Few aircraft spark affection like the ‘Jumbo Jet’, few aircraft warrant a name like the ‘Queen of the Skies’ and no aircraft could ever carry that title as well as the iconic Boeing 747.
But this is no ordinary Aeroplane. For over 50 years the 747 has graced our skies, changing the face of air travel and opening up the world to billions of people.
So it truly is heartbreaking that an invisible nemesis should bring about such an inconspicuous end for this global icon. But sadly this is exactly what the COVID-19 pandemic has done after Virgin Atlantic, KLM and Qantas, whose own histories are so intrinsically linked to the plane, announced the early retirement of their 747 fleets.
Here at Confessions of a Trolley Dolly we have decided to pay tribute to this symbol of the glorious jet-age, and aircraft that has shaped our industry and the lives of so many of its crew.
The first Boeing 747, appropriately named ‘City of Everett’ to honour the factory where it was built, took to the skies on February 9, 1969. The jet came about after Pan Am founder Juan Trippe had asked Boeing to create a plane that was twice the size of the 707.
Enter lead engineer Joe Sutter who was transferred from the 737 development team and began to work with Pan Am and other airlines to better understand their requirements. Numerous ideas were looked at including a two-deck ‘A380’ type design, long before Airbus created their ‘Super-Jumbo’. But there were two reasons that didn’t happen. One: the lower ceiling height of each deck made cargo less effective. Two: At the time, two decks couldn’t be evacuated in the mandatory 90 seconds or less for airworthiness certification. Sutter became known as the ‘father of the 747’ and would remain an advisor to Boeing right up until his death in 2016 at the grand age of 95.
It was also believed that the jet would not be around for long with supersonic travel deemed the future. Boeing already had its ‘2707’ in development as a rival to the European Concorde. And so the plane-maker responded by designing the 747 so that it could be easily adapted to carry freight and remain in production even if sales of the passenger version declined, hence the iconic ‘hump’ shape that we have today as designers placed the cockpit above the fuselage to allow for front loading through the nose.
747 FACT: The Upper Deck Is About As Wide As A Boeing 737While the 747 upper deck may feel like an exclusive and tiny space, which in contrast to the main deck it is, it’s actually about the same size as an entire Boeing 737. If you haven’t gone upper deck, you must. There aren’t that many years remaining to experience it…
Nicknamed ‘The Incredibles’ by Boeing President William Allen, 50,000 mechanics, engineers and administrators were tasked with designing and building the 747 in just 28 months. (The usual time frame for building a new aircraft was 42 months). One of the advisors for the new aeroplane was United Airlines flight attendant Iris Peterson who worked closely with engineers to develop safety features with a total of 17 of her suggestions being implemented, including the evacuation alarm, now standard equipment on aircraft worldwide.
Pan Am had placed a $550m order for 25 of the jets in April 1966. By 1968, Boeing had $1.5 billion worth of contracts with 26 airlines for the 747, and the plane was being built in a factory so new it didn’t even have a roof yet.
But four years later on January 21, 1970, the ‘Queen of the Skies’ was ready to carry its first passengers on Pan Am’s flagship New York to London service. Clipper Young America was ready for takeoff, but when an engine began overheating the flight was postponed for over six hours until early the next day and a replacement aircraft Clipper Victor was used.
“All my worries evaporated,” Sutter wrote about the jets inaugural flight in his autobiography. “I knew we had a good airplane.”
“I got on the airplane and I was like wow, this aeroplane is massive. It is so spacious, you could get so many people on it. It went on and on and on. It was just the most phenomenal experience for me to actually get to work on a jumbo jet. The early days of the 747, it was a completely different experience. It was dining and wining in the sky which now, especially our business class customers.”– Helen Sommerville, Flight Attendant.
It was far from just a “good” airplane. The Boeing 747 would come to redefine air travel in the late 20th century. With its four engines, it could travel farther and faster than other jets and, with a seating capacity of 550, carry three times as many passengers. The extra seats meant prices for international travel came down, and a golden age of global tourism for the masses was born.
