Boeing delivered the last of its now legendary 747 “Jumbo” jet models on January 31. Built just north of Seattle Washington, the final delivery was made to the US cargo carrier Atlas Air, which took possession of a 747-8 cargo version.
The 747 aircraft design has had a total production run of 54 years, with 1574 aircraft delivered including the US President’s Air Force One, along with several replacements, making it the aviation industry’s most important workhorse of the 1980s-90s, especially for mass tourism, with its revolutionary two aisle configuration, and for heavy cargo transport until technological change in airframe and engine design brought a gradual eclipse, as well as changes in the prevailing patterns of mass tourism and business travel.
Primary use has shifted to cargo
The existing 747 fleet will be flying for several decades, with the primary use now focused on the cargo transport sector where the aircraft’s capacity and versatility remain unrivaled in commercial aviation. For example, a modified 747 was used to transport the US Space Shuttle and other similar craft to support various private space launch projects. The last passenger versions of the 747 began production in 2005; the newest Boeing 747-8 version sold 48 passenger models and 107 cargo carriers including deliveries to Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Airlines Group. The 747 remained the largest commercial passenger plane until the introduction of the Airbus A380 began in 2005.
First introduced as a passenger plane in 1970 on Pan Am’s New York-London route, the iconic aircraft was known as the “Queen of the Skies.” The design evolved from initial plans to mold two Boeing 707 fuselages into a wider two-aisle body with the distinctive hump design up front, supporting the plane’s use for cargo transport. The aircraft’s initial passenger capacity was around 365. Some versions were configured to transport over 500 and one little-known covert rescue mission actually transported over 1000 refugees from Ethiopia to Israel.
And who can recall the 747s long history without recalling the horrific shootdown of KAL 007 on September 1, 1983, by Soviet air defense aircraft in the Sea of Japan near Sakhalin with the loss of all passengers and crew?
Difficult early years
The initial years of the plane’s sales history were rocky due to the energy crisis/oil embargo in 1973 which disrupted Boeing’s projections for air travel and the size of production runs. Foreign “Flag Carrier” sales helped support Boeing in this difficult period, with a number of those purchases being for prestige reasons rather than for the aircraft’s passenger capacity. When fully utilized, the aircraft had among the industry’s lowest operating costs per seat; however, these economies of scale required full loads which were not assured in the era of airline fare regulation.
The aircraft spawned multiple design variants, some focusing on longer-range while others delivered higher passenger capacity with an extended fuselage and upgraded engines. Final deliveries of the highly modernized passenger transport variant, the 747-8, were made to Korea Air in 2017.
Boeing’s rush development program succeeded
The aircraft’s rapid production history is also memorable. Over 50,000 Boeing employees — construction workers, mechanics, engineers, secretaries and administrators — worked on the crash project, almost simultaneously with the Apollo space program — making the largest jet in the world in less than 28 months.
Construction of the plane’s new factory north of Seattle required moving as much earth as digging the Panama Canal. Happening during the tense final years of the US-Soviet space race, Boeing’s highly motivated workers on this priority project were dubbed “the Incredibles.”
The production line for the 747 will reportedly now be replaced with a fourth line for the company’s 737 Max aircraft.