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,

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.

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?

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

  2. 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; and originated at other major Mediterranean region capitals on other days) to Lisbon, Portugal where it made a “technical stop” to refuel and pick-up local originating passengers for the very long overnight trip from Lisbon to Johannesburg.

    For sure, it was a much longer flight than the full-sized 747 flight offered by Greece’s then state-owned airline, Olympic Airways, whose flights on the other two-days per week that there were direct flights between Athens and Johannesburg, stopped in Nairobi (as most flights between European cities and Johannesburg NOT to/from Brussels or Paris, which usually stopped elsewhere in Africa, on European carriers), but with SAA offering the chance of what, in fact, turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it being then known as offering some of the best in-flight service (especially in 1st class, which, as an accredited travel agent IATA# and all, I had an opportunity to fly for every fight taken on that extraordinary JFK-LHR-MUC-ATH-JNB-CPT-JNB-ZUR-JFK adventure that was also my very first trip overseas) versus Olympic Airways which back then wasn’t nearly as highly regarded as SAA.

    So, despite the SAA 74L flight being 7 or so hours longer than Olympic’s, a close friend, who’s family was based in Johannesburg for a large multi-national corporation that’s still very much around now, who was well aware of my passion for airlines, airplanes and travel itself, recommended that we take that SAA flight if only because he said it really was an extraordinary flight “NOT to be missed” by any serious avgeek!

    And was he ever right!

    That flight on SAA to this day stands out as among the most memorable for sure, on an itinerary filled with 747s galore:

    BA JFK-LHR: not necessarily the best inflight catering in that era when the airline was still state-owned and often derisively referred to with a sneer as “Bloody Awful” because many regarded the airline’s service in that era as – about the way it is now in the Alex Cruz let’s make BA more like an airline that is bloody awful, “Vueling”.

    Still it was BA. 1st Class aboard Her Majesty the “Queen”. And I was jetting off on a six-week tour that began in London!

    So, I was already beyond delighted with joy before even stepping aboard that flight.

    But what made that already then pretty run down BA 747-100 flight beyond incredible was when I was invited upstairs to the flight deck pre-dawn and spent 20 minutes watching the sun rise with the flight crew!

    Of course, that’s from an entirely different era when airlines outside of the USA had different policies that allowed ordinary passengers to visit the flight deck while inflight.

    And I’m sure glad for that, because all these years later that experience is totally unforgettable as among the most exciting moments spent in Air – and that sunrise was so beautiful it’s seared into memory so well that even when writing this now, it’s as if I’ve been transported back in time and am experiencing it all over again.

    That flight, for that reason, is probably the best flight ever taken in my life!

    But a close second, and really but for that spectacular flight deck sunrise treat, otherwise a better flight in every other way, was the 18+ hours spent on my one and only 747-SP flight on SAA from Athens to Johannesburg via Lisbon.

    First class all the way (alas, NOT anything even remotely close to the McMansions of today) …for just three passengers!

    My close friend at the time, myself and a VIP “commuter” who flew often; was on a first name basis with the entire crew; and who delivered on his promise to make that flight an unforgettable party beginning with his show-stopping opening act where he told us that the airline stashed extra special champagne aboard that flight for VIPs like him, and sure enough, the “ordinary” champagne was replaced with extraordinary champagne that flowed nonstop while we gorged on 1st class food that also barely stopped coming until we all feel asleep deep into the night before waking up for, yep, even more extraordinary champagne (and orange juice, thank goodness!) that was served with our made to order breakfasts before my friend and I all but floated off that one, only and truly exceptional 747-SP flight I ever took.

    It was an incredible flight – and it, just as the return flight on Swissair (as the airline was known then), which at the time was what Singapore Airlines, Qatar or Emirates Airlines is today in terms of over the top service and five-star dining from Johannesburg to Zurich via Nairobi, Kenya, were easily the two best inflight dining experiences in my lifetime (I mean, seriously, a formal dinner between Johannesburg and Nairobi in a nearly empty 1st Class cabin and under half-full economy section that began shortly after take-off and didn’t end until just before landing 4 or so hours later in Nairobi; followed by a midnight supper that consisted of champagne, caviar and other tasty bites in what was then a completely full DC-10 from nose-to-tail; topped off by the piece de resistance: waking up, handed a flute filled with champagne, followed by breakfast featuring perfectly made eggs – with snow capped alps then coming into view and passing below before landing!

    The last flight back home to JFK from Zurich was also aboard the “Queen”, and in 1st class, also on Swissair.

    That 747 was packed, too.

