In theory, a plane this big should look clunky and ugly. Not the Boeing 747. The wide-body jet that epitomised the dawn of a new era in air travel couldn’t be more beautiful, with its feminine curves, thanks to the upper deck. It remains one of the most recognisable aircraft of all time.
Its existence came about because air travel was increasing in the 1960s, and although the Boeing 707 (pictured above, when the aircraft type was the choice for Air Force One) and Douglas DC-8 had revolutionised long-distance travel, there was a demand for planes that could carry more people. The growing popularity of flying led to airport congestion, made worse by the fact that there were lots of smaller planes carrying less passengers as opposed to fewer, larger planes with higher capacity. Juan Trippe, president of Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), asked Boeing to address these issues by building an aircraft more than twice the size of the 707, and that’s exactly what they did. Trippe and Boeing President, Bill Allen (below), were long-time friends. They agreed the 747 deal with a handshake while on a fishing trip.
On January 15, 1970, First Lady of the United States, Pat Nixon, was at Washington Dulles International Airport to christen the first ever 747 to enter service. Instead of the usual champagne spraying, the Pan Am plane was showered with patriotic red, white and blue water – very fitting for this all American icon. The first ever commercial flight took to the skies on January 22, 1970, on Pan Am’s New York to London route.
Despite the lavish launch affairs, orders for the new plane were slow getting off the ground, but thankfully for Boeing, this was short lived. As of June 2019 a total of 1552 747s have been delivered, with 20 still on order, and the production line due to close in 2022.
There was a time when airport aprons were filled with jumbos. Spotting over 30 747s at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport was a regular site during the 1970s and 1980s. They are now, sadly, a rarer sight. British Airways has more 747-400s than any other airline, with 33 remaining. The most recent 747-400 to retire – GBNLN – came out of service on June 24, 2019 after clocking up an impressive 28.5 years of service.
The mention of GBNLN is a fitting time to talk about an aviator who made me believe that it was possible to reach beyond the skies. Fred (his actual name was Jonathan – long story!) was a British Airways Captain who flew through the planes and ranks, retiring as a 747-400 Captain in 2001. It’s highly likely that he flew GBNLN. Like me, he was from Norfolk in the UK. Along with my family, he gave me the confidence and self-belief to go out into the world, knowing that the safe bubble of ‘home’ would always be there when I needed it. It was devastating to discover that I couldn’t pursue a career in flying because of my eye-sight, but he was forever encouraging of this ambition. Fred tragically lost his life in an accident while sailing from the UK to the Canary Islands in 2010. He died like he lived – a true explorer, navigator, pilot, and all round dare-devil. He’s greatly missed.
Back to the 747 – it almost feels like a treat to see one in the air these days, and their appearance is going to decrease in the coming years. British Airways plan to retire the 747 from their fleet by 2024, and Virgin Atlantic will say goodbye to the jumbo in 2021. Why? Because a new generation of aircraft – such as the Airbus A350 – are cleaner, greener, more fuel efficient, and even offer cabin environments that help reduce jet lag. The truth is that long-range aircraft preferred by airlines have been around for a while, including the Boeing 777, 787, and planes in the Airbus family, such as the A380 (although this aircraft is no longer the right ‘fit’ for many airlines due to its size, and reasons similar to that of the 747).
Perhaps the most famous 747 of all is Air Force One, and this won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Boeing is working on modifications to a commercial 747-8 that will become the next Air Force One Presidential aircraft, expected to be operational in 2021.
I was 11 years old when I first flew on a 747 – to Florida with Virgin Atlantic. I knew that I wanted to work in the aviation industry, even at this early stage, and did indeed go onto work for Virgin Atlantic, both as crew, and in communications. I’ve been lucky enough to be both crew and a passenger on this flying icon (and even managed to bag a seat in the flight deck for take-off or landing every now and then).
Here are some fascinating facts about my favourite plane of all time.
- With 21 variants, and 15 747s used for special purposes (including carrying space shuttles), this plane held the passenger capacity record for 37 years, before it was pipped to the post by the A380.
- The original reason for designing the distinctive upper deck was to enable a cargo door to be installed in the aircraft nose (meaning the flight deck would be above the nose) so that the plane could easily convert for cargo use. It was anticipated that the upper deck would be a first-class lounge in the sky.
- To get a perspective of size, the upper deck alone has the same square footage as a Boeing 737.
- The upper deck was stretched in 1983 when the 747-300 was launched.
- 747s have flown more than 3.5 billion people – almost half the world’s population.
- The airline industry can be an unpredictable game, so it’s no surprise that Boeing expected subsonic planes, such as the 747, to be obsolete in favour of supersonic planes like Concorde. Fate had a different view.
- High-bypass turbofan engines were developed specifically to enable a plane as big as the 747 to fly, and the first engines used by the jumbo were the Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines.
- To meet the launch customer’s (Pan Am) completion date. Boeing had 28 months to design and build the first 747 – just two-thirds of the normal time. This was such a time challenge, that the project team was nicknamed “The Incredibles”.
- The 747 can carry a spare, non-functioning ‘fifth-pod’ engine under the aircraft’s port (left) wing between the inner functioning engine and the fuselage.
- There wasn’t a building large enough to house the jumbo, so Boeing built the Boeing Everett Factory near Seattle. The image below shows the plant under construction in April 1967. Given the time constraints, the 747’s full-scale mock-up was built before the factory roof was finished!