A 747 story: The history of the jumbo jet

Since its first flight 50 years ago, the Boeing 747 has carried people, presidents and a Space Shuttle. Relive the history of the Queen of the Skies.

Kent German
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
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The 747's golden anniversary

Fifty years ago today, on Feb. 9, 1969, the first Boeing 747 ever built completed its first flight. Called the City of Everett, it took off from a brand-new runway at Boeing's specially built 747 factory in Everett, Washington. A new era in commercial aviation was born and the original jumbo jet started making history immediately.

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The City of Everett

Four months earlier, Boeing rolled the aircraft out of the plant during a media event featuring flight attendants from the first customer airlines. Today you can visit the City of Everett at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

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747 designs

When it was developing the 747, Boeing created a number of different designs. They included full double decker aircrafts (the three models in the top row) 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 won out. 

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The Father of the 747

Joe Sutter led the engineering team that developed the 747. He died in 2016 at the age of 95.

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Waddell's Wagon

Chief Test Pilot Jack Waddell poses with a 747 model. Behind him is "Waddell's Wagon," a mockup of the 747 nose atop a truck that was used to show how high above the ground the plane's cockpit was.

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Showing size

This mockup showed how large the main cabin's interior was. Most airlines adopted a tighter 10-abreast seating in economy class.

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The first version of the 747, the 747-100, 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 Jan. 21, 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 early the next day and used a replacement aircraft.

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The famous upper deck lounge

A highlight of early 747-100s was the upper deck lounge where first class passengers could relax, have a drink and socialize with each other. 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.

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A spacious ride

Boeing was proud to promote the 747's size in its marketing materials. And why wouldn't it be? 

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A Boeing family

The 747 towered over the 707, Boeing's first jet airliner. 

11 of 32 Eduard Marmet/Wikimedia Commons


The second 747 version, the 747-200, 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.

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Out for delivery

In this photo from the 1970s, shiny new 747s are parked outside the Everett plant awaiting delivery to airlines.

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Boeing built the 747SR (SR stood for short range) when Japan Airlines and ANA asked for a high-capacity aircraft that could serve their 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.

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One of the 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 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.  

BOAC Cabin Service
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Stairway in the sky

The spiral staircase to the upper deck was an iconic feature of early 747s. Starting wth the 747-300, Boeing adopted a straight staircase. 

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The upper deck grew by 23 feet for the 747-300, which entered service in 1983. (Singapore Airlines dubbed its aircraft "Big Top.") Though the aircraft enjoyed a slightly faster cruising speed, It had a short life when Boeing halted production in 1990 in favor of the 747-400.

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The most successful 747 version (694 were built), the 747-400 entered service in 1989 and continues to fly with British Airways (BA in particular still has a large, active fleet of 747s), Virgin Atlantic, Thai Airways, KLM, Qantas and Lufthansa. 

Almost a whole redesign, the 747-400's improvements included winglets, new interiors, longer range capability 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.

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Though it's now dwarfed by the Airbus A380, the immense scale of a 747-400 remains inescapable. Engine choice was up to the airline, and this former United Airlines aircraft used two Pratt & Whitney PW4000-94 engines under each wing. 

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747-8 Intercontinental

The last passenger version of the jumbo jet, 747-8 Intercontinental first flew in 2011 and entered service the next year (the freighter 747-8 first made its first flight in 2010). It has a 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. Boeing is still building freighter models, but it expects to close the passenger version production line.

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747 Freighter

The 747 has also enjoyed tremendous success as a cargo aircraft, the 747 Freighter. In fact, the whole reason the cockpit was placed on a second deck was to allow the nose to open like a door for easy loading.

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747 Combi

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.

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The 747's home

Boeing had a big (pun intended) problem when it was designing the 747: The company had no facility large enough to build it. The site in Everett, Washington, required moving 4 million cubic yards of earth, and the factory was completed in 1967. 

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 the Everett building, and you can take a public tour.

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Under construction

A Boeing 747-8 Freighter under construction at the Everett factory in 2011.

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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 final assembly plants in Washington state and Charleston, South Carolina. Airbus has a comparable aircraft with the Beluga.

Space shuttle Endeavor buzzes the Bay Area
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Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

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.

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Air Force One

The most exclusive 747 in the sky has carried the president of the United States since 1987. Officially designated as the VC-25, the 747-200 has everything the president needs to lead the country while in the air. 

Each plane (there are two) 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 heavily 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. 

As the current VC-25s are nearing the end of their lifespans, two unused 747-8s currently in storage in the California desert will be converted into new presidential aircraft by 2024.

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Boeing E-4

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.

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747 Global Supertanker

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."

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Virgin Orbit

In November, a Virgin Atlantic 747 called "Cosmic Girl" completed a test flight for the Virgin Orbit private space program with a 70-foot-long (21-meter) rocket attached under its wing. 

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An acronym for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, the SOFIA aircraft is a modified 747SP with a 20-ton telescope that 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.

31 of 32 US Missile Defense Agency

Boeing YAL-1

Laser beams! Instead of being mounted on the head of a shark, this one was in the nose of a 747-400. Developed by the US Department of Defense, the aircraft carried a Chemical oxygen iodine laser that was designed to destroy ballistic missiles while they were still in boost phase. It first flew in 2002 and carried out a few tests before being scrapped in 2014. 

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Japanese Air Force One

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.

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