Boeing's 747 remains an ode to corporate daring, persistence and vision, offering reassurance in the chaos of the late 1960s.
Was there ever a passenger jet so graceful, iconic and beloved?
On January 31, Boeing delivered its last 747 jet to cargo-carrier Atlas Air Worldwide. The airplane giant will never build another one. A ceremony was held in Everett, Washington, to mark the delivery—53 years and 1,574 jetliners after its first passenger flight between New York and London in 1970.
If the Boeing 707 ushered in the jet age, the 747—with its four engines and double-aisle wide body—heralded the golden age of air travel, allowing millions of people to travel nonstop over great distances for the first time. Previously, only the wealthy and businesspeople flew internationally. Suddenly, backpackers were flying to Europe and other faraway climes.
The jet’s origin is the stuff of legends. “If you build it, I’ll buy it,” Pan Am’s Juan Trippe reportedly said on a fishing trip. “If you buy it, I’ll build it,” answered Boeing’s then-president Bill Allen. A deal was struck. Boeing “bet the house” on the 747—taking on prodigious amounts of debt to build a passenger jet that was nearly three times the size of its predecessor. It constructed the world’s largest building to house the project. The jet’s tail alone stood six-stories high.
The 747 strode the airways with panache; an iconic upper-deck “hump” made it easily identifiable. One pilot compared it to the head of a swan with its graceful curves. By 2023, it flew more than 3.5 billion passengers.
But the world changed. Fuel costs rose, an adversary (Airbus) appeared, and Boeing eventually developed two-engine jets that could fly even farther than the 747 without refueling. The “Queen of the Skies” had become obsolete. Even so, six airlines continue to fly the jet today.
The 747 remains an ode to corporate daring, persistence and vision, offering reassurance in the chaos of the late 1960s. Along with the Apollo moon program, says Boeing historian Michael Lombardi, the 747 “showed that despite all the differences and turmoil, we could come together and do something great.”