Much like gold: the Boeing 747 at 50

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This story {first appeared|premoere appearance} in the March 2019 edition of Australian Aviation.

A 2016 file image of Qantas Boeing 747-400 VH-OJU. (Seth Jaworski)

There are few sets of numbers that immediately bring to mind {a picture|an image|a photo}, but 747 is one {of them|of these|of those}, all thanks to Boeing’ s iconic aircraft, the original “ jumbo jet”, which made its first flight on February 9, 1969.

Of all the aircraft ever produced, the 747 {is the most|is among the most|is considered the most} famous – but that also means that part of its story has a tendency to drift from fact to folklore.

As the 50th anniversary of its first flight approached, Australian Aviation sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with Boeing company historian Mike Lombardi to separate the history {from the|from your|through the} fantasy, to delve into the fascinating background of this unique aircraft, and to learn how Boeing didn’ t just build the 747 –   the 747 built Boeing.

At the time the 747 was conceived, designed and created, Lombardi began, “ the jet age was still quite new. The 1960s was an amazing {time of|moments of} growth, both for the airlines and for the industry, keeping in mind {that the|that this|the} 707 had just been introduced in 1958 followed, just a few years later, {by the|from the|with the} 727 and the 737.

“ At Boeing, the idea of a family of jetliners became the product strategy. The 747 and a Supersonic Transport would fit into that product family; you would have {a variety of|a number of|a selection of} capabilities, different sizes of airplanes in different ranges, and then different speeds that could satisfy the needs of the customers. ”

“ It was {also very|very|really} apparent at the time, ” Lombardi said (in a wry nod to hindsight being 20/20) “ that {once the|when the|after the} supersonics came out — the Concorde and the ill-fated Boeing Supersonic Transport — passengers, especially on international travel, would gravitate to those airplanes.   So that did influence the design of the 747.

“ It’ s actually a really interesting {part of the|section of the|area of the} 747 history that contributed so much to its success: {planning for|planning} its eventual demise, {with the|using the|with all the} SST and the Concorde being the planes of choice for passengers when they became available. ”

Enter Joe Sutter, the legendary Boeing engineer, the oft-described “ father of the 747”, {put in|place in|devote} charge of an aircraft that at the time was seen as something of a secondary endeavour {for the|for that|for your} airframer.

Lombardi explained: “ Joe Sutter and his team at Boeing knew that the 747 would {take on|undertake|carry out} a broader role in carrying freight, as a cargo airplane rather than a passenger plane. With that in mind, they set out to {make the|associated with|make} airplane a great freight aircraft, a great cargo aircraft.

“ To do that, they looked at what size containers it could take, how they could load it, what {would be the|will be the|is the} most efficient way in looking toward the future, and using that large fuselage to do it. One of the things {that they|which they|they} determined, based on a lot of the military planes that we were {familiar with|acquainted with|knowledgeable about} at that time, was that these planes would be loaded through a ramp in the rear, or {they would|they might|they will} swing the nose {and load|and cargo} the cargo directly {through the|with the|from the} fuselage, rather than a side door. ”

Contemporary wisdom from the jet-age military came from the rear-loading Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, introduced {into the|in to the|to the} United States Air Force in 1965, and from the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy which entered service five years later and can load from the nose and/or tail ramps. Boeing, for its part, had provided interim lift at the beginning of the jet age with the side-doored C-135 Stratolifter aircraft from the same family as its 707.

Sutter and his team “ {made the decision|made a decision|resolved} that they would make the 747 capable of having cargo loaded through the nose of the airplane.

Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-8F with its nose freight door open at Wellcamp Airport. (Jordan Chong)

Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-8F {with its|using its|having its} nose freight door open at Wellcamp Airport. (Jordan Chong)

Of course , the problem with that – even when you look at a 707 or DC-8 – {is that the|would be that the|is usually that the} flight deck is in the way. That’ s where the {idea of|concept of|notion of} putting the flight deck on top of the fuselage {came from|originated from|originated in}. Get the flight deck {out of the way|taken care of|aside} so that you could hinge the nose and load cargo, ” Lombardi said.

