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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)