Updated: Feb 11, 2019

The Boeing 747 was, of course, a revolution. It was one of a kind, a four engined jet which could fly distances never even imagined before. But Boeing managed to create it, successfully bring it into service, and place the aircraft at the forefront of the aviation industry. The plane has retained its status, and continues to fly across the world transporting passengers in style. As the aircraft celebrates its 50th anniversary, we reflect on the 747s outstanding history and what’s left for it.

Lufthansa was the first European airline to take delivery of the Boeing 747. Photo © AeroNewsX/Chris de Breun

To begin with, the aircraft had many distinctive features. Not only did it have this one of a kind hump at the front, but it was also the first ever widebody aircraft ever to have been produced. The aircraft was designed by remarkable engineer, Joe Sutter and his team, who have been congratulated time and time again for their outstanding work.

KLM is amongst the airlines who have already scheduled retirement dates for their 747s. Photo © AeroNewsX/Chris de Breun

In fact, Boeing was struggling with funds, after unknowingly investing too much into a supersonic jet design which many speculated, at the time, would be the future for aviation. For this reason, the Boeing 747 was a side project and would follow the successful Boeing 707 sales. What Boeing did not expect, however, was for the Boeing 747 to become an aviation icon and the airliner of the century.

Thai Airways operated their final Boeing 747 flight to Europe in recent months. Photo © AeroNewsX/Chris de Breun

Joe Sutter and his team were, unfortunately, limited with their resources. As mentioned, the key issue was the lack of funds – all of it was pushed into the 2707 SST Supersonic jet program.

Many of the Boeing 747’s characteristics were created for Pan American World Airways (Pan Am). Pan Am was an extremely important Boeing customer and was definitely one of the most important for the Boeing 747 program. Pan Am had actually asked Boeing to create the Boeing 747, as a result of an ever increasing demand for passenger air travel.

Inevitably, the Boeing 747 project was surrounded by flaws. The major issue was safety, with many airlines such as Pan Am lacking faith in the future of the program. However, Joe Sutter and his team made a breakthrough – by having two aisles on each of the two decks, a much quicker emergency evacuation was made possible. Not only that, but the new double aisle layout would make the Boeing 747 significantly more comfortable for passengers and crew alike.

Photo © AeroNewsX/Chris de Breun

However, airlines continued to doubt. How would a widebody, double decker and extremely heavy aircraft be able to fly safely? So Boeing set about gaining the confidence of the most important airline first – Pan Am. Boeing appointed Milt Heinemann to promote the new layout which has later proved to be revolutionary.

Heinemann chose a specific conference room, above New York’s Grand Central Station, which measured 6 metres (19.7 feet) – the exact measurements of the Boeing 747’s width.

Heinemann was successful and was able to keep Pan Am’s interest in the project. Other airlines soon followed suit and realised the potential of the Boeing 747.

British airways is by far the largest Boeing 747 operator in the world. Photo © AeroNewsX/Jamie Woodhouse-Wright

In April 1966, Pan Am signed a firm commitment for 25 Boeing 747-100s in a deal costing USD525 million.

In June 1966, Boeing purchased a new plot of land near Seattle, whereby it constructed a new plant to build the massive jets. This became Boeing’s biggest factory yet.

KLM has kept the Boeing 747s for longer than originally planned. Photo © AeroNewsX/Chris de Breun

However, the new factory building costs added to Boeing’s existing financial problems which were continuing their gradual negative rise. The entire company was at stake for this one aircraft project. However, Boeing were far into the 747 program, which meant that stopping it would be even worse. The manufacturer requested and was luckily granted additional funding to keep it going. It all paid off, fortunately, and the first ever Boeing 747 commercial flight took off on the 22 January 1970 on the lucrative New York to London route with Pan Am.

Lufthansa has no plans to retire its Boeing 747-8 fleet. Photo © AeroNewsX/Adam Lanzen

Before the first commercial flight, more issues had occurred. The JT9D engines installed on the aircraft proved unreliable and were extremely dangerous. They caused engine stalls when rapid throttle movements occurred and distortion of the turbine casings happened after a short period of service. Up to 20 Boeing 747s were reported engineless sitting outside the factory as Boeing searched for a solution.

The Boeing 747 is also known as the 'Jumbo Jet'. Photo © AeroNewsX/Guillaume Feyten

In 1969, Boeing and JT9D engine makers, Pratt & Whitney worked on finding the cause of the problem. Eventually they succeeded and Pratt & Whitney presented the reformed engine to Boeing who were eager to get the stranded aircraft delivered.

The Boeing 747 passenger capacity was massive to say the least. Despite this, one ironic situation occurred for decades – although the Boeing 747 was full of comfort and luxury and was designed to operate long haul routes, in Japan, some airlines configured their Boeing 747s to include the maximum amount of passengers and flew them on domestic routes!

Lufthansa has a Boeing 747-8 in a special livery (pictured). Photo © AeroNewsX/Chris de Breun

However, times have changed, and despite the Boeing 747 being used for ages in lots of different market segments, its days are almost over. The night is coming, and rumour has it that by 2030, the Boeing 747 passenger variants will no longer be in service. In fact, the Boeing 747-8 was announced back in 2005 with the ambition to secure the Boeing 747’s place in the aviation industry for some time to come. Unfortunately the attempt was, many would say, very unsuccessful.

British Airways' Boeing 747s are very common at London Heathrow Airport (their base). Photo © AeroNewsX/Dillon Shah

So as the Boeing 747 celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is unfortunately important to note, that airlines have already scheduled retirement dates for the aircraft. However its remarkable design team, iconic hump and revolutionary concepts, have almost certainly reserved a place in everyone’s heart.

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