We’ve been blabbering about the most iconic jet aircraft for quite some time now. From the story of Concorde, the Soviets put up the middle finger to the West with its Tu-104, to the Boeing “If It ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going” 707, these are the aircraft that truly helped shape the future of aviation. But all of us can agree that there is only one jet that everybody loves – the Boeing 747.
The “Jumbo Jet” handled every challenge that accidents, financial struggles, market changes and competitors have thrown at it.
There is a reason why it is still in service after almost 50 years in the sky. Why Boeing delivered more than 1500 of the Boeing 747 to airlines around the world. And there is a reason #WhyILoveThe747.
But wait! While the Boeing 747 is most commonly known as the “Jumbo Jet”, I don’t think that nickname does it justice. Calling it the “Queen Of The Skies” is more appropriate and fits its status perfectly.
So, what is the reason? Well, to be honest, there are quite a few reasons why. Therefore, grab yourself a cup of coffee and let’s look into the history of the Boeing 747 and why it is such a commercial success.
There is no way of denying it. The Boeing 707 proved to the world that commercial jets are the future. While the de Havilland Comet told everyone that traveling with jet aircraft is much more comfortable for the passengers and saves a lot of time for airlines, it had its issues. A lot of them. So Boeing quickly made the best of the opportunity that de Havilland presented them and developed the 707. While it was a huge risk for the Seattle based manufacturer, it proved to be the right decision.
Anyhow, the 707 became a star. Everybody loved it, from airlines to regular passengers. From Hollywood superstars to brands around the world.
However, nobody is perfect. The Boeing 707 was no exception and that became apparent sooner rather than later. Neither Boeing nor any other manufacturer could keep up with the passenger demand in the 1960s. To illustrate, according to Worldwatch Institute airlines transferred 31 million passengers in 1950. In 20 years, that number has risen to 310 million.
With that in mind, airlines felt that the Boeing 707 was just too small. Even though it could carry up to 219 passengers, that was still not enough. That’s why the president of Pan American, Juan Trippe, approached Boeing with the task to build a much larger aircraft. Both Pan Am and Boeing saw that the demand was there, yet everyone lacked the aircraft to fulfill that demand.
As the Boeing 707 continued to operate successfully during the 1960s, Boeing had very big plans for the future.
PanAm‘s demands were crystal clear – they needed a subsonic aircraft that was twice the size of the 707. Luckily, foundations for the new aircraft were already laid out.
In 1963, the United States Air Force realized they needed an aircraft that could carry exceptionally large cargo. At the time, even their new Lockheed Starlifter could not meet their demands. The USAF made an open call for designs for the new CX-HLS aircraft to come in. Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed and other companies presented their prototypes. All of the presented prototypes had a universal feature – it had a huge door in front of the aircraft to load cargo on it.
Unfortunately for Boeing, the USAF chose Lockheed‘s design, which would later become the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. Nevertheless, when there is darkness, there will be light. Boeing used the knowledge from the CX-HLS prototype to develop the new passenger aircraft.
But Boeing did not want the 747 to just become a copy of the CX-HLS. The only thing Boeing kept was the engine.
However, in the 1960s, everybody knew that supersonic passenger jets were coming. The Soviets, the Europeans and Boeing themselves were developing their own supersonic designs. Boeing thought there was enough time to develop the Queen of The Skies, sell enough units to make a profit and convert all of the passenger 747s to cargo freighters when supersonic jets would take over the skies.
Supersonic aircraft never took off. While the success of Concorde is debatable, the Soviet Tu-144 failed miserably. Boeing eventually canceled their supersonic 2707 in 1971. SSTs had a lot of issues and their profit margins were too small for airlines to consider them viable.
On the other hand, this provided a lifeline for the future of the Boeing 747. The sky was open for the Queen to dominate.
When Pan Am ordered 25 747s in the April of 1966, Boeing did not even have a factory to build the Jumbo. The manufacturer had to act quickly and as soon as Pan Am signed the contract, Boeing purchased 780 acres of land north of Seattle. This is the new site for the Everett factory, which measured 5.6 million-cubic-meters in volume just to build the Queen.
