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Muhammed Yılmaz

Boeing 747 Legend Ends!

Issue 15 - 2023
Boeing 747 Legend Ends!

The final 747 off the production line was delivered to Atlas Air by the U.S. manufacturer Boeing. The great story of the Queen of the Skies, which began in 1967, has come to an end. The Boeing 747 has flown more than 23 million flights, totaling more than 118 million hours in the air, transporting 7.5 billion passengers since its first delivery in January 1970.

Since its maiden flight in 1969, the massive but elegant-looking Boeing 747 has performed a wide variety of services, including a commercial passenger airliner with a capacity of nearly 500 seats, a cargo plane that transports tons of weight, a transporter for NASA's space shuttle, the world's largest fire-fighting aircraft, and Air Force One for U.S. presidents.

The 747-8, the newest variant of Boeing's Jumbo jet, is the longest commercial airliner in operation with a fuselage length of 76.2 meters. At cruising speed, a 747-8 can travel three football fields per second. The cargo version of the 747-8 can carry 10,699 solid-gold bars or about 19 million ping-pong balls, meaning 133.1 tons of cargo.

By connecting international cities that previously had no non-stop flights between them, the 747 helped democratize passenger flights and revolutionized the concept of travel. Airlines may not want the four-engine aircraft today, but the 747's remarkable legacy and huge contribution to the growth of industry cannot be overlooked.

How did the Boeing 747 idea come about?

Boeing's idea to build a giant passenger aircraft originated in 1965, when it lost the race to build a huge military transport plane for the U.S. Air Force to Lockheed Martin's C5A Galaxy. Under pressure from Pan Am, which required larger planes for overseas routes, Boeing decided to build a massive airplane that transported people instead of soldiers and equipment. Action was taken for a civilian aircraft powered by high-bypass turbofan engines, which consumed less fuel by passing air around the engine core, enabling a farther flight range. Design work began and in 1966, with Pan Am placing a firm order for 25 747s, the 747 officially came about.

For Boeing, creating the 747 was a challenging task. A supersonic aircraft dubbed the 2707 was being designed at the time to compete with Concorde. It was risky enough to consider creating a completely new aircraft. But designing two at once sounded great. One would be the biggest, one the fastest. However, there was also the risk that if things didn’t work out, the company might not survive.

Joe Sutter, Father of the 747

The Jumbo Jet 747 was designed by a team led by Joe Sutter, a legendary engineer who had worked on Boeing's previous commercial aircraft. Known as the “father of the 747,” Sutter worked on numerous aspects of the aircraft, including finding an appropriate engine for it that wasn’t available at the time and reducing its weight.

There was another crucial obstacle before they could start building the 747: Boeing didn't have a factory large enough to do the job. In 1966, construction work for what is now the Everett plant started. Time was so short that the company was able to complete building the plant head-to-head with the creation of the first mockup of the airplane. It took more than 50,000 Boeing employees in less than 16 months to build the first 747.

On September 30, 1968, after only 29 months of development and production, the first 747 rolled out of the factory. The Boeing 747 was the first wide-body civil aircraft to be mass-produced. With a seating capacity of 524, the semi-double-deck four-engine aircraft was twice the size of the Boeing 707, which was widely used by many airlines at the time.

The fuselage was 68.5 meters long and the tail was as high as a six-story building. A second deck was incorporated into the design, extending from the cockpit to the first third of the fuselage, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring nickname, the Whale.

Some airlines converted the second deck of the aircraft into a first-class cocktail lounge, while the lower deck sometimes featured lounges or even a piano bar. A 747 built for Singapore Airlines in 1976 and later decommissioned was converted into a 33-room hotel near Stockholm Airport.

The 747, as a first for airlines to figure out what to do with such a large plane and how to fill it, set a new standard in aviation and mobility. Paving the way for mass air travel, the 747 contributed to lower prices. The deregulation of aviation in the late 1970s also contributed to this process.

Boeing 747's First Flight

The first 747 flight took place on February 9, 1969, with test pilots Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle sitting in the cockpit. A new era in aviation started with the first flight of 747 that day. Today, the first 747 produced welcomes visitors at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

On January 22, 1970, Pan Am conducted the first flight of the 747, carrying passengers from New York to London with paid tickets. But this first flight was extremely exciting.

352 passengers and 20 crew members had to wait aboard for two hours at New York John F. Kennedy Airport for takeoff since Captain Pilot Robert Weeks realized that there was a problem in engine number 4 and decided to return to the parking position. After spending two hours, the passengers were taken to dinner at the terminal. Pan Am employees were working to fix the problem on board.

The happiest of those about this malfunction was a group of protestors who showed up at the airport claiming that the 747 would cause noise and environmental pollution. "We told you not to fly," the activists protested the passengers. After the problem was fixed, 20 of the passengers refused to board the plane. The 747 named Young America took off for London.

The first 747 entered service on Pan Am's New York-London route in 1970, but the timing was terrible. Shortly before the oil crisis in 1973, the 747 debuted during a recession that saw Boeing's headcount drop from 100,800 employees in 1967 to 38,690 in April 1971. When the 747-400, an updated variant of the 747, arrived in the late 1980s, the timing was much better, coinciding with the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s.

