How the 747 Changed Flight


The delivery of the last 747 from Boeing to the final 747 client, Atlas Air, drew crowds to the Everett home of the plane. It also showed the generational effects of an airplane that changed the world. 

The men and women who built that final 747 were all invited into the vast hangar in Everett, once the world’s largest commercial building, which had been their workplace. The workers were there to be honored; visitors, the journalists, and the VIPS were also the gawkers at a plane they may have flown in but never walked around, stood under, or marveled at.

I marvel at this plane just as I marvel at flight the way my parents saw the developments of motor cars. I took my first flight in a tandem seat Piper Cub in 1954 at age 18 thanks to a college friend with a license to fly and access to the plane. That single engine two-seater had less power than a Volkswagen bug, but I fell in love with flight. 

The Boeing 747 is the mother of modern mass air and freight travel. The plane would never have happened without an even more important but less-known development, the High-Bypass Jet engine.

Think back to the first generation of jet aircraft, the Boeing Dash 80, the first jet behemoth. That plane’s commercial viability was an open question. Boeing “bet the farm” on the plane’s revolutionary design, and for years didn’t have a single order to show for its efforts. 

But the plane was a military commission, so it arguably became a savior of Boeing, which did not have a civilian airliner in what became the dominant aviation marketplace. Alvin “Tex” Johnston, the first test pilot of the Dash 80 said “she flew like a bird…only a lot faster.” Boeing’s rescuer was the US Air Force and our tax dollars. That plane was not yet a 707, but it was the US Air Force purpose-built tanker the KC 135. 

Boeing had its eye on a classier image than a flying gas tank. Boeing’s name for the KC 135 was Stratotanker, derived from its propeller-driven Stratocruiser that client Pan Am World Airways used to cross oceans with cosseted passengers at premium prices. It was the biggest passenger plane in the world and the first double-decker. But it was a niche plane destined for the rich, not the mass market to come.

Ironically, the ubiquitous passenger-jet travel started out akin to the last 747 delivery 69 years later: a freighter. Commercial passenger planes through the 1950s used internal combustion engines with propellers that pushed planes through the air up to 350 mph at best. Planes like the DC family of MacDonald Douglas DC 4, 5, 6, and 7 were dominant. 

The “giant” Stratocruiser from Boeing had two decks, one for up to 100 passengers and a deck below for a lounge and bar. Fifteen years later, when the design of the 747 was being contemplated with its hump on top of the main passenger cabin, the first proposals included a bar and lounge that eventually became a first-class section.

Lockheed had its elegant whale-like  Constellation with a triple tail. A French version of the “Connie” marketed as Golden Service flew from then-named Idlewild airport in New York to Paris with 45 passengers in first class luxury. A full kitchen with chefs prepared a tasting menu dinner in two seatings on bone China with gold-plated settings and the  1950s vintages of Chateau Lafite Bordeaux. A separate dining room  turned into a bar/lounge on the long slow flight. The Golden Service was not a commercial success at rates that were  inflation-adjusted $3,000 one-way, and often free to appropriate government and industry officials.

The British meanwhile had become the pioneers in commercial jet aviation with  four versions of the “Comet,” a four-jet-engine airliner of the early 1950s. The Comet became the pride of British Aviation and the precursor of what was to come until it blew up from a then-unknown weakness: metal fatigue as the skin of the airplane bent in and out as it flew from low altitudes up to 30,000 feet. That episode set back commercial jet aviation a decade.

The British then used their aviation engineering skills to develop airliners for short and medium length routes appropriate to their island and the nearby continent. The British developed hybrid propulsion where a small jet engine turned propellers that coaxed an extra 50 miles-per-hour on flights where the difference in speed made little difference in time. That proved to be too little/too late by the mid 1950s. 

By now, “Prop planes” had their day. The jet engine thrust its host forward toward the speed of sound (660 mph) with greater efficiency. 

There was a prerequisite to the 747 and the “heavies” (as larger jets are known). The early Boeing 707s had engines that were relatively small cigar tubes that belched a train of thin smoke on takeoff before reaching cruising altitude – anathema by today’s ecological standards. That smoke was akin to what older diesel trucks and cars once spewed: unburnt fuel with particulates that hung in the air, since the jet fuel was incompletely burned.

The jet engines of the ‘50s and ‘60s sucked air in at one end and thrust it out at the back, creating the thrust that pushed its host forward. Effective but not efficient: a single engine on a 747 today has more thrust than all four early 707 engines. A fully loaded 747 can take off on two engines and fly on one, a safety prerequisite before the first planes were designed. 

The breakthrough came from engine manufacturers who were working on much larger engines. These “high-bypass engines” sucked air in through massive front openings big enough to stand in and bigger than the fuselage of a Boeing 737. This air is divided into two streams that compounded and multiplied the thrust when they burned. The high-bypass jet engines pioneered principally by Pratt and Whitney made the 747 possible and led to the next generation of what aviation calls the “heavies.”

