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HfP’s brief history of the Boeing 747

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It is now 18 months since British Airways announced the retirement of its Boeing 747 fleet.  At the time, we published two articles on how the aircraft transformed commercial flying.  As it will be a quiet weekend on the site due to half-term, we thought we’d give them another outing.

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.

history of the Boeing 747

The original jumbo jet celebrated its 50th anniversary of in-service flying in January 2020 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.

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 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.

In Part 2 of this article tomorrow, we look at the part played by the Boeing 747 in the history of British Airways.

Comments (35)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Sarah says:

    One of the most enjoyable reads on HFP!

  • Rachael says:

    Personally I prefer to know there 4 engines as it is more reassuring than 2 ! Our flight experienced engine failure a few years ago travelling from Seattle, and we had to divert as an emergency somewhere in Iceland to land. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded so much but the air crew sitting opposite me looked more shocked than me 🤣

    • Rich says:

      Your point is a good one Rachael, in 1988 my flight to YVR suffered decompression over Northern Canada, rapid descent to 12000 feet followed, oxygen masks down and on etc. and the crew panicked big time, especially the one who came flying out of the cockpit shouting. It was their reaction that did the most damage to my state of mind!!
      I lived to tell the tale though…

      • RussellH says:

        In 1973 I flew to Boston for a new job in New England, GLA-DUB-BOS, as back then fares were 100% distance based and money was tight.
        This was the last time I was on a 707, and after the mandatory (at the time) stopover in Shannon we set off over the Atlantic.
        About 20 mins out the plane did the airborne equivalent of a handbrake turn, causing much disquiet, but none of that was from the cabin crew, who either had been well trained, or had been briefed by the captain.
        On the approach to Shannon the captain came on the tannoy to apologise, and explained that he had a fire warning in one of the port engines.
        I could see the engine in question and there appeared to be nothing wrong, but we were transferred to a different plane – this one a semi-cargo version as the flight had not been full.
        Aer Lingus were pretty decent; free phone call to the USA, free whiskey at Shannon and another round of free whiskey once we had taken off again.
        I returned to the UK three years later by sea…

    • TimM says:

      I was on a flight approaching Luton many years ago and the collision avoidance system kicked in – sudden climb which sent the cabin crew to the floor followed by near weightlessness. The cabin crew were screaming. This was not great for passenger morale. After all their screaming and then shouting in our faces to fasten our seat belts, the captain calmed things down by coming on the PA with the words, “Sorry about that wobble…”. It makes one wonder about how much safety training cabin crew actually have.

    • Mike Molloy says:

      If you think about it, twin engined aircraft are less likely to suffer an engine failure than an aircraft with four engines – simply because there are less engines! Historically the issue of long-range over-water flight was the ability of the remaining engine to power critical sub-systems in the event of an engine shut-down. The introduction of ETOPS-rated twin engined aircraft, with the strict maintenance and in-flight shut down rates (less than 2 in in 100,0000 hours) necessary to meet ETOPS requirements was so successful that the maintenance techniques (fixed interval replacement rather than failure-led) were applied to all operational fleets. The cargo-fire suppression improvements (which directly lead to the ETOPS rating of of say 180 mins) also raised safety standards – there were commercial aircraft flying around at the time with NO cargo fire suppression systems. The QOTS, whilst an iconic aircraft, was never going to survive for long in this day and age, especially given the environmental impact of 4 engines vs 2 with a similar passenger load. If I had to point at an aircraft that has (quietly) changed aviation for everyone it would be the 777.

      • Andrew says:

        Risk is a function of likelihood x impact, if it’s simply a case of less engines = less risk we could go down to just one engine 😉

        You’re right that ETOPS drove higher reliability and safety in terms of fire suppression etc, but I’d rate the safety of a 747-8 with two engines failed over a A350 with two engines failed 3 hours from a diversionary airport, as unlikely as that is!

        • Weeble says:

          Which is what they did in the 30’s when selecting an aircraft to do the cross Pacific mail run from the US to Aus. The twins didn’t have the single engine power to maintain altitude if they lost 1 so they selected a single engine aircraft as the chances of losing an engine were halved!

          • Peter says:

            My father-in-law was a pilot with BA in the 1970s and 1980s, when hijackings were still happening. A story went around that one pilot was taking his own bomb onto the plane, as the chances of there being two bombs on one specific flight was so low.

        • Mike M. says:

          True; the Jaguar had one engine, which was only there to deliver the aircraft to the scene of the crash! But this argument is 4 vs 2.

          As for 747-8 vs 350, you’re talking about a scenario that will most likely never ever happen. If you had to seriously take that into account you’d never want to step foot on board an aircraft 😉

  • ChrisC says:

    BBC did a documentary several years ago called something like “queen of the skies” which included a lot of the early development and problems with the plane with interviews and film clips.

  • Jon says:

    How have they managed to lose £40M per plane since 2016? Surely the development costs were recouped long ago?

    • memesweeper says:

      The 747-8 hasn’t sold in sufficient volumes. That variant had development costs of its own.

  • Andrew says:

    Great article. Btw the full acronym of ETOPS is Extended-range Twin-engine Operations Performance Standards.

  • R says:

    I was late to the game on the 747, not flying on one until 1982. Although the lounge / bar area on the upper deck was exciting it was not wholly innovative, as I remember that the 707 also had a lounge area where pax could socialise, at the rear of the 1st class cabin. Now I am showing my age (not to mention showing off just a little) ….

  • BSI1978 says:

    Good read, not wholly relevant perhaps, but is the Everett hangar statement correct? Was sure NASA had/has the largest hangar (enclosed or otherwise) in the world

    • Mike says:

      This was my thought as I read it too! Pretty sure the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral is certainly largest by volume & I’m fairly certain would qualify as enclosed.

    • Susan says:

      Per Wikipedia NASA is well down the list by both floor area and volume. Boeing has 2 ahead of it – the Everett main hangar and the Everett Composite Wing Center.

    • ChrisBCN says:

      I did the tour at Everett a few years back and on the tour they said it was the biggest enclosed space in the world.

  • TimM says:

    Given that supersonic was/is not the direction of travel, will it be Helium airships instead?

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