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Long Live the Queen: The Ageless Reign of the 747

Long Live the Queen: The Ageless Reign of the 747

BY EDWARD CARR Published on May 19, 2024 0 COMMENTS
Photo: AeroXplorer | Paranav M.P

Almost 62 years after the Wright Brothers' first powered flight near Kitty Hawk, NC, Boeing pulled engineer Joe Sutter off the 737 program to deploy on its latest 747. Filled by the 707's success, Pan American Airways requested an airplane with at least 2.5 times the 707's capacity. Pan Am placed an order for 25 as-yet undeveloped airliners in 1966. Construction on a purpose-built factory for 747 production began at Paine Field, Everett, WA, in June of that year, becoming the world's largest building by interior volume.


The prototype 747, "City of Everett," was rolled out on Sep 30, 1968. Thousands of Boeing employees stood out on the ramp to see the giant plane emerge into the sunshine for the first time. Resplendent in white with a red stripe down the fuselage, "City of Everett" was adorned with the logos of 26 airlines, eagerly awaiting its arrival. Twenty-six uniformed flight attendants flew in from around the world to represent the delivery airlines. Joe Sutter recalled an audible gasp as people realized how big it was. The 747 was a sight to behold. The first wide-body aircraft, the term "jumbo jet" was coined to describe it. It was 231 feet long, and the tail stood six stories high. The cockpit on an upper deck, with a distinguishing hump, provided room for more passenger seats or a lounge (American Airlines even installed a Wurlitzer organ for entertainment in their lounge design). It could hold up to 539 passengers in a single configuration or, more commonly, a combination of 32 first-class and 388 economy-class seats.




Photo: AeroXplorer | Michael Hai


The Boing 747 Jumbo jet was first airborne in February 1969, a momentous year in aviation that also witnessed the maiden flight of the supersonic Concorde. The Pratt & Whitney four JT9D high bypass turbofan engines powering the Boing 747 Jumbo jet produced 44,000 pounds of thrust and provided enough electricity to power four middle-class homes each. The 747's maximum take-off weight approached 700,000 pounds. Yet despite its size, the 747 cruised at a speed of .85 Mach and a maximum speed of .92 Mach, making it the fastest subsonic airliner yet. Boeing test pilots tested it up to .99 Mach. After receiving FAA certification in December, Pan Am proudly received the first 747-100  for passenger service in the following month.


Since then, 1,574 747 aircraft have been built, from the prototype to the last 747-8, Atlas Air Boing 747 delivered in January 2023. Being ubiquitous in modern culture, It has been estimated that more than 1/4 of the world's population has flown by this Boing 747 Jumbo jet.


In aviation history, only six aircraft that are larger than the 747 have ever flown. The only one of those six that predated the 747 was Howard Hughes' H-4 Hercules flying boat, the Spruce Goose, which flew only once in 1947, airborne for a single mile. Of the other five, only one is an airliner, the 1.2 million pound Airbus A380, of which 251 were built between 2006 and 2021.




Photo: AeroXplorer | Monish Shah


It's been 59 years since the 747 design process began, and 55 since the first flight. The number of years Boeing dedicated to manufacturing and delivering brand new 747s stands at 56 (1967-2023). Let that sink in: 747s were being built for nearly half of the entire 120-year existence of powered flight. Remarkably, hundreds of 747s are still in service today.


Various models of the 747 have come to life over the decades, starting with 205 747-100s. Almost four hundred 747-200s were built between 1971 and 1991. The 747SP, or Special Performance model, was created with a shorter fuselage to hold fewer passengers but an extended range. The 747SP also held the distinction of having the highest service ceiling of any subsonic passenger jet, capable of cruising at 45,100 feet.




Photo: AeroXplorer | Daniel Mena


747-300s were built between 1983 and 1990. The-300 stretched the hump another 23 feet to allow upper deck seating, and the iconic interior spiral staircase was replaced with a straight flight of stairs. Japan Air Lines ordered a short-range version of the 747-300 for its domestic market, providing seating for up to 584 passengers.


By far, the most popular model of the 747 was the 747-400. With a modernized glass cockpit, the -400 eliminated the flight engineer's position and was thus flown by a two-pilot crew. It first entered service in Feb. 1989 with Northwest Airlines. Between passenger and freight models, 694 747-400 models were built.


After the 747-400, several variants achieved some level of consideration, ultimately culminating in the 747-8. It is the largest of the 747 lines, 250 feet long and a wingspan of 255 feet. The -8 also came in freighter and passenger versions, with the 747-8F entering service in 2011 and the 747-8i (Intercontinental) delivered in 2012. 108 and 47 airplanes of each model were built, respectively.




Photo: AeroXplorer | Ricardo Mungarro


Boeing 747s Currently In Service


Remarkably, 416 Boeing 747s are still flying. There are just a handful of the earlier models, the 747-100 through 747-300, still flying. Reportedly, one is a 747-100 model operated by the Iranian Air Force. The Sands Corporation of Las Vegas Hotel fame operates one of three 747SPs that still take to the air. However, most of the existing operational fleet comprises 747-400s and the new 747-8s that play a vital role in cargo operations worldwide.


