Farewell To The Boeing 747, The Plane That Connected The World Retires

The “Queen of the Skies” has officially been retired by all U.S. airlines. On January 3rd, Delta Airlines 9771 left Hartsfield – Jackson airport in Atlanta bound for Marana, Arizona to go to its final resting place; an airplane graveyard where hundreds of dead jets sit and are “killed” by the weather and used for parts.

This occasion marks the first time in almost 50 years that an American airline will not have a 747 in its fleet. The world’s first double-decker plane has wowed travelers across the globe since it’s conception in 1965. Many people were skeptical that the 747 could even fly, but Boeing proved to the world that the first jumbo jet was capable of many things.

By the time you finish reading this sentence, a Boeing jetliner will take off or land somewhere in the world. – Bret Easton Ellis

The Birth Of A Jumbo Jet

Image source: Wikipedia

The 747 began its life as a concept brought to Boeing by the CEO of Pan Am airlines, Juan Trippe, during a fishing trip. Trippe asked Boeing to build a plane that could transport a large number of people at once, and that could fly across the globe with very limited stops for fuel.

At the time, there was a push for supersonic jets, so Boeing put their main effort into designing a supersonic jet while allowing a small group to work on the design of a new jet for Pan Am (the supersonic project would eventually be scrapped). Designers set about to create a concept of a massive plane but were not entirely sure how to design it. At the time there was no such thing as a double-decker plane so they originally thought about making a plane wider instead of taller.

The idea came up of using the 747 as not only a passenger jet but cargo as well and the best design for cargo would be a taller plane to accommodate more. The 747 fuselage was born by designers who essentially drew 2 737 fuselages end to end, with another 737 fuselage on top. The design allowed room for passengers and the bottom level, with a bar and lounge area on the top level. On cargo planes, the nose would open up and cargo could be loaded on the top level as well as the bottom level.

Boeing took the design to Pan Am to show Trippe, and the other decision-makers, the design of the new plane (now officially dubbed the 747). Pan Am ordered 25 of the jets and Boeing had to begin the production of the craft. Pan Am gave Boeing a $525 million dollar contract for the planes, and Boeing set upon building the behemoth 747.

The 747 Build

When Boeing received the contract for the 747 they had no place to actually build the plane. The size of the 747 was too big to fit in their factory, so Boeing built a factory in Everett, Washington called the Boeing Everett Factory. To this day this is the largest building in the world, and because of the size, it actually has its own weather system.

As Boeing was in the process of building the 747 they were also conducting multiple tests to ensure that the plane was functional and safe. They ran simulations for passenger evacuations, noise, wind vortexes, and just about everything else they could.

Finally, in 1968, the first 747 rolled out of the factory floor for the world to see. There was a big press event and Pan Am was extremely impressed with the plane. There was only one hitch; the engines were fake. Boeing went through Pratt & Whitney for the jumbo jet’s engines, and there were quite a few hang-ups with the engines. Suffice it to say it took a while to create an engine that could safely carry hundreds of people across the ocean.

The 747 had her first flight on February 2, 1969, and she performed beautifully. There were some wing issues and engine issues Boeing had to sort out, but otherwise, the world was impressed. In 1970 Pan Am received their first 747 and the rest was smooth sailing.

The plane was so massive, and quite respectable, that it was nicknamed the “Queen of the Skies”, and to many she still is. In 2007 the 747 was demoted to the second largest plane when the monster Airbus A380 was introduced to the world. The A380 is the first true double-decker plane since its top story covers the entire length of the plane, instead of just the top half. The A380 had a pretty massive hand in retiring the 747, but we will get to that shortly.

Specs On The 747

Here are some pretty interesting specifications on the Boeing 747:

  • Can carry up to 770 passengers
  • Has a wingspan of about 200 feet
  • Its tail height is 65 feet
  • Its length is 184 feet
  • Cargo planes can carry up to 154 tons
  • The max takeoff weight is almost 910,000 pounds
  • The range the craft can fly is 7,750 miles
  • So far 1,540 units have been built

To this day, this is still an incredibly impressive plane. She ruled the sky for over 40 years and is actually used as Air Force One (which is a feat in itself).

Why The 747 Was (And Is) So Revolutionary

Image source: Pixabay

For its time, the 747 was revolutionary. Even now (to a degree) the 747 is still making waves. Here are a few ways that the 747 was a game changer (and helped shape the planes of today).

The 747 Size

The 747 is one bigass plane. When this baby was being designed the size was overwhelming to the designers and even to the company itself. So many people didn’t think the plane could even fly because it was so massive and heavy but fly she did.

