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Golden Giant: the Houston Express

Back in the early 2010s, while I was taking a break from collecting airplane models, I spent a fair amount of time taking aircraft pictures at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) – The fact that pressing the camera shooter was free made plane spotting an attractive alternative to collecting, especially as a student.

Atlas Air golden 747 Houston Express at IAH and 1:400 scale model

While not having a large presence in the airfield, Atlas Air jumbos have always been a constant at IAH. I remember one time I was looking towards the east cargo complex from the parking garages when I saw an Atlas 747-400 wearing a special livery, with smaller titles and gold replacing the blue elements of their standard livery. I didn’t think much of it, and when on a subsequent visit to the airport I saw another Atlas 747-400 wearing the same special livery I thought that they were updating their image across the entire fleet. But shortly afterward I realized that it wasn't a change of image, but rather a way to differentiate those two particular 747s from the rest of their fleet. By then I had also noticed that, unlike most of the other Atlas 747s, these were passenger aircraft instead of freighters. However, it was not until a friend from Miami became particularly excited when one of these jumbos visited MIA for maintenance that I started to dig deeper to find out what kind of operation was Atlas using these golden 747s for, and what made them special.

Typical mid 2010s IAH international scene with an Atlas Air golden 747 Houston Express in the background at the East Cargo Complex
Typical mid-2010s IAH international scene with one of the Atlas Air golden 747 used for the Houston Express route in the background at the East Cargo Complex. November 30, 2013.

As it turned out, these golden jumbos were dedicated to the Houston Express route; a triweekly link between Houston and Luanda (LAD) operated for SonAir (the defunct airline division of Angola’s oil company Sonangol). These 747s had a low-density configuration of only 189 seats, with most of them belonging to some sort of premium class. Tickets on these flights could only be purchased by oil companies for their executives and other employees needing a direct link between Texas and Angola. In the last year of service, however, the flight was opened to the general public in an attempt to keep it alive after the oil price plummeted in 2015, and with it the demand on the route.

After learning about the exclusivity that surrounded these two birds my interest in them sparked. But even though these aircraft served as a nice backdrop for many IAH pictures when they were resting at their usual spot in the east cargo complex, their infrequent schedule made it difficult to come across them in action and up close. However, one lucky Sunday afternoon on April 1, 2012, I smiled as I saw one of these golden 747s – N322SG – on final for runway 27 inbound from LAD. I was conveniently taking pictures from the terminal D garage (international arrivals terminal), so I was able to get a close look as the aircraft docked and got unloaded. Below are some pictures of that day, but you can see a larger set here.

In 2017, both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines retired their 747-400s. This left the Houston Express holding the title of being the last regularly scheduled passenger airline service using N-registered 747s. The Points Guy featured a thorough trip report on the last Houston Express IAH-LAD flight, which took place on March 28, 2018.

The last time I remember seeing one of Atlas’s golden 747s was on March 23, 2018; only 5 days before the last Houston Express flight. Ironically, that day I was at IAH photographing the last KLM 747 flight to Houston, as the airline was retiring the type from the AMS-IAH-AMS route. At the time, the ending of the Houston Express also represented the last scheduled passenger service using 747s out of Houston. After that, however, British Airways and Lufthansa reintroduced their jumbos on their flights to IAH, with the latter operating a daily 747-8I from FRA as of the writing of this article.

KLM 747-400 PH-BFV on 03/23/2018 performing last KLM 747 flight at IAH. In the background an Antonov 124 and one of the Atlas Air golden 747-400 used for the Houston Express. Last flight of the Houston Express would be 5 days after this picture was taken.
KLM 747-400 PH-BFV on March 23, 2018, performing the last KLM 747 flight at IAH. In the background an Antonov 124 and one of the Atlas Air golden 747-400 used for the Houston Express. The last flight of the Houston Express would be 5 days after this picture was taken.

Fast forward a few years and now I’m back into collecting aircraft models. During my hiatus from collecting one of these golden 747s, N263SG, was released in 1:400 scale. As is the case with these scale models, it was a limited edition run and shortly after it was released it was no longer available for purchase from regular retailers anymore. Luckily for me, the model does show up on the second-hand market with some frequency at relatively fair prices. For the longest time, however, there was an unwritten rule in my collecting criteria: if I have spotted certain aircraft, I do not need a scale model of it. One notable exception was Lufthansa’s A380 D-AIMB, the first A380 that visited Houston, and the first A380 that I saw in person (and photographed), but that is a topic that deserves a whole article on its own. The point is that I let the 1:400 model of N263SG pass many times because, even though it wasn’t the exact tail number, I had gotten a good set of photos of its sister ship, N377SG.

But with time everything evolves and changes, and today I can no longer just go to the airport and catch the Houston Express golden jumbos with my camera. Another thing that has changed is my collecting criteria, I am now more open to allowing modern and contemporary aircraft in my collection, which means that aircraft that I have spotted are unavoidably going to find their way into my display shelves in the form of a scale replica sooner or later. In fact, having spotted an aircraft is starting to become an excellent reason to get a scale model of it. Because of this, I stopped letting N263SG pass by and acquired it at a collection sale in which it popped up recently. Replicas of N263SG were actually released by two 1:400 scale model brands: Flight Line 400 (today integrated into JC Wings), and Phoenix Models. Mine is a Flight Line 400 example, which is the nicer of the two molds, but has a noticeably too bright shade of gold applied to the livery.