Every airline wanted a 747 in their fleet, it became a status symbol and with good reason. Passengers loved them. As Boeing promised in magazine ads in the early ’70s, ‘Welcome to the Spacious Age.’ The 747s twin aisles didn’t just come with extra legroom but also vertical sidewalls and high ceilings that made it easy to forget you were on a plane at 35,000 feet.
The upper deck, an area which in the original design had no real purpose was quickly turned in to a first-class lounge, where passengers could walk up a spiral staircase to be wined and dined. Airlines went above and beyond to make their lounge area special. Continental had a fully stocked pub, including arcade games. United’s ‘Red Carpet Room’ featured swivel chairs, wide-screen movies and over a dozen baby bassinets. American Airlines had a grand piano to keep passengers entertained. Frank Sinatra Jr. played a surprise show with his nine-piece band during a red-eye flight on American from Los Angeles to New York in 1971. Sadly, the financial struggles of the aviation world put an end to these fabulous lounges as airlines decided to cram in more seats to increase revenues.
The second 747 version, the -200 series, entered service in 1971. From the outside, it looked pretty much the same as the earlier model, but it came with more-powerful engines and increased fuel capacity for longer-range flights. A short range version the ‘SR’ was introduced in 1973 for Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) to be used on their high-density domestic networks. This was followed by the ‘SP’ or special performance, designed for ultra-long-range routes. Introduced in 1976 it was 48 feet shorter than the standard 747 and carried 90 fewer passengers. Only 45 were ever built.
The stretched upper-deck was introduced on the -300 series in 1983. But only 81 were ever built as the aircraft was quickly superseded by the Jumbo so many of us know and love today, the 747-400.
As the most successful variant of the type (694 were built), the -400 series entered service in 1989 and remained in production until 2005 when the last new build was delivered to China Airlines.
The latest model is the 747-8i (intercontinental) which first flew in 2011. However, even with the latest technological advances taken from the 787 Dreamliner, only Lufthansa, Air China and Korean Air placed orders for the passenger variant of which 47 were built.
As the years have rolled by our beautiful Jumbo Jet has gradually fallen out of favour with cost-conscious airlines who have turned to twin engine jets like the 777, 787, Airbus A330 and A350 which burn less fuel and have substantially lower operating costs.
And despite Virgin Atlantic claiming for many years that you need ‘4 engines 4 long-haul’ the writing has been on the wall regarding the 747s retirement for some time.
The airline had already announced that their fleet of seven 747s would be retired by 2021, replacing them with their new Airbus A350-1000s. Sadly the coronavirus pandemic meant its grounding was hastily brought forward with a spokesperson on May 5 stating “From today, Virgin Atlantic will no longer use all of its seven 747-400s.”
When Virgin Atlantic was set up in 1984 there was only one aircraft that flamboyant owner Richard Branson wanted to operate his flights – the 747!
Branson called up Boeing and asked if they had any secondhand 747s for sale. The company agreed to lease him one for a year to get the business off the ground and the airlines first 747 (G-VIRG) or ‘Maiden Voyager’ as she was christened, took to the skies on June 22, 1984 on the inaugural Gatwick to New York Newark service. She would remain in the fleet until 2001. Additional 747s were acquired over the years, allowing the carrier to expand its network. 17 -200 series aircraft would be operated.
The airline introduced the 747-400 in January 1994. The first to arrive was G-VFAB or ‘Lady Penelope’ and coincided with the launch of a new route between Heathrow and Hong Kong. The aircraft was later renamed ‘Spice One’ in 2007 with the Spice Girls in attendance to launch their world tour. The jet would later be sold on eBay when it was retired in 2016.
In 2008 Virgin became the world’s first airline to operate a bio-fuel powered Boeing 747 flight between London and Amsterdam and in October 2018 Virgin pulled off another industry first when one of their Boeing 747s flew from Orlando to Gatwick using fuel made from recycled industrial carbon.
