- The last 747 freighter is to be delivered to Atlas Air
- Ending more than five decades of commercial production
- Almost bankrupted Boeing, before he became a cash cow
- Easy to fly, says rock star pilot Bruce Dickinson
SEATTLE/PARIS, Jan 29 (Reuters) – Boeing’s ( BA.N ) 747, the original and arguably most aesthetically pleasing “Jumbo Jet”, revolutionized air travel only to see its more than five-decade reign as the “Queen of the Skies ” came to an end with more efficient twinjet aircraft.
The last commercial Boeing jumbo will be delivered to Atlas Air ( AAWW.O ) in the surviving freighter version on Tuesday, 53 years after the 747’s instantly recognizable humped silhouette captured global attention as a Pan Am passenger jet.
“On the ground it’s stately, it’s impressive,” said Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden who piloted a particularly terrified 747 nicknamed “Ed Force One” during the British heavy metal band’s 2016 tour.
“And in the air it’s surprisingly nimble. For this massive plane, you can really throw it around if you have to.”
Designed in the late 1960s to meet the demand for mass travel, the world’s first jetliner’s nose and upper deck became the world’s most luxurious club above the clouds.
But it was in the seemingly endless rows at the back of the new jumbo that the 747 transformed travel.
“This was the plane that introduced flying to the middle class in the United States,” said Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith.
“Before the 747, your average family couldn’t fly from the US to Europe affordably,” Smith told Reuters.
The jumbo also made its mark on global affairs, symbolizing war and peace, from America’s “Doomsday Plane” nuclear command post to papal visits on chartered 747s nicknamed Shepherd One.
Now two previously delivered 747s are being assembled to replace the US presidential jet known globally as Air Force One.
As a Pan Am flight attendant, Linda Freier served passengers from Michael Jackson to Mother Teresa.
“There was an incredible diversity of passengers. People who were well dressed and people who had very little and spent everything they had on that ticket,” Freier said.
When the first 747 took off from New York on January 22, 1970, after a delay due to an engine failure, it more than doubled the aircraft’s capacity to 350-400 seats, which in turn changed airport design.
“It was the airplane for the people, the one that really delivered the ability to be mass market,” said aviation historian Max Kingsley-Jones.
“It was transformative across all aspects of the industry,” added the Ascend by Cirium senior consultant.
Its birth became the stuff of aviation myth.
Pan Am founder Juan Trippe tried to cut costs by increasing the number of seats. On a fishing trip, he challenged Boeing president William Allen to create something to dwarf the 707.
Allen put legendary engineer Joe Sutter in charge. It took just 28 months for Sutter’s team known as “the Incredibles” to develop the 747 before its first flight on February 9, 1969.
Although it eventually became a cash cow, the 747’s early years were fraught with problems, and the $1 billion development cost nearly bankrupted Boeing, which believed the future of air travel lay in supersonic jets.
After a decline during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the aircraft’s heyday came in 1989 when Boeing introduced the 747-400 with new engines and lighter materials, making it perfect to meet growing demand for trans-Pacific flights.
“The 747 is the most beautiful and easiest plane to land … It’s just like landing an armchair,” said Dickinson, who also heads aviation maintenance firm Caerdav.
THE AGE OF THE ECONOMY
The same wave of innovation that got the 747 off the ground has ended, as advances allowed twin-engine jets to replicate their range and capacity at lower cost.
Still, the 777X, which is set to take the 747’s place at the top of the jet market, won’t be ready until at least 2025 after delays.
“In terms of impressive technology, great capacity, good economics … (the 777X) unfortunately makes the 747 look obsolete,” said AeroDynamic Advisory CEO Richard Aboulafia.
Nonetheless, the latest 747-8 version is set to grace the skies for years, mainly as a freighter, having outlived European Airbus’ ( AIR.PA ) double-decker A380 passenger jet in production.
This week’s latest 747 delivery leaves questions about the future of the mammoth but now underutilized Everett widebody production facility outside Seattle, as Boeing also struggles from the COVID pandemic and a 737 MAX safety crisis.
CEO Dave Calhoun has said Boeing may not design a new plane for at least a decade.
“It was one of the wonders of the modern industrial age,” Aboulafia said, “but this is not an age of miracles, it’s an age of economics.”
Reporting by Valerie Insinna and Tim Hepher; Editing by Alexander Smith
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