This is where Boeing took a page out of the Soviet book. When the company built a full-scale prototype of the 747, the building still had no roof. Except that Boeing did not copy a few sentences and actually managed to build a successful jet!
As the factory was completed, Boeing started to test the new jet. The 747 had struck a huge issue. Federal Aviation Administration requires an aircraft to be able to evacuate everyone in 90 seconds. When Boeing began testing the evacuation procedures on a cabin prototype, the evacuations took too long. Thus, Boeing dropped the full double-decker design. The company adopted the now-famous hump in front of the aircraft.
Nonetheless, the first test flight took off on this February 9th, 1959.
Still, difficulties followed. The wing design had vibration issues and the Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines stalled if the pilots used fast throttle movements. Turbine casings on the engines also had the tendency to deform while in-flight. Engine problems delayed the program severely.
11 months later, the first lady of the United States at the time, Pat Nixon christened the first commercial 747.
With a lot of presence in the design process, Pan American claimed the glory to be the launch customer of the Queen. The Boeing 747 entered service in early January of 1970 on the route between New York and London.
Despite entering service, the program still suffered from massive delays. Various sources state that more than 20 or more than 30 aircraft were standing still at Everett. Pratt & Whitney have still not fixed their engines and that process took more than a year to do so.
Problem was that Boeing took out huge loans to finance the program and the new factory. The company accumulated over a billion dollars of debt. The problems did not end there – Boeing had almost no new orders coming in because in 1969 a recession started. After risking it all on the 707, the bet on the 747 might’ve doomed the company.
In 1971, airlines ordered just 7 aircraft. Boeing just had enough money to hold on. Their persistence paid off – in 1977 orders increased to 42. The following two years, airlines bought more than 140 Boeing 747s.
Boeing just won the race against bankruptcy. As tight as it was, the company came out on top.
The early success of the program allowed Boeing to further develop many versions of the 747.
The first 747 was designated as the 747-100. Two years later after its first tests, Boeing introduced the 747-200 with engines that had more power. In the early 1980s, the company released the 747-300, which included a stretched upper-deck with more seats and faster cruising speed.
As carriers requested more range and technologies advanced further forward, Boeing announced the development of the 747-400. Northwest launched the 747-400 in 1989, on a flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix.
In total the manufacturer developed 21 different versions of the 747, serving passenger, cargo airlines and air force units worldwide, including serving the United States presidents to this day.
Ronald Reagan ordered the first presidential 747s, although he never got to fly the newest Air Force One. In 1990, Boeing delivered the first two Air Force Ones to the United States Air Force. Air Force One is the call sign of the Boeing VC-25, a militarized version of the carrier dedicated to transferring the United States president around the world.
The newest version of the 747 is the Boeing 747-8, which the company announced in 2005. The 747-8 is quieter, more economical and ecological compared to the old versions of the aircraft. Boeing developed it in order for the 747 to meet the newest aviation industry standards and keep the legacy of the Queen alive.
To sum up the aircraft, the legacy it will eventually leave behind is immeasurable. It became a true icon of aviation and multiple generations have grown up with it – from the baby boomers to the lazy millennials, every single one of them can recognize the iconic hump in front of the aircraft.
And there are a lot of reasons to love the Queen of the skies. Firstly, the nickname – I mean, how can you not adore an aircraft that has a nickname Queen Of The Skies? Again, the iconic hump certainly makes the aircraft stand out from all of the others. You cannot mistake it for anything else in the air, no matter if you are someone who is an aviation nerd or just fly frequently. The luxury it brought to passengers was also on a whole another level at the time. Longevity of the 747 is also impressive, to say the least – the program is still going strong, even 50 years after its first test flight commenced.
And while sadly the 747s are slowly being phased out for newer and more advanced aircraft, it is definitely up there with other iconic aircraft of all time.
If there was an aviation Hall Of Fame, I would bet the Boeing 747 would be the first one to enter it.