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The End of an Era: A History of the Boeing 747 and a Look to the Future

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Part I: A Brief History

Amid the Cold War, the United States Air Force was frantically looking for something new to outdo the Soviets: large transport aircraft capable of carrying large cargo. In 1964, studies by the USAF lead to the creation of the CX-Heavy Logistics System, a plan for a new aircraft, that would have a load capacity of 81,600 kilograms, a speed of Mach 0.75, a range of 9,300 kilometers, and a payload of 115,00 pounds.   Later that year, proposals for the airframe were submitted by the biggest names in aerospace; Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed Martin, Martin Marietta, and General Dynamics. Due to the size of the CX-HLS, new engines were also required causing General Electric, Pratt and Whitney, and Curtiss-Wright to submit proposals. After a thorough selection process, Lockheed’s aircraft design and GE’s engine design were selected by the USAF to make the C-5 Galaxy Transport, breaking the record for largest military aircraft in the process.

c-5 galaxy transport.jpg
A C-5 Galaxy Transport (Source:

Although Boeing lost the military contract, its largest customer Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) was in talks with Boeing about a new airplane. CEO of Pan Am, Juan Trippe, specifically wanted a plane that could carry double the number of passengers of a Boeing 707 (140-219 passengers). Design began in 1965 at the newly constructed plant at Paine Field in Everett, Washington. A year later, Trippe ordered 25 747-100s. Many aviation experts believe that due to Pan Am ordering so many 747s, Pan Am had lots of influence when it came to the design and production of the 747 with such influence never being seen before.

Boeing took a very conservative route when designing the 747. In case of slow sales of the passenger jet, a cargo version was developed. Due to the development of Supersonic passenger jets (e.g. Concorde), Boeing predicted Supersonic jets to eclipse the marvels of the 747. Cargo airlines bought and still continue to buy 747s to this day.

4 years after Pan Am’s monumental order, First Lady Pat Nixon “christened” the first Pan Am 747 at Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C on January 15, 1970. A week later, the first 747 was launched into commercial flight, flying a popular Pan Am route from New York to London.

Though the 747 had a relatively smooth introduction into service, economics got in the way of sales. Carriers soon realized that for a 747 to be profitable, it would need to be flying fully booked each time. A moderately loaded 747 used more than 95% of the fuel used by a fully occupied 747. The Economic Recession of 1969-1970 also halted sales. Only 2 747s were sold and it took more than 3 years before another 747 was sold to an American carrier other than Pan Am.  The 1973 Oil Crisis was the last straw. Reduced passenger traffic led to carriers removing, replacing, or relegating the 747. American Airlines demoted the 747-100 to strictly cargo service, while Delta Airlines replaced the 747 with more fuel efficient planes like the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10.

However, the cultural phenomenon behind the 747 is what drove it to success. Being able to fly on a double-deck plane is what amazed people at the time. People remarked “I could go back farther to the day when I, an awkward 14 year old, stood with my mom and dad atop the Pan Am terminal at JFK, and stood in wonder at the towering tails fins of the 747s taxiing by. Carriers were even buying the 747 just because of the excitement behind it. Aviation expert Guillaume de Syon says that “The airlines had to get them, even if it made no sense economically. Small airlines from small countries flew 747s into JFK — it was an incredible assembly,”. The ties between Pan Am, an American icon during the 1960s, and the Boeing 747 made it American to fly on these. Though Pan Am went out of business the 1990s, the 747 still remains one of the most popular aircraft today.

Within years of the 747-100 being released, newer versions of the 747 were made. As of December 2017, 7 more models other than the base 747-100 have been released. Currently, the newest model is the Boeing 747-8 (it happens to use the same engines as the Boeing 787) boasting better economic, environmental, and quieter performance.

A 747-100 (Source:

A 747-8. (Source: Boeing)

The Boeing 747 marked a change in aircraft design; the ability to do what many thought was impossible in terms of the size of an aircraft. Soon after the 747 came the Airbus A380 and the Antonov AN-225, two of the largest airplanes in the world. But as we look to the future, size may not be the determining force of innovation.

Explaining the difference in size. Source:

Part II: A Look to the Future

In 2014, Delta Airlines, one of the US’ largest airlines, announced plans to retire the Boeing 747 in 2017. Interestingly, Delta was one of the first carriers to buy the Boeing 747 when it first came out, but due to measures to save money, the 747 was cut from its fleet. However, in 2007 when Delta and Northwest Airlines merged, the 747 was added back to Delta’s fleet. Currently, 16 Delta 747 flies long haul international flights (e.g. Detroit to Seoul).

When Delta first announced that they were replacing the 747, they announced the 747 would be with the Airbus A350-900. In a press release Delta wrote “The jets [A350] are expected to generate a 20 percent improvement in operating cost per seat compared to the Boeing 747-400 aircraft they will replace. Delta will take delivery of the A350 beginning in the second quarter of 2017,”.

A major difference between the A350 and the 747 is that the A350 uses two engines instead of 4. More engines on an aircraft means more fuel is being used. Also, Delta is flying the older 747-400 rather than the new model. The older planes are less fuel efficient, and the newer A350s are designed to save carriers money.

Other than Delta, United Airlines also dropped the 747 from its fleet in 2017. With Delta dropping the 747, no US airline will fly the 747. Internationally, Cathay Pacific and Air France have also switched out the 747.

Currently, British Airways has the largest 747 fleet. In November 2017, BA confirmed plans to phase out the 747 by 2024. Korean Airlines and Lufthansa still fly the Queen of the Skies, but no plans to phase out the 747 have been released. While, the Queen of the Skies’ days are numbered for passenger flight, while Cargo airlines (e.g. FedEx or UPS) continue to use the 747.

It’s bittersweet watching Delta’s last 747 touch down in Detroit. For one, it signals the end of a cultural era. Many Americans grew up being amazed by the marvel of the 747 and many are sad to see it go. However, it marks the beginning of the future. As carriers begin to look to the A350, Boeing 777, and Boeing 787, new technology emerges. As we look to the future, the 747 will forever remain in the hearts of many Americans.

Have a 747 story? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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