“This is Where the Cowboy Rides Away”: The Last Departure of Southwest’s Lone Star One

Lift off from 13R at Dallas Love Field. Note all the Southwest employees in the parking lot and open deck of the airline’s headquarters building.

I went out to Dallas Love Field last week on 17 May 2016 to catch Lone Star One, N352SW, departing on her last flight out to the desert.

She retired the evening prior from passenger service with the last revenue flight from Houston Hobby (HOU) to Dallas Love Field (DAL). She was the oldest active factory-delivered 737-300 in the Southwest fleet and the airline’s first state-themed plane, unveiled in 1990 for Southwest’s 20th anniversary in 1991. Lone Star One was always my favorite of the Southwest fleet to see and photograph. A reporter with a major Texas newspaper (I think it was the Houston Chronicle) once said “You don’t move to Texas, it moves into you.” There is a lot of affection for Lone Star One both within the Southwest family and with aviation enthusiasts across the state- many considered her the flagship of the Southwest fleet and as the first of the state planes, she was definitely the matriarch of the state plane fleet. Southwest was born an underdog in 1971 flying the “Texas Triangle” between Dallas Love Field, Houston Hobby, and San Antonio, so for many folks, the plane is a symbol of the airline’s Texas roots and humble beginnings. 

Southwest’s long time advertising agency GSD&M in Austin has a relationship with the airline that goes back to its earliest days and the state themed planes were one of the results of that long fruitful relationship between the airline and the ad agency. During its nascent years when Southwest was trying to eke out its existence in an intrastate market that was dominated by Braniff International, American Airlines and Texas International, the airline quite unusually spent over 10% of its working capital on a style of advertising that was a departure from what was the norm from airlines of the day. Southwest set the tone early on with ad campaigns that projected an unconventional approach that made them unique in their early days and laid the roots for their internal culture. Lone Star One was introduced on 7 November 1990, the day after her delivery from Boeing. GSD&M hired songwriters and musicians for years to do jingles for Southwest’s TV commercials and the introduction of Lone Star One was no different with songs composed just for the Lone Star One ad campaign. There’s no questioning the song’s mushiness, but the song worked well in Texas and as anyone knows, we Texans from all persuasions get sentimental and mushy when we talk about our home state! 

*Trivia: GSD&M’s main office in Austin, Texas, has long been a no-smoking facility. However, Southwest chairman emeritus Herb Kelleher is allowed to smoke to his heart’s content when visiting.

Lone Star One’s unveiling back in 1990 at Dallas Love Field. (Southwest Airlines photo)

“We staked our claim in Texas.
We’ve grown together, flown together,
Danced among the clouds.
We owe it all to Texas
Together now for 20 years.
It sure does make us proud.”

“(Narrator) On this our 20th anniversary, Southwest Airlines proudly unfurls Lone Star One, a high-flying tribute to the indomitable spirit that makes Texas a true state of mind.”

“And the Lone Star is flying high!
Proud and undefeated,
Right where it belongs, shining in the Texas sky,
The Lone Star is flying high.” 

Waving the Texas flag one last time for all of us here in North Texas.

She was headed to Tucson as Southwest Flight 8500 for scrapping, so this was not just Lone Star One’s last departure but last takeoff, ever. Her first flight was 17 October 1990, delivered to Southwest on 6 November 1990. She was really lightly loaded, only needing fuel to get the crew to Tucson, and shot off 13R like a homesick angel using only half the runway of a regular passenger -300. 

You can see 13R reflected on the blue part of the under fuselage. In some ways still pristine, but you see chipped paint, staining and patch doublers befitting N352SW’s age and career of intensive flying.

