Boeing 747 - The Queen of the Skies


The Boeing 747 is arguably one of the most iconic and most recognized aircraft in all of aviation, notably dubbed the Queen of the Skies.   Its distinctive "hump" upper deck along the forward part of the aircraft's fuselage has made it one of the most recognizable aircraft and it was the first wide-body airliner produced.

The idea of the 747 was born out of two different proposals; one from the United States Air Force and one from Pan American's Juan Trippe.  The Air Force was looking for a new, large transport aircraft to replace their giant turboprop C-133 Cargomaster fleet, which was rapidly aging and becoming overstressed.  Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed all competed for the contract, which was ultimately given to Lockheed, and became the C-5 Galaxy.

At the same time, commercial air travel had been growing exponentially during the 1960s due to the arrival of aircraft like Boeing's 707 and 727 and Douglas' DC-8 and DC-9 jet airliners, which were among the first jet-powered airliners to enter service.  During a working vacation, Pan Am's Trippe and Boeing President Bill Allen discussed Trippe's idea to solve what he thought would be a solution to the growth of air traffic and to ease congestion at airports - an airplane that can carry two and a half times more passengers than anything currently flying at the time.

Such a design seemed unfeasible without the creation of a brand new engine.  Jet engines of the day burned extraordinary amounts of jet fuel, were very noisy, and produced thrust in the range of 10,000-18,000 pounds each.  The new airplane would need a radically new engine design that could produce double the thrust.  General Electric was working on such a design for the C-5 Galaxy - their TF-39 engine was a radically new engine called the high-bypass turbofan.  The operation of a jet engine is simple; suck in air, squeeze the air, mix it with fuel to produce combustion, and blow it out the exhaust.  All jet engines operate on this same principle; the high-bypass turbofan engine uses a much larger fan at the front and even more air is sucked in, but bypasses much of the engine to produce even more thrust.  This concept produced a jet engine that did exactly what it was designed to do; it produced more than double the thrust of previous turbojets and turbofans, these engines were much quieter, and also less fuel than the previous engine technology.  With General Electric committed to the C-5 program, Pratt & Whitney committed to the 747 program with their JT-9D.

Boeing brought in engineer Joe Sutter from the 737 design team to spearhead the 747 program.  Sutter initiated a design study with Pan Am and other airlines, to better understand their requirements. At the time, it was widely thought that the 747 would eventually be superseded by supersonic transport aircraft like the Concorde and Boeing's proposed 2707.  Boeing responded by designing the 747 so that it could be adapted easily to carry freight and remain in production even if sales of the passenger version declined. In the freighter role, the clear need was to support the containerized shipping methodologies that were being widely introduced at about the same time.  Many different designs were studied, including two single-length fuselage decks stacked on top of each other, to what would become one single wide fuselage with two aisles.

In April 1966, Pan Am ordered 25 747-100 aircraft for $525 million and was promised to have the first airplane in under three years.  It was an enormous undertaking for Boeing.  The company simply did not have a factory big enough to build the 747, so a new factory was constructed in Everett, Washington next to Paine Field.  Developing the 747 had been a major challenge, and building its assembly plant was also a huge undertaking. Boeing president Bill Allen asked Malcolm Stamper, who at the time was head of the company's turbine division, to oversee construction of the Everett factory and to start production of the 747.  Time was so short that the 747's full-scale mock-up was built before the factory roof above it was finished. The factory is the largest building by volume ever built, and has been substantially expanded several times to permit construction of other models of Boeing wide-body commercial jets.  Today, Boeing builds the 747, 767, 777, and 787 at its Everett factory.

Rollout of the first 747 occurred on September 30, 1968 to great media fanfare, and the aircraft made its first flight on February 9, 1969.  A comprehensive flight test program lasted throughout 1969 and also included a trip to Paris for the Paris Airshow.  Engine issues with the Pratt & Whitney JT-9D engines sidelined many 747s on Everett's ramp as both manufacturers worked to figure out the problem and solve it; this eventually involved trashing many brand new engines due to the issues brought upon testing.   Difficulties included engine stalls caused by rapid throttle movements and distortion of the turbine casings after a short period of service.  The huge cost of developing the 747 and building the Everett factory meant that Boeing had to borrow heavily from a banking syndicate. During the final months before delivery of the first aircraft, the company had to repeatedly request additional funding to complete the project. Had this been refused, Boeing's survival would have been threatened. The aircraft entered service with Pan Am in January 1970 and was successful on the start.  Many airlines bought the 747 not for its passenger capacity but for its range.

