Boeing’s grand dame of the skies, the 747, marks half a century of flying fare-paying passengers today. The launch customer, Pan American Airways, operated the world’s first commercial 747 service between New York’s JFK Airport and London Heathrow on 22 January 1970.
Production of the first 747s began in 1968, the first test flights took place in February 1969, and the first paying passengers took flight on today’s date 50 years ago.
A bumpy start for the first flight
At the end of November 2019, Boeing had produced 1,557 of the aircraft. Ironically, back in the late 1960s, Boeing thought they would end up selling about 400. The thinking at the time was that supersonic aircraft like the Concorde would make the 747 redundant.
Like a middling child that grew up and shone, exceeding all expectations, the Boeing 747 is now one of the world’s most iconic and loved aircraft.
Pan Am, along with TWA, took delivery of two 747s each in December 1969. The plane posed a significant challenge for both airlines and host airports. Overnight, both airlines owned aircraft that were more than twice as big as any other aircraft in their fleets. Amongst other things, Pan Am struggled to complete demonstration evacuations within required timeframes.
For airports, the arrival of the 747 posed challenges akin to the arrival of the A380 on their runways in 2007.
Pan Am got there in the end, albeit not without some last-minute hiccups. The planned departure of N735PA, Pan Am’s first scheduled 747 departure at 19:30 on 21 January 1960 was delayed at the departure gate by engine issues.
Six hours later, and using Pan Am’s second 747, N736PA, PA2 pushed back just before 02:00 on 22 January 1960. The 345 passengers landed in London later that afternoon.
The 747 exceeded everyone’s expectations
From that point, the Boeing 747 has gone on to fly over 57 billion nautical miles and carry more than 5.9 billion people. Uptake of the aircraft was swift. During 1970, another 13 airlines took delivery of their first Boeing 747 and the aircraft would go on to be the long term mainstays of many long haul fleets.
The biggest customer would be Japan Airlines. Over 40 years, Japan Airlines bought 106 Boeing 747s. Japan Airlines flew the 747 until 2011.
The 747 launch airline, Pan Am, no longer exists. But some of those 13 customers who took 747s in 1970 still fly later models of the plane, including British Airways and Lufthansa.
In a statement, Boeing’s resident historian, Mike Lombardi said;
“Over the last 50 years, the 747 has become legendary, today it is a bridge to a romantic era of flight, an era that we should continue to aspire to resurrect. But more than that the 747 is a reminder of the power of the human spirit and what we can accomplish with our hearts, minds and hard work.
It reminds us that even though we may lose hope in a world that seems filled with strife, we can turn our eyes to the skies and see those great contrails of the Queen of the Skies crossing the heavens and know that we can still overcome great adversity and accomplish incredible things.”
Days flying passengers coming to a close
When you read this, perhaps if you close your eyes you can visualize that first paying 747 flight powering across the North Atlantic at this point in time exactly half a century ago. You can almost hear the hum of the engines, picture the wintery washed-out light, and smell that new plane smell.
The days of the Boeing 747 flying paying passengers are drawing to a close. The aircraft will live on for some time flying cargo but the eye-catching 747 silhouette is becoming a rarer sight at passenger terminals around the world.
But what other aircraft has kept flying and stayed in production for 50 years? Nobody writes paeans about a 737 but the 747 is another story altogether. Its success wasn’t predicted at Boeing back in the 1960s. The Boeing 747 is perhaps aviation’s greatest example of under-promising and over-delivering.