Last blast of the Jumbo: For 50 years, the Boeing 747 has carried 4billion passengers and several Space Shuttles. Now, as production of the gas-guzzlers is scrapped, Mail Travel Editor MARK PALMER tips a wing to the colossus of the clouds

  • The Boeing 747 at its top speed travels at just over 650mph which makes it the fastest commercial plane 
  • Aircraft once carried 1,088 people on single flight when evacuating Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa in 1991
  • It has ferried nearly four billion passengers to and from destinations around the globe for more than 50 years

The wings of a Boeing 747 span a greater distance than the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903.

It’s such a colossus that the American factory in Everett, Washington, where the planes have been manufactured since 1969, is the largest building by volume in the world at 13 million cubic metres. Fittingly, clouds have been known to form inside.

A top speed of just over 650mph makes it the fastest commercial plane on the planet — and it once carried 1,088 people on a single flight when evacuating Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa in 1991.

But, of course, the superlatives hurtle effortlessly through the air when it comes to this iconic aviation workhorse that has ferried nearly four billion passengers to and from destinations around the globe in expansive (or cramped) style for more than 50 years. 

The last Qantas Boeing 747-400 aircraft makes its landing on the ground at Sydney Airport in Australia on March 29 this year

With a top speed of just over 650mph, the Boeing 747 is the fastest commercial plane on the planet. Pictured: A group of passengers sit in a plush lounge while on board an American Airlines Boeing 747 airplane in 1975

Which is why the forced abdication of the Queen of the Skies is causing such turbulence when, finally, we can all start flying again.

Boeing announced this week that it will finish production of any 747s in the factory — but won’t be taking new orders. Not a single one. And, so, that’s it for the much-loved original jumbo jet that ‘shrunk the world’ and opened up travel to the masses like no other plane had done before or has done since.

Covid-19 can’t be held entirely responsible. The 747’s four gas-guzzling engines have long provided more than enough ammo to have the planes decommissioned on environmental grounds — and not even the most creative of accountants could claim that they are cost-effective.

Never mind their fuel consumption — just to land a 747 carrying 400 or so passengers at Heathrow Airport costs more than £13,000, of which nearly £4,000 is in environmental tariffs. That’s why British Airways has a greater number of 747s in storage — 36 — than it does the 31 in service, and plans to withdraw them all by 2024.

United Airlines and Delta flew their last 747s in 2017, while Qantas is offering three, final ‘joy flights’ around Australia before retiring its fleet later this month.

And what about Virgin Atlantic? It doesn’t seem long ago (well, 2009 actually) that Sir Richard Branson scooped up Kate Moss in typical fashion and carried her on to the wing of a 747 for one of his classic publicity stunts. All Virgin’s 747s are now grounded.

‘Best airliner of all time,’ says Martin Bowman, author of Boeing 747 — A History: Delivering The Dream. ‘They have a mystique all of their own and to climb the steps up to the upper deck is like entering a wonderland.’

It’s that sleek but bulging upper deck (which Frank Sinatra used to book in its entirety to accommodate his entourage when on tour), plus its first-of-a-kind twin aisles below —with four seats in the middle and three on either side — which make it so distinctive. And its six-storey-tail is some sight, too.

Not bad for a plane that was designed with a raised cockpit so that it could be converted to a freighter plane because Boeing thought it would be replaced by supersonic aircraft within a decade — not least because less than a month after the first 747 test flight, an Anglo-French consortium was testing a new plane called Concorde on March 2, 1969.

Construction of the Boeing took two years, involved six million parts, 170 miles of wiring and saw the finished jumbo weigh in at 160 tons. Pictured: Two people pose next to the jumbo jet as the aircraft launches the London to New York flight in March 1970

In 2009 the founder of Virgin Sir Richard Branson scooped up Kate Moss in typical fashion and carried her on to the wing of a 747 for one of his classic publicity stunts

The Space Shuttle Discovery is lifted into the air while sitting on top of NASA’s modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in 1995

In the 1960s, Juan Trippe, president and founder of the now-defunct Pan Am airline, asked Boeing to build a plane twice the size of a 707 so that he could cut ticket prices by 30 per cent — an ‘aerial ocean liner of the skies’, as he put it, a little clumsily. 

The contract was signed in 1965 even before the design was agreed, at a time when Boeing was in debt to the tune of around £11 billion in today’s money.

It was a gamble for Boeing and high stakes for Trippe. First, Boeing had to find a factory big enough to assemble the liner.

But there wasn’t one, so the company had to build from scratch on a 780-acre site, some 30 miles north of Seattle, Washington, at a cost of £160 million.

At first, it the 747 was envisaged as a double-decker aircraft, but that was ruled out when 560 volunteers took part in a cabin mock-up evacuation and needed two-and-a-half minutes to flee the plane, far longer than the Federal Aviation Administration maximum allowed of 90 seconds.

Construction took two years, involved six million parts, 170 miles of wiring and the finished jumbo weighed in at 160 tons, with beer kegs filled with water and stuffed mail sacks adding 54 tons.On September 30, 1968, the first 747 was paraded before the world’s Press, accompanied by Elgar’s Pomp And Circumstance.

It displayed the logos of the 26 airlines that ordered the plane and female cabin crew from those airlines smashed bottles of champagne against the fuselage.

The test flight four months later was not without problems — the chief pilot, Jack Waddell, realised one of the Pratt & Whitney engines was considerably hotter than the others; then one of the wings suffered from a ‘flutter’ problem at high speed.

The hearts of Boeing’s board of directors must have been in a flutter on hearing that, but Waddell landed the plane safely.

The First Lady, Pat Nixon, wife of President Richard Nixon, officially christened the 747 at Washington Dulles International Airport on January 15, 1970. A week later, with 336 passengers who had paid the equivalent of £4,000 for the trip, Pan Am’s New York-London 747 service took off.

It was meant to leave 24 hours earlier but the pilot aborted take-off when an engine overheated. A second 747 was rushed into service, arriving in London less than seven hours later.

But the 747 had some dark moments, too. In December, 1988 263 passengers and 16 crew died when Pan Am’s 747 flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie. And in 1977, two Boeing 747 jets collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife, resulting in 583 fatalities, the deadliest crash in aviation history.

The 747 hasn’t carried just passengers. Besides all-cargo versions, command-post airplanes for the U.S. Air Force and even a prototype interceptor that would have shot laser beams at incoming missiles, the jumbo carried on its back the Space Shuttle in the 1980s and beyond. 

The Shuttle landed like a regular aircraft but could not take off unassisted, so needed to hitch a ride between Nasa facilities.

America might see the 747 as one of its own — but its genius is that all national carriers have regarded it as theirs. If you didn’t have a few jumbos waiting to lift into the skies, you weren’t really a player.

Now the planes are being ditched or used solely to transport cargo. All reigns come to an end — and history surely will be kind to the unrivalled Queen of the Skies.

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