 2005 ZS-SPE entered a D-check in preparation for being leased to an operator in Sao Tome, but the deal fell through and the plane never left Johannesburg.
A few months later the SAA Museum began negotiating with SAA to take ownership of ZS-SPC and display it at the museum facility at Rand Airport.
Of the remaining aircraft, ZS-SPE remains at Johannesburg and is slated for scrap in the near future. ZS-SPB, which had ended up in Marana as N747KV, never flew again, and was scrapped in the spring of 2005. ZS-SPD, which ended up with Corsair, flew for that airline for nearly eight years. It was retired in September of 2002 as Corsair upgraded its fleet with newer aircraft. It was ferried to Chartreux, France, and withdrawn from use.
It remains there today, and is used for spare parts and will eventually be scrapped on site.
All told, the South African Airways 747SP era spanned just over 30 years, covering millions of miles flown and hundreds of thousands of flight hours. The 747SP, in combination with other 747 models, transformed SAA from a regional African air carrier to a truly international airline. That legacy continues today with ultra-efficient long range Airbus and Boeing models that can deliver the same range as the 747SP, but with higher payloads, and at a fraction of the cost.