Atlas Air Boeing 747 cargo plane maintains the largest fleet of 747s in the world, with five 747-400s, 35  747-400Fs, and nine 747-8Fs, a total of 49.


UPS operates 42 747s, including 13 -400Fs, and the world's largest fleet of 747-8s, with 29.


Luxembourg's flag carrier, Cargolux, flies its 29 747s, 15 -400Fs and 14 -8Fs, to 90 global destinations. Kalitta, the cargo airline founded by accomplished drag racer Conrad "Connie" Kalitta, operates 21 747-400Fs. And rounding out the top five 747 cargo operators is Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong, with six -400Fs and 14 -8Fs.




Photo: AeroXplorer | Jared Jamel


Passenger 747s Still Flying.


If you are looking for the flying experience on The Queen of the Skies, the opportunities are still there but diminishing. Economics has played a significant role in reducing the 747-passenger fleet. Some of the most recognizable 747 liveries of all time have been long gone, such as Pan Am's fleet of Clipper Ships (the company ceased operations in 1991), or the bold red stripes of Trans World Airlines, whose last of 35 747s soldiered on until the year 2000, a year before TWA was purchased by American Airlines. Because TWA sold at least a half-dozen of its 747-100s to the Iranian Air Force in the latter part of the 1970s, the sole -100 flying today may be one of TWA's. Additionally, the 747SP, still operated by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, is one of two that once belonged to TWA.


To enjoy 747 service today, you may choose Air China, which operates three 747-400s and seven 747-8i's in passenger service. Air China also operates one 747-400F for cargo. Korean Airlines flies nine 747-8i's in passenger service and 11 747s in cargo service, a mix of -400Fs and -8Fs.


However, the largest remaining fleet of passenger 747s is Lufthansa's eight 747-400s and 19 -8i's, serving 11 countries from Lufthansa's hub in Frankfurt.   




Photo: AeroXplorer | Luke Ayers


World Records


The 747 lives up to its Queen of the Skies name by holding some interesting world record accomplishments in passenger service. 747-8s holds the record for longest flights in the world. The longest by distance, 7,152 miles between Seoul and Atlanta, GA, is operated by Korean Air (15 hours and 40 minutes en route). The longest flight by flight time, 16 hours and 30 minutes (6,838 miles), is flown by Air China, connecting Beijing to New York.


The world record for the most people ever carried in a single airplane flight is an astonishing 1,088, set in 1991 when an El Al 747 took part in Operation Solomon, the relocation of more than 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Of the three dozen aircraft employed in the airlift, one was an El Al 747. By stripping off its seats, the intention was that 760 passengers would be carried. However, due to the low body weights of many of the malnourished passengers and the lack of belongings, 1,086 total passengers eventually took off from Addis Ababa for Ben Gurion Airport. Two women gave birth during the flight, making the total 1,088 people upon landing.


How long will the 747 last?


It is difficult to say when the last 747 might grace the skies. If a 747-100 built in the 1970s and 747SPs manufactured in the 1980s are still active today, they prove that a well-maintained 747 airframe lifespan approaches 40-50 years. The entire fleet of approximately 400 747-400s and 747-8 aircraft is no older than 30 years. The last delivered Atlas Air Boeing 747-8 is barely a year old.




Photo: AeroXplorer | Andrew Leff


Technically, there are still two 747s that have not even entered service yet. These are the two VC-24Bs that will serve as Air Force One for the President of the United States. They are two 747-8s whose airframes were completed for a customer who went out of business before taking delivery of the two planes. Boeing is currently modifying them in a facility in Texas. Details of the modifications have not been released for national security reasons. However, it is expected that the VC-25Bs will have all the capabilities of their predecessors, the VC-25As, which are highly modified 747-200s.


The current 747/VC-25As who serve as Air Force One were delivered to the U.S. Air Force in 1990, meaning they have been in service for 24 years. If the new VC-25Bs enter service as expected in 2027,  their tenure may stretch to the 2050s and beyond. Should this be the case, there might be a 747 still flying into the 2060s, when the Queen of The Skies will celebrate its 100th anniversary. That accomplishment will surely make it one of humanity's most marvellous inventions ever conceived.

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Edward Carr
I am an aviation writer for I have worked in various aspects of commercial aviation, including simulator visual database design for FlightSafety International; economic research for the Centre for Aviation Safety Research at Parks College of Aviation, Saint Louis University; business planning for Air Choice One regional airlines. It all started with various summer positions for TWA. My novel and associated podcast, Time Of Departure, an aviation-related time-travel story, will be released in June of this year. A professional musician with an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis, I have written everything from music blogs to marketing plans. My favorite flying experience was flying a 1946 Cessna 120 to the EAA fly-in at Oshkosh with my brother when we were both in college. I currently enjoy flying light sport aircraft and living in St. Louis, MO, USA.

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