The Boeing 747 was one of the most ambitious projects ever taken on by the aerospace company. More than twice as big as the Boeing 707, the four-engine jumbo-jet was originally able to carry more than 400 passengers and had a range of more than 5,000 nautical miles, making the plane very popular for overseas travel. To manufacture the 747, the company built a huge production facility at Paine Field in Everett. Later variants extended the plane's range and had more powerful and fuel-efficient engines. For more than 50 years the 747 was known as the "Queen of the Skies," and it revolutionized air travel. But as airlines found newer planes to be more economically viable, the demand for the huge plane fell, and in 2020 Boeing announced that the last four 747s would be delivered in 2022.
The Jet Age
Boeing entered the jet age in 1958 with the launch of the Boeing 707. Pan Am inaugurated 707 service on October 17, 1958, with a transatlantic flight between Baltimore and Paris, attended by friends of Pan Am founder and president Juan Trippe (1899-1981). Pan Am began scheduled 707 service between New York and Paris the following week, and the new jets were able to cut flight times in half and carry more passengers than other commercial aircraft then in use.
Additional carriers soon began using 707s, along with Douglas DC-8s, but the 707 quickly became the popular choice for travelers around the world. Airlines enjoyed its use for transcontinental and transoceanic travel, but soon found a need for smaller jetliners to serve regional airports and fly shorter domestic routes. Boeing began work on the smaller 727, which entered service in 1964.
As more jets took to the skies, airport congestion greatly increased. Boeing's design teams looked into stretching the 707 so that it could carry 250 passengers (compared to 140 passengers carried in the original model), but the engineers had their doubts whether this could be viable. A longer 707 meant longer landing gear (to prevent the tail from scraping the ground during takeoffs) and this meant a massive redesign. Given that, a new model seemed to be a better solution.
Enter Juan Trippe
It was at this point that Juan Trippe offered up a bold suggestion. At the time, Pan Am was Boeing's most influential customers, and at a meeting with Boeing's sales team, Trippe asked if the company could build a jet more than twice the size of a 707 that could carry more than 400 passengers. When Boeing CEO Bill Allen (1900-1985) heard about this idea, he called Trippe to ask him if he was dreaming. Trippe told him he was very serious.
Trippe envisioned a double-deck seating arrangement and insisted that the plane had to be designed for cargo nose-loading. Trippe believed that the future of aviation was in supersonic transport (as did Boeing) and saw this new model as a stopgap that could be used until SSTs became the standard. He felt that the large jets could then be converted into cargo carriers, hence the need for easy front-end loading.
Trippe also had one more stipulation -- the new plane had to be deliverable within three years. This meant that Boeing would have to design the largest plane in the world within a very short time, and then build a factory large enough to accommodate it, which Boeing did not have. The task seemed almost impossible, yet the company took the risk. In 1966 Pan Am signed a $550 million contract for 25 planes, at the time the most expensive single order ever placed by an airline.
Building a Team
Jack Steiner (1917-2003), Boeing's vice-president of product development, was given the job to oversee the plane (now assigned with model number 747) in its planning stages, and Mal Stamper (1925-2005) was named general manger when the project went into full design. Joe Sutter (1921-2016) transferred from the 737 program to become the 747 project's chief engineer. Sutter worried that he might have trouble manning the 747 program. At the time, most engineers were working on the SST program, which Boeing executives felt had a higher priority. Nevertheless, Sutter gathered what he considered to be a great team, given the circumstances.
Almost immediately, the design team expressed concerns over Trippe's request for a double-decked seating arrangement. This limited the cargo-carrying capability, but more importantly, it hindered evacuation procedures in case of a ground emergency. FAA regulations required that all passengers be able to evacuate within 90 seconds, and having two decks made this a logistical nightmare, especially with the upper deck being so high off the ground.
Boeing decided instead to plan for a wide-body design, but this meant that they had to convince Trippe, who was known to be very autocratic. Sutter asked systems engineer Milt Heinemann to go to a meeting with Pan Am in New York to explain their design change. Before he left, Heinemann cut a piece of clothesline to 20 feet, the width of the wide body cabin.
In New York, he arrived at the Pan Am board room early, stretched the cord across the room, and discovered that it was exactly 20 feet wide. Trippe and his executives arrived, and they weren't happy when Heinemann explained why Boeing felt that a single-deck cabin was the right choice. But once Heinemann used the cord to illustrate how the passenger deck would be as spacious as the Pan Am board room, Trippe and his men were impressed.
