When United Airlines retires the Boeing 747 next Tuesday after 47 years, the iconic airliner will almost disappear from US carriers (Delta will follow by the end of the year). For fans of the original jumbo jet, it's both a sad time and an occasion to celebrate how it profoundly changed aviation forever. From the moment the 747 was introduced, the aircraft made history.
On February 9, 1969 the City of Everett became the first 747 ever to fly when it took off from the new runway at Boeing's specially-built 747 factory in Everett, Washington. Four months earlier, Boeing rolled the aircraft out of the plant in a media event attended by flight attendants from the first customer airlines. Today you can visit the City of Everett at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
When it was developing the 747, Boeing created a number of different designs. They included full double decker aircrafts (the two models immediately to the right of the woman) and one that placed the cockpit below the passenger deck (bottom left). It was called "the anteater". The red and white design at bottom center eventually win out.
The first version of the jumbo jet, it was originally distinguished by an upper deck passenger lounge with just three windows. Later, Boeing offered an option that replaced the lounge with more seats (and additional windows). The first 747 passenger flight was scheduled for January 22, 1970 on Pan Am's New York to London route. Clipper Young America was ready for takeoff, but when an engine began overheating the flight was postponed until the next day using a replacement aircraft.
A highlight of the 747-100 was the upper deck lounge where first class passengers could relax, have a drink and socialize with each other. Just as awesome: You reached the upper deck via a wonderfully cool spiral staircase that became an icon of the aircraft.
Airlines soon realized, however, that they could make more money adding seats to the upper deck and the lounges were phased out. Today, the upper deck remains a space primarily for business class though Virgin Atlantic saves space on its 747s for economy class seats. Some airlines that operate the Airbus A380 have brought back the inflight lounge, but only for premium flyers.
The second 747 version entered service in 1971. From the outside, it looked about the same as the earlier model, but it came with more powerful engines and increased fuel capacity for longer-range flights.
Boeing built the 747SR (SR stood for short range) when Japan Airlines and ANA asked for a high-capacity aircraft that could serve the short, but popular domestic routes. To accommodate the extra stress that would result from more takeoffs and landings, Boeing reduced the fuel capacity and added additional structural support into the wings, fuselage and landing gear. It first flew in 1973.
One of few commercial aircraft ever to be intentionally shortened, the 747SP was designed for ultra-long-range routes that didn't warrant the full passenger load of a standard 747. Introduced in 1976, it was 48 feet shorter than the 747-100 and carried 90 fewer passengers in a typical configuration.
Pan Am launched the 747SP (SP stood for special performance) on its New York-Tokyo route, a distance of almost 7,000 miles. Without passengers it could go fly even farther. In 1976, a 747SP flew 10,000 miles nonstop from Seattle to Cape Town on a delivery flight for South African Airways. Only 45 were built.
The upper deck grew by 23 feet for the 747-300, which entered service in 1983. (Singapore Airlines dubbed its aircraft "Big Top".) The spiral staircase became a boring straight staircase and the aircraft enjoyed a slightly faster cruising speed. It had a short life, though, when Boeing halted production in 1990 in favor of the 747-400.
The most successful 747 version (694 were built), it entered service in 1989 and will continue to fly with British Airways (BA in particular still has a large, active fleet of 747s), Virgin Atlantic, Thai Airways, KLM, Qantas and Lufthansa through at least 2020.
Almost a whole redesign, the 747-400's improvements included winglets, new interiors, longer range and a lighter airframe. With a new "glass cockpit" the flight engineer position was eliminated. The last plane was delivered to China Airlines in 2005.
The last passenger version of the jumbo jet first flew in 2011 and entered service the next year (the freighter 747-8 first made its first flight in 2010). It has new cockpit and engine technology based on the 787, redesigned wings and room for more passengers. A stretched fuselage also makes it the longest passenger aircraft in the world at 250 feet. It currently flies with Lufthansa, Air China and Korean Air and with a few freight airlines.
The versatile 747 Combi accommodated passengers in the front half of the aircraft and cargo in the back. A wall divided the two sections and cargo was loaded through a large door on the left side behind the wing (you can barely see the door outline around the "Asiana Group" writing on the fuselage). The Combi allowed airlines to fly the 747, but utilize the space more efficiently with a smaller passenger load. This Combi was a 747-400.
Boeing had a big (pun intended) problem when it was designing the 747: It had no facility large enough to build it. After choosing a site 30 minutes north of Seattle in Everett, Washington and moving 4 million cubic yards of earth, it completed construction on a new factory in 1967. Time was so short -- Boeing already had 25 747 orders from Pan Am on the books -- that it finished the factory even as it constructed the first 747 mockup on the factory floor.
At 472.3 million cubic feet (4.3 million square feet or 98.3 acres), the Everett plant remains the world's largest building by volume. It's so big that clouds actually formed inside until Boeing installed an air circulation system. More than 30,000 people are employed in Everett building not just just the 747-8, but also the 777 and the 787 Dreamliner. You can take a public tour.
A modified 747-400, the Dreamlifter has a 65,000-cubic foot cargo hold (the aft end of the plane swings open like a giant door to allow access to the bay). Boeing uses the four Dreamlifters, the first of which flew in 2007, to transport the wings and fuselage sections of 787 Dreamliner aircraft to its final assembly plants in Washington state and Charleston, South Carolina. Airbus has a comparable aircraft with the Beluga.
Maybe the most famous pair of 747s ever, two 747-100s were used to carry NASA's Space Shuttles from the landing sites, like the one at California's Edwards Air Force Base, to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The last ferry flight occurred in September, 2012 when one of the carriers flew the Space Shuttle Endeavour to Los Angeles International Airport.
The most exclusive 747s in the sky have carried the President of the United States since 1987. Officially designated as the VC-25, the two 747-200s have everything the President needs to lead the country while in the air.
Each plane has a private bedroom and office for POTUS, a communications room, a conference area, a large galley, a medical facility, and seating for staff and press. The plane's wiring is heavy shielded against nuclear electromagnetic pulse, it carries electronic countermeasures and it can be refueled in the air. But no matter what a certain film tells you ("Get off my plane!"), there's no escape pod. Officially, at least.
Operated by the US Air Force, the Boeing E-4 Advanced Airborne Command Post is designed to serve as a mobile command post for the President, the Secretary of Defense and senior military leaders during a crisis or emergency.
Currently, there are four E-4s, all of which are remodeled 747-200s. Each aircraft has global communications equipment (the bulge behind the upper deck houses a satellite antenna), shielding from nuclear blasts and the ability to refuel in air.
The only aircraft of its kind in the world, the 747 Supertanker is a powerful firefighting tool. Flying at almost 600 miles per hour, it can can drop 19,200 gallons of fire retardant, water or gel after taking only 30 minutes to fully load. Another 747-400, it was originally delivered to Japan Airlines in 1991 and was converted to a tanker in 2012. It now carries the name "The Spirit of John Muir."
An acronym for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, the SOFIA aircraft is a modified 747SP with a 20-ton that telescope looks out of the door behind the left wing. A joint program between NASA and DLR Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Center), the telescope gives astronomers access to the visible, infrared, and submillimeter spectrums with little atmospheric interference.
The government of Japan also uses two 747s for overseas travel by the Emperor, Prime Minister and other top officials. Like their US counterparts, the aircraft can function as aerial office and command centers with sleeping accommodations.
They'll be replaced by Boeing 777s by 2019. Boeing also has built custom 747s for heads of state in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and for a few private (and fabulously wealthy) individuals.