Home > Commercial > The 747: Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

The 747: Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

My name is the ‘City of Everett’.

On 9 February 1969, when I made my first flight, I began a journey that changed air travel forever.

Boeing 747 RA001
(Photo: Boeing)

Now, 50 years later, I’m alive and well – despite what you may have heard to the contrary. I am, of course, the Boeing 747 (aka The Jumbo or Queen of the Skies). These days you can find me at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Museum of Flight Boeing 747 RA001
(Photo: Imgur)

From my covered vantage point, I watch my relatives come and go from Boeing Field and SeaTac airport, and I marvel at the recent history of aviation.

My story started in April of 1966, when Pan Am placed a $525 million order for twenty-five 747-100 aircraft. At the contract signing, Pan Am founder Juan Trippe predicted the 747 would be “a great weapon of peace, competing with intercontinental missiles for mankind’s destiny.”

He underestimated me.

In 1966, Boeing had one, primary focus: the new Boeing 2707 Supersonic Transport (SST) aircraft, which the company hoped would be the future of air travel for decades to come. As a result, they chose a relatively junior engineer, Joe Sutter – son of a Slovenian immigrant – to lead a new, less prominent project to build a large, sub-sonic passenger aircraft, the 747.

Sutter’s brief was to build a passenger plane that could easily be converted into a cargo aircraft, as Boeing planned that its supersonic airplane would soon be gracing the skies and there would be no need for subsonic transports like the 747. As a result, my upper-deck was designed to allow cargo to be loaded through my nose – in hindsight, an unintended stroke of genius.

Pan Am Cargo Boeing 747-121F

By 1971, the SST had been cancelled, Concorde had been launched, and I was the only game in town. The stories of Sutter’s team, known as “The Incredibles“ have been the subject of countless articles and documentaries (see below).

Instead, let me introduce you to some other members of my family. and explain how I’ve changed the world from the day I first took to the skies to the birth of my newest relative, Number 1548, a 747-8F recently delivered to UPS.

747-100 

When I took flight on that beautiful Pacific Northwest morning in February, 1969, I was by no means ready to carry passengers. I still had an entire program of flight testing in front of me. Initially, my engines coughed and spluttered, but Pratt and Whitney sorted that out. I had flutter in my wings, but that was solved with a rather stylish twist on the tips and some extra weight (depleted Uranium in the outboard engine nacelles). My minor health issues caused Boeing some major problems, and it was rumored that I was going to put them out of business.

But by early 1970, everyone agreed that I could be trusted to carry passengers.  On 15 January 1970, First Lady Pat Nixon used colored water to christen my sibling Clipper Victor, the first Pan Am 747-121.

Pan Am planned to begin using the 747 on their trans-Atlantic routes on 21 January, but an engine overheat delayed the inaugural flight by 6 hours until Pan Am could sub in a replacement aircraft, pushing takeoff to 22 January. Boeing delivered 167 of the core -100 variants, and the aircraft was eventually in service with almost every major carrier in the world.

In general, this variant of the 747 was famed for a small upper deck with three windows. An internal spiral staircase led to a lounge where passengers could mingle whilst on their journey.

BOAC Boeing 747 Cabin Interior Stairway

In later variants the lounge was scrapped and seats were placed on the upper deck, along with an additional 7 windows. 

Several special derivatives of the -100 series were designed to meet the demands of specific markets. The -100 SR (Short Range) was developed for the Japanese market, which wanted a high density 747 for domestic flights with more seats and less fuel capacity. This capacity increase eventually led to a request for high density, long range planes and the -100B was the result. It had the ability to carry 486 passengers over a distance of 5,800 miles. The -100BSR (Short Route) was the first aircraft to have the stretched upper deck and two of these were made in 1986. JAL operated these aircraft with 586 seat capacity on domestic routes until late 2006 when they were retired. 

Despite the fact that the 747 was designed with freight in mind, there were no 747-100F models ever made, although many -100 aircraft were subsequently converted and used as freighters and even firefighting aircraft. 

The final iteration of the -100 series resulted from development work that Boeing did for the United States Air Force. Boeing developed the KC-747 as a tanker equipped 747-100 for military use. Although the KC-10 Extender won the contract, Boeing did sell two of these tanker aircraft to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Boeing 747-121 RA001 IIAF Refueling

These aircraft are still in use and airworthy and believed to be the core of the exceptionally small number of, if not the only, -100 series still flying. A total of 168 747-100s were built; 167 were delivered to customers, while Boeing kept the prototype, me, the City of Everett.

747SP 

The 747SP (Special Performance) was developed as a result of a joint request by Pan Am and Iran Air in 1973 for a 747 with extra long range to serve their New York to Middle East routes, including a direct flight from Tehran to New York.

