In remembrance of the late Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, the “Father of the 747,” who passed away last week, columnist Brandon Fried shares his memories of the first time he spotted the world’s first jumbo jet, as a child, and how it profoundly affected him throughout his life.
The first time I saw a Boeing 747, I was a kid traveling with my dad to Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., on a summer’s night in 1970. The relatively new but underserved airport had not yet seen the spike in popularity that would make it one of the busiest destinations in the country decades later, so spotting the big Pan Am jumbo jet, with its unmistakable hump, along with its smaller rivals was as easy as watching a swan resting among pigeons. She had just entered service that year, and she was big, glorious and captivating – poised to change the future of long distance travel and air cargo shipping well into the next century.
The plane, dubbed “Queen of the Skies,” made Boeing the industry leader of today soon after its debut. It was the first widebody jetliner and the only one with an upper-level deck. Since then, 1,500 of Boeing’s most profitable planes have been manufactured in various passenger and freighter versions. In addition to a most recognizable version, serving as the U.S. President’s plane, “Air Force One,” the 747 has been used to transport NASA’s Space Shuttle, and today serves as an airborne military early warning platform and is even used to carry an advanced, sophisticated infrared telescope with an onboard laboratory for space exploration. We have also seen it co-star in a few movies, including the “Airport” series of disaster films and “Air Force One.”
One key to the 747’s success was that it brought the price of air travel and freight shipping down to the masses. The plane was double the size of first-generation airliners of the time and could venture far from land while its four engines reassured even the most nervous flyer. Its enormous belly, capable of carrying thousands of pounds of cargo, helped freight forwarding reach new heights as more could be flown economically over distances never before thought possible. Subsequent freighter versions became, and still serve, as the backbone for the cargo divisions of passenger carriers such as Korean, Lufthansa, Cathay and others.
Cargo carriers like Atlas, Cargolux, National Air Cargo, Nippon Cargo and Volga-Dnepr, use the 747-400 and its newest variation, the 747-8, as the workhorses in their fleets. Of all the freighters on the market, only the 747 is known by as an aircraft that is able to get virtually any air cargo job done, regardless of size, weight or mission at hand.
The 747 outlived its three-engine competitors, despite being a more expensive purchase. Today the L-1011 Tristar, DC-10, and MD-11, plagued by center engine maintenance challenges and less power than the 747, are relics of the past, long removed from passenger service and now confined to diminishing roles with cargo carriers.
But unfortunately, as computers and electronic gadgets have become smaller and more efficient, so too have the planes that haul those devices to customers. Newer Boeing widebodies, including the 777, 787 and the recently introduced Airbus A350, are not able to transport quite as much passenger and cargo capacity as the newer 747 versions, but they come quite close, and also have much lower operating costs, since they can fly on just two fuel-efficient motors. Because they have two fewer engines than he 747, the 777, 787 and A350 aircraft must stay within certain distances of land, but as engine reliability increases, this gap is widening, allowing airlines to reap the money-saving advantages of today’s engine technology. The capability and cost efficiency are the reasons why many airlines are retiring 747 fleets for the newer, twin-engine models.
As today’s passengers prefer more departure times to popular destinations, instead of just a couple of full 747 flights a day, slightly smaller planes, especially the new fuel-sipping 787s, are perfect tools to meet the long-haul demand. The 787 now serves city pairs — Austin to London, Dallas to Sydney, Boston to Tokyo, Calgary to Haneda — with profitable, robust passenger and freight loads. These routes, never considered economically viable for the 747, have not only opened new economic opportunities for the airlines serving them but for those communities as well. This rise in twin-engine, widebody popularity, along with more lenient flight rules, make the 747 less attractive to buyers and could, ironically, make the most recent order for twenty 747-8 versions from Russian carrier Volga-Dnepr the 747’s swan song.
Perhaps the freight industry could still save the 747 by providing more orders for its extended “dash-8” freighter version. But the air cargo business needs to recover significantly for this to happen and international cargo carriers demand bigger planes to give long-term hope to its assembly line.
As for passenger use, the operating efficiencies delivered by the new generation of widebodies might be an unachievable altitude for an American icon that revolutionized flying for millions of passengers, transported tonnes of freight – and captivated a young kid forever on a summer’s night a generation ago.
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