Thanks to advances in jet engine technology during the 1950s and 1960s, passenger air travel blossomed during this period of aviation history and one of the more monumental aircraft designs came to be the Boeing 747 - also known as the "Queen of the Skies" - which began commercial service in 1970. At the time of its inception, the then-risky private venture became the largest passenger jet airliner, doubling the size of any jet-powered airliner to date - a title that the model would hold for nearly 40 years until the arrival of the competing French-originated Airbus A380 series now taking hold. It also brought about a whole new name of oversized aircraft classified as "Jumbo Jet" and introduced the now-popular concept of "wide-body" in airliner travel. Despite its 1960s origins, the 747 continues to fly today (March 2014) and fills the product gap between the 777 and newer 787 "Dreamliner" models in the Boeing aircraft stable.
The original Boeing 747 - the first ever built - was leased as a showpiece to the Seattle-area "Museum of Flight".
In the 1960s, moving people from all points on the globe became a greater challenge than ever before as more and more took to the skies to travel and aircraft opened all new avenues. In turn, aviation companies fought to keep pace and jet technology provided the basis for ever-improved aircraft of greater size and performance. Pan American specified a new, long-range passenger hauler requirement in 1966 and Boeing engineers set to work on an all-new, four-engined design intended to surpass the capabilities of preceding models available anywhere. The resulting product would be a long-haul-route performer, capable of moving hundreds of souls across vast oceans. Christened as the "747", the initial vehicle went airborne for the first time on February 9th, 1969. Pan American ordered twenty-five of the new aircraft for its stable - the Boeing "gamble" has paid off - and the first of these was introduced with Pan Am on January 22nd, 1970.
Boeing engineers elected for a deep fuselage to house two distinct operating floors as well as integrate a lower cargo hold. The aircraft was essentially an upscaled Boeing 707 model though heavily modified to suit the performance and internal volume requirements. The cockpit was set aft of a short nose cone, offering a commanding view of the scenery ahead. Wings were low-mounted and noticeably swept and each assembly held a pair of underslung engine nacelles for the needed power output. The empennage was raised and capped by a single vertical tail fin with swept horizontal planes fitted low. The mammoth size of the 747 required a complex undercarriage with multiple wheels - the nose leg alone featured a dual-tire design. Large flaps were affixed to the wing trailing edges. In all, the 747 was an engineering triumph for its time.
The initial 747 subvariant became the "747-100" hauler of 1970 and early forms utilized Pratt & Whitney turbofans until 1975 to which the line began use of both Rolls-Royce and General Electric-branded turbofan engines to help broaden market appeal. The 747-100 group included the modified-frame "707-100B" with its higher payload capacity and the "747-100SP" ("Special Performance") model which featured a reduced-length fuselage to serve in the higher-altitude, longer-range, non-stop hauling role. Boeing eventually manufactured some 250 units of the 747-100 mark with the final entry coming in 1986.
Next followed the "747-200" which entered service in 1971. The 747-200 was on design tables alongside the 747-100 though development time ensured it entered service later. This mark featured greater payload capacity over that of the 747-100 models but were more or less physically indistinguishable. The 747-200 airframe was further modified to serve in the freighter role (with optional side loading door) or a combination passenger-cargo hauler as the 747-200 "Convertible". The 747-200 "Combi" was similar in its multi-mission approach. Production of 747-200 aircraft totaled 393 units with the last delivered in 1991.
The 747-300 entered service in 1983 and brought about use of improved, fuel-efficient turbofan engines, a lengthened upper deck and increase in passenger seating. Again, passenger, freighter and combination forms were the call of the day and overall production totaled 81 units, the last added in 1990.
The 747-400 appeared with improved aerodynamic qualities which made it a more efficient and reliable long-haul performer. The 747-400F became a freighter-minded offshoot capable of hauling some 154 tons of cargo. The base 747-400 alone could seat 467 passengers in a three-class, twin-aisle seating arrangement. The 747-400ER was an "Extended Range" version and a combination ("Combi") and domestic-minded version were also added in time.
The 747 has served in governmental and military levels within the United States. Two examples operate as "Air Force One" (VC-25) with the American government, shuttling the President and staff around the globe wherever needed. The pair were delivered to the United States Air Force in 1990. A further four 747-200 airframes were taken on by the USAF for use in the Airborne Emergency Command and Control (AECC) role, outfitted with specialized equipment and personnel, allowing the President and his commanders an aerial platform from which to govern a war in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States and allies from the Soviet Union. "C-19" designated 747s in service with Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) for use by the American military when required to move passengers or cargo with short notice. Still another 747 airframe was used by the NASA program for shuttling the Space Shuttle reusable vehicle to and from American air bases as required. The 747 "Dreamlifter" is a four-strong group of 747-related airframes specially modified to transport whole components related to the 787 "Dreamliner" program. As such, they feature extremely deep hulls (creating an abnormal-looking fuselage shape) and a "swing-out" tail section for access to the hold. Beyond the central fuselage, this group retains much of the physical appearance of the original 747 line.
The 747 continues to serve with many airliner companies today (2014). The 747-8 "Intercontinental" is the latest of the 747 product line by Boeing and marketed in the passenger/freighter role with additional seating, all-modern electronics and avionics, improved fuel efficiency, new wings and a revised passenger cabin as well as increased cargo storage. The 747-8 can seat up to 500 persons in multi-class internal configurations and can haul thousands of pounds of cargo anywhere in the world. The 747-8 is currently approved for operations across 225 airports around the globe.
Total 747 production/deliveries have since reached 1,484 examples heading into April 2014. Operators of the key Boeing product have included Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, South Korea, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States (among many, many others - see variants section for full listing). For some operators, the more economical Boeing 777 has been used to replace the earlier, "classic" Boeing 747-100 and -200 marks. The Boeing 747 service life has not been without issue - having been involved in 49 whole-hull-loss incidents resulting in the loss of 2,852 people throughout its storied career. It has also served as the stage to some 31 total hijackings since its inception. Undoubtedly the sheer number of passengers carried by the 747 aircraft makes it a key target for such crimes.
Despite its mammoth size, the Boeing 747 still comes in with a wingspan shorter than the famous Hughes H-4 "Hercules" transport prototype of World War 2, the new French Airbus A380 and the Cold War-era Russian/Ukrainian Antonov An-225 "Mriya". The An-225 is also longer than any aircraft in aviation history.
Carrier Delta Airlines, which operates approximately sixteen 747s currently, expects to retire the entire fleet by the end of the decade.