Boeing initially decided to build a derivative of the -100 series rather than a clean sheet design. However, as the project developed the changes from the original -100 were significant.  The aircraft they produced was an unusual looking, very short-bodied Boeing 747. It was originally designated the 747SB (Short Body), but this was later changed to SP to reflect the increased range (6,710 miles) and higher maximum cruising altitude of 45,100 feet. In addition to a significantly shorter fuselage and one fewer cabin door per side from other 747 variants, the 747SP also has simplified flaps and a taller vertical tail to counteract the decrease in yaw moment-arm from the shortened fuselage. The 747SP also uses single-piece flaps on the trailing edges, rather than the smaller triple-slotted flaps of standard 747s. 

Originally, Boeing hoped that the 747SP would match the requirements for a mid-haul wide-body airliner and predicted sales of 200 aircraft. However, they only sold 45, as the 767 more closely matched this requirement. The 747SP line was closed in 1983 but was reopened in 1987 for one last aircraft after a final order from the UAE. 

There are still a few examples of the 747SP flying today, mostly for VIP operations. NASA also operates a 747SP called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. The aircraft is an former-United Airlines modified 747SP with a huge, 2.5 metre door in the aft fuselage that can be opened in-flight at altitudes of up to 41,000 feet. This allows a telescope to operate above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere which can distort or block infra-red wavelengths from reaching the ground.  

747-200 

The 747-200 brought extended range and a larger number of options for customers. There were four core variants of the -200 series, including the passenger version (-200B), the dedicated freighter version (-200F), the convertible (-200C), and the “combi” (-200M). Whilst dedicated aircraft (B and F) are self-explanatory, the C and M deserve a bit of exploration. 

The convertible -200C could be transformed from a passenger plane and a cargo variant by using specially-designed, removable seats.  It was claimed that it only took 3 hours to convert the plane from one role to the other. The -200C was the only passenger version of the 747 that had a cargo nose fitted.  

Slide Gallery Courtesy of the Tom Harris Collection of Aviation Ephemera

Unlike the convertible, the combi -200M carried both passengers and freight at the same time. Essentially a passenger aircraft, it had a moveable divider that allowed freight to be carried in the rear cabin area. Freight was loaded through a large cargo door on the rear left of the aircraft.  Boeing built 13 -200C aircraft and 78 -200M. KLM and Iran Air were the largest operators of the combi. 

The airlines loved the extended range (6,905 miles) of the -200 but wanted more power and the ability to carry more weight over those distances. This led Boeing to sign agreements with General Electric and Rolls Royce to provide engine options for the 747-200B. The first order for these planes came from British Airways, which bought 25 of the first Rolls Royce powered 747’s with the venerable RB211-524B engines. 

Boeing 747 VC-25A Air Force One

Two of the world’s most recognisable 747-200B aircraft are the planes currently known as “Air Force One.” The planes official military designation is VC-25A; they only use the Air Force One moniker when the President of the United States is aboard. Although these aircraft first flew in 1987, due to challenges with the fitting of special mission equipment they did not enter presidential service until 1990. President George H. W. Bush was the first U.S president to fly on them.

Although they have received significant upgrades over the past 29-years, these aircraft are now beginning to show their age and have been said in official USAF documents to cost $210,877 per flight hour to operate. Two Boeing 747-8i aircraft that were due to be delivered to the Russian airline Transaero (the order was canceled when airline went into liquidation) have been purchased as replacements. They will be converted by Boeing Defense and will enter service in 2022.

Boeing 747 E-4A Configuration USAF
Original Design E-4A

Four 747-200 aircraft were built for the United States Air Force for the E-4A Strategic Command Post role. Since delivery, these aircraft have been upgraded significantly and now have the E-4B designation. They essentially serve as a mobile White House and when the President of the United States travels on Air Force One outside the conterminous United States, the E-4B is not far away. These aircraft are also ageing and it is estimated that they will reach the end of their usable life in the early 2020s. There are no current plans to replace them.   

An Air Force E-4B National Airborne Operations Center aircraft sits at the international airport in Bogota,Colombia Oct. 3, waiting for Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison)

Boeing built a total of 393 747-200 aircraft between 1971 and 1991. In addition to the combis and convertibles, Boeing built 225 passenger aircraft and 73 freighters, as well as the four planes delivered to the United States Air Force. The last commercial passenger aircraft service on a 747-200 was flown by Iran Air in May 2016, thirty-six years after the aircraft was delivered. There are still a small number of -200 aircraft in service across the globe, but excluding those in United States Air Force service, their numbers are in the single digits.  

