In the early hours of the morning on November 17, 2022, I awoke to a 3:00 a.m. alarm. At that time, I didn’t know if I’d be flying that day or not, but I’d soon know the answer. A quick check on FlightRadar24 showed that the aircraft I was trying to catch was still scheduled to operate the flight I had booked the night before, so I made my way to Tulsa International Airport (TUL) to catch a 5:00 a.m. flight to Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport (HOU). Only one aircraft had the power to pull me out of bed that early—an aircraft I’d been eagerly following closely as it neared delivery. That aircraft was Southwest Airlines’ brand new retrojet with the tail number N871HK.
N871HK, a Boeing 737-8 MAX has easily been one of the most anticipated aircraft deliveries this year. The aircraft is a flying tribute to Herbert D. Kelleher, one of the co-founders of Southwest Airlines. Sadly, Herb passed away in 2019, but his legacy lives on every day in the Company he helped build, and now in the form of his very own aircraft. And this is but one small part of what makes N871HK special. Everything about the aircraft, all the way down to the tail number itself is designed to pay tribute to Herb as a person, and Southwest Airlines as a whole. So, what combination of factors makes this plane so special?
First, the aircraft is appropriately named “The Herbert D. Kelleher.” Meaning Herb will always have a plane dedicated to him, flying around the country as a mobile tribute. Second, the aircraft wears Southwest’s original livery, often called the “Desert Gold” or “Mustard Rocket” livery. And last, even the tail number is no random number. N871HK has just as much meaning behind it as the aircraft’s paint and name. Southwest Airlines' first revenue flight took to the skies on June 18, 1971. (871). And HK is, of course, Herb Kelleher’s initials. This aircraft isn’t just a pretty coat of paint. It has deep significance to all the Employees at Southwest Airlines.
Now, you may be thinking … didn’t Southwest already have a plane dedicated to Herb? And you’d be right. Previously Southwest had three Boeing 737-700’s painted in this classic livery. One of which bore the tail number N711HK. It was also called “The Herbert D. Kelleher,” but it was retired earlier this year along with its two compatriots after nearly 25 years of service with Southwest. This left Southwest’s fleet void of the classic Desert Gold livery for nearly six months. That is until last Thursday.
On November 15, 2022, operating flight WN8701, N871HK landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on its delivery flight. The aircraft was then made ready for service by Southwest’s Maintenance Team in Phoenix, and after being on the ground for less than 24 hours, the aircraft was slotted into the schedule. N871HK’s first revenue flight was WN3400 on November 16, 2022, operating between Phoenix, Arizona (PHX) and Dallas, Texas (DAL). I had been watching this closely and had seen that the first revenue flight the aircraft would operate in complete daylight would be the following morning: WN352 with service from Houston, Texas (HOU) to Orange County/Santa Ana, California (SNA).
This brings us back to my 3:00 a.m. alarm on November 17. As I mentioned above, after my alarm went off, I promptly checked the aircraft’s scheduling via FlightRadar and saw that N871HK was still scheduled to operate WN352 later that morning. So, off to the airport I went. My flight from Tulsa to Houston departed ten minutes before N871HK left Nashville, Tennessee (BNA)—the location of its first overnight stop--and both were taxiing for takeoff at the same time. My flight from Tulsa was shorter than its flight from Nashville, so after landing in Houston, I was able to eagerly await its arrival at gate 23.
At around 7:20 a.m., N871HK landed in Houston for the first time. It quickly taxied to the gate, where it would turn as it continued to Santa Ana. The flight boarded on time, and at 8:15 a.m., precisely on time, it pushed back with me onboard in seat 20F. The flight was incredibly beautiful and was really the perfect flight to showcase in full 4K. The route for the flight took us directly over the deserts of the Southwest United States. The same deserts and part of the country that this Desert Gold livery was inspired by. The flight landed in Santa Ana on time, and fun fact: the aircraft had yet to take a delay as of its first few days of revenue service.
As always, I recorded the entire flight for my YouTube channel, Skylite Productions. If you so choose, you can watch the entire flight from start to finish in 4K 60fps in the video accompanying this article and you too can take N871HK’s fourth revenue flight with me.
Meet Bryce Rea
Bryce is a lifelong aviation & travel enthusiast who has amassed more than 800 commercial flights, covering more than 635,000 miles in the last 10 years. He holds two aviation bachelor’s degrees, a private pilot’s license, and 15 years of various aviation industry experience. For seven years he has run Skylite Productions, a commercial aviation-based YouTube channel and Instagram account with more than 82,000 followers.
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My name is Bryce, and I’m an aviation enthusiast who runs Skylite Productions. Skylite Productions is a commercial aviation-based YouTube channel and Instagram account that I started seven years ago. On the channel, I feature my travels from all over the world, as I seek out and take the most unique and interesting flights I can find. Today, between the two platforms, I have over 82,000 followers and generate between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 views/interactions per month. In the last year, I have featured two of the world’s most historic and famous “through flights.” Those being United Airlines’ Pacific Island Hopper and Alaska Airlines’ Milk Run. Both flights have been in operation for decades and have huge historical significance, and even today, in 2022, play a vital role in ensuring the communities they serve have links to the rest of the world.
