The Queen of the Skies Takes A Bow
Photography by our Photorecon.net team members.
On September 30, 1968, an airplane was rolled out of the Boeing factory near Everett, Washington that would change air travel for the world and become one of the most beloved commercial aircraft in aviation history. When it debuted, the Boeing 747 was the largest commercial aircraft in the world and featured revolutionary design innovations that have been incorporated into every aircraft designed since. The prototype, nicknamed the “Jumbo Jet” by the media, flew for the first time in February 1969. Now over 50 years after its first flight, the Boeing 747 is in the twilight of its career as a commercial aircraft, being retired because of rising maintenance and operating costs as well as a lack of demand for passenger air travel in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The origins of the 747 began with a proposal by the United States Air Force for a large strategic transport aircraft in 1963. Although a new military transport aircraft, the C-141 Starlifter, had just entered service, the USAF believed they would need a much larger aircraft, especially to carry oversized cargo loads. The USAF designated this aircraft as the CX-HLS system in the contract proposal. Boeing, Lockheed, and Douglas were awarded contracts for airframe studies. One of the design requirements for the CX-HLS was that it needed to have the capability to be loaded from the front. All the companies involved in the proposal solved this design problem by moving the cockpit above the wing. Although Lockheed’s design proposal, the aircraft that would become the future C-5 Galaxy, won the competition, Boeing’s idea for the nose door and raised cockpit would be carried over into the 747 design.
Although Boeing had lost the competition for the CX-HLS system, it was working on another project for the commercial aviation market at the same time. During the 1960s, commercial jet transportation was revolutionizing air travel. Jet-powered commercial aircraft that offered speed and comfort such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 were popular with airlines and passengers. As the number of passengers increased, the number of aircraft used by airlines increased. This led to major congestion and delays at many of the world’s busiest airports, frustrating passengers.
Juan Trippe, the chairman of Pan American World Airways, thought a larger aircraft that could carry more passengers might prove to be a solution to the problem. Trippe asked Boeing to build an aircraft more than twice the size of the 707. Since Pan-Am was one of Boeing’s most important clients, a 4,500-member design team led by engineer Joe Sutter was tasked with working up design proposals for the new aircraft, now designated the 747 by Boeing. Pan-Am and several other airlines became part of the design studies for the new aircraft.
One thought at the time was that supersonic commercial aircraft would eventually replace subsonic types. Boeing responded by designing the 747 so it could easily carry standardized shipping containers, also being developed at the time. This would allow the 747 to remain in production as a cargo aircraft, even if sales of the passenger version of the plane declined. In 1966, Pan-Am placed an order for 25 examples of the new aircraft, one Trippe promised would revolutionize air travel. Pan-Am became the launch customer for the Boeing 747. Because of its status as the launch customer, Pan-Am could work closely with Boeing on the project and influenced many aspects of the design of the 747.
Northwest Airlines B-747-200 series freighter.
The 747 featured many design considerations that were revolutionary for the time. By using swept-back wings, the 747, although a larger aircraft, could use existing hangars and parking slots at airports. Another special consideration was placing the cockpit on an upper deck above the nose. This allowed the freighter version of the aircraft to have a door for loading cargo as part of its nose cone. Boeing also dropped some design concepts for the 747. For example, the 747 was originally supposed to have an upper deck that ran the entire length of the fuselage. Concerns over how to evacuate passengers from the upper deck caused this idea to be abandoned. A shorter upper deck for the cockpit and a luxurious lounge area was chosen instead. The shorter upper deck gave the 747 its famous “hump” shape, which has made the aircraft one of the most recognized commercial aircraft types among the public.
New technologies were also developed during the design of the 747 that the aircraft benefited from. One of the most important of these technologies was the development of the high-bypass turbofan engine. This new jet engine technology could deliver twice the power of turbojet engines then widely in use while using a third of the fuel. General Electric had pioneered the technology but was committed to its military contract for the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. Pratt & Whitney was also working on developing a new engine with the technology and agreed to design a new engine, the JT9D, to power the 747. Another new technology incorporated into the 747’s design was the use of leading-edge slats and high-lift flaps. These high-lift devices designed for the 747 were the most advanced in the industry at the time of their introduction. The three-part slotted flaps increased the wing area by 21 percent and lift by 90 percent when fully deployed. These flaps would allow the 747 to use existing runways at airports throughout the world.