747-300 

The first 747-300 was delivered to Swissair in March 1983 and last to Sabena in November 1990. Boeing only built 81 of this variant and they were predominantly for passenger use (56), or the combi version the -300M (21). A small number (4) were built in a Short Range (SR) version for JAL and they each had capacity to carry an astonishing 584 passengers. 

The 747-300 was the first 747 where the extended upper deck was not an option but a standard fit. It was also the first variant to have the easily recognised upper deck escape doors and slides. The -300 also boasted several performance improvements that allowed a M0.85 cruise speed, which was slightly faster than the M0.84 of previous variants. Although no production variant of the aircraft was delivered as a freighter, many were converted to freighters when this aircraft was replaced by the 747-400 in passenger service.     

A small number of 747-300 aircraft are still flying although they are predominantly converted freighters. It is believed that Mahan Air operates a single 747-300 passenger variant in Iran.  

747-400 

Although Boeing called this aircraft a 747, it was actually a clean sheet design based on a proven formula. The -400 propelled the 747 into a new era with an all glass flight deck, new, longer wings with winglets, performance improvements, and tail fuel tanks that gave the plane extended range.

Thai Boeing 747-4D7
Thai Boeing 747-4D7

A total of 694 of this variant have been delivered in six derivatives; the -400 passenger model, the -400F freighter model, the -400M combi model, the -400D domestic model – developed for short range operations and with seating for 624 passengers, and finally the extended range -400ER and -400FER models. 

KLM Boeing 747-400 Combi Plan
KLM 747-400 Combi

The first aircraft was delivered to Northwest Airlines in February 1989, which operated it on its Minneapolis to Phoenix route. The last passenger aircraft was delivered to China Airlines in April 2005 and now only freighter orders are still being filled.

British Airways is currently the largest operator of the -400, with 36 of the variant on their books. Boeing announced in 2007 that it was not going to make any more passenger versions of the aircraft as it focused on the launch of the 747-8 series.  

British Airways 747-436 G-BYGF
British Airways 747-436 G-BYGF

For the crew, the biggest changes introduced on the -400 were the introduction of the glass cockpit and the reduction of dials, switches, and knobs from 971 to 365. These reductions did away with the need for a flight engineer and for the first time the aircraft could be operated by two pilots. Performance enhancements improved fuel efficiency against previous models by 4%. Whilst this may not sound significant, on a trip from London to Singapore this would equal about 5 tons of fuel.    

We cannot leave the -400 variant without mentioning two of the most famous post-production conversions of this variant. The first is the bulbous profile of the Boeing LCF (Large Cargo Freighter) or Dreamlifter. This aircraft is a passenger -400 that has been specially converted to carry fuselage sections of the 787 to final assembly facilities in the USA. The rear, cathedral-like freight bay is unpressurized and the aircraft is only certified for a small flight crew in the area forward of doors 1. Only four were built and they can often been seen offloading adjacent to the visitors viewing area at Everett. 

Boeing 747-400LCF Dreamlifter
Photo: Scott Wright

The second is the lifesaving Global Super Tanker, which has been adapted to deliver a swathe of fire-retardant material across a drop zone 4 miles long and 150 feet wide. No other aircraft can deliver this volume in a single pass and it has helped save property and lives in recent fires in Japan and the United States. 

Boeing 747-446, N744ST, Super Tanker 944 'Spirit of John Muir'
Boeing 747-446, N744ST, Super Tanker 944 ‘Spirit of John Muir’

Boeing – YAL1 

This rather unique aircraft combines elements of two aircraft on the 747 family tree, the -200 and -400. The Boeing YAL-1 was conceived in the late 1990s as a mount for a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser in the hope that it might intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase. 

In 2001, the United States Air Force acquired an ex-Air India -200 aircraft and brought it, without wings, to a laboratory building at Edwards Air Force Base so testing and development of the concept could begin. This work resulted in a laser being fitted to a new 747-400F in 2002. The first firing of the laser took place in 2004. The project had a troubled test phase, but it included several successful laser firings. In 2010, the aircraft successfully engaged a test missile in the boost phase off the coast of California.

USAF

Despite these successes, many senior officers within the Pentagon remained unconvinced of the operational viability of this platform and in 2011 the project was cancelled after 16 years of research and over $5 billion of investment. The aircraft made its last flight on 12 February 2012 and was parked at Davis Monthan Air Force Base. It was dismantled in 2014 and the fate of the ex-Air India -200 airframe is unknown. 

