How (and why) the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made history

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Boeing 747 jumbo jet in 1977

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Starting when it first flew in the 1960s, the famous Boeing 747 jet airliner was not only bigger, better and more powerful than any other plane, was also a major technological marvel.

Here’s how the 747 came to be, what made it unique, and what it took to get the first “jumbo jet” off the ground — all of which led to it changing travel on an international scale, bringing friends and families closer together, and giving a huge boost to thousands of businesses around our ever-shrinking world.

The 747 is a lot of nice little things. (from 1971)

1. Enjoy a new feeling of freedom under 8-foot ceilings. You can stand up and stretch in a way never before experienced on a jetliner.

2. Your choice of wide-screen, full-color movies with full-dimensional stereophonic sound. Controls at your fingertips also let you select from a variety of music and other programs.

3. Conveniently located overhead luggage compartments to put your carry-on things up and out from underfoot. Gives you more room to stretch your legs.

4. Full-course meals from ultra-modern galleys and service centers conveniently located between each passenger section.

5. Relax in extra-wide, extra-comfortable seats. Two, three, or four-abreast seating arrangements to meet your needs whether you’re alone or with a whole family.

6. Easy access to any cabin section. Wide double aisles the length of the plane, plus numerous cross aisles, add to the feeling of spaciousness.

There are other nice things to know about the 747, too. For example, the superjet flies to 58 major vacation and business centers around the world.

Since going into service, the 747 has carried 12 million passengers and flown 150 million miles.

Try a 747 soon. And see how everything adds up to a fun way to fly.

Vintage Boeing 747 airplane - A lot of nice little things (1971)


Boeing 747 plane mockup (from 1967)

The 490-passenger Boeing 747 shown here is a mockup, but the new jets will be produced in this giant plant, located north of Seattle, near Everett.

When the plant is finished, it will cover an area about the size of twenty-seven football fields and be the world’s most voluminous building — enclosing 160 million cubic feet.

Boeing 747 jet - Engineering mockup (1967)

Boeing 747 plane mockup in 1967 (1)

Boeing 747 plane mockup in 1967 (2)


Boeing 747 jet airplane years ahead in aviation progress (1970)

Article from The Vincennes Sun-Commercial (Indiana) – February 15, 1970

The 747 jet airliner is the largest airplane ever designed for commercial service.

The advanced-design 747 is 231 feet, 4 inches long, with a wingspan of 195 feet, 8 inches. The tip of the tail stands more than 63 feet above the ground — higher than a five-story building.

The 747 is powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT9D turbofan engines. Each engine has approximately twice the power of the largest commercial jet engines in use today. Yet the plane is designed to be quieter than current jet airliners.

The powerful new engines enable the 747 to operate from any airfield which can accommodate present long-range jets, and will give it a speed of 625 miles an hour.

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Two Boeing 747s in final assembly (1974)

Passengers in the 747 occupy a single-level cabin section nearly 20 feet wide — seven feet wider than earlier Boeing jetliners. A variety of seating arrangements is possible, with two aisles running the length of the aircraft.

The extra-wide cabin and double aisles afford a level of comfort and spaciousness unmatched in previous interior accommodations.

Passengers can board the superjet through ten double-width doors-five on each side of the fuselage. The flight deck is on a level above the main passenger cabin. On the same level behind the cockpit is found space for additional private or special passenger accommodations.

Possibilities for this upper deck compartment include a business office, a private stateroom with bed or even a spacious lounge. A circular stairway joins the upper level with the main passenger cabin below.

Inside passenger stairway on vintage Boeing 747 plane (1975)

The 747 is designed for fully automatic loading and unloading of passenger baggage and freight.

The plane has a 16-wheel main landing gear (four units of four wheels each) and a two-wheel nose gear for even distribution of loads on airport ramps and runways.

The high-capacity superjet will be even more economical than the Boeing 707-320B. The direct operating cost per seat-mile (the cost of flying the airplane one mile divided by the number of seats available) will be about 25 to 30 percent lower.

In a cargo configuration, the ton-mile cost will be similarly lowered for the 747 compared with the 707-320C cargo jet, exact savings dependent on cargo density and length of trip.

The Boeing Company plans production of up to 200 Model 747s by December 1972, and 400 by December 1975. A large number is expected to be sold abroad. Such sales would make a significant contribution to the U.S. balance of payments.

