The double-decker plane with the humped fuselage is one of the world’s most recognisable aircraft, and has been criss-crossing the planet for almost half a century, making flying way more affordable for millions of travellers. The Cultured Traveller looks back at fifty years of THE QUEEN OF THE SKIES – the game changing jumbo jet that defined modern long-haul air travel and set the tone for the future of commercial aviation.
In January 1967, the first production workers arrived at Boeing’s new factory, which was built on the north-east corner of Paine Field near Everett in Washington state. On 1st May 1967 the major assembly buildings opened their doors for the first time. The following year, on 30th September 1968, Boeing’s new 747 wide bodied jetliner was rolled out onto the tarmac, “City of Everett”, and the world’s largest civilian airplane made its glamorous debut. The growing worldwide demand for air travel during the 1960s, combined with the need to put more passengers on one plane, led to the development of the 747. So, when the 747 was revealed to the world in 1968, every airline wanted to be part of this milestone in the evolution of air travel.
It all started in August 1965 when Pan Am – Boeing’s biggest customer and the most influential international airline of the time – wanted a big jet capable of carrying upwards of 400 passengers. Pan Am had already launched two large airlines – Boeing’s 707 and Douglas’s DC-8 – each carrying about 140 passengers. But the airline now wanted a really huge aircraft to move air travel into the next generation.
Had it been up to Pan Am’s founder Juan Trippe, the new super jet might well have been a double-decker version of Boeing’s single aisle 707, since he pushed the plane’s designers to come up with a two-storey configuration. It took a Boeing executive’s initiative, at a meeting in a Pan Am boardroom, to persuade Trippe to go for Boeing’s second idea – a twin aisle plane now known as the widebody. It has to be said, however, that the transformation of aviation (especially in the’60s) was largely driven by Trippe’s ceaseless efforts to develop new and more advanced aircraft.
Boeing’s 747 was designed at a time when the airline industry expected supersonic transport to be the future of commercial air travel. The world’s first supersonic aircraft, the Soviet-designed Tupolev Tu-144, had made its maiden flight in 1968 and the Anglo- French Concorde took to the air a few months later. So, because experts predicted that the 747 would have a short lifespan as a passenger jet, eventually giving way to supersonic aircraft, Boeing’s designers future-proofed the jumbo by engineering it to carrying cargo.
Requiring Boeing to risk much of its net worth to develop, it took 75,000 engineering drawings, 50,000 employees and 29 months from conception to rollout to produce the first 747. Bringing to life, back in the ’60s, a jet which was taller than a six-storey building with a take-off weight of more than 300 tons was a formidable and costly undertaking. However, on 9th February 1969, the world’s then-largest passenger aircraft took off from Everett for its maiden test flight over Western Washington. The 747 flight test program lasted ten months, required more than 1,500 hours of flying and used five different ‘planes. The 747 was certified for commercial service in December of the same year.
The interior of the 747 was developed in association with Seattle-based firm Teague, Boeing’s long-time cabin design partner. The 747 was the first ‘plane to have almost vertical sidewalls and a high ceiling, giving passengers a sense of space and openness. Instead of a long, thin tube, the main cabin was split up into “rooms,” with galleys and lavatories acting as dividers. It’s a shape that has defined long-haul travel for half a century.
On 21st January 1970, Pan Am flew passengers on the first commercial 747 flight from New York to London. Spiral staircases connected the two decks. Widescreen movies were played in the cabins. People had room to breathe and move around, and first-class passengers could lounge upstairs. When the 747 went into service was a time of major societal change, when people were just waking up to the possibilities that air travel offered. So, the new, spacious and social aircraft quickly drove exponential growth in air travel, tourism and connections between people around the world.
With its four engines the 747 quite literally revolutionised air travel and represented a significant technological leap forward. It was faster and could travel further, using less fuel than any previous jet. It had a range of 6,000 miles and it could carry more than twice as many passengers as the largest airliner previously in use.
In 1968 Pan Am placed an order worth more than USD500 million for twenty-five of the 747. It was the largest order in the history of commercial aviation. But, despite the excitement, the 747 wasn’t an immediate success, in part due to the economic downturn that began in 1969. But as the economy slowly recovered so did the fortunes of the 747, which soon became an airline status symbol and the flagship for every major carrier. Within a relatively short space of time, any airline which didn’t have a 747 in its fleet was considered to be second-class.
In its first year, a fully-loaded 747 cut the cost of flying a passenger by half, making flying much more accessible to more people. The jumbo also allowed airlines to reach new destinations, while achieving greater profitability by lowering operating costs per seat.
It has to be said that the 747 pretty much ruled the skies for the next four decades, during which the big Boeing was joined in the long-haul wide-body market by offerings from McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed and Airbus.
Transoceanic and long-distance routes were exclusively covered by the 747 and its fellow three or four-engined wide-body jumbos, not least because, when it came to the engine count on an airliner, the thinking was that there was safety in numbers. Not to mention that the jumbo jets could carry the most passengers.
In late 1971, Boeing followed up the original 747-100 with a new 200 variant which boasted more powerful engines and a longer range, making it more cost effective to operate. But some airlines preferred to party at 30,000 feet, and reduced capacity rather than maximise it. American Airlines removed sixty seats from its luxury fleet of 747s in order to build a lounge large enough to fit both a piano and a bar that served complimentary cocktails.
Meanwhile, Continental equipped its 747 fleet with a flying pub serving complimentary booze, complete with arcade-style games. These redesigns were largely the result of the lifting of the airline industry’s longstanding two-drink inflight limit, which freed passengers to imbibe as much as they wanted on-board.
A decade later, and after a number of studies which looked at increasing the aircraft’s seating capacity, Boeing introduced the 747-300 model. Its distinctive, stretched upper deck could seat up to 69 economy class passengers.
But the 300 series didn’t prove to be as popular as Boeing would have liked, so in October 1985 the 747-400 was introduced. Featuring modern avionics including a two-crew digital flight deck, a fully glass cockpit and greater range, it was the best-selling model of the 747 family with more than 600 planes sold.
In 2005, Boeing launched the latest version of its iconic jumbo jet, called the 747-8 Intercontinental. At a few inches over 250-feet long, it’s the longest airliner in the sky. Just over a year ago, most probably the last passenger 747 to ever be built was delivered to Korean Air.
A special version of the 747 has been used as the American President’s Air Force One since 1990, another specially adapted version was used to carry space shuttles for NASA, and Boeing has delivered more than 1,500 747 passenger jets in the past half century.
That’s quite a feat for an aircraft which was designed in the 1960s.
As aviation regulations have changed and jet-engine technology has improved making it safer for aircraft to fly long distances with just two engines, in 2018 there’s no appreciable demand left for building new passenger 747s, or for the rival Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger plane. But with more than 400 passenger 747s still in service, Boeing can take comfort in the fact that there are still many more of its fifty year-old Queen Of The Skies criss-crossing the planet than Airbus A380s, of which just a few hundred have been delivered to date. So, for the next few years at least, Boeing’s 747 will continue to wear her aviation crown.