747-8 

So why didn’t Boeing call this aircraft the 747-800? The -8 is a nod to the Boeing 787, which donated much of the flight deck architecture to this behemoth. This variant only comes in two models, the -8i or intercontinental passenger model, and the -8F freighter.  

In 2007 Boeing realised that the accidental foresight of their predecessors back in 1965 would now pay dividends and secure the legacy of this aircraft. The initial focus was on the freighter version of the airframe, which was first delivered to Cargolux on 12 October 2011. The first passenger version of the aircraft was delivered to Lufthansa in May 2012.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-8i 'Schleswig-Holstein'

To date, the 747-8 has received 150 orders; 103 for the freighter version and 47 for the passenger variant. The aircraft may look like a 747-400, but it is the first 747 since number 001 to have a stretched fuselage – nineteen extra feet have been added. This makes it the longest commercial passenger airliner in the world at 76.4m. A more efficient wing means there are no triple slotted flaps and the addition of the new General Electric GEnx-2B67 engines allows the -8 to carry 16% more payload in the freighter version for significantly less fuel over the same distance. 

The majority of the outstanding 747-8 orders are for the F variant and most are going to UPS.  As mentioned above, two 747-8i aircraft yet to be delivered will be the new presidential airlift group (PAG) aircraft and will be designated the VC-25B. The VC-25B will be the most capable aircraft the PAG have ever had in their inventory. And because of the Transaero cancellation, the United States was able to acquire them at a significant cost savings. The airframes are currently being stored at Victorville in California awaiting conversion to this special mission.  

I am the Boeing 747 

You have now met all of my extended, still-growing family. I may have started life as an underdog, the less-glamorous sibling of supersonic air travel, but my life has spanned almost half that of fixed-wing powered flight.

I’ve carried more than 5.9 billion passengers, the equivalent of more than 77% of the world’s population. As the first twin-aisle wide body airliner, I had the ability to carry more passengers – double the capacity of my nearest rival at the time. My range allowed me to negate fuel stops, further reducing the cost and complexity of aircraft operations. As a result, I changed the way that air travel was priced and accessed, lowering the cost of air travel, making it available to the masses and shrinking the world for so many people. I’ve fought fires, launched cruise missiles, fired lasers, carried Space Shuttles, and once evacuated 1,088 passengers on a single flight during Operation Solomon from Addis Ababa. I am a double Guinness World Record Holder, I am the Dreamlifter, and I have been the favoured choice of royalty and statesmen across the globe. 

I am the Boeing 747, The Queen of the Skies, and I changed the world.

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16 Responses

  1. Dave Cohen

    I had the opportunity to view the assembly line in Washington–holy cow! If you think one 747 is big, imagine a stable of them under construction!

  2. Jay Topping

    Brilliant article and fantastic website! Really well done.
    I still get goosebumps every time I fly in her and will be one of the fortunate ones to see out her retirement. Any aircraft will be a step down when you’re at controls of this wonderful machine!

  3. Ryan_LHR_27L

    Still think it was short sighted of BA to not buy the 747-8 over the A380. Why spend all that extra money on new infrastructure, training etc and extra running costs and larger crew for the A380 plus the limited route network it can operate on versus the 747 which would have slotted directly into existing nextwork . Maybe I’m being too niaive.

  4. Bruce Campion+Smith

    Such a lovely design that has stood the test of time. The jumbo still commands the ramp at any airport. It’s sad to see the fleet numbers diminishing. This article is a terrific overview of the history of the design. I also recommend the book Wide-Body by Clive Irving. It drives how Boeing bet the company on this plane.

  5. Suzanne Lang

    Loved this history. Was one of many expat children who spent years flying back and forth to the uk on the 747. We grew with her…and now back flying with her again from the end of Africa to LHR!

  6. Alison Kostiew

    The Queen of the Skies will never be dethroned. It gives me hope that more orders for the 8 will come in when she tkaes her rightful place as the replacement for the aging Air Force One.

  7. Sam

    Great article and website. I’m third generation aviation, and honestly, the 747 is one of the most beautiful and iconic aircraft in aviation history. The Queen did truly change the industry and I was blessed to have flown on so many of the great historic carriers on her.

  8. Jeff Clark

    Such a glorious addition to the global commercial fleet, so glad to have flown on a few of the BOAC 747 fleet and can’t wait to see that retro livery, Scott!

  9. This is a really nice piece on, well, what really had been an institution in aviation. The history of the 747 is as big as the plane itself, it reads well, and is quite likeable.

    You know, the Queen has entrusted some of her royal duties to her noblemen and women in recent years, but does remain well unmatched in many regards 50 years on.

    She is quite alone. Except perhaps when she is with her old equal in Concorde. Then there are two.

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