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Aviation: 50 years of Jumbos

Possibly the most significant commercial aircraft of the second half of the 20th century took to the air for the first time on February 9, 1969 - exactly 50 years ago. Fifty years ago the first Boeing 747 'Jumbo Jet' took to the air, and within a year it ushered in a new era of air travel - one in which 400 or more passengers could be flown in excess of 3,000 miles in unrivaled comfort.

The 747 had its origins in the competition for a new large transport for the United States Air Force, which was won by airframer Lockheed and engine manufacturer General Electric and resulted in the C-5 Galaxy.

Prototype Boeing 747 N7470 on an early test flight.

That left Boeing free to concentrate on a large commercial aircraft, which Pan American World Airways was seeking to provide much needed additional capacity over its 707s.

In 1965, designer Joe Sutter was moved from the 737 development team to manage studies for the new airliner which was assigned the number 747. Boeing believed that a new large airliner would rapidly be replaced by a supersonic transport and that 747s would then be adapted to carry cargo. That led to the iconic 'hump' on the forward fuselage of the 747, lifting the flight deck above the main floor and allowing unobstructed access to the entire cabin. The firm built the world's largest factory, at Everett north of Seattle, in which 747s were constructed.

By 1966 Pan Am, which had been influential in the helping settle the configuration of the 747, ordered 25 747-100s at a cost of around $525m (by contrast, the list price of one Boeing 747-8 is now in excess of $350m). That set the ball rolling and soon the major airlines of the world were clamouring to join the queue.

The prototype Boeing 747, registered N7470, rolled out of the production plant on September 30, 1968 and after extensive ground testing took to the air for the first time just over four months later.

Boeing 747 number 1. (NASA)

By that time, 26 airlines had signed up for the behemoth. Flight testing was hampered by unreliable Pratt & Whitney JT-9D engines and by the time certification was achieved with the US Federal Aviation Authority Boeing was in debt to the tune of $2bn. Nevertheless the 747 entered service on Pan Am's New York JFK to London Heathrow route on January 22, 1970. And the rest, as they say, was history.

Today the Jumbo remains in production in its latest guise, the 747-8F freighter. A passenger version is also available but is unlikely to attract further customers. To date 1,547 747s have been built, and Boeing holds commitments for another 24 aircraft. The firm continues to receive small orders from cargo airlines, which will enable production to continue into the next decade.

The Boeing 747 is now a dying breed in passenger service and has replaced either by double-deck Airbus A380s or smaller and more efficient twin-engined aircraft such as the Boeing 777-300/ER. However, many are still used as freighters.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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