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Comment: The people's plane

Boeing has quietly handed over the last of the original 747s, almost 40 years to the day after the first was delivered to the Jumbo's co-creator, and Pan Am chief, Juan Trippe.

When the Boeing giant made its debut at the 1969 Paris air show it was parked alongside the prototype Concorde. Few who gazed at the two ground-breaking airliners could have predicted that it would be the 747 that would go on to change the world, opening aviation to the masses.

The last 747 Mk1 delivered was the 1,419th Jumbo to be built, underlining just how successful it has been. In the early 1970s, when Concorde's impressive customer list was evaporating as the oil crisis helped size to win out over speed, Boeing couldn't build enough 747s. The 100th aircraft was delivered a year after the first, and the 500th within the decade.

BOAC 747 © Flightglobal/AirSpace
 © Flightglobal/AirSpace
BOAC was one of many early customers for the Jumbo

Airbus may view the A380 as the 747's spiritual successor, but how it must wish it had the production capability - and the sheer demand - to have been able to repeat that ramp-up.

Despite the many pretenders to its crown, Boeing's Jumbo is still the world's best-selling widebody - not bad for an aircraft that was launched amid much uncertainty and very nearly bankrupted the company.

But how its fortunes could have panned out a little differently. Would supersonic airliners have been so quickly killed off if the fuel crisis had not hit when it did? And how much smaller would the 747's orderbook have been if McDonnell Douglas had decided to develop a 400-seater, rather than enter a fight to the death with Lockheed in a 300-seat market that, unlike the Jumbo's sector, ultimately proved to be too small for more than one player.

As one chapter closes, another is about to open with the first of the new 747 variants waiting in the wings to fly. Good luck - that's a tough act to follow!