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Boeing’s iconic aircraft Boeing 747 nicknamed “the jumbo jet” turns 50 years this week. It was September 30th, 1968 when the first B747 bearing registration “RA001” was rolled out of the factory in Everett, Washington. Pinnacle of the 1960s, it was more than twice the size of Boeing 707 at the time of its rollout. An aircraft, that revolutionized the world by bringing air travel to masses and made distant flying possible. However, this journey was not much easy for the “Queen of the skies”.

First Boeing 747-100 (RA001) after rollout in Everett on 30th September 1968

A Brief History Of Boeing 747 Program

It all started in 1963 when the US Air Force issued a proposal for a very large cargo jet that can carry heavier payloads to a greater distance than Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Boeing lost the bid to Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. However, the research and design studies were to be used in the development of an upcoming civil transport aircraft. Because at the same time, Juan Trippe, the founder of PanAm asked Boeing to make an aircraft twice the size of Boeing 707, the largest passenger jet of the time. Many designs were considered at that time. Initially, a double-decker design with single-aisle configuration was considered. However, it was decided to go with a twin-aisle fuselage. This heralded the era of wide-body jets.

Initial double-decker concept
Initial double-decker concept

 

The company had nearly gone bankrupt while building the jet. The project team, that built the B747 had to work out of their skins to build the worlds largest passenger jetliner in 16 months. The people involved in the development of this jetliner were later called as “The Incredibles”. The project was headed under the legendary Boeing chief engineer Joe Sutter also known as “father of the jumbo jet”. The project was so costly that once Sutter was asked by the management to fire 1000 workers to reduce expenses. He refused and asked the management to hire 800 more instead. The management had borrowed so much money to build the jet, it put the whole company at stake. In short, the whole company was relying on the success of the jet. The gamble paid off. Boeing continued to make more than 1500 of the jets.

Pan Am Boeing 747 after completing its maiden commercial flight between New York and London
Pan Am Boeing 747 after completing its maiden commercial flight between New York and London

At that time, many in the aviation world and especially Boeing believed that the future belongs to supersonic jetliners. So, Boeing considered the future potential of B747 as a freighter. That is the reason Boeing placed cockpit in a hump-like upper deck as this would allow the installation of the front cargo door. On passenger versions, the upper deck was used as a first-class lounge. However, airlines later began to use that space for extra seating.

Lufthansa Boeing 747 freighter with front cargo door, showing the cargo carrying capacity of the jet.

Boeing 747 was the first passenger jet to use high bypass ratio turbofan engine. Four Pratt & Whitney JT-9D-3 engines with a maximum thrust of 43,500 lbs each, propelled the jumbo jet for its maiden flight on February 9, 1969. Boeing chief test pilot Jack Wadell was at the controls. It was a sight to behold. The sheer size of the airplane instantly made the B747 an aviation icon. The fuselage was 225 ft long, and the tail was about 6 stories high. Total wing area was larger than a basketball court. While it took 90 gallons of paint to paint the jet. A Boeing 747 of EI AI airlines once airlifted a record 1087 passengers during Operation Solomon.

Special modified Boeing 747-100 based space shuttle carrier was used by NASA.

Boeing purchased 780 acres of land in Everett, Washington to build the world’s largest factory to build the world’s largest jet. With a tight schedule, workers had to complete the jet while the factory was being constructed.  With a floor area of 4.3 million sq.ft and a volume of 472 million cu.ft, the Boeing Everett Factory is still the largest building by volume in the world. Today, other Boeing models B767s, B777, and B787 are also produced at the Everett Factory along with the B747.

Boeing’s Everett Factory’s original building under construction in 1967

One major selling point of the B747 was the un-matched operating economics. A fully loaded B747 had the best seat-mile operating costs among any jetliner of the time. This heralded the era of long-haul mass transportation. With a worldwide recession and oil crisis in the 1970s, the cost of supersonic air travel escalated. This allowed Boeing to stay in driving seat in the subsonic commercial jetliner market with its B747.

Specially modified B747-400 known as Boeing Dreamlifter is used to carry B787 sub-assemblies from factories in Japan to USA.

As the competitors came to market, Boeing developed enhanced versions to improve the reliability and efficiency of the jetliner. Baseline B747-100 was succeeded by -200 and -300 versions with improved performance and capacity. A shortened version B747Sp (Special Performance) was developed for ultra-long range flights. Boeing 747-400 came with new engines and an updated flight deck with flight engineer no longer required. This variant became the most successful one with 694 produced. The latest variant, B747-8 features stretched fuselage, longer wingspan, and new GEnx-2B engines.

Lufthansa B747-400. The top-selling variant of Boeing 747 family.

The Future Of Boeing 747

The future of Boeing 747 as a passenger jet looks bleak. This is due to the development of very large modern twin-engined jets such as Boeing 777-9 and A350-1000 which are cheaper to operate. However, Boeing 747 is still fairly popular as a freighter and Boeing is somehow managing to sell them, albeit in small numbers. But still, the future of Boeing 747 looks promising as a freighter.

Boeing 747-8. The latest and most probably the final development of the Boeing 747.

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Mohid Ahmed

Son of an aircraft engineer. Loving aviation since childhood. Doing BE Mechanical from NED University, and planning to join the aviation industry.

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