Home >companies >news >Boeing’s iconic 747 celebrates 50th birthday

Chicago: The world got its first glimpse of Boeing Co.’s 747 half a century ago, on 30 September 1968, as the first hulking jetliner rolled out of the factory in Everett, Washington, which had been built to produce the aircraft. Ever since, people have not stopped gawking at the iconic humpbacked aircraft, whose stately lines resemble those of a cruise ship.

The first test-flight aircraft, RA001, was more than double the size of Boeing’s next largest commercial jet at the time. It was brought to life from drawings in just two-and-a-half years, by a team led by Joe Sutter, Boeing’s fiery tempered chief engineer. Its design defied the wishes of launch customer PanAm and the cost almost bankrupted Boeing.The 747 shrank the globe, introduced concepts and technologies that forever changed long-distance travel, from twin aisles to inflight entertainment. Boeing went on to sell 1,568 of the aircraft as it was redesigned and updated over the decades. While twin-engine jets like Boeing’s 777 and later the Airbus A350 have mostly replaced jumbos on long distance passenger routes, air freight haulers are still buying a cargo version of the 747, whose hinged nose flips open.

Crowds of people gathered to see the 747 roll out of the factory for the first time , with Boeing saying some 50,000 people had had a hand in bringing it to life — from construction workers, engineers and mechanics, to secretaries and administrators. The team was dubbed “The Incredibles."

So costly was the project, that Sutter had at one point been ordered to fire 1,000 engineers to save money. But he refused, instead demanding Boeing hire 800 more. He later wrote that he was certain Boeing was going to fire him for his defiance. Not only did he keep his job, he also got the extra manpower he wanted.

The aircraft was launched with a handshake agreement between the CEOs of Boeing and PanAm, in anticipation of a surge in passenger traffic and increasingly crowded skies.

Jack Waddell, Boeing’s then chief test pilot, helmed the first flight on 9 February 1969. It was a sight to behold. The fuselage of the airplane was 225 feet long and the tail was six-stories high. The cargo hold had room for 3,400 pieces of baggage and could be unloaded in seven minutes, according to the planemaker. The total wing area was larger than a basketball court, while the entire global navigation system weighed less than a modern laptop computer.

But the plane wasn’t the one PanAm had in mind when it placed the order. Juan Trippe, the airline’s founder, had envisioned an aerial ocean liner — a double-decker, single-aisle aircraft seating 400 people. To Sutter, Trippe’s insistence on the single-aisle design doomed the chances for the big plane’s success. The designer held out and eventually won the battle for the twin-aisle design, then a novelty but now a standard in long-haul jets.

PanAm’s inaugural 747 flight for paying passengers, from New York to London, was preceded by much drama. The service, originally scheduled to depart in the evening of 21 January 1970, was delayed after engine trouble. A back-up 747 aircraft was called in, which eventually took off almost two hours past midnight, securing its place in the history books with a landing in London on 22 January.

Six new Boeing 747 tails are displayed on the embankment of the Boeing Everett Factory in 1970, waiting to be delivered to their respective airlines.

Film technicians at Pinewood Studios set up a miniature air crash sequence for the Jack Gold film “The Medusa Touch," on 9 August 1977, using scale models of a Boeing 747 and a skyscraper.

Lufthansa uses Volkswagen Beetle cars to demonstrate the loading capacity of its Boeing 747 F - Jumbo Freighter, in 1972.

The death of the 747 as a passenger jet has opened up opportunities for cargo carriers keen to snap up used long-range jets at a fraction of their list price. The 747’s hinged nose flips open to allow the loading of oversize cargo such as oil-drilling equipment.

Boeing’s upgraded 747-8 was given an engine overhaul and new wings, at the urging of Lufthansa and Sutter, who despite retirement remained a Boeing adviser into his 80s. The upgrade proved costly as design changes and an engineering shortage caused by the tardy Dreamliner, left the 747 years behind schedule.

United Airlines’ last 747 flight, from San Francisco International Airport to Honolulu, on November 7, 2017. With the development of fuel efficient aircraft such as the Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A350, the affectionately named “Queen of the Skies" is losing its charm as a passenger plane. United Airlines had been flying 747s since 1970.

As for the retired 747s not lucky enough to be reborn as cargo carriers, the graveyard beckons. At a vast storage facility in California’s Sonoran Desert, the remains of once-majestic carriers litter the landscape. Here, the fate of the world’s retired civil airliners is decided by age or a cooling economy. They will either be cannibalized for working parts or sliced up by giant guillotines and recycled for scrap. The total number of permanently retired or scrapped Boeing jumbos has more than doubled, from 442 in 2010 to 890 this year, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence analysis of Flight Ascend data.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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