Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet at John F. Kennedy Airport

Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jet’

Boeing 747 Commercial Wide-Bodied Airliner

Introduced in 1970, the Boeing 747 went on to utterly transform commercial air travel. The first wide-bodied airliner, the 747 was able to transport more people than anything that had preceded it and, until the Airbus A380’s arrival on the scene 37 years later, its sheer capacity was unrivalled.

It is estimated that, to date, 747s have flown some 3.5 billion passengers in all – a figure approaching half the world’s current population. Known as the ‘Queen of the Skies’ and, even more famously, the ‘Jumbo Jet’, the type remains in production today, with 1,519 examples built and counting. Besides its out-and-out passenger-carrying role, the 747 has also become a successful freighter, a space missions support platform and taken on numerous other roles during its lifetime.

The 747’s Origins

The 747 story began in 1963, when Boeing established a group specifically to study future large commercial aircraft options. March 1966 saw the 747 development programme officially activated. The following month, launch customer Pan American World Airways (‘Pan Am’) ordered 25 examples. More than 70 other airlines would ultimately follow its lead. Bringing the 747 into physical form took Boeing into unchartered territory. It was such a large aircraft that it needed its very own assembly factory. 200 million cubic feet in area, the building was constructed in Everett, Washington and, when finished, was the largest of its kind in the world.

747 Roll-Out

The culmination of a reported 75,000 drawings, a build involving around six million components and some 15,000 hours of wind tunnel testing, the prototype 747 was rolled-out on 30 September 1968. Key features – retained down the 747 developmental timeline – were its twin-aisle layout, its upper deck and the staircase that linked the lower and upper levels – ‘jetliner’ firsts all. Four Pratt & Whitney engines, each producing 46,500 pounds of thrust, equipped this first 747 - later models used General Electric or Rolls-Royce engines – while beneath its fuselage sat a total of 18 wheels.

First 747 Flight

On 9 February 1969, pilots Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle carried out the 747’s first flight. Further flight tests involving five 747s followed over the subsequent 10 months, roughly either side of the type’s public and international debut at that year’s Paris Air Show. 1,500 flying hours had been accumulated by December, when commercial certification was awarded. Commercial flights began the very next month – Pan Am’s New York to London route getting the ball rolling. That first year saw 96 747s delivered in all. By 16 July 1970, one million passengers had flown by 747. By January 1971, the world’s in-service 747s had flown a combined 71 million miles. The air travel revolution was now well in motion.

747 Versions

The initial Boeing 747 production version was the 747-100, of which 167 were built. The 747-100 spawned the 747SR and 747-100B sub-variants, plus the 747SP (Special Performance) – a much shorter and lighter model with increased range and a raised maximum ceiling, which was introduced in 1976. 45 747SPs were manufactured and, again, Pan Am was the launch customer. Following the 747-100, the next major production model was the 747-200 which, boasting more thrust and greater fuel capacity, joined the -100 in service in 1971. 393 of these were constructed, while deliveries of the next version - the 747-300 – reached 81. The 747-300’s major revision was its upper deck – some 23 feet longer than preceding versions. Consequently, capacity leapt from 480 (for the -100 and -200) to 565 if a single class configuration was adopted.

KLM Boeing 747

Most-Produced 747

Many new features made their way into the most-produced ‘Jumbo Jet’ of all – the 747-400. They comprised both structural (lighter airframe, modified cabin layout, six foot-high ‘winglets’ added) and technological (electro-mechanical cockpit instruments exchanged for digital displays) revisions. Carried out by Northwest, the first commercial Boeing 747-400 flight occurred on 9 February 1989 – twenty years to the day since the prototype 747’s first flight. 442 747-400s entered airline service overall including the 1,000th example built, which went to Singapore Airlines in 1993.

 Boeing 747 Undercarriage

747-8 Intercontinental

The 747-8I (Intercontinental) is the current production model. Announced in 2005, it first flew on 20 March 2011 (a freighter model, the 747-8F, beat it by 13 months). Measuring 250 foot, two inches, its fuselage is the longest of any commercial passenger aircraft. As the ‘8’ part of its name denotes, the 747-8I shares the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s engines and avionics and, according to its manufacturer, it offers significant noise (30 per cent less) and fuel burn (16 per cent less) level savings over the 747-400. The 747-8I is selling steadily – 38 have so far been delivered, the first to German carrier Lufthansa in May 2012 – but may become the final 747 model. Meantime, beyond the commercial arena, advanced but non-finalised plans exist to make the 747-8 the next US Presidential transport, replacing the VC-25 (747-200) used in the Air Force One role since August 1990. No contract has yet been awarded but the 747-8 is the USAF’s favoured aircraft, nonetheless.

Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental Flight

Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

It’s not just passengers that 747s have transported over the years. A whole line of cargo models has been produced but several more specialised 747s also emerged. They included NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft - two highly-modified 747s used to move Space Shuttles between landing and launch sites. Active between 1977 and 2012, this pair was based at Edwards Air Force Base and carried out hundreds of NASA ferry missions.

Modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

Evergreen 747 Supertanker

The Evergreen 747 Supertanker was another famed 747 variant. Owned and operated by aviation services organisation Evergreen, the Supertanker – developed from a 747-100 - was used to fight fires between 2009 and 2013. Able to accommodate 74,200 litres of water, it was the world’s largest fire-fighting aircraft but is currently inactive. A 747-400-based successor is presently in development.

Key Facts: Boeing 747-400

Role: Long-Haul Passenger Aircraft
Length: 231 ft 10 in (70.6 m)
Wing span: 211 ft 5 in (64.4 m)
Engines: Four Pratt & Whitney PW4056 turbofans, producing 63,300 pounds thrust each
Maximum speed: 608 mph (978 km/h)
Maximum range: 8,357 miles (13,450 km)
Maximum height: 55,000 ft (13,747 m)
Crew: Two (pilot, co-pilot)
Passengers: 416-to-660
First flown: 9 February 1969 (747-100 prototype)


Pan Am 747-100 copyright US National Archives and Records Administration – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
British Airways 747-400 copyright Adrian Pingstone – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
KLM 747-400 copyright Alf van Beem – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Singapore Airlines 747-400 undercarriage copyright Adrian Pingstone – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
747-8I copyright/courtesy Boeing
NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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