The giant jet that has been compared to the Parthenon, name-checked in a Joni Mitchell song and nicknamed Queen of the Skies is flying off into the sunset.
The last Boeing 747 is scheduled to be delivered on Tuesday after a ceremony at the US company’s factory in Washington state, to cargo carrier Atlas Air. The plane, when it was introduced at the Paris Air Show in 1969, captured the spirit of the jet age and through its capacity, efficiency and range helped make commercial flight affordable to the masses.
“It democratised air travel,” said Boeing corporate historian Michael Lombardi. “The 747 shrank the world.”
Over five decades Boeing built 1,574 747s for more than 100 customers. The tail is as tall as a six-story building, and it travels the length of three soccer fields per second. The largest version could transport more than 500 passengers.
Boeing has cut back production of the four-engine 747 for years. The market gradually shifted to favour more efficient twin-engined jets for even the longest routes, after aviation regulators approved such aircraft for transatlantic flight in the 1980s. Boeing delivered the last 747 designed to carry passengers to Korean Air in 2017, though the ability to load cargo through the plane’s nose kept carriers ordering freighters for longer.
Yet Boeing continued to produce the jets, largely because of a single prestigious contract: Air Force One. The US president has flown on a souped-up 747 since 1990.
The sprawling plant in Everett, Washington, where the 747 was built will add a fourth line to build the narrow-body 737 Max, according to a memo from Stan Deal, president of the company’s commercial plane business.
The 747 grew from a 1965 conversation between former Boeing chief executive Bill Allen and Juan Trippe, the head of Pan American World Airways. Pan Am had launched the first successful commercial jet service using the Boeing 707, but eventually Trippe approached Allen about building a larger plane.
“Bill Allen said, ‘Well, Juan, if you buy that airplane, we’ll go ahead and build it’, and Juan Trippe said, ‘Well, I think if you build that airplane, maybe we’ll buy it,’” Lombardi said.
The 747′s production under chief designer Joe Sutter is the stuff of aviation legend. Some 50,000 Boeing employees — construction workers, mechanics, engineers, secretaries and administrators — worked on the project, making the largest jet in the world in less than 28 months. Just constructing the Everett factory, the largest building in the world by volume, required moving as much earth as digging the Panama Canal.
Workers, fired by the scale of the undertaking, used to sneak back into the factory at night to continue working on the plane, Lombardi said. They were dubbed “the Incredibles” and adopted Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American folklore, as their mascot.
Originally, the plan was a double-decker aeroplane, essentially two 707s stacked atop each other. Sutter decided to pursue a widened fuselage with two aisles. Strangers used to accost his wife while she was grocery shopping to say the plane was too big to ever fly.
The iconic hump grew out of Sutter’s plan to ensure the jet would attract cargo carriers as customers. He wanted to load cargo through the nose, which meant raising the cockpit higher. But when Trippe saw the cockpit perched atop the fuselage, he suggested expanding the space behind into a bar and lounge.
The first 747 entered commercial service on January 21 1970 on Pan Am’s New York-to-London route. It entered popular lore, too. The US Postal Service printed it on a stamp. Mitchell sang of “dreams of 747s over geometric farms” in the ballad “Amelia”, and a quarter century later, novelist JG Ballard compared it to the Parthenon, writing that each gave shape to “mathematics, aesthetics and an entire geopolitical worldview”.
Captain Al Bridger, chief pilot at British Airways, flew the 747 for three decades, steering it to destinations around the globe, including New York, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and the famous curved approach into Hong Kong’s old airport, Kai Tak.
“A real pilot’s aircraft, the 747 combined smooth handling, reliability and a classic look,” he said. “It was a genuine privilege to have flown and it will be missed, but technology moves on.”
The planes are built to last for decades, and many will probably still be in service when the jet reaches its centenary in 2069. Though the plane will be missed, Lombardi said, it continues as a reminder “of the power of the human spirit”.
“We can lose hope in our world sometimes,” he said. “But we can still turn our eyes up to the skies and see the great contrails of the Queen of the Skies as she crosses the heavens, and we’ll know at that time that humanity can still overcome great adversity, and we can together accomplish incredible things.” - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023