The last passenger version of the Boeing 747 was delivered in 2015. However, a number of airlines, such as the German national airline Lufthansa, Korean Air, and Air China, will continue to fly the 747 in various parts of the world.

Why Did the 747 Lose its Market Share?

Over the last 15 years, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more profitable and fuel-efficient wide-body airplanes with just two engines, replacing the four-engine 747's. The 747, one of the most iconic models in aviation history, has gradually lost market share as demand for a new generation of twin-engine airplanes that are more economical and more efficient than it.

A total of 1,574 747s rolled out from Boeing's production line. Updated versions of the queen of the skies were launched, including the 747-400 in 1988 and the 747-8 in 2005. 

When the pandemic hit in the beginning of 2020, Boeing declared that it had made the difficult decision to stop production of 747 aircraft by 2022. Numerous carriers with Boeing 747s in their fleet also announced their decision to retire and remove these aircraft from their fleet during the pandemic for financial reasons.

Airlines to Maintain Carrying Passengers with 747s:

The Boeing 747 will no longer be produced, but the jumbo jet will continue to fly. The jumbo jet is more likely to be available, particularly on routes to the Asia-Pacific region.

Germany's national airline Lufthansa, the largest operator of the Boeing 747 in passenger configuration, continues to use 747s on numerous Far East routes such as Singapore, Tokyo-Haneda, Shanghai, and Washington.

South Korea's national airline Korean Air continues to operate flights from Seoul to Honululu, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Tokyo with Boeing 747-8. Another Korean airline, Asiana Airlines, uses Boeing 747-400 in its fleet for flights between Seoul and Changchun. The airline also offers eight premium business class seats on this aircraft.

Iran's Mahan Air also operates Boeing 747-400s from Tehran to Istanbul and Moscow. It's anticipated that Boeing 747s will operate for at least a few more years as passenger aircraft. Airlines such as Atlas Air, UPS, and Cathay Pacific Cargo also have a large number of Boeing 747cargo versions in their fleets.

Boeing 747 Accident History and Statistics

Of the Boeing 747 aircraft produced to date, 64 have suffered irreparable damage and hull loss during their service life. 52 of these aircraft became unusable in various accidents. A total of 3746 people died in 52 fatal accidents involving 747s. 747 aircraft saw 32 hijacking attempts.

The 747's most dramatic accident occurred on March 27, 1977, at Tenerife Airport. Two 747s belonging to Pan Am and KLM collided on the runway, resulting in the deadliest disaster of all time.  583 people lost their lives.

The most recent 747 accident occurred on January 16, 2017. A 747, operated by ACT Airlines carrying freight for Turkish Cargo, ploughed through village near Bishkek, killing 37 people, mostly the residents of the village and four crew members.

The 747 was again the actor in Pan Am Flight 103, also called the Lockerbie bombing. On Wednesday, December 21, 1988, a Boeing 747 flying from London's Heathrow Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport was destroyed by a bomb near the Scottish town of Lockerbie. All 258 people on board and 17 people living in the town, including 275 people, lost their lives and Libya was held responsible for the incident.

A quick review of other 747 accidents with the highest number of fatalities reveals that on August 12, 1985, a 747 of Japan Airlines crashed into a mountain during a Tokyo-Osaka flight, killing 520 people. On June 23, 1985, 329 people lost their lives in Air India's crash near Ireland, and Saudi Arabian Airlines' crash in India on November 12, 1996, killing 312 people.

According to aviation safety data, the survival rate of all fatal accidents involving 747s was 23.9%.

747s also preferred by Heads of State

747s have been employed all over the world for a variety of interesting purposes, such as transporting the space shuttle, launching rockets, putting out fires, and operating as flying casinos.

The 747 is also a popular choice for wealthy world leaders. The Saudi royal family owns four 747s, the Qatari government three, the Sultan of Oman two, and the U.S. Air Force six. Two of these are used as the U.S. presidential aircraft. The Turkish presidential fleet also includes a jumbo jet reportedly given as a present by the Emir of Qatar in recent years.

Special Flight for the Final 747

Taking delivery of the final 747, Atlas Air operated a special “747” flight from Seattle to Cincinnati. This 6,500 km flight normally took under four hours. However, the pilots of this special flight immortalized the departure of the 747 from Seattle with an alternative flight route over the state of Washington.

The 747-8, belonging to Atlas Air, traced the shape of a crown and the “747” in the sky. The flight therefore took about 6 hours and 20 minutes. The pilots spent about two and a half hours for the “747” route along with the crown.

The Boeing 747 will never be built again, but the queen of the skies has left behind a legacy that spans more than 50 years. The 747 was a revolutionary change in air travel, not just a comfortable aircraft. Its ability to carry hundreds of people made air travel cheaper and mass travel possible, and its cargo version ushered in a new era for fast air freight.

We all owe the 747 a debt of gratitude for all it has contributed to the aviation industry. There might not be much time left if you haven't taken a 747 flight. Then, hurry up! 

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