Wing for the first 747SP (1974)

The superjet is assembled in a new plant at Everett, Washington, north of Seattle.

On the 780-acre site is the world’s largest building (200 million cubic feet) for 747 primary manufacturing, subassembly, major assembly and final assembly operations. This facility includes an automatic wing panel riveting machine larger than a football field.

In one of the largest subcontract programs in the history of commercial aircraft manufacturing, approximately 65 percent of the airframe weight is being built by firms other than Boeing. This follows the company’s long-standing subcontracting policy.

The subcontracted units, built to Boeing engineering specifications and quality standards, are shipped to Everett for installation and final assembly.

Body, wing, tail structures joined to form 747 superjet (1978)

The Boeing Company offers the 747 in four basic versions. All have the same dimensions and can carry the same number of passengers. They are:

  • The standard 747, a passenger plane with a 710,000-pound maximum takeoff weight and the type of 747 now flying.
  • The 747B, a passenger plane which will have a 775,000-pound takeoff weight.
  • The 747 convertible, which will carry either passengers or cargo, or a combination of both, with a 775,000-pound maximum takeoff weight.
  • The 747 freighter, which also will have a 775,000-pound maximum takeoff weight.

While the heavier airplanes have the same external dimensions, the higher gross weights allow the airplane to carry more payload farther. The higher payloads result from airframe weight reductions and structural improvements, and from more powerful engines.

Boeing 747 jumbo jet going for final assembly (1971)

Three major joining operations took place in May: the two forward fuselage sections, both wings to the wing center section, and the two aft body sections of the Number One superjet.

In mid-June, a JT9D engine was test flown for the first time by Pratt & Whitney on a Boeing B-52 leased from the U.S. Air Force. The large powerplant replaced two of the B-52’s original engines and produced more than twice their combined thrust.

Late that month, the major fuselage and wing sections were joined at Everett, and early in September, the first JT9D engine was attached to the first Superjet.

On September 30, the first 747 superjet with its red and white colors made its world debut in a rollout ceremony at the Everett plant.

In November, Boeing announced a longer range 747, capable of greater payloads. This new jetliner is called the 747B.

The new version will have the same external dimensions as the present 747, but its gross weight will be 775,000 pounds compared to the 710,000-pound superjets now in production at Everett.

747 plane on 40000 mile company demonstration (1970)

The November announcement increased 747 configurations to four. They are:

  • The standard 747, a passenger plane with a 710,000-pound maximum takeoff gross weight;
  • The 747B, a passenger plane with a 775,000-pound maximum takeoff gross weight;
  • The 747 convertible, which can carry either passengers or cargo, or a combination of both on the same flight, with maximum takeoff gross weight of 775,000 pounds;
  • The 747 freighter, also with a 775,000-pound takeoff gross weight, designed strictly for air freight.

Higher gross weights of the 747B allow the superjet to carry more payload farther. The higher payloads result from air-frame weight reductions and structural improvements.

At the end of 1968, preparations for the first 747’s maiden flight were well underway.

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Boeing 747SP flight testing (1975)

By January 1969, the first superjet’s major systems had been activated and its major components, such as landing gear and flight controls, operationally tested. Compass calibration, fueling and engine testing followed.

The first flight was made February 9, 1969, and Test Pilot Jack Waddell said afterward, ”The plane is a pilot’s dream.”‘

When the 747 program reaches peak production, about 25,000 Boeing employees will be involved. An additional 25,000 persons will be employed by subcontractors.

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About 10 million manhours of basic engineering (twice that required to build the Boeing 727 medium-range jetliner) were expended by Boeing in producing the 747. The peak engineering effort, reached in late summer of 1967, involved about 2,700 engineers.

More than half the total dollar volume of the 747 program is subcontracted. More than $2 billion in subcontracts involves some 16,000 suppliers in 49 states and 6 foreign countries.

Boeing 747 jumbo jets being prepared for Japan Air Lines (1972)

The entire airplane structure, with the exceptions of the wings and forward fuselage section, is built outside the Everett Branch. Most major wing components are fabricated at Boeing’s central fabrication facility in Auburn, Washington, and sent to Everett for assembly.

Boeing’s Wichita Division manufactures the forward fuselage section, with subcontracting firms building the remaining sections and supplying components and systems.