“ That’ s {how the|the way the|how a} 747 got its hump. A huge part of the 747 {is that|is the fact that|is the fact} distinctive shape. It {came out of|left} this whole idea that the airplane would be a freighter; {that a lot of|that many|that the majority of} the passenger planes {would be|will be|can be} converted to freighters, probably {sometime in|between} the 1970s.

“ What’ s interesting is that we actually did have that program, the Boeing Converted Freighter program, but that wasn’ t until more recently. So it’ s really kind of a tribute to the airplane lasting as a passenger aircraft. ”

The 747 production line in Everett, Washington after the shift to the 10-window upper deck. (Boeing)

The 747 production line in Everett, Washington {after the|following the|following your} shift to the 10-window upper deck. (Boeing)

Creating and designing – ingenuity and {inspiration|motivation|ideas}

Much credit for the market demand for the 747 is usually given to Juan Trippe, the giant of aviation behind Pan American World Airways, better known as Pan Am. That credit, Mike Lombardi said, is {well deserved|deserved and needed}.

He said Boeing had been working on {a response|a reply|an answer} to a contract eventually won by the Lockheed C-5.

“ That gave our folks, our design team, the idea that we could {make a|create a|produce a} bigger passenger jet so a few studies were done along those lines. ”

The Boeing proposal {for the|for that|for your} CX-HLS  (Cargo Experimental-Heavy Logistics System) resembles little more {than a|than the usual|when compared to a} high-winged 747 with a 707 tail, clearly showing the evolution of what would become the 747.

On the commercial side, meanwhile, said Lombardi: “ What started it was Juan Trippe at Pan Am. ”

Boeing president and chief executive Bill Allen (left) and Pan Am chief executive Juan Trippe (right) celebrate the launch of the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” in 1968. (Boeing)

Boeing president and {chief executive|leader} Bill Allen (left) and Pan Am chief executive Juan Trippe (right) celebrate the launch of the Boeing 747 “ Jumbo Jet” in 1968. (Boeing)

At the time the 707 was making inroads {into the|in to the|to the} high-speed travel market {against the|contrary to the|from the} competitive backdrop of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Comet and the Soviet-inspired TU104.

“ {With that|With this|Recover} quick growth, ” Lombardi said, “ airports were getting full. Basically, Trippe’ s thought was {rather than|instead of|as opposed to} expanding the airports they needed bigger airplanes. ”

“ {He had|He previously} a good relationship with Boeing’ s CEO at the time, Bill Allen, an incredible partnership {that really|that actually|that basically} spawned the jet age. He came to Bill Allen and said: ‘ {We want|We would like|We wish} a bigger airplane. We want something twice the size of a 707’.

“ The response from Bill Allen was: ‘ Well, if you’ ll buy it, we’ ll build it. ’ ”

Lombardi said early concepts based around making the aircraft twice the size of the 707 involved taking two 707 fuselages and stacking one on top of the other.

“ Sutter, who headed up the design team, didn’ t like that idea {from the beginning|right from the start}, ” Lombardi said.

Instead the team pushed for width and, essentially at that time, brought about the introduction of the widebody airliner.

The scale of the 747 {compared with|in contrast to|compared to} contemporary long-haul airliners was mammoth: twice the size, twice the number of passengers, more than twice the weight. The largest airliners {of the time were|of times were|of that time period were} just a few metres longer than Boeing’ s current line of 737s.

“ It wasn’ t just fractionally larger, like some of the big planes we’ re putting out today {where you|to} add a couple of feet {to the|towards the|for the} wingspan or the height {of the|from the|in the} tail and call it the world’ s biggest jet. That’ s what was amazing about the 747.

Lombardi said that at the time {it was|it had been|it absolutely was} so big that people wondered if it was capable of sustained flight.

On February 9, 1969, it did just that, with four ground-breaking high-bypass turbofan Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines powering the aircraft {that would|that could|that will} later be known as Queen of the Skies into the air above Everett, Washington.

