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Airline safety and the 747 (1977)

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The planes: Boeing 747

Today’s jet is a marvel of engineering and safety. Based on actuarial records for new aircraft, Lloyd’s of London has expected the Boeing 747 to have at least two fatal accidents during its first two years. But only one commercial crash has occurred since the jet was introduced in 1970 — in Nairobi in 1974 — and that was because the Lufthansa pilot did not extend the proper wing flaps while taking off. The 747 was blameless, of course, for the catastrophe at Tenerife.

Leaving aside Nairobi and Tenerife, a total of 297 of these jets, operated by 44 carriers, have flown 360 billion passenger-miles without fatalities.

The 747 is packed with intricate warning devices — one now sounds the alarm if the proper wing flaps are not extended on takeoff — and every major control system has backups in case it should fail.

Pilots wax eloquent about the aircraft they fondly call “Fat Albert.” Says one Delta captain: “Old Albert is straightforward and honest on the ground and in the air. I’ve got about 200,000 lbs. of thrust on four little levers. You’ve got to be careful because you can blow a hangar off the ground. Another thing, you’ve got 350 tons of momentum when you’re taxiing, and you don’t go cowboying around. But once it’s airborne, it’s an absolutely superb flying machine.” Former FAA Administrator Elwood R (“Pete”) Quesada insists that “the 747 is the safest and most reliable air transportation yet designed by man.”

US airlines — and the best overseas carriers — take painstaking care of jets like the 747. Each plane, and each engine on each plane, gets a series of standard checkups. Even if it has no obvious problems, the jet receives an eight-hour maintenance check four times annually.

Every year, in addition, mechanics wheel each plane into a hangar for two weeks and tear it down piece by piece, like federal agents hunting for heroin. Ceilings and floors are removed, every rivet and every cable is inspected. Engines are constantly being monitored and overhauled. The maintenance procedures are so complicated and expensive that TWA estimates it has $300 million tied up in spare parts and equipment, enough to buy a whole airline fleet not so long ago.

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