Farewell to the 747: End of an era as Boeing waves goodbye to its last jumbo jet
There are certain numbers that, over time, have become so linked to a specific subject or message that they carry their meaning far beyond their bare digits. They transcend maths and statistics, so heavy with connotation that what they refer to doesn’t need to be spelled out in words. It is there in your head immediately. You understand as quickly as you hear.
To pick a random selection, 999 and 911 are two of them; 666 might be another, if you believe in that sort of thing. But has there ever been a number that can paint pictures in your mind quite as readily as 747? As soon as you read that figure, you can see it. In many ways, this article could stop right here. You do not need the paragraphs below for your brain to flick through a few stored mental images – great wings silhouetted against the sky; that enormous fuselage, so large that the part of your psyche which deals in fear and nervousness doubts that it could ever take off; that distinctive “bumpy” nose. It is all there without any requirement for further musing. An aviation behemoth. A very big bird.
Except that, as of now, it is there a little less. If you were to be in the vicinity of Everett, high up in the north-west of the mainland USA, on this grey January day, you might be able to witness the end of an era. Today will be an endgame for the 747. The final edition of the aircraft ever to be built will leave its maternity ward – the main Boeing plant, north of Seattle, at the top end of Washington state – ahead of its delivery to its last customer, the New York-based cargo airline Atlas Air. After this, a production cycle which conjured 1,573 “jumbo jets” in some 54 years, will be no more. A moment’s silence, if you please.
Perhaps this is being overly dramatic. And perhaps it isn’t. Because the 747 was a game-changer. Upon its arrival in 1969, it was quickly dubbed the “Queen of the Skies”; a fair tribute to a giant whose size, speed and reliability was key in transforming air travel from an exclusive pursuit for the wealthy to an everyday commodity affordable to all. The present and the future have now overtaken it – but its past will always be celebrated.
In truth, it was overtaken a while ago. Boeing’s introduction of the 787 Dreamliner – a faster, more efficient, 21st-century aircraft – in 2009 was one nail in the cockpit. The pandemic was another – dramatically reducing demand for the largest passenger planes.
But then, the 747 was on its way to retirement long before Covid’s interruption – too big, too noisy, too expensive to run (if not at full capacity), too greedy of fuel consumption, too much of a polluter at a time when the world wants to think greener. For most major airlines, it was already a relic. American Airlines sold off the last of its jumbo jets in the mid-Nineties. Delta did so at a similar stage, initially, only to inherit another set following its merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008 – though these, too, were put out to pasture at the end of 2017. Virgin Atlantic kept it in work for a while longer – but called time with immediate effect in May 2020, as the extent of Covid’s reach became apparent.
The last significant year for the “Queen of the Skies” was 2018, when Boeing received paid requests for 13 of them; a fair number, though dramatically down on the 53 ordered in 2006, and a far cry from the 84 and 66 ordered in 1986 and 1987 respectively. Only six further 747s were booked in for production in this most recent half-decade. Atlas Air’s latest addition to its fleet is not so much a new baby as a farewell show for a global icon.
Admittedly, this is proving to be a long goodbye. British Airways waved the last of its 747s into yesterday in headline-making fashion on October 8 2020, its remaining pair of jumbos taking off from Heathrow consecutively in the morning mist – bound not for the New York or Los Angeles of old, but for Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire and an airfield near Cardiff, to be preserved as museum pieces. The last commercial flight of a BA jumbo had been on April 4 – a near-empty pandemic-stricken dash to San Francisco.
Other 747s are still in service elsewhere on the planet, and still, for now, flying people as well as boxes. Air China has 10 of them, and Lufthansa 27 – although the KLM contingent (a further four) has now been consigned to cargo duties. That huge wingspan will slip through the clouds, the Wright Brothers’ dream writ large, for just a little longer.
Better, though, not to view the 747 through the lens of its inevitable decline – but as a mould-breaker which changed the way the world flew. For this is exactly what it was; a revolution with engines that helped to make air travel accessible for all. It was born, as so much was, amid the optimism and the strong economic currents of the early- and mid-Sixties, driven into being by the determination of US carrier Pan Am to own a plane that it could fly further, for longer, with more people, than anything that had come before.
It required a change of thinking, as well as design. When Pan Am put its request to Boeing, the Seattle manufacturer did not have a plant large enough for the assembly of an airliner with such an extended wingspan (196ft/59.6m on the original 747-100 incarnation of the aircraft). But Boeing adapted, and so did the aviation world. Its first scheduled service took off on January 22 1970 – a Pan Am connection from New York to London. And although success would not be immediate – the recession of 1969-70 meant Boeing only sold two of the planes between September 1970 and the end of 1971 – the 747 would become a fixture in the heavens, able to carry more than 350 passengers in three classes.
Boeing would produce five more iterations of its star product (culminating in the 747-8, which came into operation as a commercial passenger aircraft in March 2011). It would zoom back and forth across the globe – its first-class cabins and piano bars a symbol of its ability to deal in high luxury, and its flip-up nose, opening onto its cargo deck (the reason for that famous hump), a sign that it was also a sturdy workhorse.
Of course, it is not an aircraft whose story was all sunset promotional photos and the clink of champagne glasses in the posh seats. It had its hours of darkness. That inaugural flight, from JFK to Heathrow, should have departed a day earlier, on January 21 1970 – but had to be delayed because the engines on the designated aircraft were overheating. A replacement, Clipper Victor, was drafted in. The substitute performed its crucial mission ably, but would find a far more tragic slot in history as one of the two 747s that collided, in heavy fog, on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife on March 27 1977 – the deadliest accident in aviation history. Clipper Victor was still a Pan Am plane in its final seconds. So was Clipper Maid Of The Seas, the 747-121 downed by a bomb over Lockerbie on December 21 1988. Pan Am, which went bankrupt in 1991, would never wholly recover from the image of that huge cockpit, lying decapitated upon Scottish soil.
Still, it is not for such disasters that the 747 will primarily be remembered. For 54 years (and a few more to come), it was a stallion of the skies, a soaring Pegasus that everyone could ride. It will disappear into yesterday with a few tears, but a lot of happy memories.