2010 Articles

JAN 26 2010
Queen of the Skies at 40

The Boeing 747 was initially conceived during the 1960s against a prosperous backdrop of increased international travel and general optimism about the future prospects of jet air travel. The arrival of Boeing’s earlier 707, along with its competitor the Douglas DC-8, had revolutionised the world of airline flying and begun the process of making air travel accessible to the masses.

In the early 1960s the USAF had issued a request for proposals for a new heavy transport, under the CX-HLS (CX-Heavy Logistics System) project, specifying a requirement for cargo to be loaded and unloaded via forward and rear hold doors. Boeing was amongst the companies which submitted proposals for the design but was ultimately unsuccessful, losing out to Lockheed’s C-5 Galaxy.

Under pressure from Juan Trippe, the president of Pan Am, Boeing developed their design for a military transport into an airliner, offering over twice the capacity of their previous 707. The boom in air travel which had been set off by the 707 had eventually resulted in overcrowding and congestion at airports – utilising the larger capacity of the new design was expected to relieve some of this congestion by allowing several flights to be combined onto a single aircraft, and Pan Am was an enthusiastic supporter of the new aircraft’s cause, telling Boeing “If you build it, we will buy it”.

Despite the enthusiasm from Pan Am, Boeing still remained unconvinced that the new airliner would have much of a market. Design work pressed ahead with the passenger carrying 747, but the design was heavily influenced by what Boeing saw as the real future for the aircraft - a bulk freighter. In Europe, Aerospatiale and BAC had jointly developed the supersonic airliner Concorde and with Boeing working on similar designs it seemed that the future for passenger carrying aircraft lay in hi-tech supersonic airliners rather than the slightly more conventional 747.

So it was that the most recognisable feature of the new aircraft came about to allow easy access to what would become the cargo hold of the new aircraft – positioning the flightdeck high up in a “hump” atop the forward fuselage allowed an upward opening hinged-nose section and un-obstructed access to the vast cargo area.

In 1966 Pan Am put pen to paper and ordered 25 of the new aircraft at a cost of $525million, with the aircraft set for delivery in 1969. At this stage, not only had the aircraft not been assembled, but the factory to build it did not exist! Boeing’s existing facilities were too small, so a new site was constructed at Paine Field, Everett, about 30 miles north of Seattle. This factory was to eventually become the largest building (by volume) ever built and still houses Boeing’s wide body production lines.

The first 747 was rolled out on 30th September 1968 and made its first flight on 9th February the following year with Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle at the controls and Jess Wallick at the flight engineer's station. Despite a few initial problems the aircraft handled very well – many of the early development issues lay with the Pratt and Whitney JT9D engine.

Despite these minor setbacks, the aircraft was certified by the FAA in December 1969 and the first aircraft was delivered to Pan Am the following month. This short development time was truly remarkable and a testament to the Boeing team which designed, built and tested the aircraft. After a short delay due to engine problems Pan Am flew the aircraft on its first service from New York JFK to London Heathrow on 22nd January 1970.

Despite the brief development period, by the time the aircraft entered service, the prevailing economic conditions had changed considerably. As the 1970s went on, the US economy slumped into the worst recession since the 1930s, and rising fuel prices brought harsh trading conditions for the airlines. The prevailing conditions pretty much killed off any chance of a viable supersonic passenger aircraft, with Concorde only entering service in very small numbers and other designs never getting off the drawing board.

Some airlines who had initially been enthusiastic operators of the 747 disposed of their aircraft early during this period, notably American Airlines and Delta, who replaced the type with smaller DC-10s and Tristars. However, the 747-100 still sold in good numbers and was offered in upgraded form as the 747-200B and 747-300.

The 747-200B introduced other engine options including the more powerful Rolls Royce RB211 and entered service in 1971. The 300 series arrived in 1980 and featured a stretched upper deck, which allowed more commercial use of the 747’s hump – up until the advent of the 300 series, many airlines hadn’t really known what to do with the area behind the flightdeck. Now that area could be used as a meaningful cabin.