As the Oil Crisis in the 1970s raged on, many airlines, especially in the United States, dumped their 747s for smaller aircraft like the DC-10 and the L-1011.  Boeing did go on to develop two new versions of the 747 in the 1970s; the 747-200 with a slightly extended upper deck and higher maximum takeoff weight, the 747SP was a fuselage shrink to allow much longer flights such as Pan Am's proposed New York to Tehran route, and freighter, combi, and short range versions of the 747-100 and 747-200 were developed.  The United States Air Force even adopted a 747-200 based design known as the E-4, an aircraft that acts as the command and control center in the skies should the unthinkable happen.  Two 747-200 based aircraft also formed the basis of the VC-25A transport, which is commonly known by the world as Air Force One.  However, the aircraft only gains that title and callsign when the President of the United States is on board.

In the 1980s, Boeing developed the 747-300, whose main feature was an stretched upper deck.  The aircraft retained many of the same features as the 747-200, but this in turn also led Boeing to take a generational leap forward in developing the 747-400.  The 747-400 featured a new generation of high-bypass turbofan engines offered by Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, and General Electric along with a host of new technological improvements such as a two-man crew with a digital flight deck, extended wingtips with drag-reducing winglets, a higher maximum takeoff weight, and the option for an additional fuel tank in the tailplane.  A typical passenger load on the 747-400 is about 465 passengers and it can travel over 8,000 miles without stopping.

The 747-400 was also developed into several different variants.  Freighter versions were developed, and the freighter features the shorter upper deck from the 747-100 and 747-200.  Domestic versions were developed for All Nippon Airlines and Japan Airlines where the 747 can carry close to its maximum passenger limit for short-range operations within Japan.  The 747-400M was a combi version that was based on the successful Combi versions of the Classic 747s; the −400M has a large cargo door fitted to the rear of the fuselage for freight loading to the aft main deck cargo hold. A locked partition separates the cargo area from the forward passenger cabin, and the −400M also features additional fire protection, a strengthened main deck floor, a roller-conveyor system, and passenger-to-cargo conversion equipment.  Extended range passenger and freighter versions were developed; only six 747-400ERs were built and all were to delivered to Qantas while forty 747-400ERFs were built.  In addition, passenger versions of the 747-400 have been converted to freighter use, and are designated the 747-400BCF.  These lack the opening of the nose the true freighter versions have.  The USAF also acquired a 747-400F as the basis of an experimental aircraft known as the YAL-1A.  This aircraft featured a giant laser turret mounted on the nose to potentially shoot down enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles or enemy aircraft from hundreds of miles away.

The final variant of the 747 was developed in the 2000s following Airbus' decision to develop the massive A380 superjumbo.  The 747-8 is the first 747 variant to ever have a stretched fuselage; at 250'2" it is currently the longest airliner in the world.  The 747-8 also features new General Electric GEnx-2B67 as well as a brand new wing with raked wingtips and design to the aircraft, among other features.  Developed as a 747-8F freighter and 747-8i passenger version, the 747-8 is a revolutionary new design that builds upon the successes of the 747-400, of which nearly 700 were produced.  Few airlines and freight companies have purchased the 747-8, leaving its future in doubt.  Boeing will also be supplying two 747-8i aircraft to the USAF as the new version of Air Force One, replacing the VC-25s that entered service in the 1990s.

As the rise and popularity (and more importantly, reliability) of twinjet jumbos like Airbus' A330 and A350 and Boeing's 767, 777, and 787, airlines around the world have increasingly retired their 747-400 fleets and replaced them with Boeing 777-300ERs and the Airbus A350-900 and A350-1000, the 747 and its four-engine design is becoming more and more extinct as time goes on.  Operating twin-engine aircraft is a significant reduction in cost as well as a reduction in fuel consumption from two engines versus four engines.  As we enter the next decade, fewer and fewer 747s will grace the skies carrying passengers from one great world city to the next.  The freighter versions of the 747-400 and 747-8, however, should still be around for quite some time.

Photos in the slideshow were taken between August 2015 and March 2018.  Apologies for the large copyrights in each photo - this is necessary in this day and age where photos are widely stolen and passed along as if they are one's own.