Boeing bids farewell to an icon on Tuesday (January 31): It’s delivering its final 747 jumbo jet.
Since its first flight in 1969, the giant yet graceful 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA’s space shuttles, and the Air Force One presidential aircraft. It revolutionised travel, connecting international cities that had never before had direct routes and helping democratise passenger flight.
But over about the past 15 years, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more profitable and fuel efficient wide-body planes, with only two engines to maintain instead of the 747′s four. The final plane is the 1,574th built by Boeing in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.
Commercial airlines in the United States have not flown the 747 since 2017. The last one is being delivered to cargo carrier Atlas Air.
The 747’s origins date to the 1960s, a period when aviation was on the upswing and airports were becoming increasingly busy. At the urging of Pan American Airways, Boeing began to plan for a jet that could carry significantly more passengers, after losing a contract for a huge military transport, the C-5A.
The idea was to take advantage of the new engines developed for the transport — high-bypass turbofan engines, which burned less fuel by passing air around the engine core, enabling a farther flight range — and to use them for a newly imagined civilian aircraft. Engineers initially conceived of a plane with two fuselages, but dropped that idea due to concerns about evacuating passengers from a second level.
It took more than 50,000 Boeing workers less than 16 months to churn out the first 747 — a Herculean effort that earned them the nickname “The Incredibles.” The jumbo jet’s production required the construction of a massive factory in Everett, north of Seattle — the world’s largest building by volume.
Instead of making the plane taller, the 747 was made wider, Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s company historian said of a jet that became the first designed with two aisles..
The 747 runs on four engines and was conceived from the start as a plane that would also carry cargo. But that imperative required other adjustments, including the need to raise the cockpit above the nose.
Queen of the Skies
The plane’s fuselage was 68.5 metres long and the tail stood as tall as a six-story building. The plane’s design included a second deck extending from the cockpit back over the first third of the plane, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring a nickname, the Whale. More romantically, the 747 became known as the Queen of the Skies.
Some airlines turned the second deck into a first-class cocktail lounge, while even the lower deck sometimes featured lounges or even a piano bar.
“It was the first big carrier, the first widebody, so it set a new standard for airlines to figure out what to do with it, and how to fill it,” said Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at Pennsylvania’s Albright College who specialises in aviation and mobility. “It became the essence of mass air travel: You couldn’t fill it with people paying full price, so you need to lower prices to get people onboard. It contributed to what happened in the late 1970s with the deregulation of air travel.”
■ A giant plane needs a giant factory, and Boeing built one in Everett, Washington, in the northwestern United States. The complex contains the largest building in the world by volume.
■ A 747 flew for the first time on February 9, 1969, and entered into service for Pan American Airways on January 21, 1970, for a trip between New York and London.
■ Boeing has built 1,574 jets (747) for more than 100 customers. The plane can potentially carry more than 600 passengers although it has been configured for fewer.
■ The final version of the plane, the 747-8, measures 63 feet 6 inches, the height of an average six story city building, according to Boeing.
■ It is capable of travelling the length of three FIFA football fields in one second.
— Source: AFP
The first 747 entered service in 1970 on Pan Am’s New York-London route, and its timing was terrible, longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia said. It debuted shortly before the oil crisis of 1973, amid a recession that saw Boeing’s employment fall from 100,800 employees in 1967 to a low of 38,690 in April 1971.
An updated model — the 747-400 series — arrived in the late 1980s and had much better timing, coinciding with the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s, Aboulafia said. He recalled taking a Cathay Pacific 747 from Los Angeles to Hong Kong as a twentysomething backpacker in 1991.
The plane that shrunk the world
The plane’s size, flying range and efficacy “made it possible for the middle class to travel outside Europe or the United States at an affordable price, even during the energy shocks of the 1970s,” said Michel Merluzeau, director of aerospace and defence analysis at AIR consultancy.
“It opened up the world,” Merluzeau said.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the 747 was “really the industry’s workhorse,” with countless trips between destinations like New York, Paris and London, said Merluzeau. “The 747 really is unique in its utility for shipping large industrial pieces, like motors for ocean liners and larger oilfield equipment,” said Merluzeau, noting the freighter’s ability to move more than 130 tons.
The biggest plane for decades
The 747 remained the biggest passenger plane until the arrival in the 2000s of the Airbus 380.
While Boeing has revamped the 747 more than once, “there are limits to what you can do compared with other options,” said Merluzeau.
For the last incarnation of the jet, the 747-8, which was launched in 2005, Boeing sold 48 passenger jets and 107 for cargo.
Why 747 production is stopped
The arrival of later generations of long-distance jets such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 350, which are more fuel efficient than the 747, have remade intercontinental travel, allowing for direct trips between more places and diminishing the dominance of hubs.
Delta was the last US airline to use the 747 for passenger flights, which ended in 2017, although some other international carriers continue to fly it, including the German airline Lufthansa. Atlas Air ordered four 747-8 freighters early last year, with the final one left the factory on Tuesday (January 31).
■ Other assignments have included supporting NASA in the 1970s when two 747s were modified to transport space shuttles.
■ Boeing has also made use of the 747 for its own purposes, designing a special version to transport major parts for its 787 Dreamliner, a descendant of the 747 that has played a role in retiring it.
■ In 1979, John Paul II flew an Aer Lingus 747 for the first papal visit to Ireland, while in the same year, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini took an Air France 747 to return from exile.
— Source: AFP
While Boeing announced in 2020 it would end production of the 747, the legacy fleet is expected to fly for decades more, especially in the cargo sphere. The plane of US presidents since 1990, the 747 is also expected to keep up its official duties for the White House for the foreseeable future, with two Air Force One aircraft currently being modified to replace jets now working.
In ceasing 747 production more than 50 years after aircraft’s first flight, Boeing is closing a chapter in the history of civil aviation.