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A brief history of the Boeing 747

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As the sun mostly sets on the Boeing 747 passenger aircraft, with British Airways announcing the retirement of its fleet, we thought we’d take a look at how it transformed commercial flying.

Today, we will look at the history of the Boeing 747 programme.  Tomorrow, we will look specifically at its years of service with British Airways.

The original jumbo jet celebrated its 50th anniversary of in-service flying in January this year shortly before Boeing announced that it was planning to cease production of the aircraft entirely in 2023. Since 2016, Boeing has lost around $40 million per 747 produced.

It wasn’t always this way: for the vast majority of the 747’s history it was wildly successful, setting standards and expectations for passenger flight as well as playing a key part in democratising air travel.

history of the Boeing 747

The Jet Age

It was Pan Am founder Juan Trippe who saw the potential appeal of jet rather than propeller aircraft to the travelling public.  He encouraged Boeing to build its 707 aircraft, with a capacity of around 190 passengers.  (These days, the largest single-aisle A321 from Airbus can be fitted out with 240 seats.)

Jet aircraft were faster than propeller aircraft and, with turbofan engines and pressurised cabins, able to fly much higher and therefore out of the way of bad weather.

His instinct turned out to be correct, but it was almost too successful.  By the 1960s, airports were increasingly congested with smaller aircraft.  This lead Trippe to convince Boeing to build a jetliner which was more than twice the size of the 707 – the 747.  It built on Boeing’s previous plans for a heavy-lift freighter.

history of the Boeing 747

At the time, jet aircraft were already believed to be yesterday’s news: the future lay, quite clearly, in the form of supersonic aircraft such as Concorde, and Boeing was already working on one of its own.  This meant that any new jet aircraft would obviously soon be relegated to cargo flying, an important consideration for the design of the 747.

The requirement to maximise cargo space inspired the key design feature of the 747 – a two storey forward fuselage that would allow the cockpit to sit above the main deck and offer cargo front-loading:

history of the Boeing 747

The scale of the 747 meant that it would not fit in Boeing’s existing hangars. To facilitate construction, a new assembly line was built in Everett – it remains the largest indoor enclosed space in the world.

history of the Boeing 747

The development of the jumbo jet didn’t come cheap.  The manufacturing site alone cost $200 million. By 1969, daily expenditure reached $6 million dollars or around $40 million dollars today when adjusted for inflation!

The scale of the project was mind blowing.  Fifty thousand people worked on the project at its peak, and each aircraft included 4.5 million separate parts.  Boeing is believed to have invested over $1 billion in total.

Entry into service wasn’t smooth. Whilst the aircraft had its first flight in 1969 and entered commercial service in 1970, it was soon discovered that the Pratt & Whitney engines were underpowered given the size of the plane. This lead to around 30 aircraft being grounded during early 1970, and Boeing pushed to the edge of bankruptcy.

Luckily, Boeing’s gamble eventually paid off and the 747 took off both figuratively and literally in the 1970s and 1980s.  Airlines were forced to acquire their own fleet in order to compete with Pan Am.  The 747’s small second deck transformed flying and was often used as an on-board lounge, bar or restaurant for passengers.

Additional 747 variants

The jumbo jet was refreshed several times during its lifetime. Major updates included the 747-400 in the late-eighties, with an increased range, longer upper deck and better efficiency. This was the variant still in service with British Airways until this week, when it announced plans to retire it. In recent years, British Airways has been the largest global operator of 747s.

history of the Boeing 747

In 2005, Boeing launched the 747-8 to compete with the Airbus A380. It would again improve efficiency, range and capacity, becoming the longest airliner in the world.  This variant was far less successful, however.

Lufthansa is the biggest operator of the type with 19 in its fleet, followed by Korean Air. In total, there are only 36 in commercial service with airlines: the vast majority produced are destined for cargo operations.

The Boeing 747-8 will remain the longest aircraft in regular commercial use until the Boeing 777X is launched in the coming years.

