The Rise and Fall of the Boeing 747

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Podcast Transcript

Introduced in 1968, the Boeing 747 totally revolutionized commercial air transportation. It was more than twice the size of the next closest passenger plane, and it brought air travel to a much wider audience.

Not only did it help democratize air travel, but the plane’s unique features also added a new element of style and luxury to the jet age. 

In addition to carrying passengers, it has also served as an important cargo aircraft, and it has even served as Air Force One.

Learn more about the Boeing 747 on the 747th episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

Today, air travel is relatively affordable, and it is something that is within the grasp of many people. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, air travel today is much cheaper and more democratic than it was in the 1950s and 60s.

Back then, flying by air was relatively expensive, which is why so few people did it. People who traveled by air became known as the ‘jet set’, which became a euphemism for the wealthy. 

However, the ‘jet set’ is something you almost never hear anymore because everyone is part of the jet set. Airlines like Ryanair, Southwest, Spirit, EasyJet and a host of other airlines have made air travel available for everyone. 

One of the first major steps in that transition of democratizing travel was the development of the 747. 

The origins of the 747 actually began with a government contract for a large military cargo aircraft. 

In 1963 the United States Air Force put out a request to aircraft manufacturers for a cargo jet that was larger than the C-141 Starlifter. The new project was called the CX-Heavy Logistics System, and the Air Force required that the plane have a capacity of 180,000 pounds, a top speed of March 0.75, and a range of 5,000 miles or 9,000 kilometers. 

There were also requirements for the size of the payload bay, and the plane had to be able to be loaded from doors in both the front and the rear. 

The Air Force also requested that the number of engines on the plane be limited to four. 

In addition to designing a whole new plane, this would also require a whole new type of engine. 

In the end, Boeing didn’t get the contract. It was awarded to Lockheed, and the cargo aircraft became the C-5 Galaxy, which is still in service today.

Boeing didn’t let the work they did on the CX-Heavy Logistics System go to waste. 

Even before the Air Force cargo plane contract, Boeing had been approached by the president of PanAm Airlines, Juan Trippe, to create a passenger aircraft that would be 2.5x larger than the current Boeing 707 and DC-8, which were the most commonly used passenger jets of the era. 

The 707 could, depending on the configuration, carry about 140 passengers. The DC-8 could seat about 189. 

Trippe thought that a larger aircraft could relieve the airport congestion caused by so many smaller planes, as well as be more cost-efficient for the airlines. 

Boeing took many of the ideas from their CX-Heavy Logistics System bid and put it into this new aircraft which had been given the model number 747. 

The initial plan was to put in two totally separate levels for passengers. This idea was ultimately scrapped because of the difficulty in implementing the legal requirement whereby all passengers had to be able to exit the aircraft within 90 seconds. 

The double-decker concept was scrapped not only because of the safety issue but because it would make it difficult to use as a cargo aircraft. Instead, they went with a single passenger deck with a wider body.

The requirement to put a hinge on the nose of the aircraft to allow for front-loading from the original Air Force bid was still something Boeing still wanted to pursue, so they put the cockpit above the passenger area and just behind where the hinge would be on a cargo version plane. 

This is why the 747 has its distinctive hump near the front of the plane. 

Despite PanAm’s request for a large passenger jet, the management at Boeing didn’t think that the 747 was going to be used for passenger flight for very long. Everyone assumed in the late 60s that the future of passenger air travel was going to be supersonic aircraft. 

Hence, they thought most passenger 747s would probably be converted to cargo aircraft eventually, so they had to plan for that. 

The first version of the 747 was the 747-100. If configured for one seating class, it could fit 539 passengers. 

It had a wing span of almost 60 meters or 197 feet. The top of the tail stood 22.17 meters or almost 73 feet. The length of the fuselage was 70.6 meters or 231 feet. 

It could take off with a maxim of 340,000 kilograms or 750,000 pounds, Fly at 991 kilometers per hour, or 616 miles per hour, and it had a maximum range of 9,000 kilometers or 5,600 miles. 

By every measure I just listed, it would be the largest passenger aircraft in the world by a wide margin. 

To lift all of this, it required brand new engines. These would be the new JT9D high-bypass turbofan engines designed and built by Pratt and Whitney. These were the first high-bypass jets used in commercial aviation, and they were radically more fuel efficient than anything which had come before it. 

PanAm, the airline that originally suggested the plane, had been involved in the entire design process. In 1966, they signed a contract for 25 747-100 aircraft at a cost of $525 million dollars, which would be worth over $4.8 billion dollars today. 

With a customer lined up and with a design in hand, the next big problem was where do you build such a huge aircraft?

The answer was to construct the largest building in the world by volume, the Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington. 

Construction of the first 747 required a whole new set of techniques that had never been used before. They had to develop a mock of the cockpit at the correct height to let pilots practice taxiing because most pilots had never had to taxi something this large before. It was called  “Waddell’s Wagon” after the Boeing test pilot who suggested it.

They had to create a full-scale mock-up of the plane to test evacuations. 

