Fifteen hundred 747's took to the skies; now time is being called on the much loved Jumbo Jet...
The original 747 is unveiled to the staff. Photo Boeing
Hardly a week goes by these days without another airline announcing the final flight of the last Boeing 747 'Jumbo Jet' in its fleet. United Airlines, Air France, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas have already retired theirs. And now British Airways has called immediate time on keeping its 31 Boeing 747-400s in the skies. Covid-19s calamatous affect on travel and the aviation industry is swiftly bringing forward the retirement of these venerable aircraft - perhals the most iconic civil airliner ever made.
Who knows yet if one of BA's models will wind up at an aviation park. It's not a totally daft idea - Qantas' last Boeing 747-400 was donated to the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society that plans to put it on public display at the HQ at Albion Park, NSW. That particular aircraft grabbed headlines on its delivery flight too, when back in 1989 it set a world record for the longest flight of a commercial jet – a nonstop slog between London and Sydney of twenty hours and nine minutes.
And in a flying life fairly typical of the jumbo - which was designed to carry more passengers further than any plane of its day - it had carried 4,094,568 passengers and flown the equivalent of 110 return trips to the moon.
When the world's first 'wide-bodied' aircraft entered service in 1970 the jumbo was wider, longer and flew further than any other passenger plane. But despite the manufacture of improved new models over the years, Cathay Pacific, JAL, Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, and many others, have already said fond farewells to their last jumbo jets. The final flights themselves have been accompanied by champagne send-offs, onboard TV crews and moist-eyed plane spotters clinging to perimeter fences.
Nobody notices when other aircraft types bow out. There was something different about the jumbo jet. Even people who wouldn't know an Airbus from a double-decker bus knew when they were on a Boeing 747.
Chances are most of us can remember our first flight in one. Mine was crossing from London to Los Angeles when I was five years old, clutching a plastic red suitcase that my grandmother had packed with toys. The Pan Am jumbo's nose looked whale-like as it nudged towards the departure gate at Heathrow. The in-flight films were marvellous, even though the ceiling-mounted screens were tiny and at neck-cricking angles. When looking forward or back from my seat, the plane seemed to go on forever.
Much of the impact came from its size - the 747s were so much bigger than the Boeing 727s or DC-8s before them. Board a 727 and you'd walk down a jetty into a cramped fuselage with a single aisle and three seats either side. But jumbos were so high off the ground that old-style jetties inclined upwards to the doors, and entering the cabin revealed not one, but two aisles -- and the seats numbered an astonishing 10 across. Just glimpsing the spiral staircase at the front felt like being on a sci-fi film set.
Boeing mock-up of early 747 interior
The staircase led to the upper deck bubble - perhaps aviation's most iconic shape, and an inexplicably reassuring one, too. The upper deck wasn't designed for aesthetic reasons, though. The plan was to move the pilot and his instruments out of the way to make room for cargo. A hinged nose section would mean bulkier freight could be front-loaded straight into the main deck. But Pan Am, the first buyer, had its eyes firmly on transporting passengers and pressured Boeing to extend the bubble for use as a lounge.
Most lounges were up in the bubble, but some were at the front, and others even at the rear for economy passengers. Wherever they were, the lounges and bars that flourished in the early 70s were invariably psychedelic in decor. Qantas' Captain's Club lounge had antique-map tabletops and nautical woodwork; Air India's version looked like a scene from Dr Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band movie; and American Airlines even had a piano bar complete with a Wurlitzer for sing-alongs. Yes, really.
Then came the 1973 oil shock, which gave the bean counters the upper hand. They stopped the fun and frivolity and swept away the lounges to make way for more revenue-earning seats.
Wherever you were sitting though, the jumbos were big and safe and smooth through the air. This partly explains how Boeing wound up selling 1,500 of the 65-ton giants. They tweaked them over the years, of course: the 747-SP was shortened by 47 feet to enable it to fly further, the 'Combi' had seats in the front half and cargo at the back, and a special short-haul option was developed for Japanese domestic flights that crammed in 560 seats. Most successful and numerous, though, were the stretched upper-deck versions where the bubble elongated as far as the wing - the 747-300 and the 747-400 as flown formerly by Ansett and still by Qantas.
A BA 747 on final approach into the very downtown Mexico City Airport
The latest and last version was the Boeing 747-8, but only a few dozen aircraft have been sold and the trend is clear. Day by day there are fewer jumbos signing our skies. Qantas, BA, United, Delta and others are retiring them in favour of twin-engine planes, which are much cheaper to run per passenger.
The Heavy Metal bang Iron Maiden have a private 747 dubbed Ed Force One
Jumbos will be flying for a few years to come, but the big famous global carriers are ditching their at speed in response to Covid. Seeing their brilliantly recognisable bulge bubble will certainly be a rarer occurance, so just in case, the next time you spy one flying overhead or sat at an airport gate, you might give an appreciative nod to a trustworthy flying machine that's transported us around the world for more than 45 years.
A venerable 747 Jumbo Jet climbs into the sunset...