The sun sets on the 747

The demise of the 747 family was caused by the improved safety of twin engined aircraft.  Most early jetliners had three or four engines, which meant that the aircraft would be able to land safely in the event that one engine was damaged or inoperable.

Older readers will remember that Virgin Atlantic used to advertise the ‘superiority’ of its four engine aircraft with its ‘4 engines 4 long haul’ slogan:

When twin engined aircraft were introduced, over-water flying was time-limited under ‘Extended Operations’ regulations or ETOPS.   This meant that aircraft had to fly within a specified number of minutes of a suitable diversion airport at all times.

In the 1970s, Airbus introduced the A300, the first widebody twin-engined aircraft. The A300 was permitted to fly across the North Atlantic, Bay of Bengal and and Indian Ocean on a route up to 90 minutes from the closest airports. This still meant taking indirect routings where multi-engined aircraft such as the 747 and A340 could fly direct.

history of the Boeing 747

In the late 80s, ETOPS was extended to 120 and 180 minutes from the closest diversionary airports providing the aircraft fulfilled certain technical and operational requirements.  This increasingly made twin-engine aircraft more attractive, as they were more fuel efficient and required less maintenance.

In 1994 Boeing introduced its first 777 aircraft, which is widely credited with popularising long-haul twin jet operations.  These days, aircraft with three or four engines are a costly and unnecessary extravagance.

It is possibly an understatement to say that the Boeing 747 has shaped flying as we know it today. Over its lifetime, the jumbo jet enabled direct long-haul flights across vast oceans and continents and helped to democratise travel by reducing prices.

Comments (36)

  • Frankie says:

    My first ever flight was Dublin to JFK in March 1988 on an Aer Lingus 747. It was to march in my local accordion band down 5th Avenue in the annual St Patrick’s Day parade. It was the most exciting trip of my life. I was 14 years old and had never even been outside Ireland..

    • WaynedP says:

      What a special memory to treasure @Frankie.
      My first long haul flight in 1983 was similarly exciting, on a cultural tour to several W European countries and my first time abroad . It was on SAA’s Boeing 747-200 named “Drakensberg” from JHB to FRA (just before the -300 series was delivered with the then newly extended upper deck).
      It was a big deal for an unsophisticated teenage boy from the Bushveld – witnessing groups of punks mooching around in Leicester Square with their neon coloured mohawks blew my mind, given that at the time back in South Africa’s militaristic, conformist society, my fellow pupils and I faced the cane if our hair grew long enough to touch our school collars.
      Back then “Tourist class” was divided into a smoking and non-smoking section, separated by a single curtain, ha ha.
      It was the first time I had ever seen jam in little plastic pots with foil tops, and I licked them clean and saved them in my pocket for posterity and to prove they really existed.
      Seems like a world away, and I count myself extremely fortunate to have been able to give my own children multiple opportunities to travel abroad from a very young age.
      Especially now, as a return to the Bushveld is impossible at any price until we have comprehensive means of bringing this wretched virus under control.

    • WaynedP says:

      An image of what the SAA Boeing 747-200 “Drakensberg” looked like can be seen in the background of the photo of the Pan-Am Jumbo in this article. Identical contemporary “Flying Springbok” livery, although it could be one of the earlier -100 series instead of a -200.

  • Richard says:

    My first flight on a 747 was in 1990 from London to Dallas, I remember it so well and I have loved flying on them ever since. I also remember landing at Kai Tak for the first time after that spectacular landing manoeuvre and seeing dozens of them waiting for their next passengers. End of an era and I shall miss them.

  • Stian says:

    The 747 is still my favourite aircraft. Especially when I’ve managed to get a seat on the upper deck where the level of service and calm atmosphere make it a treat every time.

  • Mark Peters says:

    We are booked to go to CPT in Feb 21 first class, however as they have now retired this beautiful aircraft what will they use for that route now?

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