    And while that flight was fine, it also has the impossible task of matching that epic 18+ hours SAA flying party aboard the 747-SP where the “S” correctly stood for “Special” but for my friend, me and that VIP stranger never seen or heard from again, the “P” most definitely stood for “Party” because the WAS as special party that just so happened to be aboard an extra special “unicorn” version of Boeing’s “Baby 747” on a “unicorn” flight that for political reasons that thank goodness came to an end and were consigned to the dust heap of history as they rightfully deserved to be, required that country’s airline to fly 7 or more hours longer than others on planes that could handle the distance and where stepped up service was the bait used to lure passengers whom otherwise could’ve made their journeys much quicker on other (and sometimes lesser quality) airlines such as Olympic Airways would’ve been for that segment had my friend not been as passionate about me of all people passing up that crazy long, out-of-the-way SAA flight that was only bested by a then otherwise much dowdier BA’s already tattered, early vintage 747-100; with its ho-hum food; but actually excellent flight attendants; that but for the sun rise surprise in the flight deck actually would’ve been the “worst” of the three 747 flights taken on that trip, and of the four overall long-haul sectors when including the JNB-ZRH on the SR DC-10.

    However, as the SR ZRH-JFK 747 flight came on the heels of BA’s “Best Flight Ever” featuring the sunrise surprise (JFK-LHR); that 18+ hours “special party” that just so happened to be high in the sky aboard the “Baby Queen” as she winged her way from Athens to Johannesburg; or the equally spectacular Swissair DC-10 between JNB and ZRH via Nairobi with its nearly private dining for the first leg; the mind-blowing champagne and caviar midnight supper; and its flawless breakfast over the alps – well, that last 747 flight between ZRH and JFK didn’t have a chance of coming remotely close to those three back-to-back long-haul flights of a lifetime that I’m NOT sure I’ll have a chance to experience even just one flight as good as any of those special three in 1981 were ever again as it’s hard to imagine lil ol’ me ever having the means to fly 1st Class aboard the exceptionally few airlines of this era where service THAT EXTRAORDINARY is likely to be found!

    But hey, I did say “hard to imagine” – NOT “never ever” 😉

    But to answer the question posed at the end of the article above:

    “Yes, have flown Boeing’s incredible 747-SP, and the flight was INCREDIBLE!”

    In fact, it was, and remains, unforgettable, too.

    What a treat indeed! 🙂

  3. 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 1970s the equivalent of the current efforts by Qantas to begin serving Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth with nonstops linking far flung destinations such as London (as was begun via Perth only recently), Paris, Frankfurt, New York and perhaps Chicago.

    So, with nonstops between the then emerging Asian economic power/financial capital, Tokyo, and then then leading financial capital NY City being the dream then akin to Qantas’s current efforts to conquer aviation’s final unfulfilled dream of nonstops linking Sydney, Australia with London in Europe and New York City in North America, apart from JFK-Tehran, Pan Am very much wanted to offer nonstops between JFK and Tokyo as its competitors, Japan Air Lines and Northwest Orient (yes, long before merging with Delta when it was called “Northwest Airlines”, that was the airline’s name), both lacked any aircraft that would have allowed them to compete with nonstops, with those other two airlines’ flights between Tokyo and New York City requiring stops to refuel either in Anchorage, AK as JAL’s always did, or Seattle/Tacoma, WA as Northwest’s typically did.

    So, Pan Am was eager to have a head start offering the then very much sought after by financial types nonstops between NY City and Tokyo that Pan Am’s competitors wouldn’t be able to offer for a while which would make for a very profitable exclusive nonstop sector that Pan Am was all too happy to have for itself as the USA’s 1978 deregulation took effect that began Pan Am’s long, slow slide into oblivion

    *(not sure off the cuff while writing this addendum how much longer it would be until the other two airlines, Northwest and JAL, began NYC-TYO nonstops after Pan Am began its using the “-SP”, but for sure do recall that JAL’s 1-stops via ANC on DC-10s lasted for quite some time before that airline finally began nonstops between Tokyo and NYC, and NW’s didn’t start right away after Pan Am’s either)

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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:
    South African Airways 747SP ZS-SPA, c/n: sets up a new world distance record for commercial aircraft by flying 10,290 miles (16,507 km) nonstop from Seattle-Paine Field to Cape Town in 17h 22m.
    The MTOW of the 747SP at Paine Field was 323,547 kg with 50 passengers on board. When landing, ‘PA had enough fuel left for another 2h 27min of flight!
    This record was surpassed about 10 years later. I believe today the longest is almost 22,000 km flown by a 777-200LR from Hong Kong to London – over the Pacific to Los Angeles, the United States to New York and on to London. There were only 35 Pax on board though.

    NOTE: The LHR > SYD non-stop was not completed by an “original 747” but rather a 747-400 (438 to be exact) which came almost 2 decades (19 years AFTER the 747-100 or “original” 747).

  7. 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 perspectives and she simply replied, “because no-one would buy it off us”. But I was glad I flew in the SP that day as I managed to get to London within the same day as planned.

  8. 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

  9. 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 later on even though I had to layover a few hours in Germany.

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