51 Years Ago Heathrow Welcomed Its First 747 – A Pan Am Flight From JFK

On this day, 51 years ago, the first Boeing 747 touched down at London’s Heathrow airport carrying revenue passengers. It was Pan Am’s inaugural flight from New York, JFK, and heralded a new era in long-haul passenger travel. But the flight wasn’t as straightforward as Pan Am might have hoped; here’s what happened.

Pan Am 747
On this day in 1970, the first 747 commercial service touched down in London. Photo: Getty Images

A long history with the 747

Back in October, Heathrow was home to the final goodbye of British Airways’ Boeing 747s. the airport hosted a two plane takeoff, followed by a flypast, as the type officially exited the British flag carrier’s fleet.

But Heathrow has a long and colorful history with the 747. On this very day, 51 years ago, it welcomed the first jumbo jet carrying fare-paying passengers from the USA. Pan Am Flight Two touched down on Heathrow’s runway at 14:14 GMT on January 22nd, 1970, marking the start of 50 years of seeing the type regularly at the London airport.

The Pan Am flight came direct from New York, with 324 passengers onboard. Not only was it Heathrow’s first 747 arrival, but the very first commercial service to be flown by the Queen ever. As you can imagine, it was a momentous occasion, with one eyewitness describing the scene like a ‘media circus.’

The historic flight had launched from JFK in the early hours of the morning on January 22nd and took seven hours and 20 minutes to cross the Atlantic. But despite the safe and celebrated arrival of the aircraft, not everything went entirely to plan.

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Pan Am 747
Pan Am made the first transatlantic crossing with the 747. Photo: Getty Images

Teething troubles

To say the 747 had some teething troubles would be something of an understatement. The jumbo was developed and launched in a somewhat compressed timeframe, with many elements being completed ‘just in time.’ A fine example of this was the evacuation demonstration, which proved to be something of a challenge.

The 747 training base in Roswell, New Mexico, had a failed attempt to evacuate on January 15th, 1970. This threw up some issues with emergency lighting and deployment of the slides, which Boeing had to pedal hard to fix. In the end, the successful evacuation of the 747 was completed on January 21st, just hours before the planned deployment of the first transatlantic service.

Pan Am 747
Clipper Young America was named by the First Lady, Thelma Catherine “Pat” Nixon. Photo: Getty Images

That’s right – the 747’s first flight should have happened yesterday, 51 years ago. But the odds were not in Pan Am’s favor. Its proving flight the week before was undertaken by N735PA, bearing the name ‘Clipper Young America.’ Pan Am planned to operate its first revenue flight with this same aircraft.

With crew onboard and passengers strapped in, Young America pushed back at around 19:30 on January 21st. However, as it was taxiing to the runway, a problem with the number four engine forced a return to the gate. Internal engine damage meant N735PA could not fly, and everyone had to be deplaned.

Victory for Clipper Victor

Several hours later, Clipper Victor (N736PA) was substituted in and ready to go. It took off at 01:52 on January 22nd and had a great flight across the Atlantic, by all accounts. However, the return flight wasn’t quite so trouble-free.

Pan Am 747
Clipper Victor, moments after arriving in Heathrow. Photo: Getty Images

While preparing to depart from London, a compressed air bottle that was used to blow out the door in case of an emergency was found to be faulty. 36 of the 153 passengers booked to fly the return leg had to be accommodated on other flights, and the service was delayed at Heathrow for around four hours.

Nevertheless, the 747 has since become a regular sight at the London airport, and at many more worldwide. It changed the face of travel forever, and although it’s becoming a scarce visitor in these modern times, we’ll never forget the Queen of the Skies.

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