The cargo age and containerisation

But even before its first flight, the 747’ s design was predicated on cargo. The practicalities of its initial and predicted cargo missions were, and remain, integral to the 747 together with the contemporaneous design of {the unit|the device|the system} load device (ULD), the element of the containerised shipping revolution that would change the face of airline cargo {for the next|for} half century and beyond.

ULDs {are the|would be the|will be the} metal boxes in a variety of {shapes and sizes|size and shapes|sizes and shapes} that passengers worldwide {are used to|are accustomed to|are more comfortable with} seeing whizzing around airports on baggage carts, being loaded into aircraft or sitting on the apron. {The size|The scale|The type}, shape, capacity and other characteristics of ULDs are specified by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the primary global airline trade association, {but the|however the|nevertheless the} size and shape of the original LD1 container relates directly to {the shape|the form|the design} of the belly cargo space within the Boeing 747.

Lombardi said {one of the|among the|one of many} interesting debates of the time, {against the|contrary to the|from the} backdrop of the military cargo planes already in service – primarily the C-141 Starlifter and the Lockheed C-5 – was around the ease of loading from the ground of an aircraft {with a|having a|using a} high wing.

When it came to the 747 {the design|the style|the look} decision was to create a low-wing aircraft, but also for ease of maintenance {of the|from the|in the} engines and parts of the airframe. As well, said Lombardi, “ there’ s {some other|various other|a few other} aerodynamic ideas that just work better as low-wing airplane.

“ {With that|With this|Recover} decision to make the airplane {a more|a far more|an even more} conventional, commercial jet… {they had|that they had|they’d} to come up with an idea of how {to load|to launch} the plane, ” he said.

“ {Part of the|Section of the|Area of the} process of making the 747 {into a|right into a|in to a} freighter was designing {and looking|and searching} at different ramps and loaders, and eventually coming up with {the different|the various|the several} types of loaders that are very conventional today. That was {all part of|part and parcel of|a part of} the design process of the cargo freight version of the 747. ”

A file image of a Qantas Boeing 747SP-38 (Graham Bennet)

A file image of a Qantas Boeing 747SP-38 (Graham Bennet)

The 747 defined the passenger experience for {generations|decades|years}

Above the cargo deck, however , the 747 created an entirely different {world of|regarding|associated with} passenger experience. The early jet age jumbos featured {everything from|from|many methods from} lounges to full beds to pianos.

Early on, Pan Am “ wanted a piano {on the|around the|within the} upper deck, which {had to be|needed to be} put into the airplane before it was finished, so it {had to be|needed to be} put in during assembly {because there was|simply because there was} no way to get onto the upper deck, otherwise, ” explained Lombardi.

“ There was a lot of competition by the airlines to outdo one another in showing {the luxury|the luxurious} of that upper deck – and, of course , the other {first class|top class|1st class} areas in the nose {of the|from the|in the} airplane which was unique {because you|since you|as you} did get a small {bit of a|slight} forward view. ”

From Qantas’ s Captain Cook Lounge {to the|towards the|for the} myriad other spaces –   often garishly 1970s in colour, materials {and style|and elegance} to our modern eyes –   the upper deck 747 lounge did not last long. The 747-200, enabled for full passenger seating on the upper deck, came with a full {set of|group of|pair of} windows along the upper deck rather than just the three windows {of the|from the|in the} upper lounges, spaced farther apart.

High flying luxury in the upper deck lounges of 1970s Qantas. (Qantas)

Some airlines, including TWA and British Airways, later converted three-windowed -100 jets {to a|to some|into a} full set of 10 windows and after seats were installed upstairs, the 747’ s hump became a swift favourite with flyers {in the know|the public secret}.

“ {Once they|After they|When they} started putting more passengers into the upper deck and realising there was more revenue up there with passenger seating rather than having a lounge, there was some interest in expanding it, ” Lombardi explained.