Also appearing during the 1970s was the most radical version of the 747 family, the 747SP (Special Performance). This aircraft was a shortened, lighter weight 747, designed to fly longer range flights than the regular 747 model. It was initially designed for Pan Am, who wanted an aircraft to operate their non-stop New York to Tokyo service, with Iran Air also being interested in using the aircraft to fly from Tehran to New York. Despite delivering the performance promised the 747SP never sold particularly well and only 45 were built. The small number that remain in service are mostly used as VIP transports, especially in the Middle East.

Experience with the 300 series and the SP led to the biggest change to the original 747, the 747-400 series. The 400 retained the stretched upper deck which had been fitted to the 300 series, but a series of more radical changes were also introduced. The wing span was extended and winglets fitted, but the most dramatic changes were in the cockpit.

The original 747 design had a cockpit crew of three – two pilots and a flight engineer. Technological advances during the 1980s allowed computers to take over many of the systems previously looked after by the engineer. In addition, the original electromechanical instruments were replaced by CRT screens, presenting a variety of flight and navigation data. Boeing also provided a more advanced Flight Management System (FMS) which also helped to improve the accuracy of navigation and also the aircraft’s fuel ecomony.

The 747-400 was announced in 1985 and delivered to launch customer Northwest Airlines in 1989. Many airlines which had previously operated the 747 Classic (as the series 100-300 aircraft came to be known) built up large fleets of 400s to supplement and eventually replace the earlier aircraft, with British Airways at one time being the largest operator of the type. Thanks to its aerodynamic updates, together with an increase in fuel capacity, the 400 became the world’s longest ranged airliner, eclipsing the previous record, held by the 747SP.

Eventually, Boeing was to deliver a total of 1418 747s, comprising 205 747-100s, 393 747-200s, 81 747-300s and 694 747-400s, along with 45 747SPs. These aircraft served on long haul routes throughout the world and proved especially popular with airlines in Europe and the Far East. For many years the aircraft was virtually standard equipment for any airline operating services from Australia and the Far East to Europe and the US, and it is only fairly recently that more advanced types have appeared on these routes.

The 747 has also seen some limited, but high profile, service with the military. The USAF uses the 747 as its presidential transport, with the aircraft being designated the VC-25, and known as “Air Force One” when the president is aboard. The two VC-25s were the last 747 Classics to be built before production switched to the 400 series and offered a huge improvement in capability over the VC-137s they replaced. The USAF also uses another 747 derivative, the E-4, as a national emergency command post for the president in time of conflict. Whenever the president flies overseas, an E-4 will accompany his entourage, standing ready should a “contingency situation” occur during the visit.

From a personal perspective, as I stated in the opening paragraph, I am a huge fan of the Boeing 747. I am biased though as it is an aircraft which I have had the privilege of flying (in the form of the 747-400) as a first officer for the last three years. As a youngster growing up in north west England in the late 1980s it was fairly rare to see a 747 – at the time there were only a few flights into Manchester operated by the aircraft. So it was always special to see one, and the 747 rapidly became my favourite airliner – to this day no other airliner can match it for presence and impact.

Everything about the aircraft is huge and however many times you walk up to the aircraft, the impact of that size never diminishes. Boeing managed to design an exceptionally graceful and elegant aircraft and one which remains very capable and reliable, even since the arrival of the Airbus A380.

The first thing that struck me when sitting in the flight deck for the first time was how far off the ground you are. I’d previously flown the Airbus A320 series aircraft, which obviously sits much lower down than the 747, so it came as some surprise to be looking into the upper level of the terminal building! This height, coupled with the distance between the nose wheel and the main gear makes taxiing tricky to begin with – some thought is required to make sure the main gear stays close to the centreline of the taxiway.

Once airborne, the aircraft is very much a pilot’s aircraft. Handling is excellent with the type’s inherent stability being a testament to the skill of the original design team. The aircraft is sensitive to small changes in pitch attitude, especially at high weights, but generally very stable in all axis.

Although on the face of it still an advanced aircraft, some of the aircraft systems are starting to look dated, especially in comparison with the current Airbus designs and Boeing’s own 777 and 737NG. This is especially apparent in the cockpit with some items such as the FMS beginning to look somewhat rudimentary. The FMS is still an accurate and reliable system, but its green screen display is simply not as pretty as the full colour systems fitted to newer aircraft!

