The History and Evolution of the 747 Airplane

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In 1963, the Boeing company embarked on the task of creating a specialized aircraft in fulfillment of a military contract. The order stipulated that the craft must have a cargo door with the 0708capacity for nose loading, with clearance ensuring fast access to the main deck of the plane. The Boeing engineers got to work with the specifications and arrived at the final product, the Boeing 747. The airplane has come a long way since its initial inception. There were bumps in the road in its creation. Design problems were addressed as they were discovered. Since the day its prototype was delivered for final inspection to today, this model has undergone severe modifications as needed to make it suitable for both military and commercial use. With increasing air traffic in the 1960s, it became apparent that there was a need for larger aircraft for commercial flight. The 747 provided the solution that would reduce the number of smaller aircraft occupying commercial routes.

Modifications of original design

In 1965, just two years after the concept for the 747 was formed, a Boeing design team came together to work on the military transport using the CX-HLS to start with. The team retained some of the features, but did away with the high wing design. With the notion of supersonic flight in mind, the design team took a dual approach that would serve has a placeholder for the future of the 747 not only for military use, but also for use in the commercial airline industry. Both freight and passenger capabilities were considered n the basic design. Commercial airlines were invited to share their requirements at this time in preparation for the delivery of the jumbo jet for passenger use.

Pre-production orders roll in

In April of 1966, with great excitement, Pan Am Airlines placed a pre-production order for 25 of the Boeing 747s. At this time Pratt and Whitney began the development of a specialized JT9D engine for the craft. By September 30, 1968, the first 747 was presented to the press in Everett, Washington. Testing commenced with one of the craft sustaining damage from a short landing in Renton.

The first Boeing 747

The first Boeing 747 for commercial use rolled off production lines at the Everett, Washington plant in 1969. On February 9th, the 747/YAL-1 made its maiden flight. The giant boasted a span of 195 feet, 8 inches, a length of 231 ft 4 inches and a gross weight of 735,000 pounds. It was large enough to accommodate 33 airline staff and between 374 to 490 passengers in the jumbo jet. It cruised through the skies at a speed of 640 mph thanks to four P&W JT9D-3 engines that cranked 43,000 pound thrust. The craft could reach a ceiling of 45,000 feet with a flight range of 6,000 miles. To ensure safety of the plane, it underwent a series of tests with over 1,400 hours flight time logged prior to its FAA certification which occurred on December 30, 1969. The transportation industry would forever be changed with the introduction of the jumbo jet.

Announcement to the world

The 747 was proudly presented to the world in 1969 at the 28th Paris Airshow in Le Bourget, France. The craft was on display for the consideration of prospective airline companies. This was a pivotal moment for Boeing as it would mark the beginning of a long and prosperous era in aircraft manufacture that preceded a boom in air travel.

The first commercial flight

Pan Am who had been waiting patiently received their first shipment on January 15 of 1970. First Lady Pat Nixon christened the craft named Clipper Victor. The first flight of the craft took place on January 22, 1970 in a flight from New York to London, landing at Heathrow Airport. The flight had been delayed by one day because of engines overheating, but the issue was quickly addressed.

Modifications during the 1970’s era

The 747 model 200 was introduced for commercial service in February of 1971. The new variant accommodated greater maximum takeoff weights than its predecessor, and was equipped with more powerful engines. Its design enabled a 6,000 NM range specifically for use in international routes that the 747 100 could not achieve. As of April of 2018, 1,500 of these models have been produced with a current price tag of $1 billion in USD.

The 747 100SR came out in August of 1973 as a short range craft with a high seating capacity. This took place just as Japanese Airlines domestic flights hit a spurt in activity. The Japanese were in need of a greater payload capability with more economy class seating. The 100SR was the solution that would hold up to 498 passengers. The body structure was strengthened to withhold the stress of takeoff and landing. Additional support was built into the landing gear, wings and fuselage but the trade-off was a reduced fuel capacity by twenty percent, rendering the craft useful for short range duty.

A shorter version of the 747 with a 48’4″ length was put into service in 1976. Pan Am and Iran Air were the recipients. The 747 SP flew from Tehran to New York regularly, achieving the longest non-stop flight as of that time in history.

All Nippon Airways purchased the 747 BSR model in December of 1978. The variant featured a greater maximum take off weight and modifications were made to strengthen it for a high cycle ratio for takeoffs and landings.

The addition of a stronger air frame and increased fuel capacity were the hallmarks of the 747 100B. This was the variant delivered in June of 1979 that provided the solution for the short range limitations of the 100SR, with a range of 5,000 NM, while maintaining the benefits.

The 1980s era of Boeing’s 747

The 747 300 model was ordered by Swissair in the summer of 1980. This version made its maiden flight in October of 1982. The 300 series featured improvements that would increase the seating capacity through modifications. Initial plans to increase the deck the entire length of the fuselage were discarded. Instead, the design team settled on a stretched upper deck in 1983. The cruising speed was increased and the craft was used for passenger and combination freighter/passenger designations with Swissair deliveries made in 1983.

