Although the aviation industry has made dramatic moves forward over the past 40 years, the Boeing 747 has aged gracefully. key.aero charts the history of an aircraft that became an icon of the 20th century.
If any one aircraft can be singled out for creating a pronounced effect on modern air travel, it would almost certainly be the Boeing 747. Known by its unofficial title of ‘Jumbo jet’, the 400-plus seater has revolutionised airline operations and opened up the possibilities of non-stop intercontinental travel to millions of people.
As examples are still rolling off the Boeing assembly line, the manufacturer has celebrated the 40th anniversary of the B747’s first flight. During this period, more than 1,400 have been produced, making the model the most successful wide-bodied programme ever. However, things could have been very different – one of the most iconic aircraft in the commercial aviation sector might never have flown had it not been for the bold views of Bill Allen, the then President of Boeing. Its launch was a major gamble which, had it not been a success, would have almost certainly resulted in the collapse of the manufacturer. Boeing had developed a reputation for taking risks, even if the general belief was that constructing an airliner more then twice the size of those then available was a step too far.
Since 1962 Boeing had been working on the CX-HLS programme, a large strategic airlifter for the US Air Force. The USAF had issued a requirement for an aircraft capable of carrying 750 troops or a 125,000lb (56,700kg) payload for 8,000 miles (12,872km) and which could operate from unpaved surfaces. Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed all pitched for the contract, with the latter’s C-5 Galaxy project eventually selected as the winner.
Boeing’s work had not been in vain: it began looking at a possible cargo application of the design for commercial customers. It was approached by the visionary boss of US carrier Pan American World Airways, Juan Trippe, about the possibility of turning the model into a passenger aircraft. Air travel was booming, and with all the forecasts indicating that this situation would continue into the 1970s, it was obvious that larger capacity jets would be needed to meet demand. On April 12, 1966, Pan Am placed a $550 million contract for 25 aircraft – at that time the largest-value order ever placed – and the B747 project was born.
Despite it being significantly larger than any previous commercial programme, the Pratt & Whitney JT9D-powered B747 followed the proven configuration of the B707, but made use of advanced wing design (with high lift devices) to keep overall dimensions as low as possible, enabling it to use airports with runways capable of handling the B707. From the start, the B747 was designed with the carriage of bulk freight in mind; thus the cockpit was placed above the main cabin, so that an upward-hinging nose could be fitted to cargo versions.
Rather than isolate the fuselage, Boeing extended the fairing aft, adding a small upper deck, linked to the main cabin via a spiral staircase – this modification is what gives the aircraft its characteristic hump. The initial ‘100 provided seating for up to 516 passengers, although most airlines configured the type with between 374 and 490 passengers in a three-class layout.
The dawn of a revolutionary era in air travel arrived on September 30, 1968, when the first B747, registration N7470, was rolled out at Boeing’s Everett plant in the US. Interest in the model was such that the manufacturer had already received orders from 26 airlines for more than 200 units ahead of the public unveiling. Following extensive systems checks and taxi trials, the jet made its maiden flight on February 9, 1969, taking to the air in the capable hands of test pilot Jack Waddell, co-pilot Brien Wygle and flight engineer Jess Wallick. Before take-off, Bill Allen told Jack Waddell: Jack, I hope you understand that the future of the company rides with you guys this morning.
Flight testing continued throughout 1969 and the first aircraft was joined by a further four examples during the programme’s certification phase. During the testing, Bill Allen took the opportunity of showing off the aircraft’s potential by flying the fourth off the line, registration N731PA to the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget. At the show, it took centre stage alongside Concorde – two very different models, but both destined to become icons of the commercial aviation business.
Despite a few teething problems, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded type certification on December 30, 1969, after 1,400 hours of flying in 1,013 sorties, and preparations began for the B747’s entry into service.
The inaugural passenger service from Washington’s Dulles Airport to London Heathrow was planned for January 21, 1970, but things did not go quite as planned. The aircraft due to operate the transatlantic connection, registration N733PA Clipper Young America, suffered a minor technical problem and a replacement, registration N736PA Clipper Victor, delivered only the previous day and due to be used on crew training, was flown instead. It eventually departed at 01:50 on the morning of January 22, a couple of hours later than planned, arriving in London six hours and 16 minutes later.
By the end of 1970, seven US-based airlines were flying the B747. The first international customer was German flag carrier Lufthansa, which took delivery of its first aircraft on March 10, 1970. By the end of the year, Air France, Alitalia, Iberia and Japan Air Lines were also operating the type.
