• Last 747 freighter delivered to Atlas Air
  • Ends more than five decades of commercial output
  • Nearly bankrupted Boeing before it became a cash cow
  • Easy to fly, says rock star pilot Bruce Dickinson

SEATTLE/PARIS, Jan. 29 (Reuters) – Boeing’s (BA.N) 747, the original and arguably most aesthetically pleasing “Jumbo Jet”, revolutionized air travel but saw its reign of more than five decades as “Queen of the Skies” ended with more efficient twinjet aircraft.

The last commercial Boeing jumbo will be delivered to Atlas Air (AAWW.O) on Tuesday in the surviving freighter version, 53 years after the 747’s instantly recognizable hunchback silhouette drew global attention as a Pan Am passenger jet.

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

“And in the air it’s surprisingly nimble. For this huge plane, you can really throw it around if you have to.”

Designed in the late 1960s to meet the demand for mass travel, the world’s first wide-body jetliner with two aisles the nose and upper deck became the world’s most luxurious club above the clouds.

But it was in the seemingly endless lines at the back of the new jumbo that the 747 transformed travel.

“This was THE aircraft that introduced mid-range flying to the US,” said Ben Smith, CEO of Air France-KLM.

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

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

Now two previously delivered 747s are being assembled to replace US presidential jets known worldwide as Air Force One.

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

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


When the first 747 took off from New York on January 22, 1970, after a delay due to engine failure, it more than doubled the aircraft’s capacity to 350-400 seats, which in turn changed the airport’s design.

“It was the plane for the people, the plane that really had the potential to become a mass market,” said aviation historian Max Kingsley-Jones.

“It was transformational in all aspects of the industry,” added the senior consultant at Ascend by Cirium.

His birth became the stuff of aviation myth.

Pan Am founder Juan Trippe tried to cut costs by increasing the number of seats. On a fishing trip, he challenged Boeing president William Allen to create something that would dwarf the 707.

Allen put legendary engineer Joe Sutter in charge. It took just 28 months for Sutter’s team, known as “the Incredibles,” to develop the 747 before its maiden flight on February 9, 1969.

Although it ended up being a cash cow, the 747’s early years were riddled with problems and its $1 billion development cost nearly bankrupted Boeing, which believed the future of aviation lay in supersonic jets.

After a slump during the 1970s oil crisis, the airliner broke up in 1989 when Boeing introduced the 747-400 with new engines and lighter materials, making it perfectly suited to meet the growing demand for trans-Pacific flights.

“The 747 is the most beautiful and easiest plane to land… It’s like landing an armchair,” said Dickinson, who is also president of aviation maintenance company Caerdav.


The same wave of innovation that got the 747 off the ground spelled its end, as advancements made it possible for twin-engined jets to replicate its range and capability at a lower cost.

Still, the 777X, which will replace the 747 at the top of the jet market, will not be ready until 2025 after delays.

“In terms of impressive technology, great capacity, great economy… (the 777X) sadly renders the 747 obsolete,” said AeroDynamic Advisory director Richard Aboulafia.

Nevertheless, the latest version of the 747-8 will remain in the airspace for many years, primarily as a freighter, having outlived Europe’s Airbus’ (AIR.PA) biplane A380 passenger jet in production.

The latest delivery of the 747 this week raises questions about the future of the giant but now underutilized Everett widebody production plant outside of Seattle, as Boeing also struggles after the COVID pandemic and a 737 MAX safety crisis.

Chief Executive Dave Calhoun has said that Boeing will not design a new aircraft for the next ten years.

“It was one of the marvels of the modern industrial age,” Aboulafia said, “But this is not an age of miracles, it’s an age of economics.”

Reporting by Valerie Insinna and Tim Hepher; Edited by Alexander Smith

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

By olamo

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