The Boeing 747
In the late 1960s, the Boeing Aircraft Company was developing an aircraft on a size and scale not seen before. Featuring a true widebody design and possessing four, new technology, high-bypass turbofan engines, it could fly 6,000 miles nonstop with 400 passengers onboard. This plane was called the 747 and it was said that Boeing bet the company to build it as they borrowed heavily to accomplish it. They succeeded and ultimately produced more than 1,500 examples. The latest 747 remains in low rate production today.
Earlier in the 1960s, Boeing was competing for a United States Air Force contract to build a large cargo plane. Lockheed won that contract with the C-5A Galaxy. At around the same timeframe, Pan American World Airways President, Juan Tripp, asked Boeing for an aircraft twice the size of the existing 707 that could move a lot of people and decongest the airport system. Boeing reworked the design using the engine technology from the Air Force contract to create the 747.
As design work started, a new production building was needed. Boeing built a plant at Paine Field, approximately 30 miles north of their Seattle plant. The building remains the largest volume building in the world at 200 million cubic feet. The mockup of the 747 was ready before the roof of building was completed.
The original 747-100 was 225 feet long, had a 195 foot wingspan and a 6 story tail. A partial second deck was incorporated giving the 747 its familiar hump and also making the 747 the most recognizable aircraft in the world. Other recognizable features are the 4 Pratt & Whitney JT-9 Turbofan engines (updated in later models) and a 16 tire, 4 bogie main landing gear on all variants. The flight deck is located in the hump and is 3 stories off the ground. Pilots had special training to accomplish ground maneuvering from such a height. This feature allows the nose to be raised for cargo. In addition to the passenger carrying version, a cargo version was envisioned from the beginning.
The 747 made its first flight in 1969 and was delivered to Pan Am in early 1970. Many other carriers followed suit even if it was not economical to do so. The prestige of the 747 was powerful. Asian carriers used the high passenger capacity on domestic routes. The fuel crisis of the early 1970s caused some airlines to buy from smaller competitors. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and the Lockheed L1011 had less capacity in a widebody design but ran on 3 engines instead of 4. Today, these routes are done on highly efficient twin-engined aircraft.
Through the production run, different variants were produced. The -100B featured a higher Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW), and the -100SR was short range but had higher density seating. The -200 (1971) had upgraded engines and MTOW. A freighter version was also produced.
The 747SP (Special Performance, 1976) was the most unusual version as it was a shortened fuselage version with an increased range. The -300 (1980) was full sized and had an extended upper deck.
The 747-400 (1989) featured big changes in the design to include a new glass cockpit, eliminating the flight engineer position, new engines, new wing with aerodynamic winglets and an overall growth to a 229 foot length and 213 foot wingspan. Range was extended to beyond 8,000 miles.
A freighter version was also constructed.
The ultimate 747, the -8 (2011), is 250 feet long with a 225 foot wingspan. It has more efficient engines and a redesigned wing. Only 47 passenger models have been purchased but 107 freighter versions have been ordered. The new Air Force One airframes will be -8 models (VC-25B) expected around 2024.
The type also served in military applications. Dash 200s were modified to become VC-25A’s for Air Force One in 1992.
The E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post aircraft are based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The YAL-1 was an airborne laser program that was canceled in 2011. Two -100s were modified to ferry the Space Shuttle. 747s are also used as aerial firefighting aircraft and in Iran, one was modified to be an inflight refueler. Boeing also owns a few “Dreamlifters” with an outsized fuselage to ferry large aircraft parts.
The 747 has a very good safety record but when the unfortunate happens, the loss of life is on a greater scale. Throughout its history, 61 hull losses are documented out of 1,500 plus produced, or about 4%. These numbers are all encompassing and are not reflective of actual crashes and loss of life. There are 3 notable accidents that remain the largest loss of life in their categories.
The deadliest single aviation accident in history occurred on March 27, 1977 in Tenerife when KLM Flight 4805 collided on a runway with Pan Am Flight 736 in heavy fog. Both aircraft were 747s and there were 583 fatalities. There were 61 survivors on the Pan Am 747. Incidentally, the Pan Am aircraft was the first 747 that entered commercial service.
The deadliest terrorist accident occurred on June 23, 1985 when a bomb exploded on Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to New Delhi killing 329 onboard.
The deadliest single aircraft accident occurred on August 12, 1985 when the rear bulkhead on a Japan Airlines 747SP domestic flight blew off, damaging the vertical stabilizer. The aircraft eventually struck a mountain killing 524 of 528 passengers.
Other accidents of note include Korean Air Flight 007 which was shot down by the Soviet Air Force north of Japan killing all 269 onboard on September 1, 1983.
Pan Am Flight 103 broke up over Lockerbie, Scotland after a Libyan terrorist bomb blew up in the luggage hold on December 21, 1988. The bomb was timed to explode over the ocean. All 259 onboard and 11 people on the ground were killed.
TWA Flight 800 exploded south of Long Island, New York on July 17, 1996 after departing JFK to Paris. Although many theories were investigated including terrorism and a military missile launch, the final report suspects that electrical arcing in an empty center fuel tank ignited vapors causing the explosion.
The production of the 747 is nearing its end as more efficient “Big Twins” dominate the markets with less engines and fuel costs. The competing Airbus 380 has already announced the end of production in 2021 after only a mere 16 year production run. The 747 will remain the Queen of the Sky for many years after the last one rolls off the assembly line.