The 747 was also one of the first aircraft to be designed using fault tree analysis. As engineers designed the 747, they studied the impact of the failure of one system on others within the design of the aircraft. This allowed engineers to build redundancy into the 747’s design. The 747 featured quadruple main landing gear. The quadruple landing gear meant a 747 could make an emergency landing even if two of the main legs malfunctioned and did not extend, provided they were not on the same side of the aircraft. The four engines of the 747 also added safety and reliability to the design. The aircraft could, if necessary, takeoff and be ferried to a repair facility using just three of its engines. The 747 was also one of the first commercial aircraft to feature backup hydraulic systems. This allowed control of the aircraft to be maintained even if one of the systems failed. To build the 747, Boeing built a new production and testing facility near Seattle, Washington.
Boeing had promised to deliver the first 747 to Pan-Am by 1969. This left little time to design the aircraft and test its systems. As Boeing built the prototype 747, design and development costs for the company escalated. In the last months of the project, Boeing had to borrow considerable sums of money to complete the aircraft. Boeing’s successful negotiations with its creditors were key in the 747 project being completed. Had any of the creditors denied Boeing’s request, Boeing may well have gone bankrupt.
On September 30, 1968, Boeing rolled the prototype 747 out of the factory at Everett, Washington for members of the press and representatives of the 26 airlines that had placed orders for the aircraft. Media at the event coined the 747 the “Jumbo Jet” and marveled at its size and the large amounts of knobs, gauges, and levers in its cockpit. After the ceremonial rollout, Boeing made preparations for the 747’s first flight. On February 9, 1969, the 747 took to the skies for the first time. Despite some minor technical problems, the test pilots reported the 747 handled well and was easy to fly for an aircraft its size. As flight testing continued and Boeing built the first production models of the 747, engine problems delayed the 747’s entry into service for several months. Many of the early production models of the 747 sat on the factory floor awaiting delivery of their engines from Pratt & Whitney. The delay made Boeing executives and those of launch customer Pan-Am nervous, as the future of both companies largely depended on the success of the 747. On January 15, 1970, the first 747 accepted into service by Pan-Am was christened by the First Lady of the United States, Pat Nixon, at the Washington Dulles International Airport. The First Lady then climbed aboard the new aircraft and visited the cockpit. The 747 entered commercial service on January 22, 1970, with Pan-Am on its New York to London route.
The 747 had a relatively smooth entry into commercial service. Early technical problems, mainly related to the engines, were quickly solved. Other airlines followed Pan Am’s lead and put their own 747’s into service to stay competitive. Initially, the appeal of the 747 for airlines was its long-range rather than its seating capacity. The prestige and public interest of the new aircraft caused many airlines to operate the 747 on routes, even if they were losing money doing so. Aviation enthusiasts scrambled to airports worldwide to catch a glimpse of the new aircraft. The 747 became the featured aircraft in many promotional materials and advertisements published by airlines that operated the aircraft. Airlines also turned the upper deck of the 747 into a prestigious first-class area for passengers with luxury seating, a bar, and other special amenities. Within a few years of its introduction, over 20 airlines around the world were operating the 747. After the initial launch of the 747, Boeing moved quickly to offer improved variants of the aircraft. The new variants featured more powerful engines, longer range, and increased maximum takeoff weight. Some changes to the 747 were also made at the request of the airlines after having experience operating the aircraft.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines B-747-400 Combi series jetliner, note the fuselage cargo door aft of the wing.
One variant developed at the request of airlines was the “Combi”. Beginning with the 747-200 variant, Boeing offered a 747 that had a split interior. The front of the aircraft was configured for passenger use, but the rear of the aircraft could be used to haul freight. Early in the 747’s life, airline travel was still expensive for most people, and many airlines had trouble filling the seats of the 747 on long-haul routes. Configuring the 747 to carry a load of both passengers and cargo allowed an airline to fill all the seats and make extra revenue by carrying freight.