Design work began in 1985 on a yet newer version called the 747 400. This variant made its maiden flight in February of 1986 with a stretched upper deck for greater passenger and freight capacity. The 400 was firsts delivered to Northwest Airlines in February of 1989 and was flown for the Minneapolis to Phoenix route. The combi version entered service with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in September of 1989 and in the Fall of 1990, Sabena received their delivery of the craft, which was the last to be produced. Until the development of the Airbus A380, this airplane held the record for being the largest commercial airliner in the world.

Turn of the Century Boeing 747 models

In November of 2002, The 747 400 ER joined the QANTAS airline as a service liner. This version sported winglets that were not present in the 300 variant. The Dreamlifter is another modification of the 400 that featured a massive cargo area that loaded and unloaded from a rear fuselage. They were used by numerous airlines for both freight and passenger with a range of 7,670 nautical miles which was approximately 400 miles more than the standard 400. It featured an auxiliary fuel tank and was designed with a customizable option for a second fuel tank. This diversified its use by allowing owners to remove the tank when additional cargo was needed for shorter runs. The Dreamlifters were designated for carrying essential crew members and cargo only, and not passengers.

The Boeing 747 8 family was first announced in 2005. Modifications made the craft more economical, quieter and friendlier to the environment. The fuselage was extended from 232 feet to 251. Variants of the 8 family of 747s were made, as many of the other variants to accommodate the needs of the airlines ordering them.

Undeveloped 747 variants

There were many variants of the 747 made within each family under the base model. For those which made it past the prototype phase of development to the production stage, there are several others which remained undeveloped within the concept stage. An example is the 747 Trijet. This craft would feature three engines with a greater payload, range and passenger capacity. Plans to fit the center engine into the tail were under consideration, however, engineers and analysts discovered that the wing of the 747 would require total redesign to make these modifications feasible. Plans were discarded in favor of other options. This is just one example of several ideas that didn’t make it past the concept stage, but there were countless numbers that did.

Challenges faced

The development of the 747 was no small task. This was to be the largest cargo/passenger aircraft to occupy the skies. The first major challenge was to build an assembly plant that would be large enough and safe enough to accommodate the activities that would take place. In building the Everett factory, workers moved over four million cubic yards of earth and built on the site a plant that became the largest building by volume that was sever built. Since the time of its establishment, Boeing has expanded the plant several more times to make room for production of wide body commercial jets. This was just the first obstacle to overcome. Initial prototypes had a serious issue with engines overheating. The first tests resulted in blowing the engines to their inability to cope with the stress of the massive size and weight of the craft, and the amount of power required to operate the jumbo jet. Modifications corrected the problems and production moved forward.

Operators using the 747

The days of each member of the 747 were numbered as it was well known that they would only have the capacity to render a limited number of flight hours each, before the craft would be worn beyond safe redemption. The end of the era seemed to peak the horizon when the last Boeing 747 made it’s final journey with United Airlines. With Delta following close behind, there would be a total of 194 Boeing 747 passenger planes left in service.

One of the largest 747 operators is Lufthansa with 13 remaining 400 models and 19 of the 8 types. They’re keeping the Queen of the Skies in service as passenger craft. Air China maintains 6 400s and an equal number of 8i aircraft, joined by Thai Airways with their 10 400s still in service. British Airways is the largest operator of Boeing 747-400 series with 36 offering passenger service, with Qantas and their ten 747 felt of 4 of the 400 series and six of the 747-400ER types.

Dutch Royal (KTM) maintains a fleet of 14 400 models with 11 of them Combi freighter/passenger aircraft. Korean Air has four classic 400 types with ten 8i craft in service. Saudia operates a total of 7 in their fleet and Virgin Atlantic currently maintains eight.

Safety and crashes

The Boeing 747 400s have had a decent track record for safety, with only three of them out of commission since their production and engagement in service. Four major incidents with the 400 have been reported with three out of service.

  • October 2000 crash – a Singapore airlines 747-400 left thee Taipei airport and crashed shortly after takeoff. The aircraft burned, killing 83 passengers of the 179 on board. A typhoon was approaching the runway at the time of the attempted takeoff and thee plane struck equipment being used for runway repairs at the time of the incident.
  • 1993 Crash – A China Airlines flight in 1993 attempted to land at Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, but skidded on the wet runway. The craft landed in Hung Hom Bay, but no serious injuries among the 396 passengers were reported.
  • 1998 Crash – A Korean Air flight was attempting to land on a wet runway at the Seoul airport when it skidded off the runway. There were no fatalities as the plane came to rest on an adjacent grassy area, but the plane was a loss.
  • 1996 Incident – this incident wasn’t a crash, but it did result in a passenger fatality. It 1996, a 747-400 encountered severe turbulence near Ouagadougou in West Africa. Three passengers were seriously injured and one of them succumbed to the injuries three days later.

747-100 Crashes

There was a variety of incidences involving the 100 model.