Trippe agreed to the change, but requested that Boeing create mock-ups of both the single and double-deck versions. Fortunately, work on both of the plywood mock-ups was already underway at Renton. When Trippe and his executives visited the site a few weeks later, they liked the roomy wide-body version, and also saw how high off the ground the double-deck version would be. All agreed that the single-deck, wide-body plane was the way to proceed.
One distinctive feature that came about during the design of the wide-body version was the "hump" at the top of the fuselage. To meet the requirement for loading cargo through the front, the nose section would have to be hinged to raise up and out of the way. The meant that the cockpit had to be built atop the fuselage, and its bulge had to be extended back for aerodynamic reasons.
During the walkthrough of the wide-body mock-up, Trippe noticed this wide open area aft of the cockpit, and asked about its use. Boeing engineers pointed out that because the 747 would be going on very long flights, the area could be used as a rest area for flight crews. Trippe nixed that idea immediately, and stated that he wanted that space for use by passengers. This area became the bar and lounge, one of the 747's most memorable features.
Big Nest for a Big Bird
As design continued apace, the Boeing Company scrambled to find a location to construct a facility large enough to build the jumbo jet when the time came. A few sites outside of Washington state were considered, but an in-state location seemed much more optimal. One option was a large tract of land next to McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County, but there were concerns that the Pentagon would not allow use of the runway.
Instead, Bill Allen made the decision to build the plant near Paine Field in Everett, but this site also had some drawbacks. In order to build the planes, the company needed to bring in parts and materials by rail, but the closest line was 5 miles away. The spur line that was eventually built had a very steep grade, rising 500 feet form sea level.
Another problem involved a man who refused to sell his home, which sat right in the middle of the construction site. Although his property was appraised at less than $5000, the homeowner held out for six weeks until Boeing paid him $50,000. Then they found out he was separated from his wife, and the company had to spend two more months finding her to get her signature on the deed.
Construction of the facility began in the summer of 1966, but once the seasons began to change so did the weather. At one point it rained for 67 consecutive days, and mudslides at the site became a big problem. Snowstorms hit during the winter months, adding to the misery. By the time workers arrived to start constructing 747 mockups, the building walls still weren't completed.
In the end, construction workers hauled out more soil than the amount excavated during the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. Small hills were flattened and ravines were filled in, and on top of this level tract sat the largest enclosed space ever built under one roof. The completed structure was so large that clouds would sometimes form near the ceiling.
Most of the engineers worked at the Renton site while the Everett plant was being completed, but by the summer of 1967 they were working at the Everett facility. Much of the design work was far along, but as with any large-scale engineering project, tweaks and changes were still being made.
Early on, it was determined that the currently available commercial jet engines weren't strong enough to power such a large aircraft. Boeing, Pan Am, and Pratt & Whitney teamed up to create a new engine, the JT9D, a high-bypass-ratio turbofan, which was first tested by the end of 1966.
New technologies were used in the wing design and in the landing-gear layout, but probably the most important aspect that affected every component of the aircraft was the focus on safety features. Everyone at Boeing understood that the crash of a 747 would be far more deadly than any other plane crash and could damage the company's reputation far worse than the crash of any of its other jet airliners. Because of this, the utmost attention was given to fail-safe features, real-time fault analysis, and redundant systems.
Meanwhile, Boeing's sales team was busy lining up customers for the new jet. Initially, many airlines didn’t seem to express much interest in such a large aircraft, but were the concerned that their competitors might buy more 747s than they did. This was especially true among foreign carriers that didn’t want to see Pan Am gain a stronger hold on international routes.
By the time the 747 was ready for its public debut, 26 airlines had placed orders for the new jet. When the 747 was rolled out September 30, 1968, it was christened by 26 flight attendants, then called stewardesses, one from each of those airlines. The 26 women then lined up for photos in front of the big jet.
The rollout received a tremendous amount of press coverage. For the first time, many people got to see just how massive the plane was. When the giant doors of the Everett plant were opened and the plane came into view, the crowd gasped. At 231 feet in length, with a 196-foot wingspan, the 747 was far larger than any plane they had seen before.