Airlines then installed either economy class seats in a 3-3 configuration, or, more frequently, early business class recliners in a 2-2 layout. Some early international premium economy seats {also found|also available} their way upstairs {in a|inside a|within a} 2-2 formation. Later, angled sleeper seats, or fully flat business class beds in a 2-2 configuration, were supplanted by fully flat beds with direct aisle access such as those {offered by|provided by|proposed by} Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific or Delta.

Even today, habitué s of business and first class {continue to|always|carry on and} debate their preference {for the|for that|for your} private jet-like atmosphere {of the|from the|in the} upper deck versus the tapering nose of the 747 which also went from {either a|whether} 3-3 economy, 2-2 {in business|running a business|in operation}, or 1-1 in {first class|top class|1st class} and then 1-2-1 or 1-1-1 in business, depending on the seat {used by|utilized by|employed by} particular airlines.

Further back, the original economy configuration of early 747s was a remarkably wide nine-abreast, compared with the universal 10-abreast 3-4-3 layout of today’ s 747 passenger fleet. Qantas, for example , operated early aircraft in a 3-4-2 configuration, rarely seen today except by those passengers travelling on certain Japan Airlines 777-300ERs. Yet much like the later 777, the 747 fell victim to the densification of economy class, and a 10th seat was installed.

At that point, the 747’ s roughly 17-inch-wide seats became the general standard for economy class, driven partially by the aircraft’ s enduring presence in the skies. (As there is no officially agreed width measurement, unlike seat pitch, precision in comparisons is somewhat complex. )

Until the arrival {of the|from the|in the} Airbus A380 in the mid-2000s, the 747’ s reign as an airline flagship aircraft allowed carriers to introduce a wide variety of passenger experience innovations, including business class {in the late|back in the} 1970s, premium economy {in the|within the|inside the} early 1990s, the first fully flat bed in {first class|top class|1st class} on a modern airliner (British Airways in 1995), {the first|the very first|the initial} angled lie-flat sleeper {in business|running a business|in operation} (Virgin Atlantic 1999), {the first|the very first|the initial} fully flat bed {in business|running a business|in operation} class (British Airways 2000), and the first fully flat bed offering direct aisle access to every passenger (Virgin Atlantic 2003).

Yet the 747 didn’ t just develop to meet passenger needs: its size, shape and performance evolved to serve the needs of passenger airlines, freight carriers, governments, the military, scientific organisations  – and even
to support spaceflight.

Qantas Boeing 747-400ER VH-OEJ, the last 747 built for Qantas, wore the iconic Wunala Dreaming Indigenous scheme from its delivery in August 2003 until it was repainted in standard Qantas colours in January 2012. (Rob Finlayson)

Qantas Boeing 747-400ER VH-OEJ, the last 747 built for Qantas, wore the iconic Wunala Dreaming Indigenous scheme from its delivery in August 2003 until it was repainted in standard Qantas colours in January 2012. (Rob Finlayson)

No other civil airliner has fulfilled so many disparate missions

At launch, the 747-100’ s range stood at 4, 620nm,   only slightly further than today’ s {most efficient|most effective} narrowbodies. The 747-200B {not only|not just|not merely} increased the number of passengers onboard by turning the upper deck into seating space {and by|through} increasing the amount of usable space within the upstairs bubble, {it also|additionally, it|in addition, it} increased the range
{to 6|to six}, 560nm.

Stretched upper deck versions {of the|from the|in the} 747, often marked by “ SUD” in their model names, dé buted {on the|around the|within the} domestic Japanese high-volume routes as the 747-100BSR, and were later offered by Boeing as both a linefit and retrofit option for the -100, -200 and -SP series, creating an interesting challenge for observers throughout the service lives of these aircraft. Later, {the Japanese|japan} market 747-400D, with its stretched upper deck but lacking the -400’ s signature winglets, would similarly challenge the next generation to distinguish between it and a 747-300.

But {take a moment|set aside a second|spend some time}, close your eyes and imagine a 747. {Does it have|Proper drainage .|Is there} the stretched upper deck? Does it have winglets?