Saudi Arabian Airlines B-747SP.
Another version of the 747 to be developed was the 747SP. This shorter version of the 747, introduced in 1976, was built in small numbers and specially designed for long-range flight. Another improved variant of the 747, the 747-300, debuted in 1980. The 747-300 was notable for featuring an enlarged upper deck, a request made by airlines so they could fill the upper deck with more seating and make their 747 flights more profitable. On the freighter variants of the 747, Boeing retained the shorter upper deck configuration.
QANTAS B-747-400 series jetliner.
The most popular variant of the 747 would be the fourth generation of the aircraft, the 747-400. Boeing began design work on the 747-400 in 1985, with the first production model being delivered to Northwest Airlines in 1989. The 747-400 featured many improvements over the previous versions of the iconic aircraft and became the definitive variant of the 747. The cockpit featured an all-glass display and a reduction of knobs and gauges to reduce crew workload. This allowed the elimination of the flight engineer position needed on older versions of the 747. The passenger cabin featured an improved entertainment system and interior. Boeing also targeted fuel efficiency and range with the 747-400 and this version received fuel tanks in its tail, allowing the aircraft to bypass traditional fuel stops. Winglets were added to the wings of the 747-400 that improved fuel efficiency by four percent over previous 747 variants. New engines were also adopted for the 747 from three manufacturers; Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, and Rolls-Royce. The new engines gave the 747-400 a cruising speed of Mach 0.855, making the aircraft one of the fastest subsonic commercial aircraft in the world. Just under 700 Boeing 747-400’s in several commercial and freighter configurations had been produced and delivered when production of the –400 variants ended in 2007.
China Airlines B-747-400 series freighter.
With its improved performance, entertainment system, and interior, the 747-400 was popular with passengers and airlines. For many business travelers, sitting in the exclusive first-class lounge area on the upper deck was a “must” on their business trips. The 747-400 could fly over 400 passengers for distances of up to 7,200 nautical miles. This range allowed airlines to use the 747-400 on nonstop routes from the United States to destinations in Europe and Asia. Major international cities such as London, Paris, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Sydney, New York, and Los Angeles were all destinations for 747-400 routes and the aircraft became a common sight at many international airports throughout the world. The 747-400 became an important part of the branding and service offered by international airlines such as Royal Dutch Airlines KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways, and Qantas. For pilots and flight attendants, being assigned to the 747-400 became the highlight of their careers. The 747-400’s use on so many international routes, its popularity with passengers, and being such a common sight at airports worldwide gave the Boeing 747 a new nickname, the “Queen of the Skies”.
In 2005, Boeing announced a new commercial and freighter variant of the 747, the 747-8. Although keeping the classic shape of previous variants of the 747, the 747-8 featured many improvements over previous generations of the aircraft. The 747-8 featured a lengthened fuselage, redesigned wings with raked wingtips, additional fuel capacity, and new engines from General Electric designed to improve efficiency and reduce noise. The passenger version of the 747-8 also featured a lengthened upper deck. Debuting in 2010, the Boeing 747-8 is the largest commercial aircraft built in the United States.
Cathay Pacific B-747-8F.
The 747-8 has been built in both commercial and freighter variants. The commercial version of the 747-8, the 747-8I, is the longest commercial aircraft in the world. The 747-8I is in service with Air China, Lufthansa, and Korean Air. The freighter variant of the 747-8, the 747-8F, has greater cargo capacity than previous 747 freighter variants and is operated by several air cargo companies including Cargolux, Nippon Cargo Airways, Cathay Pacific Cargo, Atlas Air, and UPS Airlines.
Besides its use as a commercial aircraft, special variants of the 747 have been developed for private and military use. In the 1970s, Boeing and the USAF explored the idea of the 747 being used as a military tanker and heavy transport aircraft. Designated the KC-25, the first-ever 747 built was configured with a refueling boom and tested for this role. Although the KC-25 proved to be stable and capable in the role, the contract was eventually awarded to the McDonnell Douglas KC-10. Reasons cited for the decision included cost and the smaller size of the KC-10 allowed it to be used at more airports. One of the most recognizable specialized variants of the Boeing 747 is the VC-25A, a specially configured 747-200B, commonly known to the public as “Air Force One”, is used by the USAF as the primary transport aircraft for the President of the United States.