“Where do you even start with the 747, My second ever flight was on the 747 it was LGW-MBJ and I was so excited to step onto this magnificent beauty. I remember thinking to myself Oh my god this aircraft is so big there’s no way I’ll ever remember where everything is kept, now it’s like a second home! Working upstairs was your own private cabin and when customers would board who’d never been upstairs before I’d tell them it’s like they’re on a private jet with their own dedicated cabin crew looking after them all the way to Orlando. Our customers would always ask questions about the Jumbo and I loved answering them, the faces when they boarded at the L2 door for the first time was always that of delight and sometimes shock at the size especially looking all the way down to the 5 doors. I’ve had many a great flight on the 747 from having the most well behaved dog you could ever dream of onboard, to the excited children on their way for a holiday of a lifetime to Orlando. It’s been a privilege to have been able to work on the most iconic aircraft to have ever graced the skies”.– Lindsay, Virgin Atlantic Cabin Crew.
The Boeing 747 has been the mainstay of the Virgin fleet since that first flight back in 1984. The carrier has flown 30 Jumbo’s over the years, more than any other type in its fleet.
Check out our Virgin Atlantic ‘Queen of the Skies’ gallery below
Qantas took delivery of its first 747 in August 1971 following an order for four of the type at a cost of $123m which at the time was the carriers largest ever order. Its introduction immediately opened up Australia to the world helping Qantas connect countries, continents and people in ways never possible before. In the distinctive ‘hump’, Qantas created the Captain Cook Lounge, named for the British explorer credited with European discovery of Australia in 1770.
By 1979 Qantas had retired its last 707 and became the world’s only all-Boeing 747 airline, a title it held until 1985 and the arrival of its Boeing 767s.
In 1981 the airline introduced another 747 type to its fleet the Boeing 747SP Special Performance. Affectionally known as ‘Stubby Puppy’ the jet was smaller than Qantas’ existing jumbos, but its smaller capacity gave the aircraft extra range and were deployed on flights between Australia and Wellington, before also being deployed between Sydney and Los Angeles. The airline operated two of the type VH-EAA and VH-EAB from 1981 to 1994.
“She took off like a startled angel returning to heaven. At the end of the day, she looked very cool and was a head turner.”– Captain Peter Probert fondly remembers his time on the 747SP.
Three years later the airline welcomed the -300 series to its fleet. But it was the 747-400 that was the real game-changer for Qantas when it arrived in 1989 with ‘City of Canberra’ setting a new world record for the longest-ever non-stop flight as part of its delivery journey from the Boeing factory in Everett (USA), which saw it rerouted via the UK. Flying non-stop from London’s Heathrow Airport to Sydney in 20 hours, nine minutes and five seconds, the 747-400 series would be dubbed ‘Longreach’ referencing not only its extraordinary flying range, but honouring the Queensland town which was one of Qantas’ early bases.
The carrier continued taking deliveries of Boeing 747s throughout the 1990s, painting two of its jumbos in Australian aboriginal liveries in 1993: the sea-themed Nalanji Dreaming on a 747-300, and the more earthy tones of the Wunala Dreaming Boeing 747-400.
The Boeing 747-400ER (Extended Range) was added in 2002 and Qantas was the only airline to ever order this type which it worked closely on with Boeing as a joint project. The extended range meant the type could fly further with a full passenger compliment, long before the airlines ambitious ‘Project Sunrise’ plans.
“I’m lucky enough to say that I have worked on the 747 as Qantas crew for 21 years. Very few issues and a great workplace environment to bring joy to many as we saw the stress of the airport replaced by the relaxation of the in-flight service and entertainment ending with grateful goodbyes at the door as we bid farewell to our guests”– Qantas Cabin Crew.
But in 2015 the first -400 series to join the fleet was placed in to retirement, signalling the beginning of the end of the Qantas jumbo. This record breaking jet which had once completed the worlds longest non-stop flight would now break records again, operating the world’s shortest delivery flight when it was donated to Australia’s Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) with a flight time of just 10 minutes.
By October 2019, Qantas had permanently parked all its remaining Boeing 747-400s, leaving just the six-400ERs in the fleet and the carrier had planned to retire all of these by the end of 2020.
The aircraft has been the backbone of the carriers fleet for almost 50 years and Qantas has said that its 747 fleet has not yet been formally retired. Sadly their chance of returning to regular passenger service or even for a celebratory ‘victory lap’ visiting Australia’s key domestic airports is diminished with each passing month that international flights stay grounded and travel restrictions remain in force.