For a growing proportion of readers as time goes by, the answer to both those questions, {and thus|and therefore|and so} their image of the quintessential 747, will be yes. That’ s the 747-400, which comprises nearly half of the 747 aircraft built to date, {across the|throughout the|over the} -400, -400D (Japanese domestic), -400ER (extended range), -400ERF (extended range freighter), -400F (freighter) and -400M (combi) variants.

Indeed, combi versions of the family, where the rear section of {the main|the primary|the key} deck was given over to door-loaded palletised or ULD cargo, were built for the -200, -300 and -400 generations of the 747.

The 747-400, developed {in the|within the|inside the} 1980s with the benefit of improved aerodynamics, fly-by-wire controls and two-person flight decks (from experience with the 757 and 767 programmes), would come to dominate long-haul flying {for many years|for several years|for quite some time}, particularly for the Australian market. The -400 increased range to 7, 285nmi, {and the|as well as the|plus the} 747-400ER, ordered only by Qantas, to 7, 670nm.

The -ERF freighter model, which offered either a boost in range or payload, rounded {out the|your|out your} 747’ s production {at the end of|in late} the 2000s, with the final -400ERF delivered in 2009 {before the|prior to the|ahead of the} first flight of the 747-8F in 2010 and the passenger version, 747-8I, in 2011. To date, neither has been as hugely successful as its widebody stablemates or previous 747 generations.

Dreamlifter – a heavy freight variant of the 747-400, built originally to transport larger components of the 787 from diverse manufacturers to the Boeing assembly lines. (Boeing)

Dreamlifter – a heavy freight variant of the 747-400, built originally to transport larger components of the 787 from diverse manufacturers to the Boeing assembly lines. (Boeing)

But the 747 isn’ t just one jet, and never {has been|continues to be|have been}. Like other stalwarts {of the|from the|in the} skies, it has evolved beyond recognition in many ways, apart from the most immediately visible: its iconic hump.

“ The 747 was probably our most studied airframe, I would say, in the entire history of the company, ” said Boeing historian Mike Lombardi.

“ {The product|The item|The merchandise} development team looked at that airplane in so many different ways over the years, and had so many different ideas. I think that the one {they had|that they had|they’d} hoped for the most, and it didn’ t really come about, was making it into a military cargo airplane. There was big competition with the DC-10 for an advanced tanker cargo airplane. {I think|I believe|I do believe} that was one… everybody felt that we wanted very desperately to win, and didn’ t come about.

“ There were a number of interesting studies done in making the airplane bigger, and those eventually did lead to the plane we have today, the 747-8, and advancing it, making it better, (with) a more efficient wing and putting bigger engines {in it|inside it|within it}, stretching it a bit.

“ We see {the results|the outcomes|the final results} now really with the ultimate 747 in the -8: that airplane has probably been studied for a long time in {a lot of|a large amount of|a lots of} different ways, ” Lombardi said.

“ {There were|There have been|There was} concepts. There was the airplane to be used to launch space vehicles. That was a concept that Boeing did back in the 1970s, making a possible launch vehicle for a space shuttle type spacecraft. They envisioned the 747 basically doing {any kind of|any type of|any sort of} job that you can imagine. ”

US space agency NASA operated two heavily modified 747-100 airframes as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, capable of transporting the space shuttle orbiters from their landing site to the launch site, {and indeed|as well as} launched the first test space shuttle, Enterprise, from the top of one of the carrier aircraft in 1977.

These aircraft were retired in 2012, but NASA {and the|as well as the|plus the} German space agency DLR still operate the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope on a modified 747SP, N747NA, previously operated by Pan Am and United Airlines, contains a large infrared telescope behind a port side door aft of the wing, retracting {in flight|flying} to allow telescope operations {above the|over a} level of most water vapour in the atmosphere.

