How the Boeing 747 Became Queen of the Skies

History Hit

3 mins

18 Dec 2018

Thanks to its distinctive hump, Boeing’s 747 “jumbo jet” is the world’s most recognised aircraft. Since its first flight, on 22 January 1970, it has carried the equivalent of 80% of the world’s population.

The rise of commercial airlines

In the 1960s air travel was booming. Thanks to falling ticket prices, more people than ever were able to take to the skies. Boeing set about creating the largest commercial aeroplane yet, to take advantage of the growing market.

Around the same time, Boeing won a government contract to build the first supersonic transport plane. Had it come to fruition, the Boeing 2707 would have travelled at three times the speed of sound, carrying 300 passengers (Concorde carried 100 passengers at twice the speed of sound).

Braniff International Airways President Charles Edmund Beard admiring the models of the US Supersonic Transport Aircraft, the Boeing 2707.

This new and exciting project was a major headache for the 747. Joseph Stutter, chief engineer on the 747, struggled to maintain funding and support for his 4,500-strong team.

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Why the Boeing has its distinctive hump

The supersonic project was eventually scrapped but not before it exerted a significant impact on the design of the 747. At the time, Pan Am was one of Boeing’s best clients and the airline’s founder, Juan Trippe, had a great deal of influence. He was convinced that supersonic passenger transport was the future and that aircraft like the 747 would eventually be used as freighters.

A Boeing747 at Narita International Airport in 2004.

As a result, the designers mounted the flight deck on top of the passenger deck in order to allow for a hinged nose for loading cargo. Increasing the width of the fuselage also made loading freight easier and, in a passenger configuration, made the cabin more comfortable. Initial designs for the upper deck produced too much drag, so the shape was extended and refined into a teardrop shape.

But what to do with this added space? Trippe persuaded Boeing to use the space behind the cockpit as a bar and lounge. He was inspired by the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser of the 1940s that featured a lower deck lounge. However most airlines later converted the space back into extra seating.

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The final design for the 747 came in three configurations: all passenger, all cargo, or a convertible passenger/cargo version. It was monumental in size, as tall as a six-storey building. But it was also fast, powered by innovative new Pratt and Whitney JT9D engines,whose fuel efficiency reduced ticket prices and opened up air travel to millions of new passengers.

Boeing 747 takes to the skies

Pan Am was the first airline to take delivery of the new aircraft, purchasing 25 for a total cost of $187 million. Its first commercial flight was planned for 21 January 1970 but an overheated engine delayed departure until 22 September. Within six months of its launch, the 747 had carried almost one million passengers.

A Qantas Boeing 747-400 landing at London Heathrow Airport, England.

But what future for the 747 in today’s air travel market? Improvements in engine design and higher fuel costs mean airlines are increasingly favouring twin-engined designs over the 747’s four engines. British Airways, Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific are all replacing their 747s with more economical types.

Having spent the best part of forty years as the “Queen of the Skies” it looks more and more likely that the 747 will soon be dethroned for good.

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