The 747’s 50th Anniversary – Let’s Look At It’s History

The Boeing 747 is one of the world’s most iconic airliners. The queen of the skies is celebrating its golden jubilee, having graced the airways for the past 50 years. Although the first Boeing 747 didn’t grace the skies until 1969, it rolled off of the assembly line 50 years ago in the September of 1968. That particular aircraft now sits in Seattle at the Museum of Flight. We’ll explore some unique modifications of the aeroplane throughout history, as well as some of its great achievements.

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Boeing President and Bill Allen and Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe (right) celebrate the launch of the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” in 1968. The longtime friends sealed the deal on selling the airplanes to Pan Am with a handshake while on a fishing trip. Photo: Boeing

Furthering Space Science

The Boeing 747 has surprisingly played a massive part in advancing space science. What do you do when you need to move a large space vehicle that doesn’t fit into an aircraft? The answer is to strap it onto the back of a modified B747. Up until the last space shuttle arrived at a museum, NASA used to ferry the vehicles around atop their two specially converted Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

Boeing 747
A shuttle carrier aircraft takes the space shuttle Endeavour to its final resting place in Los Angeles. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Additionally, NASA also operates another converted B747 called SOFIA. SOFIA carries a colossal telescope which is flown high in the atmosphere to avoid atmospheric interference. SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

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SOFIA has a vast hatch that opens in flight to expose its telescope. Photo: NASA

Carrying High Profile Passengers

Several Boeing 747 aircraft have been converted to carry significant persons across the globe. Arguably the most important of them is Air Force One. This is the callsign given to an aircraft which is carrying the president of the United States. There are currently two B747 aircraft which are modified to serve this purpose. However, Boeing is now in the process of constructing two more aircraft.

Featured Video:

Boeing 747
Air Force One is arguably the most famous B747, seen here flying over Mount Rushmore.

Until recently the Qatar Royal Family were trying to sell a brand new B747-8 which had been specially converted into a flying palace. Following a lack of interest, the aircraft was gifted to Turkey.

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The interior of the Qatari Royal Family B747-8.

Serving Good Causes

Several Boeing 747 aircraft have been used to help good causes over the years. In May of 1991, a B747 that had had all of its insides removed carried 1,112 refugees from Ethiopia to Isreal as part of Operation Solomon.

From the archives - the Operation Solomon Jumbo
Over a thousand refugees cram onto a B747.

KLM also used its B747 Combi aircraft for a good cause in 2017. The B747 Combi is a strange B747 which carries passengers at the front, and freight at the back. The plane was used as part of the international effort to conserve Pandas, carrying a pair of the creatures from Chengdu, China to Amsterdam.

With the newest iteration of the Boeing 747, the B747-8 still on sale, the aircraft will undoubtedly keep gracing our skies for many more years. Despite failed projects like the B747 Tri-jet, there is indeed scope for the airliner to keep evolving, especially in the application of cargo transport. Here’s hoping the queen of the skies lives to reach 100!

What is your favourite memory of a B747? Let us know below!

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Dwight Lee Bates

I flew 40 hours FAA Certifying the first 747 engines in 1969 as a Senior Propulsion Engineer for Boeing. Also I worked as a Lead Engineer on the 747-400. I was an MRB Engineer in Final Assembly for Section 41 and 42 in the Everett factory. I have loved the airplane for 50 years.