Relic: Boeing 747

    LifestyleRelicRelic: Boeing 747

    If you’ve been watching the news lately, Boeing has gone from a respected airline manufacturer to a pariah in the media, attracting international attention in the media lately. While the root causes for this transformation go back many years and can even be its own article, some of the headlines include substandard airplane manufacturing by various contractors and subcontractors, trading safety and quality for profits and stock value, and even the death of John Barnett, a former Boeing employee turned whistleblower in suspicious circumstances. But what about when Boeing had a stellar reputation? The Boeing 747 represented a quantum leap in air travel and transportation in general. What made this model so unique, and why is it considered one of the most iconic airplane models in the history of commercial air travel?

    First, we must remember that building commercial jets is a multi-year project. Planes can’t just roll off the assembly line and straight into commercial use—the plane must undergo rigorous testing and safety checks before being delivered to airlines. In a typical commercial jet, various companies create airplane parts, which are then sent to the airplane manufacturer for final assembly and delivery to airlines around the world. The Boeing 707, one of the first popular commercial jets, took about four years to go from a prototype to regular service. The 707 was first flown in 1954 and Pan Am started regular service with the Boeing 707 in 1958. The 707 was wildly successful and is credited with beginning the Jet Age of travel. By the mid-1960s, like all things, newer, better, and faster commercial airplanes were in demand, and Boeing stepped up to the plate to deliver.

    Building off the “Golden Age” of air travel, Joe Sutter, a U.S. Navy veteran and longtime Boeing employee who also helped develop the 367-80 (Dash 80), 707, 727, and 737, was placed in charge of the 747 project as chief engineer and design manager under Malcolm T. Stamper, the head of the 747 project. Sutter was also known as the “father of the 747” as he spent about four years bringing the 747 from conception in 1965 to completion in 1969. The 747, also nicknamed the “Queen of the Skies,” had four engines and could carry up to 366 passengers in three travel classes (usually Economy, Business, and First), and a partial double-deck raised cockpit. At the time, supersonic jets like the Concorde were also in development, so the Boeing 747 was initially intended to be a stepping stone to supersonic jets. The 747 was also designed so that it could also be converted into a freighter airplane. Many variants of the 747 were developed over the years. The 747 and its variants had a maximum takeoff weight of ~377,842.44 kg (833,000 lb), a Mach 0.85 (900 kph or 559.23 mph) cruise speed, and flight ranges up to 12,150 km (7,550 mi or 6,560 nautical miles).

    During the final push to deliver the 747 to Pan Am in 1969, Sutter and his team were given only 28 months to design the plane before the end of the year, earning Sutter’s team the nickname “The Incredibles.” There were even reports that Boeing had “bet the company” on the 747’s success to the point where Boeing had to build an entirely new plant to assemble the 747 in Everett, Washington in the United States. This plant is also the biggest building in the world by volume at 13.4 million m³ (472 million ft³). The Boeing 747 project cost USD1 billion (~USD8.46 billion in 2024) and then-US First Lady Pat Nixon christened the first Boeing 747 at Dulles International Airport in 1970. The aircraft became so popular that Australian airline Qantas became the first airline to use only Boeing 747s by 1979.

    There were several incidents involving the 747, including four especially infamous incidents. The first was the Tenerife airport disaster in 1977, which involved two colliding 747s in dense fog. This resulted in 583 fatalities, still the most in aviation history to this day. The Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983 when it strayed into its airspace, which also had the effect of United States President Ronald Reagan authorizing GPS, then strictly only for military use, for civilian use. The terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988 resulted in the loss of a 747 and hastened the decline of Pan Am. TWA Flight 800 exploded mid-air in 1996 due to a design flaw.

    The iconic 747 is still in use today, although many airlines have phased it out in favor of newer aircraft. Joe Sutter passed away in August 2016, and the main engineering building for Boeing Commercial Airplanes division was renamed in his honor. In fact, the final 747 was delivered only last year for cargo use to United States-based Atlas Air. While Boeing today is a shadow of its former self due to numerous controversies involving plane quality and safety, the Boeing 747 is a look back at a time when quality, safety, and design made it one of the most iconic names in aviation history.

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