The introduction of the B747 made a significant impact on the industry, notably at those airports which had to upgrade their facilities to handle it. Boeing had issued a technical manual to airport operators outlining what would be required to handle the mighty jet long before it entered service and millions of pounds had been invested in preparation for the arrival of the ‘jumbo jet’.
Although 400 passengers disembarking one aircraft at the same time would place capacity pressures on any terminal building, the B747’s vast size was the real problem – its 195ft 8in (59.6m) span and 231ft 4in (70.50m) length meant it occupied more space on the apron, and at some airports – including London Heathrow – additional gates had to be opened.
Similarly, its weight meant that some runways needed to be lengthened and taxiways widened. It also necessitated a big change in baggage handling, in-flight catering and ground handling. The undercarriage layout determined that it would only achieve a 60-degree turning angle, which meant that more apron space was needed to manoeuvre it. New over-wing air bridges were designed specifically to aid boarding and disembarkation.
Like its predecessors, the B747 evolved through a series of variants: Boeing had been working on improving the airframe and producing higher payload versions even before the first prototype had flown. The baseline B747-100 version sold 167 units before production ended following the delivery of an aircraft to Pan Am on July 2, 1976, although a number had already been upgraded to ‘100A status with improved engines, an increased take-off weight and additional range. A ‘100B version was offered from September 1977 onwards, with alternate powerplant options from General Electric (CF6) and Rolls-Royce (RB211), while a strengthened version dubbed the ‘100SR was specifically designed for the short-range, high-density domestic Japanese market.
The next major variant, the’200B, shared the basic characteristics of the original model but offered a much greater range. It also had a larger upper deck, providing seating for up to 16 passengers. Initially known as the B747B, the first airline to introduce the ‘200 was KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which took delivery of its first example on January 16, 1971, placing it into service the following month. In total 389 ‘200 models were produced, including 225 ‘200B passenger aircraft, 13 ‘200Cs which could be configured for cargo or passenger operation, 73 ‘200F full-freighters and 78 ‘200M Combi (mixed passenger and cargo on the main deck) models. Production ended in November 1991 with the delivery of a freighter model to Nippon Cargo Airlines of Japan.
With airlines pushing Boeing for more range and capacity from the B747, it initially considered stretching the fuselage by a further 25ft (7.62m) but instead decided to simply lengthen the upper deck by 23ft 4in (7.10m) to the wing leading edge, increasing capacity by 44 seats over the earlier versions. Developed as the ‘200 SUD (Stretched Upper Deck), it was later renamed the ‘300 when Boeing began to offer it to customers from June 1980. The launch customer for the model was Swissair, which placed an order for four (later increased to five): the first was delivered on March 19, 1983. Despite interest from airlines, only 81 ‘300s were produced.
The decision to develop a more advanced variant of the 747 was first mooted in late 1984, when Boeing announced that it was developing a derivative of the 747-300, dubbed the B747-300A. Sales for the B747-300, which incorporated a stretched upper deck, had been much slower than anticipated and, with production levels slipping to just one to two aircraft a month, the manufacturer was concerned that airlines could look to new designs – in particular to the A340 and MD-11 – to meet their future needs.
Strong airline views forced Boeing to move from a minimal upgrade of the B747-300, designed simply to boost sales, to the launch of an updated B747, which although similar in design to its predecessors brought a number of technical and performance advances and cost savings.
In May 1985, just over 15 years after the first B747 flew; Boeing formally launched the B747-400 project, a radical redesign benefiting from a comprehensive nose-to-tail upgrade and modernisation. Although externally the aircraft looked almost identical to its predecessor, with the exception of its larger wing and performance-enhancing winglets, significant internal changes were introduced to generate performance savings in the region of 25% and to cut fuel burn by a massive 22% per mile over the original B747.
The most radical internal change was the introduction of a two-man electronic flight instrumentation system (EFIS) cockpit, which made the flight engineer’s role on the type redundant. Overall, the aircraft was a more efficient design, its two-man crew bringing down operating costs significantly, and the new flight management computer optimising flight performance.
Apart from the design changes, the introduction of a fuel tank in the tail increased the range to 7,100 miles (11,425km) enabling routes such as Los Angeles-Sydney and New York-Seoul to be operated with no need for a supplementary stop-over en-route.
