The World’s Smallest 747: The Boeing 747SP

When we think of the Boeing 747, we imagine a gigantic aircraft, so tall that the pilots can’t even see the ground below, and so long that walking from the front to the back is further than the first plane flight by the Wright brothers. But did you know that there was actually a tiny version of the 747, so short that it would have been smaller than a Boeing 777?

The World’s Smallest 747: The Boeing 747SP
The Boeing 747SP was the smallest of all 747 variants. Photo: Simple Flying

What was the Boeing 747SP?

The Boeing 747SP (the SP standing for Special Performance), was a bespoke version of the 747 designed for ultra long haul flying. The original Boeing 747 could fly quite far (with it flying from London to Australia on one tank of gas as part of a publicity stunt for Qantas) but this version could easily overtake it, flying over 1,000 more nautical miles than the 747-100.

It was short (somewhat stumpy), with a large tailplane and had simplified trailing edge flaps. This allowed it to carry 276 passengers to a range of 5,830 nmi (10,800 km; 6,710 mi). It still had the iconic Boeing 747 hump,

The Boeing 747 family. Photo: Wikimedia

Who flew the Boeing 747SP?

Unlike other aircraft being built at the time, the Boeing 747SP was actually a customer request. A joint venture between Pan Am and Iran Air (times were certainly different in 1973) asked Boeing for a high capacity aircraft that could fly direct from New York to Tehran (which, at the time, would have been the world’s longest non-stop route).

Boeing also saw it as an opportunity to develop an aircraft to beat trijet competition, such as the DC-10. At the time, Boeing did not have the 767 or 757 to fill in the ‘middle market‘ between the 737 and 747, thus a shortened 747SP seemed like the perfect solution.

Pan Am was the launch customer of the aircraft in 1976, dubbing the first Boeing 747SP in their fleet ‘Clipper Freedom’. They would go on to order 10 aircraft, with another 35 being ordered up its production run finished in 1982. Interestingly, a special one-off was built in 1989 for a UAE prince.

The World’s Smallest 747: The Boeing 747SP
Pan Am was the launch customer of The Boeing 747SP. Photo: Wikimedia

What happened to the Boeing 747SP?

The Boeing 747SP was hit by the same problem that many airlines have suffered from throughout history… rising fuel costs. The aircraft was heavy, didn’t carry as many passengers as a normal 747 and was expensive to run (four engines after all). Boeing had expected to build up to 200 of these aircraft, but their dreams were never realized.

Additionally, by the early 1980’s, other aircraft started to arrive that could easily perform the same route and provide a better passenger experience. The last commercial flight of the Boeing 747SP flew in 2006 for Iran Air. As the country is currently under embargo and spare parts cannot be flown in from Boeing, it is likely that they retired them out of necessity, rather than just replacing them with something better.

The World’s Smallest 747: The Boeing 747SP
A Boeing 747SP in Iran Air livery. Photo: Wikimedia

Today, 10 Boeing 747SP aircraft still travel the skies, with some used for research and engine development (Pratt & Whitney), others for Middle Eastern governments (Like Qatar) and two are owned by a Las Vegas Casino (Sands).

What do you think? Would you have flown on the Boeing 747SP?