NASA B-747 SCA.
Two specialized 747’s were built for NASA to be used to transport the Space Shuttle back to Florida when it would land at Edwards Air Force Base in California. One of these Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) 747’s was used to carry the space shuttle Enterprise into the air and release it for its Approach and Landing Tests in the late 1970s.
USAF E-4B once was known as the NEACP (National Emergency Airborne Command Post).
Another specialized military version of the 747 designated the E-4B, can be used by the USAF as an airborne command aircraft in a time of war or nuclear attack. The unique role of the E-4B has earned it the nickname of the “Doomsday Airplane”. Four specialized Boeing 747’s, called the Dreamlifter, were built as conversions by Boeing. Also called the Boeing 747-400 Large Container Freighter (LCF), these 747’s feature an oversized fuselage and a swing open tail section. The aircraft are used to transport large sub assemblies for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program from factories around the world to Boeing facilities in South Carolina and Washington. Recently, a 747-400 has been modified by Cal Fire for use as an aerial supertanker and has been used to fight wildfires from the air in California.
Although still beloved by flight crews, fans, and aviation enthusiasts for its iconic status in the commercial airline world, times have changed for the Boeing 747 in recent years. High aviation fuel prices and maintenance costs forced many airlines to retire the 747’s in their fleet in favor of twin-engine aircraft like the Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner. These aircraft, thanks to great advances in engine technology and reliability, can fly the same routes the 747 can but with lower operating costs. The 747 also began falling out of favor with passengers. Newer commercial aircraft have quieter engines, more modern interiors, and amenities such as mood lighting that the current airline passenger demands. Most of the 747’s operating currently are over 25 years old, and the interiors show their age compared to newer aircraft. Airlines also feel the older 747’s generate a negative customer experience for their passengers.
In 2017, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines both retired their 747 fleets, citing high operating and maintenance costs with the aircraft. United Airlines operated a “Farewell Tour” with the 747, taking one of their last 747’s in operational service to select hub cities across the United States to allow employees and aviation enthusiasts to say farewell to the iconic aircraft. United Airlines also operated a special last flight with the 747, flying from San Francisco to Honolulu, recreating the first flight made by a United Airlines 747 in 1970. United Airlines also produced several pieces of commemorative memorabilia to honor the 747 and its service with United Airlines. Some of this memorabilia included an exclusive amenity kit given out on the aircraft, a set of commemorative trading cards, and a special booklet detailing the 747’s history with United Airlines. The Israeli airline El-Al retired its small fleet of 747’s in 2019. European airlines Royal Dutch Airlines KLM, British Airways, and Lufthansa all detailed plans to retire their 747 fleets in the 2020s. Qantas announced plans to retire its nine 747’s in 2020.
Recently, the coronavirus pandemic has sped up the 747’s retirement in many airline fleets. With worldwide air travel shutdown, the retirements did not even allow passengers a farewell to the beloved aircraft. Royal Dutch Airlines KLM, planning an October 2020 retirement of their 747 fleet, retired the aircraft in March. In July, Qantas decided to retire the six remaining Boeing 747-400’s in their fleet. The last flight of a Qantas 747 took place on July 22. The flight included a low altitude pass over Sydney and a flight path that drew a giant Qantas flying kangaroo logo off the coast of Australia before the crew headed across the Pacific to the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, an aircraft boneyard.
British Airways, citing travel restrictions related to the pandemic and decreased demand for air travel, also retired their fleet of 747s in July. Officials at the airline were deeply saddened to have to make the decision to retire “The Queen of the Skies”. The British airline was one of the largest operators of the Boeing 747, with 31 aircraft in service, and had hoped to operate the “Queen of the Skies” in commercial service until 2024.