Up in the Air
After the rollout the plane was towed back into the building so that work could continue in preparation for its first flight. From the start of the project, Mal Stamper wanted the plane to fly on December 17, 1968, the 65th anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk. Even though the engineers were working around the clock, they had to tell him that the date was impossible.
The 747's first flight was on February 9, 1969, with pilot Jack Waddell (b. 1923) at the controls, assisted by co-pilot Brien Wygle (1924-2020) and flight engineer Jesse Wallick (1934-2016). After taking off from Paine Field, the 747 ascended to 15,000 feet and the crew performed a series of tests, including sideslips and a simulated loss of hydraulic power. After more than an hour and a quarter aloft they safely brought the plane home.
The rest of the year was spent doing rigorous testing on all of the plane's components. Along with lab tests, more than 1,400 hours of flight was logged on five 747s, in 1,013 trips aloft. The FAA certified the 747 on December 30, 1969, and the first one entered service on January 22, 1970, on Pan Am's New York-to-London route. At this point, Boeing's outlook for the future should have been bright. But it wasn't.
The Boeing Bust
Before the 747 even took to the air, trouble was brewing within the company. Development costs for the 747, as well as the 737 model, were way over budget, and the company was billions of dollars in debt. Making matters worse, the market for airliners had become saturated, and orders were dropping off. By 1970, the company had begun laying off tens of thousands of employees, and things only got worse from there.
Boeing's SST program, which had been under government contract since 1966, was in deep trouble. Cost overruns were mounting and the project was so far behind in schedule that SST prototypes hadn't even been built. Congress debated whether or not to continue on with the program, and by 1971 it was canceled.
Because Boeing was the region's largest employer, the downturn had ripple effects in the local economy, and unemployment rates soared. Seattle unemployment went as high as 13.8 percent, compared to a national average of 4.5 percent, and Boeing's payroll bottomed out at 38,690 workers, down from a peak of 100,800 employees in 1967.
Production did continue on the 747s that had already been sold, but only a handful of new orders came in during the next few years, none of which were from American carriers. The 1973 oil crisis only exacerbated the problem, given the amount of fuel that a 747 burned. But Boeing was able to weather the crisis, and by the mid-1970s, business began to pick up again.
A Versatile Plane
Many passengers who flew aboard a 747 loved the experience. The plane was much roomier than other jets, and some airlines took advantage of the available space to customize the planes quite luxuriously. Some added pianos and couches to the lounge, others added extra windows. Pilots enjoyed the plane too, and found it very maneuverable and easy to fly.
Airline companies began offering up suggestions for changes they'd like to see, to which Boeing responded with new variants. The 747-200 had more powerful engines and greater range for long-haul routes. A shortened 747SP (special performance) variant was launched in 1976 and had even greater range. Later versions had roomier cockpits, lighter construction materials, and newer engines. In 1989 the 747-400, which had better fuel efficiency and a range of more than 7,500 nautical miles, entered service and became the most popular model of the almost 700 planes that had been delivered over the previous 20 years.
The United States government also requested variants for their own use. Some were built for the military, but the most noteworthy 747s built for the government were the two planes that replaced the aging 707s that served as Air Force One -- the "flying White House." Two modified 747s were also built for NASA to carry "piggyback" the Space Shuttle orbiter.
End of an Era
In terms of size, the 747 had no competing aircraft until the launch of the Airbus A380 in 2007. But by this time, fuel-efficient two-engine aircraft, such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330 became more cost-effective. Airlines were also foregoing the spaciousness of commercial-class travel, and packing in more seats. When the Boeing 777X entered service in 2020, it could be configured to carry more passengers than the original model of the 747, but within a much smaller fuselage.
By the mid-2010s, orders for new 747s had dropped so much that Boeing announced that it might end production of the Jumbo Jet within a few years. The final decision to do so came earlier than planned when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and caused many airlines to retire their existing 747 subfleets. In January 2021 Boeing confirmed that the final four 747s would be delivered to Atlas Air in 2022.
Of the 747s still in the air as of 2021, most are used to carry freight, either by cargo airlines or by the cargo divisions of passenger airlines. A few passenger airlines in Asia are still flying 747s, but those days are numbered. And in 2024, Air Force One will be replaced with a Boeing 747-8, once Boeing completes work on the plane's modifications.