This article was originally published at The Conversation. (opens in new tab) The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
On Sept. 30, 1968, the first Boeing 747 (opens in new tab) rolled out of its custom-built assembly plant in Everett, Washington. From the beginning, everything about the plane once known (opens in new tab) as the "queen of the skies" was big.
It was the first wide-body "jumbo jet" ever built. About 50,000 construction workers (opens in new tab), mechanics, engineers and others took it from an idea to the air (opens in new tab) in just 16 months in the late 1960s. Until 2007 and the introduction (opens in new tab) of the Airbus A380 (opens in new tab), it was the largest civilian airplane in the world.
Versions of the 747 have been used in a variety of famous ways. In 1990, for example, a pair of 747-200s began operating (opens in new tab) as Air Force One (opens in new tab), the plane that ferries around the U.S. president.
Just to produce the 747, Boeing first had to erect what was and still is (opens in new tab) the largest building by volume (opens in new tab) ever constructed – big enough to hold 75 football fields or all of Disneyland (opens in new tab).
But on Jan. 31, 2023, the last 747 that Boeing expects to build rolled out of its factory (opens in new tab).
I've been researching and teaching (opens in new tab) the history of American aviation for more than a quarter-century. Even though all U.S. airlines have retired their 747s, marking the end of an era, I believe it's worth remembering the amazing story of the airplane that helped make international air travel affordable.
The jumbo jet is born
The story of the 747 (opens in new tab), like those of many other aircraft, began with a military request. In 1963, the U.S. Air Force issued a proposal (opens in new tab) for a very large transport aircraft to carry heavier loads and have a longer range than then-existing transport aircraft such as the C-141.
Although Boeing lost its bid for what is now known as the C5 Galaxy, the designs and studies that went into its proposal didn't go to waste. That's because around the same time, Juan Trippe, the hard-charging president of Pan American World Airways, wanted (opens in new tab) Boeing to build an airliner twice the size of the first-generation jet airliner, the 707.
It would be "a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental ballistic missiles for mankind's destiny," he insisted (opens in new tab).
A big risk
But at the time, it was a very risky endeavor.
Many in the aviation industry – including at Boeing (opens in new tab) – believed that the future of air travel belonged to the fast, not the large. They envisioned new fleets of supersonic aircraft – such as the Concorde (opens in new tab), which began flying in 1976 – that would make the existing subsonic flight obsolete, especially on the long routes the 747 was designed to fly (opens in new tab). For comparison, the Concorde could make the trip from London to New York in about three hours (opens in new tab), while a flight on a 747 (or any other subsonic commercial airliner) could take eight to 10 hours (opens in new tab).
But Boeing plowed ahead with the project anyway (opens in new tab). The new plane had its first test flight on Feb. 9, 1969, and debuted to a world audience at the Paris Air Show later that summer. By the end of the year, the Federal Aviation Administration declared it airworthy, and Pan Am took delivery of its first 747 on Jan. 15, 1970.
Although the 747-100 at full capacity promised the airlines cost efficiency, the plane rarely flew that way, with 400 passengers. In part, this was because the 747 had the misfortune of launching during a recession and the first oil crisis (opens in new tab), both of which resulted in fewer passengers.
In addition, the project's size itself almost threatened the aerospace company – and its banks – with bankruptcy because the aircraft's development required Boeing to take on US$2 billion in debt (opens in new tab), or about $20 billion in today's dollars.
Fortunately for Boeing, it hedged its bets (opens in new tab) by designing the aircraft to function both as a passenger airliner and as an air freighter. It was the freighter variant that required the "hump" at the top of the fuselage to hold the cockpit so that the nose section could swing open.
Since then, Boeing has built over 1,500 747s (opens in new tab), and about 500 still fly today (opens in new tab).
The golden age of flight
The 747 was – and is – probably the most easily recognizable jet airliner. While most people would have a hard time distinguishing between a Boeing 707 and a DC-8 – or pretty much any other pair of jet airliners – the 747's large size and distinctive "hump" at the front make it unmistakable.
It debuted at the end of the so-called golden age of flight (opens in new tab), a time when air travel still was seen as glamorous and most airlines catered to an elite clientele. As such, early operators used the upper deck as a passenger lounge for first-class passengers, rather than filling the plane to its full capacity.
In the late 1970s, in an effort to entice more passengers (opens in new tab), American Airlines went one step further, turning the lounge into a "piano bar" complete with a Wurlitzer organ and entertainer who led singalongs with the passengers.
Deregulation, however, soon made such glamorous amenities obsolete as airlines focused on cutting costs rather than offering high-end services. And over time, smaller and more efficient long-range twin-engine aircraft like the 777 (opens in new tab) and 787 diminished the need (opens in new tab) for a hulking jumbo jet.
Icon of aviation
Despite its problems, the 747 won a coveted place in American popular culture.
It "starred" in two disaster movies – "Airport 1975 (opens in new tab)" and "Airport '77 (opens in new tab)," not to mention several films that involved hijackings (opens in new tab), including "Air Force One (opens in new tab)."
The 747 also gained further fame from certain specialty missions. NASA, for example, used a specially modified 747 (opens in new tab) to transport the space shuttle between landing and launch sites.
And, of course, a 747 continues to fly around the "leader of the free world" and his entourage. In 2024, the 747-8 will take over the job, with a longer range, slightly higher speed and a higher maximum takeoff weight.
While the 747 that left the factory Jan. 31 may be the last one built, the airplane should still have a long life as a carrier of freight – not to mention ferrying around the American president – which means these icons of aviation will still fly well into the 21st century.
This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in new tab).
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“I should add that fostering large high-bypass engines was all that the USAFC-5 competition contributed to the Boeing 747, as my new airplane would be called. Time and again there appears in print the logical but false assumption the Boeing took its losing military C-5 bid and revamped it as the commercial 747. In fact, the 747 would be an entirely original design that owes nothing to the C-5.”