They had to do much of the construction of the prototype while the Everett Factory was being built, which meant working on the plane even before the roof was finished. 

The engines proved a problem, as the development of the body of the plane outpaced the engine construction. Some early prototypes had to have piles of bricks hang from the wings to simulate the weight of the engines. 

Finally, however, everything was in place to show the prototype to the world. On September 30, 1968, the public and the media were shown the 747. 

Up to this point, Boeing had spent $1 billion dollars on the development of the plane, which is the equivalent of $8.5 billion today. On the plus side, by the time the prototype was shown to the public, 26 airlines had placed 747s on order. 

Over 50,000 Boeing employees were involved in the design and construction of the 747. 

The first test flight took place on February 9, 1969. Other than some minor problems with the flaps, everything went well. The biggest problems in the test stage were with the Pratt and Whitney engines. 

The 747 was shown to the public at the 1969 Paris Air Show, and it received its FAA flightworthy certificate in December 1969.

With the final kinks worked out, the first 747s were delivered to PanAm in January 1970. The first aircraft, the Clipper Victor, was christened on January 15 by First Lady Pat Nixon, and the first commercial flight took place one week later, flying from New York to London. 

Before I mentioned the iconic bubble on the top front of the 747.  

When the first 747s were delivered, no one was really sure what to do with them, so the first planes actually used them as a lounge for first-class passengers. 

Qantas called their lounge the Captain Cook Lounge. Some airlines had tables where you could sit and talk to passengers. United had a cocktail bar. American Airlines even had a piano in their lounge. 

These lounges didn’t really last very long because most airlines realized they could make more money by just adding more seats in the bubble. 

On a personal note, I once sat in the bubble of a Singapore Air 747 on a flight from Taipei to Singapore 20 years ago, and I still remember it. Given the hundreds of flights I’ve taken around the world, the fact that I can still remember that flight really says something. 

Many of the first 747s were sold to national flag carriers as the plane became an instant status symbol. However, most of these national airlines were huge money losers, so they didn’t care too much about profitability.

The recession of 1969-70 was a huge shock to Boeing. From September 1970 to March 1972, they only sold two 747s worldwide.

The oil embargo of 1973 caused many 747 owners to sell their planes for smaller ones, and many of the 747s were converted to cargo aircraft….which was exactly what Boeing originally predicted would happen. 

Eventually, the oil embargo was lifted, and demand picked up again. One of the major events which gave the plane a new lease on life was the deregulation of the airline industry in the United States. This resulted in massive reductions in ticket prices and a correspondingly large increase in the number of passengers. 

New versions of the 747 were released about every few years. The 747–200 was released in 1971, the 300 in 1980, the 400 in 1985, and the 747-8 in 2005. 

Over the years, the 747 also used engines by General Electric and by Rolls Royce.

There were also minor models which were developed in between the major versions.

The 1,000th 747 was delivered in 1993, and the 1500th was delivered to Lufthansa in 2014.

In 2008 the 747 lost its title as the largest passenger aircraft when Airbus introduced the A380. 

However, both the 747 and the A380 saw declining interest from airlines. 

Smaller aircraft saw bigger improvements in fuel efficiency and the distance they could travel. The latest version of the 747 can fly 30% farther than the first version. However, a new 737 can now fly 75% further than it originally could. 

The number of smaller planes which can make transatlantic crossings has grown considerably since the launch of the 747.

Four-engine aircraft like the 747 just can’t economically compete with the new two-engine aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. 

As a result of sagging demand, the Boeing corporation accounted in 2020 that they were going to end the construction of 747 aircraft. The current 747-8s that had been ordered would be completed, but they would be the last ones. All of the final 747s were for cargo use.

The final 747 is scheduled to be delivered in October 2022. 

Given how long 747s can remain in operation, it will probably be decades before the last 747 ceases operation. 

I’ll end with one of the most significant and tragic days in the history of the 747 and in all of aviation. 

On March 27, 1977, two 747’s collided on the runway in Tenerife, Spain, in the Canary Islands. KLM Flight 4805, with 248 occupants, was accelerating down the runway while PanAm flight 1736 was still on the runway with its 396 occupants.

The PanAm aircraft happened to be the Clipper Victor, the very first 747 to fly a commercial flight. 

There was a dense fog on the runway so the KLM pilot couldn’t see the other plane. Moreover, there was a miscommunication with the control tower, and the KLM pilot thought he had permission to take off. 

The colliding planes resulted in 583 deaths. It was, and still remains, the worst accident in aviation history.

The subsequent investigation found that the accident was due to pilot error, and it resulted in substantial reforms in how pilots and flight controllers communicate.

Nonetheless, the involvement of two 747s, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, resulted in what was perhaps the worst aircraft accident that could even be possible.

While the Boeing 747 has now been phased out, it had a run of over 50 years of being the most iconic commercial aircraft in the world. While we might not see many of its distinctive bubble tops at airports anymore, it still has a place in aviation history for introducing the world to wide-body aircraft and long-distance passenger aviation.