The latest model of a Boeing 747 aircraft will be delivered to the airline Atlas Air on Tuesday 31 January: after this they will no longer be produced. The first was built and presented in 1968, and since then it has become one of the most important models in the history of aviation, above all because it actually introduced the possibility of traveling long distances at affordable prices for the masses, thanks to a set up to then never seen efficiency in flight and passenger capacity. «The 747 made the world smaller», he summarized with a metaphor al Financial Times Boeing corporate historian Michael Lombardi.
The latest model will serve as an aircraft for the transport of goods, like the vast majority of those that the US aeronautical company Boeing has sold in recent years, although its fame is mainly linked to the transport of passengers. Freight transport is a market in which the capacity of the Boeing 747 can still have a certain utility today, but in general it was some time ago that the company had progressively reduced its production. The last passenger carrier was sold to Korean Air in 2017.
The main reason for the decline of the Boeing 747 is that it is a more expensive aircraft to build than more modern models which have only two engines, instead of its four, and which are able to replicate the same efficiency and capacity at lower costs. However, it remains a model that enjoys an excellent reputation among pilots, who generally consider it among the most elegant and comfortable to drive.
It was for many years the most popular aircraft in the world, even among non-aviation experts, so much so that it was nicknamed the “queen of the skies”. Inside it had two aisles and three rows of seats, it was wider than those that were produced before, but also than those usually used today. A horizontal row had 7 to 10 seats, with the most typical arrangement following the 3-4-3 pattern. In more than five decades Boeing has built 1,574 747 models with a capacity of more than one hundred people, but of these many could also carry between 350 and 400, and the most capacious model exceeded 500.
The Boeing 747 has entered the popular imagination also because since 1990 it has been the model (albeit enhanced) used for the Air Force Ones, i.e. the name by which the planes on which the presidents of the United States travel are called: the contract with the government American, that is still in effectis one of the reasons Boeing has continued to produce the model for so long.
According to the stories that those directly involved have made, the idea of the Boeing 747 came out of a conversation during a fishing trip between the then CEO of Boeing, Bill Allen, and Juan Trippe, who was the head of Pan American World Airways (also known as Pan Am), once the largest and most important airline in the United States, went bankrupt in 1991. Up to that point, Pan Am had used Boeing 707s for its scheduled flights, much narrower than the 747s : the fuselage, i.e. the main part of the aircraft body that contains the load, was 3.76 meters long, against the 6.5 that the 747 would have had.
Trippe wanted to reduce costs by producing larger aircraft, convinced that there was a demand for mass transit, so he asked Allen if an aircraft larger than the Boeing 707 could not be produced: Allen agreed, although there was some skepticism about the possibility that such a large plane could fly. The initial project envisaged that the expansion of the seat capacity was guaranteed by an aircraft built on two floors, more or less the same width as the 707, but practically doubled in height: in the end, however, the head of design, Joe Sutter, decided to the enlarged fuselage instead of the two-deck arrangement.
The production of the Boeing 747 has often been reported as exceptional: 50,000 workers participated in the project, which included builders, mechanics, engineers and administrative workers. They took a total of 28 months, just over two years, a time considered very short for the time and the novelty represented by the aircraft built.
It was presented in 1968 and the first passenger flight departed in 1970, on the Pan Am route linking New York to London. Its early years coincided with a major oil crisis that hit the United States and Europe in particular in the 1970s, and Boeing risked bankruptcy due to the large development costs that the 747 model had required, one billion dollars. Over the years, however, the demand gradually increased, reaching its highest level in 1989, when Boeing introduced the 747-400 model, with new engines and lighter materials.
Already after the first years, however, his cultural impact was clear: the US postal service dedicated a stamp to him, and he was even mentioned in a song by the well-known Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell in 1976, Amelia: «I dreamed of a 747 above geometric factories», said one of the last lines.