Some Planes With A Past That Just Keep On Flying

Editor's note: Last week in the Travel section, columnist Peter Greenberg described some planes with unique histories that are still flying. This week, he looks at some Vietnam-era aircraft and tracks down some specialty aircraft, including the all-black Playboy "Bunny" jet. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Some planes have incredible luck. Take the case of the 727 that was repeatedly shot at - but took off unscathed. Nearly 19 years ago, it was an overloaded World Airways plane that attempted to leave Da Nang at the end of the Vietnam War.

The 727, with registration N691WA, was on a final rescue mission, with World Airways pilot Ed Daly at the controls.

In April 1975, as the fully loaded plane (the 432nd production 727, built in 1967) awaited take off, hundreds of Vietnamese hoping to escape the VietCong rushed the plane.

Daly hit the throttles, and with the rear door still open, powered down the runway, with one of World Airways officials reportedly punching out people who were still trying to board the plane as it was moving. Others clung to the open landing gear doors.

World Airways later sold the aircraft to the Dominicana airline in July 1977, where it was registered in the Dominican Republic as HI-31222.

Dominicana re-registerd the aircraft as HI-312CT in January 1989, to conform to the new registration standards of the Dominican Republic. The aircraft continues to fly today for Dominicana, and can often be seen on scheduled routes out of New York and Miami to Santo Domingo.

That final DaNang flight landed safely. But no one knows how many people died when they fell out of the landing gear wheel well. Back from disaster

The death toll was more precise on United Airlines flight 811.

This particular 747, built in 1970 for Pan Am, was departing Honolulu on the night of Feb. 2, 1989, en route to Aukland, New Zealand, when a right cargo door blew out.

Climbing through 22,000 feet, and 70 miles southwest of Honolulu, the aircraft experienced an explosive decompression. Of the 336 passengers on board, nine were sucked through the large hole in the side of the aircraft caused by a structural failure in the side of the fuselage near the business class section.

The captain skillfully returned the crippled airliner to Honolulu, with no further loss of life.

"It's a very emotional thing, which we don't really want to discuss," says Stephen Wolf, United's chairman.

But this much is known. United stripped the plane after it landed in Hawaii, then had a volunteer crew fly the plane back to its maintenance base in San Francisco.

A starboard engine was removed, and was rumored to have been buried. The plane was repaired, patched and repainted. Then, for apparently superstitious reasons, United changed the plane's registration number from N4713U to N4724U, under which it currently flies.

On a recent flight between Washington, D.C., and London, not only did none of the passengers know this was the Hawaii plane, neither did the flight crew.

"Until you told me," said pilot Nathan Winter, "I had no idea this was (the plane from flight) 811. But I have no problems flying it. I'm absolutely convinced that the repair technology that existed three years ago far surpassed the original technology that built this plane, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they fixed it stronger than it was when it was first built."

Hard-luck past

A hard-luck plane with a past is a USAir DC-9, serial No. 47373.

It was built in September, 1969. But on June 13, 1984, the aircraft was operating a scheduled flight into Detroit's Metro-Wayne airport with 50 passengers and five crew.

The approach was conducted in poor weather conditions (thunderstorms in the vicinity) and the pilot elected to execute a missed approach, the aircraft encountered a wind shear and continued sinking with the landing gear retracting.

The aircraft touched down, and was brought to a halt in the grass at the side of the runway. Five people were injured and the aircraft was later repaired and returned to service.

On Jan. 18, 1992, the same aircraft crashed again on landing at Elmira-Corning airport, in New York state. The aircraft sustained severe structural damage and two people were injured. The `bunny' plane

A good luck DC-9 has 47394 as its serial number. It was a "special order" plane, built in February, 1969, by McDonnell Douglas for a special client: the Playboy Corporation.

The 458th production model was painted all black and quickly became known as the "Bunny Jet," distinguished not only by its paint scheme, but by "jet bunnies" in hot pants, and a large circular bed, the airborne home of Hugh Hefner.

The aircraft continued to fly for the Playboy Organization until March, 1976, when it was sold through an aircraft broker, to Linea Aeroposta Venezuela. It was later leased to both Perdue Airlines and Ozark Airlines.

In November, 1979, a broker sold the plane to Aeromexico, which operates the aircraft today as registration No. XA-JEB. No more jet bunnies or circular beds, although all the Aeromexico pilots love telling passengers they're flying the old bunny jet. Peter S. Greenberg's syndicated column appears occasionally in the Travel section.