After taking those flights, my mind started turning. Are there any other unique and interesting flights out there? Now, I fly a lot. Already in 2022, I’ve flown 146 flights, more than 128,000 miles, on 25 different airlines. But it never fails; in all the flying I do, I fly Southwest Airlines more than anyone else. Forty-one of my 146 flights this year have been on Southwest. So, when I was thinking about unique through flights, I instantly thought of Southwest. No one uses the idea of through flights on a larger scale than Southwest. In fact, with the exception of the historic flights listed above, none of the other major U.S. airlines really use the practice at all, except in very unique situations.
So, I started researching! Initially, I found an article on Southwest’s community page from 2015 explaining that Southwest through flights can have up to eight segments. And from that moment, I knew it was possible to find Southwest flights that rivaled the Island Hopper or Milk Run. The search was on! Initially, it proved quite difficult to locate these “octoflights.” You know, typically people would not want to take a flight from point “A” to point “H” with seven stops. However, that was exactly what I wanted to do. So, after scouring flight schedules on my own and not turning up anything over four stops, I reached out to a good friend, and one of my oldest Southwest contacts for help. Jake Zelman, Senior Manager of Dispatch Operations, started assisting me in trying to locate the longest through flights that were currently offered. Unfortunately, despite several sets of eyes now searching, the longest flights we were able to find currently, were six segments long. So, “hexaflights.”
We found several flights but ultimately selected Southwest Flight 247 as being the most unique. Flight 247, originated on the East Coast in Providence, Rhode Island, and ended 4,361 miles later, on the West Coast, in Seattle, Washington. During its marathon, 16-hour journey, it would stop six times, visiting six states, and seven Southwest cities. It would accomplish this all while keeping the same flight number and aircraft. A true transcontinental through flight, which never backtracked on itself. The total routing for the journey was Providence, Chicago, New Orleans, Austin, San Diego, Sacramento, and Seattle. So, with the flight selected and my ticket booked, the date was set.
On August 31, 2022, I made my attempt to take the entire journey in one swoop. As the date approached, many Southwest Employees had heard about my plan, and as a result, there was a buzz and excitement surrounding the approaching flight. I was then offered the incredible opportunity to hand select the aircraft I wanted to operate the flight. Since the flight was operated by a 737-700, I selected Triple Crown One.
Triple Crown One is the aircraft painted in a special livery, dedicated to the Employees of Southwest Airlines. From 1992 through 1996, Southwest achieved the unthinkable and received top marks from consumers in on-time performance, customer satisfaction, and baggage handling. Giving Southwest the “Triple Crown,” five years in a row. Thanks to good weather and Southwest’s awesome aircraft scheduling, Triple Crown One did indeed show up to operate the flight and made this flight even more special! With the flight visiting seven Southwest cities, and hundreds of Southwest Employees having a part in helping the flight along its journey, it only seemed fitting to have those amazing Employees be represented on this epic journey.
August 31 arrived, Triple Crown One was sitting at the gate, and although I was half asleep thanks to the 4:00 a.m. alarm I’d set, I was now ready to attempt the transcontinental through flight! At 5:30 a.m., after a small ceremony at the gate, thanks to the awesome Providence ground crew, Flight 247 departed on-time and began the first of six segments.
Throughout the day, at every stop, I was wished on my way by Southwest Employees, all of whom were following along as the day progressed. The support I received from all types of Southwest Employees throughout the day, both in person and via YouTube and Instagram, was incredible. It truly showcased the amazing atmosphere Southwest has created throughout their Employee group. Throughout the journey, I was given all kinds of well-wishes and Southwest swag, including nice notes, Instagram messages, cards thanking me for my business, more cans of water than I could carry, and as many snack bags as I wanted. I was even offered Starbucks coffee and food by one of the First Officers during one of the stops. The amount of kindness and dedication I saw from the Employees of Southwest on this trip has never been duplicated anywhere else, in all my travels. And in my opinion, that is something every Southwest Employee can be very proud of.
The day progressed smoothly, and at 6:05 p.m., 15 hours and 35 minutes later, Flight 247 arrived in Seattle ten minutes ahead of schedule—another testament to the awesome Employees of Southwest Airlines. Throughout the day, countless Southwest Employees from Gate Agents, Ground Handlers, Pilots, Flight Attendants, Dispatchers, Crew Schedulers, Aircraft Schedulers, Maintenance Technicians, and so many others played roles in making sure Flight 247 operated safely and ontime. And although Flight 247 was a special flight for me on that day, the flight operated its transcontinental journey every day during that schedule iteration, overwhelmingly operating the entire journey ontime every day.
Since September 6, as flight numbers have been shuffled with the new schedule, Flight 247 is now an interisland flight in Hawaii between Honolulu and Lihue. Kind of fitting that it would go from a 4,300-mile marathon to one of Southwest’s shortest flights. Anyway, Flight 247 no longer exists in the form presented here in this post, but since I filmed it in its entirety, it will forever live on in 4K, as one of the most unique through flights to ever exist. If you so choose, you can watch the entire journey from start to finish in the video accompanying this post. Although, I completely understand if you skip around the video considering its 11-hour length. Also, you can be sure, that I’ll be on the lookout for even longer Southwest through flights in the future!
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