Beyond that, Lombardi said, “ there’ s a lot of different applications, military applications that were {looked at|looked over|viewed} for the 747. A lot of those didn’ t play out. Of course , {some of them|a number of them|many of them} did – with the Command Post and Air Force One – but there was {a lot of|lots of|plenty of} hope to do more work as a freighter. ”

The United States Air Force E-4B, the military version of the 747-200B, serves as the Advanced Airborne Command Post, designated the National Airborne Operations Center when in action. Nicknamed Kneecap from its previous name, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), it is {intended to|meant to|designed to} serve as a survivable command centre for US command and control operations, and was commonly known during the Cold War as the “ doomsday plane”.

Similarly, the two VC-25 aircraft {commonly known as|typically referred to as} Air Force One are only technically so designated when actually carrying the President of the United States. These aircraft, based on the 747-200B and delivered in 1990 {to replace|to change|to exchange} the VC-137C – {based on the|in line with the|using the} 707 – are themselves to be replaced by 2024 by a pair of heavily modified 747-8Is.

{Yet the|The} US military used {many more|a lot more|much more} 747s than just those carrying military designations, with extra lift from the civilian fleet working frequently for military customers. “ A lot of the Pan Am airplanes were modified for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, and were then called up for the Gulf War” operations in both 1990-1991 and 2003-2011,
explained  Lombardi.

{Possibly the|Probably the} oddest-looking 747 ever modified was the YAL-1A Airborne Laser Testbed, a modified 747-400F that operated between 2002 and 2014, intended to intercept tactical and intercontinental ballistic missiles by heating their skin to create structural failures. But there’ s still plenty of time in the life {of the|from the|in the} 747 programme for that modification to be surpassed.

Rare beast: the YAL-1A airborne laser testbed , a modified 747-400F. It last saw service in 2014. (Australian Aviation archive)

Rare beast: the YAL-1A airborne laser testbed, a modified 747-400F. It last saw service in 2014. (Australian Aviation archive)

The future of the 747 isn’ t in the 747 — it’ s in Boeing

The Airbus A380 is larger. The Boeing 777 and soon the Airbus A330 are more numerous. {The air|The environment|Air} and cabin pressure inside newer jets such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 are better for fatigue and jetlag. More modern aircraft have more spacious first and business class seating – though arguably that is not true for many aircraft in economy class with high-density nine and 10-abreast seating (the 787 and 777 respectively).

In the foreseeable future, the 747 will cease production but will remain the icon, the gold standard, the jet that first said jet to travellers across decades and across continents, the flagship of fleets worldwide for nearly half a century, the testbed for technologies and inflight products that Joe Sutter and his teams could barely dream of, the aircraft that made stepping on to a plane {one moment|just a minute} and stepping off it a day later on the other side {of the world|on the planet|worldwide} not just possible but commonplace.

The 747 inspired generations of aircraft enthusiasts young and old, changed {the way|the way in which|just how} Boeing operated, and redefined the world of airline travel. Its role can’ t be understated not just in its operations, but in how it changed Boeing as a company — and the aerospace industry by extension.

“ It really reinforced this {idea of|concept of|notion of} doing difficult things at Boeing, and that’ s an idea that really goes back to Bill Boeing who suggested that’ s what we do, ” said Lombardi.

“ I think the 747 was a great example of that: it was very hard. It was {long hours|extended hours|extended stays}, coming up with brand new ideas, thinking outside the box, pushing limits on all fronts: intellectually, financially, even physically, with people working just extreme hours {to get this done|of doing this|to start this}, and the dedication to get it done.

“ In all, they set {an example|a good example|the} for us today here at Boeing. They gave us {the belief that|the fact that} we can do hard things; that we can essentially take things that other people say are impossible to do and do them. {Here it is|Heihei is} 50 years later. We’ re still building it.

“ {It was built|Its initial creation} to last, and it has. ”

[embedded content]
VIDEO: A look at the history of the 747 from a 2016 post on Boeing’ s YouTube channel .

This story first appeared in the March 2019 edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories {like this|such as this|similar to this}, subscribe here .