This was the first time I’ve had the chance to photograph an airliner heading out to its scrapping. There’s something different to see an airliner takeoff for the very last time and for that to be an aircraft as iconic as Lone Star One, it’s bittersweet. Someone once joked to me that “Texas only exists at full volume!” It’s a feeling of home that transcends the cesspool of politics in this state. I have friends who span the political spectrum and we all have a love of Texas. I started flying Southwest regularly when I was in college. Used to do the Southwest shuffle even before there was through ticketing and baggage check in. I still remember when the Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program was called the Company Club, it was based on legs flown. With the Wright Amendment in full force, I’d rack up free flights easily which was as good as gold as a student. In the early 1990s when I was in college at the University of Dallas, there was no such thing as online booking. You called up the airline and booked a flight over the phone- but if you told the agent on the other end of the line you want to fly from Dallas to anywhere else outside of the Wright Amendment perimeter state, they’d apologize and tell you that they don’t fly that route. 

However, if you called the reservations number and wanted to get around the Wright Amendment, the conversation would go something like this:

“Yeah, hi, I’d like to book a flight on Southwest from Dallas Love Field to Baltimore-Washington and I already know about the Wright Amendment restrictions.”

“Oh, okay, you must be one of our regulars out of Love Field! So you know already I’ll have to set you up for two separate flights with a change over in an adjacent state then, right?”

“I always do the Southwest Shuffle with a smile, ma’am.”

And that’s how it was back in those days and they’d mail me two tickets. One from Dallas Love Field to an adjacent state (usually Oklahoma City, Little Rock, New Orleans or Houston Hobby was the most common when I was heading to the East Coast) where I’d deplane, go get my bags, and then check back in for my final destination, hence the name “Southwest Shuffle”. Thankfully in those days the security hassles we have today weren’t present. The reservations agents always tried to make sure you had enough time at the intermediate stop to pick up your luggage and check it back in again.

“Southwest 8500, contact Departure…….”

Back in 2011, a new FAA rule became effective that required setting of limits of an aircraft’s operational viability called an LOV, limits of validity. In order to prevent problems with fatigue, any aircraft past its LOV can’t fly within the FAA’s jurisdiction. That means aircraft now have an “expiration date”. Older aircraft have LOVs sooner than later, obviously. For N352SW, the mandated LOV is 75,000 cycles/100,000 hours. Late build -300s have LOVs of 85,000 cycles. (For reference, the last -300 rolled out December 1999 and went to Air New Zealand) The most recent data I can find for Lone Star One is from the end of March when it had 68317 cycles/80473 hours. For any commercial jetliner these days to get close to 70,000 cycles is impressive. If anyone knows what its final cycles/hours was when it landed in Tucson, let me know, I’d love that information. Lone Star One was the oldest factory delivered -300 at Southwest, that honor now falls to N354SW. From what I have been told, the 737-300s should all be gone by the end of 2017, I’m guessing they’re all coming up close on their LOV numbers.

Photo of the dispatch release with the very apropos George Strait quote. Southwest dispatcher Jake Zelman added the message in the remarks (photo courtesy of Mahala Ahearn)

I’ve never worked for Southwest, but they always got me going places when I had a tight budget and they did it with fun and style in my book, even if it meant picking up my bags and checking them in again in a Wright Amendment perimeter state. Lone Star One always encapsulated all that in a single symbol. Childhood memories, my college and beyond years, what home means to me, trips with my wife in my younger days on tight budget, family vacations now and memories to come. They have long been my preferred airline to fly and are still the airline we try to fly when we go on family trips. I have seen them go the extra mile for passengers and they’ve done that for us on several occasions as well. Lone Star One was unveiled just a year after I moved here to Texas, so its service to the airline covers a time of my life going from a young cocky college student to a middle aged guy with a family with four kids and a wonderful career in medicine.

Multiple exposure photo I did to show the flight crew rocking Lone Star One’s wings on her final departure.

On the final climb out from Dallas Love Field, the flight crew capped off the departure by rocking Lone Star One’s wings. It was a fitting farewell for the matriarch and flagship of the Southwest fleet leaving home for the last time. But Lone Star One will return- this July, the Boeing 737-700 N931WN will be repainted as the new Lone Star One.