Clipped wings

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  The historic aircraft was grounded in the 1980s because it was not proving cost effective to operate it. It now serves as a café inside the Vietnam Airlines' Sports Club on Hong Ha Street in Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Binh District near the Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

The only Boeing 707 in Vietnam, a model that is said to have revolutionized air transportation, is serving time as a street café in Ho Chi Minh City.

Boeing says on its website that the model, built between 1958 and 1979, was the first jetliner to be commercially successful. The company says the model heralded a revolution in air transportation and was used by US Presidents, with John Kennedy being the first.

Given this history, curious foreign visitors who have shown interest in visiting the aircraft that now stands almost abandoned in Ho Chi Minh City.

The aircraft has an interesting story of its own.

It is grounded on Hong Ha Street outside the Tan Son Nhat Airport. Its body still looks good, undamaged by scratches or rust, the tires are almost intact and the doors still function properly.

It is arguable that it could have been better preserved, not to mention a better ambience created for it rather than the dozens of chairs placed under one of its wings.

"Café Boeing," as the shop calls itself, serves as a canteen for the Flight Training Center of national carrier Vietnam Airlines.

The inside of the airplane is used to store kettles, cups and the like. "All machines have been removed to use for training purposes," a waiter said.

Waiters also hang their clothes around the area.

One customer felt that the way the aircraft has been maintained evoked a sense of pathos. "It's like a fallen eagle," he said.

But those running the café say the area has been earmarked for several constructions, so any improvements they try to make would be demolished soon.

Many people have wondered how the Boeing 707 was in the city in the first place, given the underdeveloped stage of passenger aviation in the country then.

A Tuoi Tre report cites aviation authority officials as saying the airplane had technically been in Vietnam before 1975.

Phan Tuong, former general director of the Civil Aviation Authority of South Vietnam, said the famous Pan Am Airlines had seized the plane from the US-backed Saigon regime as part of a debt recovery effort.

After the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, when Vietnam had still blocked its airspace to US flights, the US government negotiated with Major-General Tran Manh, the then general director of the Civil Aviation Authority, to allow its planes to fly across Vietnam.

Vietnam acceded to the request. The US paid all the required taxes and also returned the airplane seized by Pan Am.

"That's how Vietnam came to have one of the most modern airplanes of the time," Tuong told Tuoi Tre.

He said the airplane was sent to Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi before being flown to Ho Chi Minh City in 1977 by Pan Am pilots.

Once it was in the city, Tuong assigned Huynh Minh Bon, a pilot trained in the US and France, to operate it.

Bon and the airplane made three to four flights a day between north and south Vietnam. It also flew to Bangkok on several United Nations missions.

But the plane was grounded in the early 1980s as a cost-ineffective operation.

Once it became a café, the aircraft provided photo opportunities for many families whose relatives were leaving the country. As non-passengers were not allowed to enter the airport for security reasons, they chose the Boeing 707 as the goodbye spot.

Tuong visited the airplane once in 2010 and said he had to try hard to find a spot where he could look at the whole plane again, as it had been covered with roofs for the café and other decorations.

"It was like seeing an old friend after a long time. I felt sad that the historic, special carrier has ended up lonely in the middle of chaotic Saigon."

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