The Boeing 747, the first wide-body airliner, widely known as the 'Jumbo Jet', celebrated 40 years of commercial service today. The first revenue flight of the 747, a Pan American World Airways aircraft, took place on January 22nd, 1970. (It was supposed to have departed the previous evening, but an engine problem forced a six-hour delay, with the result that it finally departed in the small hours of the following morning.)
So far in the past, we tend to forget what a revolutionary aircraft the 747 really was. It was immensely bigger than anything else in the air, as this photograph of a 747-100 next to a Pan Am 707 illustrates.
It had been developed in a relatively short time following Pan Am's launch order for it, placed in 1965. The prototype first flew on February 9th, 1969. Here's a video clip of the first flight (the music, clothing and style of commentary all revealing how long ago it was!)
Problems with its all-new engines would plague the early models of the 747, but within a year or two of its commercial introduction it was revolutionizing air travel worldwide. If any one factor can be said to have led to the reduction in the cost of air travel, it's the 747, with its enormous (for the time) passenger capacity.
Several models would succeed the original 747-100. The 747SP was a shortened version with extremely long range for its day, although it didn't sell in large numbers. The 747-200 introduced more powerful engines, a higher takeoff weight, and longer range. The 747-300 added a stretched upper deck to provide more passenger accommodation. The 747-400 introduced winglets to improve fuel economy, and added a fuselage plug to increase passenger accommodation still further. Later models, suffixed -ER, added still greater range.
The last 747-400 series aircraft, a freighter version, was delivered last month.
The 747 has set all sorts of records during its 40-year commercial career, some of which have yet to be broken by more modern aircraft. The most astonishing, to me, is one set by an El Al 747 freighter on May 24th, 1991, during Operation Solomon, the evacuation of Jewish Ethiopians to Israel. The aircraft was loaded to far over its normal capacity in Ethiopia, eventually taking off with what the crew thought was a total of 1,087 persons. To their astonishment, when it landed in Israel, the plane disgorged no less than 1,122 people! It seems that many children hid in their parents' voluminous clothing, and so sneaked aboard, and two babies were born during the flight. That figure still stands as the largest number of passengers ever on a single flight - and despite the advent of the larger Airbus A380, I somehow suspect it'll be a long time before it's beaten!
(The absence of seats in the freighter version helped get that many people aboard, of course - if the plane had been configured as a normal passenger transport, the seats would have taken up too much space to permit such an overload. I imagine the flight was unbearably cramped for all on board, and the plane was probably difficult to control; but when the alternative was possible death for the refugees, normal constraints are quite rightly ignored.)
There were all sorts of special-purpose modifications to the 747. The freighter models are currently the largest commercial freighters in the air , although the proposed Airbus A380 freighter model, if it's ever built, will be larger. (The Antonov An-124 Ruslan and its larger sibling, the An-225 Mriya, are larger and carry more, but they were designed for military or special purposes, not for general civilian application.) The new 747-8 freighter will carry no less than 154 tons of cargo when fully loaded. Here's a Cargolux 747-400 freighter, showing its swing-up nose door (there are also cargo doors on the far side of the aircraft).
An even more extreme version is Boeing's Large Cargo Freighter, or Dreamlifter, a heavily modified version of the 747-400F used to ferry components of the new Boeing 787 airliner from manufacturers in Europe and the Far East to the assembly plant in Washington state.
A 747-100 was modified to carry NASA's Space Shuttle from place to place.
A 747SP has been modified for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). It'll carry a large telescope to high altitudes. The large dark section in the after fuselage will open in flight to allow the telescope to function.
Boeing's now hard at work on the latest generation, the 747-8. The prototype is expected to fly before the end of this month. It's longer than its predecessors, incorporates new engines and computer technology from the 787 program, and also uses far more composite materials than earlier 747's. Here's the prototype 747-8 freighter at Boeing's assembly plant last month.
The new model's cockpit shows how technology has moved forward since the first 747 flew. (As an example, the 747-400 reduced the 971 dials, knobs and indicators of the 747-100 to no more than 365, and the 747-8 will have even fewer.) Here's a photograph of the early 747-100 cockpit, on the left, next to the 747-8 prototype's cockpit. The man in the second picture is Mark Feuerstein, Boeing's chief 747 pilot, who will take the 747-8 on its first flights.
The comparative sizes of the various models of the 747 are shown in this graphic, courtesy of Flight Global's commemorative article on the anniversary.
The new 747-8 will be the longest airliner in commercial service when it's delivered to its first customers late this year.
As of August 2009, 1,418 Boeing 747's had been delivered to customers. That's pretty good going for an airliner that was initially expected to sell only up to 400 examples, until the supersonic transports then envisioned could be brought into service. I've flown many thousands of miles on 747's, and still like them, even in comparison to more modern aircraft like the Boeing 767 or 777, or the Airbus A330 or A340.
Congratulations to Boeing on this milestone anniversary in aviation history.