The 747: Celebrating 50 years

The 747: Celebrating 50 years

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The original jumbo jet, known as the “QE2 of the skies”, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Making long-haul travel an option for the general public for the first time, the Boeing 747 was launched in February 1969.

Manufactured by Boeing Commercial Airplanes, the Boeing 747 changed the future of air travel. It has been widely used by British Airways, Atlas Air, Korean Air and Lufthansa, with more than 1,500 models of the aircraft having been built and flown continually over the past half-century.

Boeing 747© Aldo Bidini



The idea for the 747 was born in the 1960s, when air travel for the masses was on the rise. The popularity of its predecessor, the Boeing 707, had revolutionised long-distance travel.

Juan Trippe, the president of Pan American World Airways (known as Pan Am) asked Boeing to build a passenger aircraft more than twice the 707’s size. He believed a larger aircraft could help alleviate the growing problems of airport congestion, caused by more passengers travelling on relatively small aircraft.

Boeing aircraft engineer Joe Sutter led the development of the new aircraft, which was assigned the model number 747. It featured a wide single-deck design, with the cockpit built on a shortened upper deck. This meant a freight-loading door could be built into the nose cone – a feature which created the 747’s distinctive “bulge”.

The Pratt and Whitney JT9D turbofan engine was developed for the 747, with the aim of providing double the power of early turbojets, while using one–third less fuel.



Gigantic in size, the 747 was constructed at the world’s largest building by volume – the 200 million cubic ft assembly plant in Everett, Washington.

The original 747’s fuselage was 225 feet long and the tail was the same height as a six-storey building. When pressurised, it carried a ton of air. Its total wing area was bigger than a basketball court, but its entire global navigation system was exceptionally light, weighing less than a modern laptop computer! The cargo hold was big enough to carry 3,400 pieces of baggage, yet it could be unloaded in just seven minutes.

Pilots were trained at Boeing training school to take the controls of the mighty 747. They learned how to taxi such a huge plane by using a mock-up called “Waddell’s Wagon”. It was named in honour of Boeing’s chief test pilot, Jack Waddell.

The mock-up of the 747’s flight deck was constructed on top of three-storey high stilts on a mobile truck. So that the truck could manoeuvre to simulate different heights and speeds, the pilot was in contact with the truck driver below by radio.


First flight

On 9th February 1969, the 747’s first test flight took place, and it was first put into service in 1970. America’s First Lady, Pat Nixon, launched Pan Am’s first 747 on 15th January 1970, at Washington Dulles International Airport, alongside Najeeb Halaby, chairman of Pan Am.

The aircraft was sprayed with red, white and blue water, instead of champagne. It officially entered service on 22nd January 1970, on Pan Am’s New York to London route.

The first planes cost $24 million each. Taking inflation into account, each plane would now cost $147.1 million. Today, the latest 747-8 passenger jet sells for $367.8 million, while the freight version costs $368.4 million.


Special memories

The aircraft has been called the most “impressive and inspirational work of industrial art” in commercial aviation history.

It has meant a lot to many passengers over the decades. The cabin is described as a place of “love, happiness and excitement”, because it is flown on leisure routes for newlyweds, families and friends who are about to start their vacation. Passengers who have flown in the legendary aircraft have described how they feel “blessed”.

The 300-tonne 747 is an iconic sight as it comes into land at airports across the world. It’s one aircraft that pilots dream about flying.


Future of the 747

The aircraft has been upgraded many times since its first flight in 1969. In 2018, Boeing received 18 new orders for the 747.

In 2017, the United States government asked Boeing to redesign two 747-8 aircraft for use as Air Force One – the US Air Force aircraft that carries the president. This should be ready for delivery by the end of 2024.

In general terms, as airlines strive to keep their planes fuel-efficient and modern, the lifespan of an aircraft is shorter than you would imagine.

A retired 747 aircraft usually end up in storage at one of many facilities around the world. The largest such facility is based at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon, Arizona.

The 747 received a boost in February, when Airbus announced it would end production of its A380. After 50 years, it became apparent Boeing’s 747 programme was going to outlive the much younger A380.

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