Buoyed by the strong support from the world’s carriers, the first prototype B747-400 took flight on the morning of April 29, 1988. As three different powerplants had been selected to power the first tranche of orders, in order to obtain timely certification of the three versions Boeing used three different prototypes in the certification programme, each fitted with the different engines from Rolls-Royce, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. On January 9, 1989, after more than 1,100 hours of flight and 1,000 hours of ground testing, the US FAA certificated the type.
Northwest Airlines introduced the B747-400 to its schedules on the domestic Minneapolis-Phoenix route on February 9, 1989 – exactly 20 years after the first flight of the prototype B747. International services were launched in late May 1989, Singapore Airlines introducing the type on its Singapore-London route and Northwest following in June 1989 with a New York-Tokyo service.
As with the earlier versions, Boeing tailored the B747-400 to its customers’ needs. It specially adapted the -400 to meet the requirements of customers in Asia for a short-haul high-density airliner; the 747-400D makes use of all the various upgrades of but maintains a shorter wing, without the winglets, and lacks the crew rest areas and tail fuel tank. Boeing delivered 19 aircraft – eight to Japan Airlines and eleven to All Nippon Airways.
The B747-400 also has applications in the corporate arena, the type having been selected by at least three governments as a VIP transport. However, much of its recent sales success has been in its role as a freighter.
The manufacturer launched the B747-400F freighter in January 1990 on the back of a five-aircraft order from Air France. However, the French flag carrier later cancelled in favour of ‘Combi’ models, and Luxembourg freight carrier Cargolux became the launch customer, receiving the first in November 1993. The freighter version is able to carry approximately 20% more payload over ranges of 1,000 miles further than that of the 747-200F. The ‘Combi’ version allows services to be flown with a mix of passengers and freight in the main cabin, achieved by strengthening the floor and installing a side cargo door. The two cabins are separated by a removal internal partition, which can be moved according to demand.
The B747-400 has been the most successful version of the aircraft in terms of sales. The 694 ordered have been dominated by the passenger model (442), although 126 full freighters have also been ordered by 17 airlines.
The current production version, the B747-400ER, is a simple upgrade of the standard model. The incorporation of the stronger B747-400F wing, strengthened body and landing gear and an auxiliary fuel tank, offers customers an increased take-off weight of 910,000lb (412,770kg), enabling longer ranges to be flown than with the standard model. Launch customer Air France took delivery of the first B747-400ERF on October 17, 2002, and a further nine airlines have boosted sales to 40 aircraft.
The launch of the Extended-Range model undoubtedly helped to prolong the life of the model when demand was slipping, giving the manufacturer time to look carefully at its offerings in the high-capacity market. In November 2005, the company announced the launch of the latest version of the B747, the B747-8. A modest stretch of the ‘400 and the passenger version, dubbed the ‘Intercontinental’, this is being marketed as a 400 to 500-seat airliner positioned between the B777 and Airbus’s A380. It includes many of the innovative technologies being incorporated into the B787 Dreamliner – in fact, the designation B747-8 was a deliberate choice in order to highlight the technology connection between the B787.
Boeing claims the latest variant will offer seat-mile costs approximately 11% less than the ‘400, a trip-cost reduction of 19%, and a seat-mile cost reduction of more than 4% compared to the A380. It will have a range of around 8,000 nautical miles (14,815km), meaning that it could offer non-stop connections on many of the world’s major routes.
Boeing has secured 106 firm orders for the B747-8, mostly for the freighter version. In fact, it has only one airline customer for the Intercontinental version, with Lufthansa ordering 20 examples in December 2006 – a further eight orders listed in Boeing’s order book are for VIP versions. The first freighter is due to be delivered in the third quarter of 2010 and the first passenger airliner to Lufthansa in the second quarter of 2011.
When the first B747 took to the air in February 1969, it marked a new dawn in the aviation industry, bringing global communities together through the introduction of cost-effective long-haul travel. Today early model B747s remain in both passenger and freight operation, but further technological and performance enhancements to the family have kept the B747 as a viable product line. The B747-8 introduces the latest technologies to the classic airliner, updating it for the 21st century. The ‘Jumbo Jet’ clearly now faces stiff competition from the A380 for the title of ‘Queen of the Skies’. Time will tell if the A380 will make as a big an impact on the industry as the B747 – without doubt, an icon of its time.
Extracted from an article first published in Airliner World magazine January 2009