The Boeing 747, lovingly called the Jumbo Jet has turned 50! Its hard to imagine that this massive aircraft – once the workhorse of most major airlines globally has been around for half a century! It has been one of the most iconic – if not THE most iconic aircraft of all time.
The Boeing 747 first rolled out of the Boeing factory at Everett, Washington (purpose-built to manufacture the Boeing 747) on September 30th, 1968. Even as it stood there outside the factory, many had doubts that it could actually fly. They had never seen an aircraft this massive! How could it even get off the ground let alone fly, people wondered! But fly it did, and on it flew millions of wonderstruck passengers over the next five decades.
Building the Boeing 747 itself was a challenge. Such a massive aircraft had never been built before. It would be roughly twice the size of the then Boeing bestseller – the 707. Joe Sutter – known as the father of the 747 and his team spent countless hours conceptualising, designing and building the Jumbo jet (as it would be called later), and all of this before computer aided design tools became available. The Boeing 747 had a distinctive hump, housing the cockpit and an upper deck passenger cabin that gave it a distinctive look that we all have come to adore.
Pan Am was the launch customer of the Boeing 747, ordering 25 of these giant aircraft in 1966. It took roughly over two years for Boeing to undertake one of the most complex engineering projects – both in size and sophistication. The Boeing 747 was designed to carry larger number of passengers over greater distances than those possible with previous airliners. Additionally, it was also designed to carry a large amount of cargo with loading of oversized cargo possible through a swivelling nose cargo door. Such a large aircraft also required tremendous amount of power, which was made possible with the development of high bypass turbofan engines. The Pratt & Whitney JT9D was chosen to power the Boeing 747. Four of these engines, each producing between 43,500–51,600 lbf thrust would power the Jumbo jet, allowing it to carry between 350-400 passengers over its maximum range of 4620 nm. By the time it was rolled out of the factory, 26 airlines had ordered the Boeing 747 and their logos were pasted on the fuselage of the first prototype.
The Boeing 747 first flew on February 9th, 1969 with test pilots Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle, along with flight engineer Jess Wallick. The first flight went smoothly, and the aircraft soon entered into service on January 22nd, 1970 when Pan Am operated the first ever Boeing 747 commercial flight – from New York to London. Since then there’s been no looking back as the Boeing 747 quickly became the long haul workhorse of major airlines from around the world, carrying more passengers and cargo over longer distances than ever before.
One of the Boeing 747’s unique and most loved characteristic was its trademark hump. The front of the hump housed the flight deck providing the pilots with a panoramic view of the tarmac as they manoeuvred the aircraft through increasingly crowded airports. The hump also housed lounges or social areas on early build 747s that gave way to premium passenger cabins in the later variants. The upper deck on a 747 was THE place to be – exclusive to only a select few!
As of today – 50 years later more than 1500 Jumbo jets have been built spanning multiple variants – passenger, cargo and even mixed (called Combi) The aircraft has made long haul international travel accessible to more and more people, and has opened up routes that were previously thought impossible.
Rapid advancements in engine and airframe technology has made the production of large airliners powered by twin engines possible today. These twin engined wide-body airliners are capable of carrying almost the same number of passengers as early 747s, over longer distances. Shrinking profits caused by high oil prices and rapidly dropping airfares have led airlines to ditch four-engined very large aircraft (VLA) like the Boeing 747 in favour of large twin-engined jets like the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330. The two engines mean that they burn less fuel than the quad-engined 747s and are therefore cheaper to operate and maintain. Apart from the Airbus A380 (which could only manage limited sales) there has not been any new large four-engined aircraft developed. All new long haul wide-body aircraft developed will be powered by twin engines.
The large twin-engined aircraft although quieter, more efficient and capable of flying longer distances do not quite have the grace and character of the Jumbo. The distinctive nose and hump, high-mounted flight deck and four engines that produce some of the sweetest music on the tarmac provide instant recognition for any aviation enthusiast.
Despite the preference for newer, more efficient aircraft, the Boeing 747 lives on – finding its place (though in decreasing numbers) in the long haul fleet of airlines around the world. The Jumbo still rules in the cargo world however, ferrying thousands of tons of cargo across the world every single day. The nose cargo door allows unparalleled flexibility for loading oversized cargo inside its cavernous interiors.
The next few years will see more and more airlines around the world retire the Boeing 747s from their fleet, as newer aircraft get inducted. However, the Jumbo will soldier on – in one form or another for at least a decade and a half, allowing the current generation of aviation enthusiasts a chance to marvel at this amazing feat of engineering.