It was designed for the US military. In the 1960s, the United States Air Force invited bids for a larger-than-large plane for mass cargo and troop transport. Boeing lost out to fellow American plane-makers Lockheed Martin’s C-5 Galaxy.
But what the company did with its rejected design would literally change the world.
The Boeing 747 wasn’t just bigger than every other commercial airline of its time, it was at least double the size of every other plane in the skies. This was evidenced by the fact that it had two aisles. It was so big, it had space to spare. Some of that space became overhead storage bins, a concept introduced by this model (until the 747, planes, like trains, only had hat racks). Some of the added space became a stairway that led up — in a new level of luxury — to an upper-deck first class, situated in the model’s trademark hump.
“The first-class was like being in a seven-star hotel,” says Suneeta Sodhi Kanga, a flight attendant on Air India’s 747-200 and 747-400 models from 1988 to 1996. The crockery was Royal Doulton, the napkins were made with damask silk. “There was champagne, caviar and cakes, a full tablecloth spread, and meals served in courses.” Early Air India advertisements referred to these flights as “Your Palace In The Sky”.
“Even if you flew economy, it was a good deal,” Kanga adds. “There was so much space to socialise that people would stand around and chat. Of course, back then you could also smoke.”
The planes were so large that in order to assemble its first 747, Boeing first had to erect what remains the largest building by volume ever constructed — big enough to hold 75 football fields or all of Disneyland.
“Even when you understand the science behind flight, there’s nothing like seeing a 747 take flight to remind you that there’s also magic here,” said actor John Travolta, also a 747 pilot, speaking via video link as the last jumbo jet from this line left Boeing’s plant on January 31.
The 747 was highly successful, with 1,574 planes sold over 54 years (since 1969), but the company has now ceased production of it. Demand began dipping in 1991. Most of the 385 craft from this line that remain in service are cargo carriers.
Aviation analytics group Cirium estimates that there will be close to 100 still in service in 2040. But the last passenger 747 was delivered to Korean Air in 2017. In 2020, Qantas and Virgin flew their last passenger flights using the plane, and British Airways announced it would be phasing the model out four years earlier than expected.
In April 2022, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) deregistered Air India’s last four Boeing 747s; they had been inoperational since February 2020. “Planes as old as these… consume a huge amount of fuel and require extensive maintenance, “ DGCA said in a statement.
As the 747 is phased out, with it go, for better and worse, the last vestiges of a bygone world. The men and women in hats, scarves and cigarette holders; the celebration of the mile-high club; the majority-male fliers and majority-female crew.
Vintage newspaper and magazine advertisements for the Queen of the Skies indicate how differently the privilege of flying was viewed. One ad, an Air India one from 1971, says: “Next time you fly 747 to New York, be unfaithful”. Which grabbed eyeballs with its nod to the mile-high club but, given that it appeared in the British weekly The Spectator, was only overtly meant to urge the English to pick Air India over their national airline. “As you’ve come out of the way, we’ll come out of ours. We’ll try to turn that little flirtation into a big affair,” the ad goes on to say.
Vishal Jolapara, a pilot, aviation photographer and manager of marketing and corporate communications for the Indian commuter airline Star Air, remembers how exciting it was just to see one of these behemoths on the tarmac. “A generation grew up in awe of the hump shape, the crescendo during takeoff, and the unique window view of two engines on each wing instead of one.”
The boom in air travel that the 747 helped facilitate — not least of all by enabling the first non-stop flights between cities as far apart as London and Sydney (Qantas; 1989) — would become part of the reason for its own demise.
Since its debut with Pan Am, the 747 has flown higher and further than its contemporaries, says aviation historian Anuradha Reddy. “Its powerful jet engines let it climb above bad weather instead of having to fly around it. This means flights to far-flung places took a lot less time, and travellers could globetrot more easily than before.”
By the time Boeing’s European rival, Airbus, launched a bigger craft, the A380, in 2007, flight paths were rapidly changing. The new plane could seat hundreds more passengers than the 747, and accommodate far more fuel. But production peaked about seven years after its launch, in 2012-14, and the last A380 was delivered in December 2021.
The age of the jumbo jet was over. As the map of destinations expanded, there was less and less need for giants in the sky.
Long-range, twin-engine planes such as the Boeing 777 (launched in 1995) and 787 Dreamliner (launched in 2011) had powerful and fuel-efficient engines that offered similar passenger capacities and ranges at lower operating costs.
The 747 fought back. Engines were improved in a bid to increase fuel efficiency. As first-class travel dwindled and the priorities of fliers shifted from adventure and luxury to convenience and low cost, the upper deck was stretched to include more seats.
“The 747’s saving grace is that it can be converted into a freighter. But even so, modern airlines need to take into account rising fuel costs, a market that demands greater efficiency, and an industry that has to become carbon-conscious,” Reddy says.
In the fight to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial aviation — or at least be seen to — smaller, newer models are the fittest to survive. In January 2023, Emirates said it successfully flew a Boeing 777 powered by sustainable aviation fuel. Newer aircraft such as the Boeing 787-9 (launched in 2010) and Airbus A320neo (launched in 2014) are said to emit 30% to 50% less CO2 than legacy aircraft (models from previous decades that are no longer in production).
The 747 is a gas-guzzling anachronism in comparison. “But it was a beautiful machine,” says Gautam Mehta, a flight instructor and former pilot. “I’ve flown several versions of that plane, and it was a humbling experience every time.” It was so majestic that prime ministers and Presidents around the world always chose it, he adds. (Air Force One is still a custom-built 747).
“One couldn’t tell one was flying such a large plane, from inside.” But when you climbed down and stood below it, Mehta says, it was with a sense of awe that you looked up at the machine you’d been in.
Boeing fact sheet: The 747 flight path
*The world’s first twin-aisle airplane, the Boeing 747, rolled out of its custom-built assembly plant in Everett, Washington, in 1968.
* It was twice the size of the 707, the standard commercial airliner at the time. The expansive space, particularly in the hump and the nose, allowed airlines to offer onboard luxuries such as bars, lounges and restaurants; as well as carry-on luggage.
* The story of how a plane designed for the US military became a best-selling civilian airliner is now urban legend. In 1965, the story goes, two of the most powerful men in aviation at the time, Boeing president William Allen and Pan American Airlines founder Juan Trippe agreed, with a handshake, to give the project a go. “If you build it, I’ll buy it,” Trippe reportedly said. Allen replied: “I’ll build it if you buy it.” Chief engineer Joe Sutter led a team of 4,500 to bring the revised design to life, and Pan Am was the first customer.
* Variants of the 747 continued to be manufactured for 55 years. In all, a total of 1,574 airplanes were sold. Customers have ranged from airlines around the world to the office of the President of the United States (Air Force One is still a custom-built 747) and NASA. The US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration has used two extensively modified Boeing 747s to transport Space Shuttle orbiters.
* In the fight to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial aviation — or at least be seen to — smaller, newer models are the fittest to survive. Newer aircraft such as the Boeing 787-9 (launched in 2010) and Airbus A320neo (launched in 2014) are said to emit 30% to 50% less CO2 than legacy aircraft (models from previous decades that are no longer in production). In January 2023, Emirates said it successfully flew a Boeing 777 powered by sustainable aviation fuel.
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