It was the first and, at the time, the largest. It coined terms such as “widebody,” “twin aisle,” “upper deck,” “high bypass ratio turbofan,” and “jumbo jet.” If the world’s least air-minded person did not know a single aircraft designation, he seemed to know this one: Boeing 747. It ushered in an era and redefined capacity and comfort and distance and dimension. But its longevity was never supposed to be.
A 1962 US Air Force requirement for a Cargo Experimental High Lift System, or CX-HLS, logistic transport able to carry up to 750 troops became the competitive catalyst to proposals submitted by Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed to fill the need. Although the latter won, design research provided the technological foundation for a much larger commercial version that accommodated two to three times the number of passengers as the first-generation narrow bodies, such as the 707 and the DC-8. But it was still only viewed as a stopgap measure between them and Boeing’s own 2707 supersonic transport.
Indeed, Boeing engineers assigned to the lowly subsonic 747 project were looked down upon. Little did they know at the time that it would change the world and the supersonic transport, unable to surmount performance obstacles and subjected to continual cost overruns, would be cancelled.
Key to its design was the new breed of engine–the high bypass ratio turbofan. Its front fan generated thrust that bypassed the core, or hot section, dramatically increasing its capability and lowering fuel consumption and noise, facilitating equally dramatic increases in passengers.
Pylon-mounted to a 37.5-degree-swept, 195.8-foot-spanned wing, they enabled Boeing to create a wide, circular-section fuselage that could accommodate up to ten abreast coach-class seats with two aisles. A “human-centered” design process identified the features that passengers most sought, such as width, spaciousness, height, and window or aisle seat types. Six of the ten were located at or on them.
“Architectural reveals”—that is, lighted, molded panels in which the windows were set—gave the illusion that the pulldown shade panes were larger than those installed on the 707, and the virtually flat sidewalls, along with the equally flat ceiling, eliminated the internal tubular effect of the previous narrow bodies. Galleys and lavatories were positioned throughout. Some carriers initially featured piano lounges. And capacity eclipsed 500. But a circular staircase led to the 747’s signature upper deck, a refuge for premium class passengers that became secondary to its original purpose.
Because the airplane was only seen as filling a void between the 707 and the 2707 SST, its cockpit was placed above so that it could be easily converted to a cargo aircraft, leaving its main deck unobstructed for freight.
The first 747-100, powered by Pratt and Whitney JT9D-1 engines, took to the sky in prototype form on February 9, 1969 at a 718,000-pound gross weight and was FAA type-certified on the last day of that year. Pan Am, launch customer, inaugurated it into service during the wee hours of January 22, 1970, when aircraft N736PA, “Clipper Victory,” carried 336 passengers between New York-JFK and London. The 747-100 was succeeded by the 747-200B. Optionally available with Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, and Rolls Royce engines, it introduced structural strengthening, higher gross weights, and increased range.
The shorted 747SP—for “special performance”—was Boeing’s response to the smaller-capacity, intercontinental McDonnell-Douglas DC-10-30 and Lockheed L-1011-500 tri-jets. Pan Am once again became the launch customer of it and was able to serve Tokyo nonstop with it.
The 747-300 was the last of the first-generation passenger versions. A 28.4-foot extended upper deck, now accessed by a straight stairway, increased its capacity to a staggering 600. Eighty-three were produced before the torch was passed to the 747-400.
Several factors became the catalyst to it. Sales, first and foremost, had been declining. The monthly production rate of seven 747 airframes in 1979 had been reduced to a trickle of only one. Without revitalization, the program was likely to be terminated.
Currency and advancement, secondly, had not been maintained, a strategy that had kept the 727 and 737 programs alive with advanced versions, and the latter, particularly, had spawned the Next Generation 737-300, -400, and -500 series.
Thirdly, competition, although not always on an even-keel basis, had begun to appear with step-change technology, as occurred with the DC-10-30 and -40, whose succeeding MD-11 introduced quieter, more fuel-efficient engines and two-person digital cockpits. Airbus itself was about to unveil its own twin- and quad-engine A330 and A340 designs. The 747 appeared particularly outdated with its three-man, analogue cockpit, especially when measured against Boeing’s own new-technology narrow and widebody 757 and 767 offerings.
Finally, growth had shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with unprecedented numbers of passengers and amounts of cargo being transported to China, Japan, and Korea.
Although it retained the overall length of all previous standard versions and incorporated the 747-300’s stretched upper deck, the succeeding 747-400 featured a new wing with a six-foot span increase and winglets, which harnessed the vortex and decreased drag. New quieter, lower fuel-burn engines from all three manufacturers powered it. Internally, technological development took center stage. The cockpit was reduced from the previous three- to a current two-person one, and most of the analogue instruments had been replaced by six eight-by-eight-inch CRT displays. An extensive data base, subdivided into performance and navigation categories, replaced the earlier printed manuals.
The redesigned interior, which introduced an advanced, widebody look, incorporated recontoured ceilings and sidewalls; concealed lighting; larger overhead and side storage compartments; modular galleys and vacuum-flushable lavatories; five main deck air conditioning zones with higher ventilation; and a digital inflight entertainment system with seat-back screens. Its maximum exit-limited capacity was 624.
The 747-400, the highest-selling of all variants, was type-certified on January 9, 1989 and entered service with Northwest Airlines the following month.
Most of the 747 versions were offered in mixed, passenger and cargo, and pure-freighter configurations. Two VC-25As, operated by the 89th Military Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, served as presidential transports known as “Air Force One.”
The definitive, final-generation model was the 747-8, built as both a passenger and cargo type. Powered by GEnx-2B turbofans, it introduced the first fuselage stretch and the second upper deck one; an extended wingspan with fully integrated raked wingtips; a state-of-the-art cockpit; a sculpted passenger cabin with LED lightning, large, overhead storage compartments, a new inflight entertainment system, and a redesigned entryway staircase. It accommodated 50 additional passengers and had an 8,000-nautical-mile range. Lufthansa was its launch customer.
Despite its ultimate advancement, engines of increased capacity and reliability enabled widebody twinjets to offer, if not exceed, its capacity and range at far lower operating costs, resulting in only a handful of orders for the type.
When the 1,574th and last 747, a 747-8 with construction number 67150, was rolled out in Everett, Washington, on December 6, 2022, intended for operation by Atlas Air as aircraft N863GT, it marked the end of the 747’s more than half-century of production. But it was only an end to the beginning of the widebody era that led to Boeing’s own 767, 777, and 787; the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 and MD-11, and the Airbus A300, A310, A330, A340, A350, and A380.
It was the first and it was the future. Often called the “Queen of the skies,” it eclipsed range, capacity, comfort, and power concepts, ushering in a new era. Offering travel to the masses, it connected them, along with freight and mail, to virtually any two points on the globe and demonstrated how capacity equaled profit.
“Illustrating the consistent momentum which characterizes the American air transport scene, the giant Boeing airliner, regarding its development stage by hardened airline executives with awe and apprehension, thus quickly established itself as a familiar visitor to the nation’s leading airports, as a distinguished flagship of domestic airline industry,” according to R. E. G. Davies in Airlines of the United States since 1914. (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998, p. 524).
Above all, the Boeing 747, having been operated by more than 100 customers and having logged over 118 million flight hours, demonstrated profitability potential by means of the optimum airframe and powerplant synergy. It did not follow a trend to fill a market. It created one.