The test program for the 747 is the most extensive ever undertaken in commercial aviation history.

In addition to laboratory tests of parts and components, the program includes assignment of five of the giant airplanes to a $28 million, year-long Boeing and Federal Aviation Administration flight test program.

These five superjets will have logged approximately 1,400 flight hours at the program’s conclusion.

Two structurally complete airframes were reserved for static and fatigue testing to prove strength and airframe life.

Construction of a full-scale primary flight controls mockup which precisely duplicates the operation and responses of the 747’s controls systems, also was part of the test program.

The 747 program was undertaken only after intensive studies and analysis of the market potential for this type of aircraft. Boeing forecasts a 1975 passenger level three times that of 1965, and a 10-fold cargo growth.

The 747, with its great capacity and improved economics, not only will meet this growth, but offer additional possibilities for further expansion in these markets.

Although the costs and overall financial risks of the 747 program are substantially greater than any of Boeing’s previous commercial programs, the potential for success has given the company the confidence to proceed.

Advanced Airborne Command Post adapted 747B for the US (1974)
Advanced Airborne Command Post adapted 747B for the US (1974)

747 General characteristics / comparison (as of 1970)

Boeing 747 vs Boeing 707-3208 Intercontinental

Wing Span

  • 747 — 195 feet 8 inches
  • 707-3208— 145 feet, 9 inches 

Length

  • 747 — 231 feet 4 inches
  • 707-3208 — 152 feet, 11 inches

Tail Height

  • 747 — 63 feet 6 inches
  • 707-3208 — 42 feet 5 inches

Fuselage Width

  • 747 — 21 feet 5 inches
  • 707-3208 — 12 feet 4 inches

Fuel Volume

  • 747 — 45,000-50,000 gallons
  • 707-3208 — 24, 655 gallons

Engine Type

  • 747 — (4) Pratt & Whitney JT90-3 or -7
  • 707-3208 — (4) Pratt & Whitney JT3D-3

Engine Thrust Raging

  • 747 — 43,500, 45,000 or 47,000 pounds
  • 707-3208 — 18,000 pounds

Typical payload

  • 747 — 374 first class and economy plus baggage pilus up to 40,000 pounds freight
  • 707-3208 — 141 passengers

Range with typical load

  • 747 — More than 5,000 statute miles
  • 707-3208 — 4,000 miles

ALSO SEE: A pilot once took up a Boeing 707 passenger jet & did a double barrel roll in the sky – See it here

Converting passenger 747s to freighter configuration (1974)


Boeing 747 facts (as of 1970)
  • The power required to light the main 747 manufacturing building is enough to light more than 32,000 average American homes.
  • The wing tip assembly on the 747 is 14 feet long, 2 feet wide and 16 inches thick, but weighs only 38 pounds. It is fabricated of nylon honeycomb sandwich, fiberglass and aluminum.
  • The 747 wing area (5,500 square feet ) is larger than three 3-bedroom homes, or a college basketball court.
  • Overall length of the mated outboard engine pod and pylon is 34 feet, the inboard pod and pylon 37 feet. The diameter of the engine nose cowl is 8 feet, 6 inches, large enough for a tall man to stand in. 
  • Four World War — vintage JN4-D “Jenny” aircraft could be lined up on each of the Boeing 747 superjet’s wings.
  • One wing of the 747 weighs 28,000 pounds, ten times the weight of Boeing’s first airplane, the B&W.
  • The 747 test program represents four years of continuous work, cost $165 million and has incorporated more than 1,300 individual tests.
  • More than 12,000 hours of wind tunnel testing have been employed on the 747.
  • Ten million basic engineering manhours are being expended to produce the 747.
  • The 747 flight test program employed five airplanes, lasted ten months and required more than 1,400 hours of flying.
  • There are well over 100 miles of wire in the 747.
  • The tail height of the 747 is equivalent to a five-story building.
  • Each 747 contains 2,000 pieces of tubing.