As recently as 2019, British Airways had continued to promote the 747 in their fleet, revamping the interiors of several aircraft and giving three of them special liveries to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of British Airways. The retirement of the 747 from the fleets of these airlines was heartbreaking for aviation enthusiasts and airline personnel, as variants of the 747 had been a key part of each airline’s fleet for decades. With these large numbers of 747 retirements, seeing the “Queen of the Skies” and flying on her is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition for travelers and aviation enthusiasts.
The days of building 747’s at Boeing’s state-of-the-art factory in Seattle are also numbered. In July of this year, Boeing announced that production of the 747 would end in 2022 when freighter deliveries for UPS Airlines and the Volga-Dnepr Group are completed. The end of production is the result of low current market demand for the aircraft and the weak air travel outlook because of the coronavirus pandemic. There are 15 unfilled orders for the Boeing 747-8F. When the final 747-8F is delivered to UPS Airlines in 2022, it will mark the end of production for one of the most successful commercial aircraft ever produced.
Although the production of the 747 is ending, the “Queen of the Skies” will remain in limited commercial service for several years to come. Air China, Lufthansa, and Korean Air will all continue to operate their 747-8I variants in commercial revenue service. Other smaller airlines throughout the world will continue to operate the older 747-400’s in small numbers.
The future of the 747 as a freighter remains bright. Thanks to a worldwide increase in demand for air cargo services fueled in part by online shopping, freighter variants of the 747 have seen frequent and increased operations. It is estimated that over half the world’s air freight is being transported by 747 freighters. Due to the large cargo capacity of the 747 freighters and plentiful spare parts supplies, these aircraft will probably remain in service for many years to come. The 747 will also continue to serve as the primary transport aircraft for the President of the United States. Two specially configured 747-8’s, designated the VC-25B, will be delivered to the USAF for use by the President of the United States as new “Air Force One” aircraft by 2024.
The 747 is one of the most iconic and important commercial aircraft in aviation history. The distinctive aircraft was immediately beloved by travelers and flight crews. The 747 introduced several new design innovations to commercial aircraft such as leading-edge slats, high-lift flaps, backup hydraulic systems, and quadruple main landing gear. The long-range of the 747 and its wide-body interior allowed passengers to travel affordably to destinations throughout the world that were not possible just a few years earlier. Boeing took an enormous risk building the 747, and that gamble paid off with an aircraft that beat all expectations and has been in production and service for over 50 years. The original “Jumbo Jet” also beat the critics who felt the aircraft was too big and would be too costly to operate. By designing the 747 to be easily adaptable to a freighter configuration, Boeing ensured the aircraft would have a long service life and be a financial success for the company as well as the airlines that operated it. Joe Sutter and his team at Boeing built a remarkable aircraft that even today, continues to inspire those interested in aviation throughout the world.
Although the 747 is flying into the sunset as a commercial aircraft, the retirement of this iconic aircraft is not a final farewell. The 747 will forever be in the hearts of the flight crews and the passengers who flew and served on her. The aircraft carried millions of passengers safely to vacations, school trips, honeymoons, and business trips and helped to make memories that lasted a lifetime. For airline personnel, the 747 helped make their careers in the industry rewarding and successful. Aviation enthusiasts will always remember the first time they spotted the distinctive shape of the 747 at their local airport. The Boeing 747 will also forever be immortalized in vintage airline postcards, advertisements, and other memorabilia of famous airlines such as Royal Dutch Airlines KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways, United Airlines, Trans World Airways, Pan American World Airways, and other airlines that operated the iconic aircraft.
The 747 may be disappearing from the skies, but the “Queen of the Skies” will always remain an important part of aviation history and the airline industry.
Corey Beitler is a native and current resident of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. “My interest in aviation began at an early age when my grandfather would take me to local airshows, aviation events, and spotting to the nearby Lehigh Valley International Airport. I have attended and enjoyed aviation events and airshows for over 30 years. I have been very fortunate in recent years to become a published aviation photographer and design and publish my own aviation newsletter, “Distelfink Airlines”. I continue to enjoy attending airshows and aviation events, working with professionals in the industry, and learning new things from fellow aviation photojournalists.”
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