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 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,

747
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.

Video of the day:

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.

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?

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Andy Strunsky

Pan Am, Iran Air, TWA, QANTAS, AMERICAN, UNITED, SAA, JAL, KAL,RAM, ARGENTINA, SAUDIA, And others flew it

Howard Miller

IIRC “OG” Braniff also flew the SP, too.

Howard Miller

Actually, I flew the “Baby 747” in June, 1981 from Athens to Johannesburg on South African Airways (SAA) and was aboard my absolute favorite “Queen” for 18+ hours as SAA flights during the era of Apartheid could not overfly just about every country on the African continent at the time except Namibia (then called “South West Africa”) and South Africa itself – so that “unicorn” of a flight was required to fly west to from Athens (IIRC that then “exotic” flight owing to its extraordinary duration and way, way, way out of the way routing operated 2x weekly at ATH;… Read more »

Howard Miller

As a brief follow-up to my comments above re Boeing’s 747-SP: Another route that the short-bodied, then longest haul, “Special Performance” 747 was intended to serve was JFK-Tokyo, as until the “Baby 747” came along, sectors which are hardly all that “long” by today’s standards, and for which nonstops today far beyond the distance between JFK and Tokyo, are so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine that not that long ago, and very much within the lifetimes of people still in the prime of life (such as yours truly), flying nonstop between New York City and Tokyo was in the… Read more »

Keith McKenzie

My wife and I had an opportunity to fly the inaugual JFK-LAX flight on Pan-Am’s 747-SP. While not a special as other writers (we won a lottery for two $99. R/T coach tickets), the flight was enjoyable, and was much better than today’s A321’s.

Ed Mackiewicz

American acquired two preowned sister 747SP to fly their new DFW-NRT route until MD-11s became available. You could identify which plane you were on because one aircraft had a white interphone and the other black. The services was top notch.

Clinton K

I see Pan Am spelled correctly this time! Hooray! Best plane ever made. The wings on the SP are wider than the fuselage is long (first commercial plane with this design feature by 6 feet which adds to it looking funny). I suppose this will change with the 777x if it has not already. The SP could also fly/cruise considerably higher than other aircraft, including the ones built and designed today. The service ceiling of the SP is just over 45,000 feet. Sadly, you neglected to mention this about the SP (from: http://www.747sp.com/) South African Airways 747SP ZS-SPA, c/n: sets… Read more »

Philip Foo

I had an opportune flight in a Qantas B747 SP from Melbourne to Hong Kong (Kai Tak Airport). We had a delayed takeoff of 3 hours in MEL due to aan unspecified “mechanical fault” but managed to get to HKG just 1 hour behind schedule. I missed my connection to LHR on a BA B747, but just managed to catch the next BA B747 departing an hour later. The SP must have flown at closer to supersonic speeds! I asked the hostess about the wisdom of Qantas keeping this aging 24yo aircraft which was uneconomic both from fuel and passenger… Read more »

Wilson Chiwara

Slight correction: As late as 2013 (maybe a bit later), the Iran Air B747SP could be seen regularly at Kuala Lumpur, presumable on scheduled flights

Spuwho

My parents flew the SAA SP’s from the Far East (refuel in Seychelles) to JNB and on the route from Joburg to Kennedy (refuel at SAL Island). By the time I got on the routes the SP’s were gone and it was a Dash-400 and later A340’s. I still remember whenever the South African government flew into Dulles for diplomatic purposes, it was always those SP’s they used. On the SAA Dash-400 the service was impeccable. By the time the A-340 came along service had dropped several notches as cost cutting was beginning to show. I finally switched to Lufthansa… Read more »

David

Bring it back!
With modern engines it could probably fly domestic routes on only 2 engines.
Absolutely gorgeous and spacious plane. Flew on it and its big brother many times.
Every time I saw one it made me think of a “fat fighter” aircraft.