Boeing 747 jumbo jet in 1977

  • The largest reinforced fiberglass structures ever to be produced by the aerospace industry are the Northrop designed and manufactured 80-foot-long wing fairings for the 747.
  • Smaller than an office file drawer and about as light as a standard electric typewriter, the navigation system for the Boeing 747 can provide completely automatic guidance through any weather to any point on Earth with no outside radio contact.
  • Seventy-five thousand engineering drawings were used to produce the Number One airplane.
  • Boeing has spent about $200 million on the Everett site since work began there. Another $50 million has been spent on tools and jigs in the plant and elsewhere. The biggest expenditure, about $500 million, has gone to engineering and other non-recurring costs.
  • One 747 is worth about $20 million.
  • When the 747 is fully pressurized, approximately a ton of air is added to its weight.
  • The Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk could have been performed within the length of the 225-foot fuselage of the 747.
  • There are 42 million parts, including fasteners, in the 747.
  • The inboard sections of the 747 wing leading edge structure weigh more than the Wright Brothers aircraft, including its engine (total 745 lbs. ).
  • The 747’s lower-lobe baggage and cargo handling system can load or unload 85,000 pounds of baggage — the equivalent of 3,400 pieces of luggage — in less than seven minutes.

Interior mockup of 747SP Special Performance jet (1973)

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The Boeing 747 Family (as of 1970)

The 747 — The standard 710, 000-pound version, operating at maximum gross weights, carries an average load of 374 passengers and baggage a distance of 5,900 miles. First versions use four Pratt & Whitney JT9D-3 engines with 43,500 pounds of thrust each, while later versions will use JT9D-3W engines with 45,000 pounds thrust.

The 747B — This 775,000-pound gross weight passenger plane will be able to carry a standard 374-passenger load more than 6,600 miles non-stop. The first 747B uses the JT9D-3W engines of 45,000 pounds thrust each.

These can be modified to JT9D- 7W engines of 74,000 pounds thrust each when they become available January 1972. This will bring the airplane to its 775,000-pound potential.

The 747 Freighter — Using cargo containers on the lower deck and pallets and nets to carry the cargo on the main deck, the freighter will carry a maximum payload of about 260,000 pounds about 2,900 miles.

It will carry more than 200,000 pounds (100 tons) nearly 4,000 miles, or well above most transatlantic ranges. Its operating costs per ton mile are expected to be about 35 per-cent lower than those of today’s 707s.

Long-haul 747 airplane in 1969

The 747 Convertible — Because it carries more weight in special equipment, necessary for its added versatility, the convertible 747B compared to the 747F has a somewhat reduced cargo payload for the same ranges. However, the payload is significantly improved over earlier 747 convertible offerings. On a typical domestic transcontinental route of 3,000 miles, it would be 236,000 pounds.

As a passenger plane, the 747B convertible could carry 374 passengers, plus baggage, about 6,200 miles. Of even more significance, it could carry this full passenger and baggage load plus 40,000 pounds of air cargo more than 5,000 miles. The extra 40,000 pounds is approximately equal to the passenger payload of today’s 707.

The freighter airplane and the convertible when in cargo configuration, has a mechanized cargo handling system on the main deck.

MORE: TWA history: The ups and downs of Trans World Airlines

The nose swings up so pallets or 8- x 8-foot containers in lengths up to 40 feet can be loaded straight in on the motor-driven roller system. Two men, one at the nose and one in the interior of the airplane are able to complete the unload and load cycle in 30 minutes.

In addition to being able to handle all of today’s air cargo pallets, including military pallets, the plane can take the present – x 8-foot containers designed for other modes of transportation. It is also designed to carry the future family of 8×8-foot airborne containers which are expected to replace cargo pallets in many instances.

The lower holds of all versions also have a mechanized loading system using containers for both cargo and baggage.

Vintage Boeing jets as of 1974


Air travel safety and the Boeing 747 jumbo jet (1977)

Excerpted from Time magazine – April 11, 1977

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.

Airline safety and the Boeing 747 jumbo jet (1977) - Time

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.

MORE: Find out about some of the most notable vintage airplane crashes in history

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.”

Vintage Boeing 747 airplane upstairs lounge

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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The end of the line for the 747

On July 29, 2020, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun wrote in a message to employees, “The reality is the pandemic’s impact on the aviation sector continues to be severe. Though some fliers are returning slowly to the air, their numbers remain far lower than 2019, with airline revenues likewise reduced.”

The bottom line, when it came to one plane in particular: “…in light of the current market dynamics and outlook, we’ll complete production of the iconic 747 in 2022.”

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