The aircraft was designed in an era when some aircraft systems were perceived as being potentially troublesome. To allow it to operate for long periods over remote areas such as the Pacific Ocean and Siberia, a considerable amount of redundancy was provided. For example, the aircraft is fitted with four hydraulic systems and four electrical generators. In practice, especially on the 400, the systems are extremely reliable, but this extra redundancy is a pleasant luxury!

More than anything else the 747 is a true aviation icon, and since the retirement of Concorde, surely the most recognisable shape in the sky. As the aircraft enters its fifth decade of service it is interesting to reflect on the state of the world we live in, in comparison with the world in which the 747 made its debut.

The 1970s saw the US (and the world) economy slide into recession driven in part by conflict in the Middle East and the resulting high price of oil. There is no doubt that this had a negative effect on the sales of the 747, however it also spelled the end for some of the more radical designs which were being proposed at the time. The soaring price of fuel meant that operators became more interested in fuel consumption than speed - in the end this gave a boost to the 747 program, which perhaps came into its own during the economic boom in the late 1980s.

Today we are in a similar economic climate, with efficiency once again being the buzz word for the world’s airlines. The post-911 slump in air travel led to the retirement of many of the remaining passenger configured 747 Classics, but the 747-400 soldiered on to meet the further challenges of the last decade – fear of terrorism, SARS, Swine Flu, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current financial crisis have all hit the airline industry hard.

It is perhaps not the best time to introduce a new aircraft into service, however that is just what Airbus did recently with the A380. It is interesting to compare the aircraft’s arrival in service with the arrival of the Boeing 747. The A380 is a huge aircraft - even if it is only slightly larger in dimension than the 747, its vast double deck fuselage makes its passenger capacity much larger than the earlier aircraft. It also includes much new technology and is without doubt a very efficient machine.

However, its entry into service has not been without its problems, and there is no doubt that the world is a very different place now, compared to when the aircraft was conceived and designed. Like the 747 in the 1970s, some operators have been put off buying the new aircraft as current lower demand for air travel makes it more desirable to operate (and fill) smaller types such as the 777.

With the industry starting to see “green shoots” of recovery it is likely that the A380 will come into its own in the next decade and will eventually prove a great success, although it is unlikely to sell in such numbers as the 747. Like Boeing in the 70s, Airbus have staked too much in the aircraft for it to fail to succeed.

In order to compete with the Airbus product, Boeing have once again offered an upgraded 747 model, the 747-8. This new version features updated cockpit and avionics, a new wing with “raked” wingtips, similar to those fitted to the 777-200/300LR, and a stretched fuselage. This stretch is significant as it is the first time that Boeing have offered a 747 which is longer than the original aircraft as built.

So far, interest in the 747-8 has been fairly lukewarm with Lufthansa and Korean Air being the only customers to order the passenger version so far. However, Boeing recently rolled out the first aircraft (a freighter) and with the world economy showing signs of improvement it is hopeful of attracting new customers in the future.

Even with the 747-8 in the pipeline, it is likely that this decade will see a large reduction in the number of 747s in service. Already storage and disposal centres such as Victorville, Goodyear and Marana are filled with retired 747s and the type is much less prevalent at airports than it was just a few years ago.

Some operators have reduced or retired their 747s in favour of newer, more efficient types such as the 777 and A340. Even long time stalwarts of the 747-400 such as British Airways and Japan Airlines have seen a reduction in the size of their fleets as demand for air travel falls.

Despite its inevitable decline the 747 will always remain an iconic aircraft. The original “Jumbo Jet”, no other airliner currently comes close in terms of looks and recognisability. Whilst an impressive aircraft, the A380 lacks the grace of the 747, with the 747-400 series arguably being the best looking of the family.

The A380 will undoubtedly mature into a superb and very capable design, which has greater capacity than the 747, however Airbus will almost certainly struggle to sell as many aircraft as Boeing managed with the 747.

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2010-01-26 - Peter Fleetwood
Thanks for an excellent article, Paul.

The text is very informative and reader-friendly, so compliments on a rare skill.

The photo which "grabs" me the most is by John Higgins, the almost frontal shot of a Kalitta Air aircraft at MAN. I was musing about whether you had just dismounted the beast you snapped at Rio, and have to say the most beautiful picture of a fine selction is your own at LAX, taken into the evening sun by the look of it.

Keep 'em comin', as they apparently say across the pond.

Cheers, Paul.

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