The 747 made air travel to different countries extremely convenient. An airline could fit about 700 people into a single plane and fly them anywhere in the world. That opened up the possibility of world travel to considerably more people because it was cheaper to fly now. By having so many people on a plane they could be more efficient with fuel costs and ticket prices. The 747 quite literally paid for themselves since airlines could get more money from them.

Ultimately, however, the size of the 747 was also what caused its retirement. For 50 years the 747 has had no rival, until the Airbus A380. Airbus’ goal was to build a plane that was bigger and more fuel efficient than the 747. And they succeeded. The A380 can carry up to 868 people and is considerably cheaper to operate than the 747, which immediately drew major airlines to it. While the A380 is incredibly revolutionary on its own for its size and design, it is even losing the glory it once had.

Space Freighter

Image source: Edwards AFB

The 747 is one of the best cargo planes out there. It can haul just about anything and is used by most commercial shipping companies. Why? It can hold a lot of cargo, and it can easily haul heavy cargo. Like really heavy cargo. Heavy, as in a space shuttle.

Meet the NASA Armstrong, a shuttle carrying 747 that is used to haul space shuttles, orbiters, and parts for shuttles to wherever they needed them. The Armstrong was a modified commercial jet NASA got from American Airlines in the mid-1970s and modified it to be able to haul space stuff on the roof of the plane. In a way, the Armstrong was kind of like the station wagon of the 747s.

It Was America’s Plane

Back in 1970 the Boeing 747 was a feat of American ingenuity. It was the largest plane ever built in the world, and it was created by Americans. While the rest of the world was looking into supersonic travel (that produced the infamous Concorde), a small group at Boeing were looking at the biggest passenger plane the world had seen. And for 50 years it was Boeing who held that world title.

It was such a big deal that the 747 was chosen to be the plane that carries our President to wherever they need to go in the 1980’s. Whether it’s at home or abroad, the 747 dutifully goes wherever the country needs it to go. On 9/11 it carried President Bush back to Washington DC to address the nation about the resilience and strength that Americans have. In 1987 Air Force One shuttled President Reagan to Berlin so Reagan could address the Berlin Wall. Air Force One took President Carter around the world to help with his many humanitarian trips.

Farewell To The 747

While all the American airlines have officially retired the 747, you can still catch a ride on one in Europe since it is still widely used there. For half a century the 747 has truly been the Queen of the Skies flying millions of passengers all across the world.

Now, these massive jumbo jets are starting to fall in sales because of the cost of operation. More fuel efficient planes like the 777 are becoming the best choice for flight. They can hold quite a few people and are considerably cheaper to operate. The A380 is an incredible plane and is cheaper to operate than the 747, but it consumes fuel at a massive rate which adds to the cost of the aircraft.
Ultimately it will be interesting to see how the airplane market goes and whether or not the revolution of the jumbo jet will come to an end after an almost 50-year reign.

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7 Comments

  • It’s a nice article and a fitting tribute to the 747, but there are some flaws in it as well. First off, the president of Pan Am at the time of the 747 order was Juan Trippe, not Joe. Secondly, the stats on the A380 are a bit exaggerated. Its seating capacity is, at best, in the mid-800s, and not 1,000. In a stadium, being off by 150 seats is no big deal, on an airplane, 150 seats is somewhat significant. Thirdly, I do not know of any American carriers that have placed orders for an A380 to date. To claim that the demise of the 747 was brought about by the birth of the A380 is a gross over-estimation of thr Airbus’ success. To my knowledge, there are few outstanding orders of A380s and no new ones to date. Overall, a bit of a disappointing article for a science website.

  • The NYTimes reported this morning (16 Jan 2018) that Airbus my well discontinue the A380 program for lack of customers and changes in travel patterns and airline marketing.

  • “The A380 can carry almost 1,000 people and is considerably cheaper to operate than the 747, which immediately drew major airlines to it. Because airlines were able to fly more people and didn’t have to spend nearly as much money as they did on the 747, they stopped ordering and flying the Queen of the Skies. While it is sad to some, others see this as an opportunity for Boeing to make a bigger and better plane than Airbus. Will it happen? Not sure, but it will be very interesting to see.”

    Wut? In theory an A380 can hold 868 people (well shy of 1000) but the practical number is somewhere just north of 500. Saying the downfall of the 747 is the result of the A380 is very much incorrect. The A380 is struggling to find a market and may go down as one of the biggest commercial aviation failures of recent history. Changing market forces have much MUCH more to do with the 747 riding off into the sunset. The market for fuel hungry four engine jumbo jets just is not there any longer.

    • Thanks for all the great comments/corrections. We’ve gone into the article and made a few changes, thanks again!

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