Aircraft Profiles

For more in-depth information on aircraft types, see our aircraft profiles

Boeing 747 profile
iPhone App

Flightglobal’s new iPhone app brings you the latest news, video, jobs and twitter updates from our journalists.

Search for "Flightglobal" in the App store on

Flightglobal iPhone app


   << Previous  Next >>  



747 roll out
 © Boeing

Whichever way you look at it, the Boeing 747's legacy is remarkable. Probably the most recognisable airliner other than Concorde, not only is the Jumbo Jet still the world's best-selling widebody, and the longest-running airliner production programme after the 737, but it was also a key contributor to bringing air travel to the masses. And until the Airbus A380's arrival two years ago - an aircraft regarded by some as the 747's spiritual successor - it was the largest airliner flying.

In November 2009, almost 40 years to the day that it delivered the first 747, Boeing handed over the last and 1,418th of the original series. The secret of the 747's success was that Boeing did its homework and built "the right airplane", says the programme's original chief engineer Joe Sutter. "If you don't figure out what the hell the market wants you can spend all the money in the world and you're gonna have a loser."

Boeing's Jumbo Jet origins go back almost half a century when amid discussions about a new giant airliner, Pan Am's visionary chief Juan Trippe told Boeing boss Bill Allen "if you build it, we'll buy it". And in April 1966 that is exactly what he did, placing the launch order for 25 aircraft.

The pioneering US carrier had been a major Boeing customer for many decades, operating the famous 314 Clipper flying boats across the Atlantic before the Second World War, and later the big Stratocruiser piston. In 1958 it was the launch operator for Boeing's first jet, the 707. But Seattle had to work hard for the Pan Am order as the carrier preferred its rival - the slightly bigger, longer-range Douglas DC-8.

A few years later, the Long Beach-built jetliner would come back to haunt Boeing, as although outwardly similar to the 707, it could be stretched more easily than its rival by virtue of its taller landing gear design. So in 1966, when Douglas introduced the stretched DC-8 "Super 60" - which could seat up to 250 passengers - Boeing could not respond with any sensible development of its homegrown jet.

Pan Am 747
© Flightglobal/Tim Bicheno-Brown 


Although it originally ordered more DC-8s than 707s, Pan Am went on to become a big customer for the Boeing jet and never signed up for the "stretch eight". So when Boeing began evaluating a "clean-sheet" response, Trippe urged it to make sure the new airliner was an order of magnitude bigger than anything already in production.

Between them, Trippe and Allen would go on to create a legend. What they came up with was the world's first widebody, and one that would remain the largest airliner flying for almost four decades. With seating for upwards of 350 passengers (later versions would carry more than 400), and economy cabins configured with two aisles and up to 10 seats abreast, the 747 promised to revolutionise air travel.

Its size meant that none of the existing Boeing facilities near Seattle were suitable for production, so after evaluating various sites it was decided to set up a new plant north of Seattle at Everett. As the magnitude of the investment in its new programme escalated, the airframer also re-invented the way it produced airliners.


The original $500 million development cost estimate was on course to balloon to $1 billion by the time of first deliveries, and Boeing faced the dilemma of how to pay for the new aircraft without constraining its activities in other sectors. So it adopted and developed the plan Douglas had used to pay for the DC-9, where the expenditure burden was shared with suppliers on a cost/profit sharing basis. The agreements saw half the 747's work, cost and profit transferred to third-party suppliers. In total, Boeing had 10 major assembly contractors, 1,500 primary suppliers and another 15,000 second-tier providers.

With the now legendary Joe Sutter heading the team of engineers - dubbed "The Incredibles" - given the job to create the Jumbo Jet, many hurdles were overcome as the construction of the first 747 "RA001" (N747O) progressed at Everett. And their creation was proving to be very popular. By the time of the roll-out on 30 September 1968, it had accumulated orders from 26 customers, comprising key North American airlines and flag carriers from across Europe, Asia and Australasia.

As the behemoth broke cover for the first time, and its full shape was revealed, Flight International wrote: "Although transport aircraft design has followed many variations of fashion since the 707 first appeared, Boeing has returned to the classic form for the 747 because of its proven efficiency and predictable qualities. There is, however, considerable technical novelty and ingenuity beneath the skin."

So there was much more on offer than just its size. As well as being the original widebody, the 747 was the first airliner to be powered by high bypass ratio engines - Pratt & Whitney's JT9D - and it pioneered the commercial use of inertial navigation systems. It was also designed to be one of the fastest subsonic airliners flying, with a cruise speed of Mach 0.85.


The hoped-for maiden flight on 17 December 1968 - the 65th anniversary of the Wright brothers' historic 1903 powered flight first - was missed as Sutter and engineers battled against the clock to overcome ongoing production issues, while P&W was having troubles of its own sorting its new engine.

Boeing 747 first flight
© Boeing

 In the end, RA001 finally took to the air almost two months late on 9 February 1969, with the "Three Ws" at the controls - Jack Waddell, Brien Wygle and Jess Wallick. Although that maiden sortie was not glitch-free - a flap problem cut the flight short - overall, the flight-test programme proceeded fairly smoothly and the giant was certificated before the year was out - with one day to spare.

Archive - Pan Am orders 25 747s Archive - Boeing 747 rolls out Archive - Boeing 747 first flight


  << Previous Next >>