Big things were planned for the carriers former flagship’s sweansong, but as with its own centenary celebrations, the coronavirus quickly put that on hold, and may now have hastened the jumbo’s demise.
Check out our Qantas ‘Queen of the Skies’ gallery below
KLM welcomed its first 747 on January 31, 1971 following an order for seven of the -200 series. Christened ‘Mississippi’ the jet, PH-BUA, took to the skies a few weeks later on the Flying Dutchman’s flagship Amsterdam to New York service.
One of the more unique types of 747 that KLM would operate was the ‘Combi’, which it utilised across all its -200, -300 and -400 variants. In 1973 the airlines new President Sergio Orlandini was faced with the task of dealing with the overcapacity that was crippling the airline world. Orlandini proposed to convert KLM 747s to “combis” that could carry a combination of passengers and freight in a mixed configuration allowing the airline to earn cargo revenue to make up for a lack of passenger revenue. The first of seven 747-200Ms were added in November 1975 and the type along with the other variants, has always been the workhorse of their fleet due to its dual purpose.
In 1983, it reached an agreement with Boeing to convert ten of its Boeing 747-200 aircraft (Three 747-200Bs and seven 747-200Ms) into Boeing 747-300s with the stretched-upper-deck modification. The converted aircraft were called Boeing 747-200SUD (stretched upper deck) or 747-300, which the airline operated in addition to three newly built Boeing 747-300s.
On June 30, 1989 the airline welcomed the state-of-the-art -400 series to its fleet and would go on to operate 22 -400s and 18 of the ‘combi’ -400Ms. All of KLM’s Boeing 747-400s are named after famous worldwide cities, such as Guayaguil, Lima, Nairobi, Hongkong, Jakarta and Johannesburg.
The carrier had planned to retire the type in 2021 on the anniversary of its fiftieth year in service. But on March 29 the Boeing 747 operated its final scheduled service when flight KL686 touched down at Schiphol Airport from Mexico City. Two of its -400M aircrafts have however had a small reprieve operating a number of repatriation charter flights.
Check out our KLM ‘Queen of the Skies’ gallery below
British Airways, who remains the worlds largest operator of the 747 with 28 of the type coming in to the pandemic, retired 10 of them following the outbreak and is expected to retire the rest over the course of 2021. The type was originally planned to be gone from the fleet by February 2024.
“I’ve spent many a happy year on the 747. My first every flight as a supernumerary was on the 747 down to Cape Town. It was the only aircraft I ever wanted to fly and I did it! She caused me many problems over the years, but because of who she is I tended to overlook them. Apart from when she nearly killed us coming back from Phoenix in 2017 and then in 2019. She’s shown me the world and I’m thankful for that every day. I was even privileged to get behind the controls of the 747 sim at the training centre for 2 amazingly unforgettable hours”– Jack, British Airways Cabin Crew.
Meanwhile, Lufthansa, who currently has 32 747s in its fleet including 13 -400s and 19 of the latest 747 the -8i, will be decommissioning five of its -400 variants and is looking to accelerate the retirement of the rest.
Other carriers still flying the 747 around the world include Thai Airways International, China Airlines, Air China, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, although what impact the pandemic will have on their fleets remains to be seen.
It is hard to imagine airports without the Boeing 747 but in this strange new world it is a reality we must face.
For all her beauty, sadly the Queen of the Skies is now an inefficient beast from the glory days of aviation, one that is rapidly over taken by her more efficient twin-engined rivals.
But as an aircraft that changed the face of aviation forever and opened up flying to the masses, literally shrinking the globe – the Boeing 747 will ALWAYS be our ‘Queen Of The Skies’
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air.
N.B. A massive thank you to every one who contributed to the article, lovely Lindsay from Virgin Atlantic, Herman from KLM and all my other amazing dollies. All images here are from the following instagram accounts unless otherwise stated – @lufhansa @lufthansavintage @vintage_.aviation @boac_spedbird @british_airways @qantas @bluetieguy