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As the last Boeing 747 rolls off the production line, we look back at the Queen of the Skies

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It is now over two years since British Airways announced the retirement of its Boeing 747 fleet.

That wasn’t the end of the 747 programme, however. Although in its twilight years, Boeing continued to manufacture a handful of 747s each year, primarily for the freighter market.

That, too, has now come to an end. This week, Boeing rolled out the last 747 ever built from its assembly line. This aircraft is destined for Atlas Air, a cargo airline, and will undergo some finishing touches (including a lick of paint) before being delivered in early 2023. It is the 1,574th 747 to be built.

Final Boeing 747 leaves the Everett factory

The factory in Everett, just outside of Seattle, will presumably be converted to manufacture other aircraft.

Despite being the last aircraft off the assembly line, it will not be the last 747 ever delivered. Boeing is also working on two replacements for the ageing Air Force One presidential transport aircraft for the United States. These are based on two previously undelivered 747 aircraft with additional security modifications and are designated as VC-25Bs.

To commemorate, we wanted to look back at the history of the Boeing 747, an aircraft that changed the aviation industry more than perhaps any other. Long term readers may remember that we ran a version of this article when British Airways retired its own fleet.

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. 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.

Pan Am Boeing 707

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 which was used right up to this week – 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. Before the pandemic, British Airways was 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.

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.

history of the Boeing 747

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.

You may be interested in our other coverage of the Boeing 747 retirements. We have a piece about the history of the Boeing 747 at British Airways specifically, plus a special photo tour of Virgin Atlantic’s last 747 where you can get up close and personal with all parts of the plane.

Comments (30)

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  • Burzilman says:

    Boeing 747 democratise the travel and Boeing 737 Max monopolised the travel by proving half a century old aircraft with faulty software. It’s just like an old granny using Botox and claiming to be a virgin. Innovation in aviation industry has died down as corporate dictatorships have replaced democracies in the world.

    • dougzz99 says:

      Civilian aircraft by nature are safety first, so innovation is limited. Using the issues with the Max to demonstrate a single point whilst ignoring the advances made by the B787 and A350 in the use of composites, the folding wing tips of the 777X. Innovation is alive and well.

      • Thywillbedone says:

        The 737 is an absolute dog, based on a more than 60 year old design. Yes there has been innovation but for the 737 the driving force of any innovation was to squeeze dry an out of date design to avoid actual substantial innovation!!

  • Alex G says:

    “It was Pan Am founder Juan Trippe who saw the potential appeal of jet rather than propeller aircraft to the travelling public.”

    Really? The world’s first passenger jet was the Comet, which was in service with BOAC five years before Pan Am got their B707.

  • Jonathan says:

    Does anyone ever think to themselves ‘what sort business class offerings Pan Am would be providing today, had the airline not gone bankrupt’

    Also, who here has been on a 707 ?
    I think there’s one or two still left, but not used for passenger transportation

    • Roger* says:

      I had a Saudi 707 flight between Algiers and Casablanca. At that time, the Algerians and Moroccans were not speaking to each other and the flight was not announced. Cabin crew came into the departure lounge to collect passengers.

      Negligible cabin service. Pilot was Texan, so great flight deck announcements.

    • ThinkSquare says:

      My first flight was on a 720B, which was the short range version. I still believe it accelerated better than any plane I’ve been on since

    • ready to fly says:

      You make it sound like this is a site only for Millenials!… I remember like it was yesterday a TWA Paris to Chicago flight in the mid 70s. Single aisle, 3 x3 across seating. Not especially comfortable even as a youngster at the time. The flight originated in Tokyo, i believe. At the time TWA was really flying around the world…

    • RussellH says:

      I had a few trips on 707s in the mid 1970s to/from the USA – EI or PA. In 1977 Tristar from PIK to Winnipeg, on wards to YVR and then SEA in I know not what. Train to SF, Greyhound to Cleveland, some other plane across the lake to London, then buses again to Montreal. VC10 back from YMX to PIK.

      Once had a Convair jet from BOS to JFK on National…

  • Sam says:

    Thanks Rhys! Enjoyed that

  • Novelty-Socks says:

    Good article! I had never flown in business class until I started my current job about 6 years ago. And it was this job that gave me some memorable 747 experiences – sitting upstairs, and my favourite, being right in the nose. I wonder if any other passenger plane will offer that latter experience ever again.

    • Mark2 says:

      On BA A380 First is in the nose.

      • JDB says:

        It’s not in the nose as it was in the 747; it’s just at the front of the aircraft. That made a big difference on the 747, nobody walked past you and it had the spacious aisle.

        • Novelty-Socks says:

          Yeah I think that’s the thing – the nose of the A380 is not really “the nose” as on the 747, where you’re about as far forward as you can get – ahead of the pilots and with something of a view forward given the curvature of the fuselage.

  • Stu_N says:

    The Boeing factory tour at Everett is fantastic for anyone with more than a passing interest in aircraft – the scale of the buildings is just immense. The civilian wide body production is based there and seeing a line making 777s is quite something.

    We visited in 2017 and one of the airframes destined to be Air Force One was already built so certainly taking their time sorting that out.

    • dougzz99 says:

      Unless something has changed that doesn’t operate any more. I went to the Boeing experience earlier this year, enjoyed it, but the factory tour remained closed (post Covid) with no plans to restart. Sad, I would have loved to do the factory tour.

    • Tariq says:

      Indeed, and also the Museum of Flight in Seattle – visited both about 10 years ago and then again this year.

      Back then, the original prototype RA001 was looking very sad out in the rain. But a few years ago the museum built a pavilion over it (and other retired aircraft like a BA Concorde, one of the Dreamliner world tour aircraft and an earlier Air Force One) and repainted RA001. It’s open to walk through. The 747 could have been a full length double decker (resembling A380) – there’s a model of the design idea inside RA001.

      The line at Everett is mixed, not dedicated to a specific model. When tours inside the factory were allowed, I remember looking down from the gantry on 3 or 4 aircraft nose to tail inside the building making their way along the line. That was just one bay, out of about 4 or 5.

      Tours inside the factory were no longer taking place earlier this year, not sure if they will ever restart. Replaced by a video tour with some narration and presented by some very knowledgeable former employees at the Future of Flight museum on the Boeing Everett site.

      • Stu_N says:

        Ah, that’s a real shame. The Future of Flight museum felt more like a filler while you waited for your tour to go.

  • Christian says:

    Aaah ETOPS, otherwise known in the business as “Engines Turning Or Passengers Swimming”. Nice piece Rhys.

  • PETER REES says:

    Excellent summary, very well done. Despite the Comet being in commercial service before the 707 Boeing design and concept was light years ahead. Remember, there were 3 major Comet disasters that resulted it being successively grounded for long periods during investigations. It took years to discover the reason & the 707 was forging ahead and establishing its place in civil aviation & global commercial success during that time.

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