The 747 because of its size and weight was originally questioned by those who said it was too big to fly. And if it did fly the plane would have to overcome fear of flying in something three-quarters the length of a football field, capable of carrying 600 passengers or six adult whales. (747 freighters often do carry whales for aquariums or medical care.) A 747 can also carry up to 1,500 pigs or 4,500 kangaroos. 

How about 900 toilets? The 747 made possible Japan’s just-in-time parts delivery that made parts warehouses obsolete. The plane helped create new economies such as the worldwide same-day delivery of Dutch tulips or Valentine roses from Chile. The concept of same-day delivery gave birth to FedEx and turned UPS from a ground carrier to a multimodal delivery service.

Things don’t fear flying, but people sometimes do. Boeing said the 747 could carry as many as 600 passengers in a single class, but no one tried that configuration, likely for fear of an accident too dreadful to contemplate or impossible conditions at the baggage carousel. The Japanese briefly flew 400-seat 747s on commuter runs in Japan, but these  proved uneconomical for a plane designed for long distance flight. Typically 747s are configured for around 350 passengers in two cabin classes. 

Safety through redundancy is another hallmark of the 747. Every flight system has a backup; some have triple backups. Of the 1,500-plus 747s produced since the mid 1960s 430 are still flying with an accumulation of 35,000 years of flight. Airplanes make money when flying, and they cost money on the ground, so passenger and freight carriers typically try to keep their planes flying 24/7, which explains the many flight years of the 55-year-old 747.

Recently fear of flying that had been of little concern (commercial aviation remains statistically the safest form of transport). But that fear struck Boeing’s 737 MAX following two fatal crashes in 2019. But once the modified MAX was cleared for flying, people quickly returned to flying – despite complaints about airport security, the lack of on-board food, and crowded cabins. Moreover, passengers who have long since accepted the overall safety of flying and lost interest in the make and model of airplanes that were all-too-much alike. Surveys show fewer than 10 percent of passengers have any idea of the type of plane they are in.

And was it fun flying a 747? One aviation writer remembers flying a delivery flight of a freighter version of the 747 to Asia with a bunch of his British colleagues. There was a small seating area at the front of the aircraft, and empty space behind for freight. Lots of empty space.  Being proper British lads, they scraped up a cricket bat and a few balls and played cricket on the highest pitch nearly 40,000 feet above the Pacific. Another colleague remembers a flight when she and her aviation-writer colleagues returned from Tokyo to the UK on an inaugural 747 run for British Air. One of their number had found a new Japanese form of entertainment: Karaoke and bought a portable Karaoke player. That bunch sang their way across the pole all the way home.

Apropos, because of the 747’s range of 8,000-plus miles, when the passenger versions were being developed Boeing also pioneered purpose-built entertainment systems to while away the capability of 12-hour nonstop flights. In the early days that meant large projection screens and no-choice films. Technological progress led to today’s flying entertainment that qualifies often as 500 choices and nothing to watch.

The ceremony that marked the last delivery was a personal event to most who sat in the vast Everett hangar because they had built the plane. But it was not really a farewell. The latest version 747-8 had a champion in Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, who spoke eloquently of his first experience as a child passenger. He didn’t realize that he was then on board an odd-looking squat hybrid passenger-and-freight version of the 747 designed for the Australian and Johannesburg markets – one that required longer flights and more fuel.  It converted a young German destined to head Lufthansa and into a fan who ordered Boeing planes by the dozens.

The latest version with the longest range and highest payload of any of the 747s never sold well, but Spohr still has a few in service. Spohr pointed out, as did others, that no one predicts when the last 747 will stop flying. The best guesses were that the world’s largest freighter may be around in 2050 for a different kind of ceremony.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


  1. I remember well when in 1967, as a not yet dry-behind-the-ears junior auditor, I proofread the “red herring” prospectus for a bond issue to finance the completion of the exotic 747. Its list of financial risk factors was long and imaginative.
    And I remember my flights in 1970 -71 between Brussels and JFK on board Sabena’s first 747. With few passengers it felt almost like having a private aircraft for my use. Thinking, this plane will never become a financial success. And yet …
    Successful capitalism at work.

  2. Thank you so much for this! I fondly remember my first flight aboard a 747 Pan Am from Seattle to London in 1979. It was my first flight, ever…. People still dressed up to fly and I felt glam with my matching vinyl luggage from Sears. I wasn’t old enough to drink, but the obliging flight attendant happily poured a glass of free cheap wine. The plane was packed, but the courtesy of the passengers, the roomier seats, the free wine, even the cigarette smoke, all made it such an unforgettable experience. I know there is no going back to those glory days, but remembering them is such fun.


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