  • Lufthansa 1974 – In November of 1974, a Lufthansa 100 crash resulted in the death of 55 of the 140 passengers aboard along with 4 of the 17 crew members dying from the accident. This event took place in Nairobi, Kenya as the plane had not been properly configured to take off. Shortly after the craft had become airborn, it crashed approximately 3,600 feet past the end of the runway.
  • May 1976 Crash – An Iranian Air Force 747-100 craft crashed near Madrid, Spain when it encountered a thunderstorm close to its destination. A lightning strike ignited fuel vapors emanating from the left wing tank, causing an explosion that led to a structural failure that killed all seven passengers and ten crew members.
  • KLM plane crash 1977 – In March of 1977 Pan Am flight 1736, was diverted to Tenerife, Canary Islands after the Las Palmas airport experienced an exploding bomb. There were difficulties with communication between the craft and flight control as well as poor visibility. As the craft began its takeoff, it collided with a Pan Am 747 that was also taxiing down the same runway. The Pan Am casualties included nine of the sixteen crew members andd 321 of the 380 passengers, with everyone on board the KLM craft, including fourteen crew and 234 passengers killed.
  • August 1982 Korean Air Crash – Pan Am flight 830 was en route to Honolulu, Hawaii from Tokyo, Japan, when a bomb placed under the seat exploded and killed one passenger. The blast injured sixteen other passengers, but none of the other 10 crew members or 263 passengers died.
  • Japan Air Lines Crash – In September of 1986, a Japan Air 747-100 crashed just prior of its departure from Karachi, Pakistan. The craft was scheduled to fly to Frankfurt, West Germany. The plane was overtaken by four hijack who attempted to commandeer the plane while it was still on the ground. The crew of the plane exited the airplane through an escape hatch located in thee cockpit. The remaining passengers were subject to the torture of the terrorists and 20 of them lost their lives in the event, before the event was over.
  • November 1987 South African Airlines 747- 200 Combi Crash – This aircraft was en route from Taiwan to South Africa with a crew of 19 and 11` passengers. It was discovered that a fire broke out in the main deck cargo area and caused the plane to crash, killing everybody on board.
  • South African Airways Incident – In April of 1988, a Kuwait Airways 747-200 Combi 9K ADB was en route from Bangkok, Thailand to Kuwait. This was a terrorist hijacking event that continued for 16 days before ending. After diverting the flight to Mashad, Iran, then later to Cyprus, two hostages had been killed just prior to the surrender of the hijackers at their final stop in Algeria.
  • Kuwait Airlines plane Crash – In December of 1988, a Pan Am 747-100 crashed 30 minutes after its takeoff from Heathrow airport in London. It was scheduled to arrive at JFK airport in New York. The flight went down near the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. It was determined that a bomb detonation in the forward compartment of thee cargo space was responsible for the crash. All 243 passengers and 16 crew members lost their lives as well as eleven people who were nearby on the ground when the crash took place.
  • Air India plane Crash – A Korean Airlines 747-200 aircraft crashed as it attempted to make a landing in Seoul, South Korea. The event took place in November of 1980 as the plane undershot its landing and crashed a short distance away. Fire broke out as the plane slid to a stop. Six of thee fourteen crew members lost their lives in addition to eight out o thee 198 passengers, and one person on the ground.
  • Boeing 747 Crashes Due to In-Flight Breakups – There have been multiple reasons behind the crashes involving 747 aircraft through the years. Everything from weather conditions, hijackers, bombs and pilot or radio controller errors. Some of the crashes have occurred as a result of in-flight breakups.
  • July 2008 Crash – A Kalitta Air Boeing 747-200 aircraft used as an international cargo transport en route from Bogota, Columbia to Miami, Florida crashed just five miles away from the airport, shortly after takeoff. The craft experienced an in-flight breakup and crashed into a nearby field, killing three people on the ground, but all eight members of the crew survived the incident.
  • United Parcel Service 747-400F Crash – In September of 2010, a UPS cargo plane carrying cargo on an international flight from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, to Cologne, Germany. The aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff and killed two crew members as it hit the ground just a little over six miles north of the runway.
  • Asiana Airlines Crash – In July of 2011, an Asiana Airlines 747-400F crashed near Jeju, South Korea. The international cargo flight departed Seoul South Korea en route to Shanghai, China. The event took place an hour after the craft lifted off. The crew reported a fire on board and the flight was diverted to Jeju, South Korea where it crashed, killing both pilots.

In April of 2013 a National Airlines 747-400 craft crashed near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The cargo flight was en route to Dubai, United Arab Emirates when it stalled and crashed near the runway’s end. The aircraft hit the ground at a high speed which caused it to explode killing all seven crew members aboard.

Final thoughts

Although there are many reported crashes involving the 747, due to the high numbers in daily use around the globe, the statistics show it’s rated as a safe aircraft with low crash percentages. The 747 has enjoyed a rich history with an evolution that has produced hundreds of variants of the airplane that transformed the way we travel and move freight. Although some carriers have retired their 747s, there are still many left in service. We owe a debt of gratitude to the brilliant design engineers who brought us this evolutionary aircraft that improved both passenger and freight services over the past five decades.


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