Last Boeing 747 to be delivered: How ‘Queen of the Skies’ changed air travel forever

The final Boeing 747 freighter is slated to be delivered to Atlas Air on Tuesday. From its inception to nearly bankrupting the company, its glory years, and slow decline, a look back at the plane that transformed travel for ordinary people

Deven Kanal January 30, 2023 19:33:20 IST
Last Boeing 747 to be delivered: How ‘Queen of the Skies’ changed air travel forever

Relief supplies of the "Humanitarian Help of Switzerland loaded onto a Boeing 747-400BCF cargo plane bound for Venezuela in 2020. Reuters

It’s the end of an era.

On Tuesday, the final commercial Boeing 747 ever made will be delivered to Air Atlas – and with it the beginning of the end for the plane that revolutionised air travel.

Let’s take a closer look at this iconic plane dubbed ‘Queen of the skies’:


The birth of the 747 jumbo jet is steeped in aviation myth.

It began with Pan Am founder Juan Trippe searching for a way to reduce costs and increase the number of seats.

On a fateful fishing trip, Trippe challenged Boeing president William Allen to make something that dwarfed the 707.

Allen responded by handing off the responsibility to legendary engineer Joe Sutter in August 1965, as per Seattle Times.

Sutter’s team, known as “the Incredibles”, got to work – and developed the 747 in less than two-and-a-half years.

Kelvin Anderson, one of ‘the Incredibles’, told Seattle Times, “We worked a lot of hours, seven days a week, 12 hours a day for quite a while.”

“I don’t think we ever thought anything but success.”

Taking flight, troubled times

Production on the first 747 began in 1967.

It took more than 50,000 Boeing employees less than 16 months to churn out the first plane.

Kelvin told the Seattle Times he was “ecstatic along with everybody else” at the time of the rollout.

Its design included a second deck extending from the cockpit back over the first third of the plane, giving it a distinctive hump that made the plane instantly recognisable and inspired the nickname of the Whale.

In February 1969, the 747 took off on its first test flight.

“I figured when I’d seen that thing flying, we could fly anything,” Kelvin told the newspaper. “I still get goose bumps when I see that thing take off. It looks like it’s too big to fly.”

Less than a year later, in January 1970, it made its first commercial flight for Pan Am.

In that moment, it doubled existing airplane capacity to 350-400 seats – which would in turn reshape airport design.

It didn’t get off to an auspicious start – an engine issue delayed take-off – a moment that would foreshadow its troubled early years.

The plane, with its $1-billion development costs, nearly bankrupted Boeing.

An oil crisis-induced slump in the 1970s made matters worse.

Glory years

Its heyday arrived in 1989 when Boeing introduced the 747-400 with new engines and lighter materials, making it a perfect fit to meet the growing demand for trans-Pacific flights.

It became the world’s most luxurious club above the clouds and synonymous with the word airplane.

Last Boeing 747 to be delivered How Queen of the Skies changed air travel forever
Joe Sutter, Boeing’s chief engineer on the original jumbo, and known as the “father of the 747.” hugs a woman in front of a newly unveiled 747-8 jumbo passenger jet at the company’s Everett, Washington commercial airplane manufacturing facility in February 2011. Reuters

It also took on various roles — a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, and the Air Force One presidential aircraft.

As per the Boeing website, more than 100 customers have purchased 1,574 such aircraft, which have logged more than 118 million flight hours and nearly 23 million flight cycles.

As per CNBC, it has served more than 3.5 billion passengers.

Sutter, in his autobiography, wrote about watching 55 Boeing 747s land at Tokyo airport, as per Seattle Times.

“I had just witnessed upwards of 20,000 people arriving in Japan within a span of two hours,” he wrote. “We changed the world.”

As a Pan Am flight attendant, Linda Freier served passengers ranging from Michael Jackson to Mother Teresa.

The jumbo also made its mark on global affairs, symbolising war and peace, from America’s “Doomsday Plane” nuclear command post to papal visits on chartered 747s nicknamed Shepherd One.

But it was in the seemingly endless rows at the back of the new jumbo that the 747 transformed travel for ordinary people.

As per Business Insider, it also made things easier for passengers and airlines alike. Refuelling stops on trips between the US and Asia or Australia became a thing of the past.

“It was an incredible diversity of passengers. People who were well dressed and people who had very little and spent everything they had on that ticket,” Freier told Reuters.

“This was THE airplane that introduced flying for the middle class in the US,” said Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith.

“Prior to the 747 your average family couldn’t fly from the US to Europe affordably,” Smith told Reuters.

“It was the aircraft for the people, the one that really delivered the capability to be a mass market,” aviation historian Max Kingsley-Jones said.

“On the ground it’s stately, it’s imposing,” said Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden who piloted a specially liveried 747 nicknamed “Ed Force One” during the British heavy metal band’s tour in 2016.

“And in the air it’s surprisingly agile. For this massive airplane, you can really chuck it around if you have to.”

“The 747 is the most beautiful and easy plane to land … It’s just like landing an armchair,” said Dickinson, who also chairs aviation maintenance firm Caerdav.

Slow decline

But things slowly changed.

Over the past 15 years or so, Boeing and its European rival Airbus released new widebody planes with two engines instead of the 747’s four.

As per CNBC, such twin-jet planes have almost the same capacity as the Boeing 747. They’re also more fuel efficient.

The same swell of innovation that got the 747 off the ground has spelled its end, as advances made it possible for dual-engine jets to replicate its range and capacity at a lower cost.

“In terms of impressive technology, great capacity, great economics … (the 777X) does sadly make the 747 look obsolete,” AeroDynamic Advisory managing director Richard Aboulafia said.

Nevertheless, the latest 747-8 version is set to grace the skies for years, chiefly as a freighter, having outlasted European Airbus’ (AIR.PA) double-decker A380 passenger jet in production.

Yet the 777X, set to take the 747’s place at the top of the jet market, will not be ready until at least 2025 after delays.

Boeing’s relationship with the FAA has also grown strained since the deadly crashes of its best-selling plane, the 737 Max, in 2018 and 2019.

The FAA took nearly two years — far longer than Boeing expected — to approve design changes and allow the plane back in the air.

Delta was the last US airline to use the 747 for passenger flights, which ended in 2017, although some other international carriers continue to fly it, including the German airline Lufthansa.

The final customer is the cargo carrier Atlas Air, which ordered four 747-8 freighters early this year. The last was scheduled to roll out of Boeing’s massive factory in Everett, Washington, on Tuesday night.

‘Forever incredible’

As per Simple Flying, a Joe Sutter has been stuck on the side of the final Boeing 747 – the 157th such plane – with the words “forever incredible”.

Interestingly, Sutter’s grandson Jon also works for Boeing.

As per the website, Boeing has had a Sutter working for them since the 1940s when Joe’s brother began working for the manufacturer.

Boeing’s roots are in the Seattle area, and it has assembly plants in Washington state and South Carolina. The company announced in May that it would move its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Virginia.

The move to the Washington, DC, area puts its executives closer to key federal government officials and the Federal Aviation Administration, which certifies Boeing passenger and cargo planes.

This week’s final 747 delivery leaves questions over the future of the mammoth but now under-used Everett widebody production plant outside Seattle, while Boeing is also struggling after the COVID pandemic and a 737 MAX safety crisis.

Chief Executive Dave Calhoun has said Boeing may not design a new airliner for at least a decade.

“It was one of the wonders of the modern industrial age,” said Aboulafia, “But this isn’t an age of wonders, it’s an age of economics.”

With inputs from agencies

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