SEATTLE (AP) – Boeing bid farewell to an icon on Tuesday, delivering its final 747 jumbo jet as thousands of workers who helped build the planes over the past 55 years looked on.
Since its first flight in 1969, the giant yet graceful 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA’s space shuttles, and the Air Force One presidential aircraft. It revolutionised travel, connecting international cities that had never before had direct routes and helping democratise passenger flight.
But over about the past 15 years, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more profitable and fuel efficient wide-body planes, with only two engines to maintain instead of the 747’s four.
The final plane is the 1,574th built by Boeing in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.
Thousands of workers joined Boeing and other industry executives from around the world – as well as actor and pilot John Travolta, who has flown 747s – on Tuesday for a ceremony in the company’s massive factory north of Seattle, marking the delivery of the last one to cargo carrier Atlas Air.
“If you love this business, you’ve been dreading this moment,” said longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. “Nobody wants a four-engine airliner anymore, but that doesn’t erase the tremendous contribution the aircraft made to the development of the industry or its remarkable legacy.”
Boeing set out to build the 747 after losing a contract for a huge military transport, the C-5A.
The idea was to take advantage of the new engines developed for the transport – high-bypass turbofan engines, which burned less fuel by passing air around the engine core, enabling a farther flight range – and to use them for a newly imagined civilian aircraft.
It took more than 50,000 Boeing workers less than 16 months to churn out the first 747 – a Herculean effort that earned them the nickname ‘The Incredibles’.
The jumbo jet’s production required the construction of a massive factory in Everett, north of Seattle – the world’s largest building by volume. The factory wasn’t even completed when the first planes were finished.
Among those in attendance was Desi Evans, 92, who joined Boeing at its factory in Renton, south of Seattle, in 1957 and went on to spend 38 years at the company before retiring.
One day in 1967, his boss told him he’d be joining the 747 programme in Everett – the next morning. He was assigned as a supervisor to help figure out how the interior of the passenger cabin would be installed and later oversaw crews that worked on sealing and painting the planes.
“When that very first 747 rolled out, it was an incredible time,” he said as he stood before the last plane, parked outside the factory. “You felt elated – like you’re making history. You’re part of something big, and it’s still big, even if this is the last one.”
The plane’s fuselage was 225 feet long and the tail stood as tall as a six-storey building. The plane’s design included a second deck extending from the cockpit back over the first third of the plane, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring a nickname, the Whale. More romantically, the 747 became known as the Queen of the Skies.
“It was the first big carrier, the first widebody, so it set a new standard for airlines to figure out what to do with it, and how to fill it,” said history professor Guillaume de Syon, who specialises in aviation and mobility.
“It became the essence of mass air travel: You couldn’t fill it with people paying full price, so you need to lower prices to get people onboard. It contributed to what happened in the late 1970s with the deregulation of air travel.”