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OPINION: How Boeing's jumbo bet paid off

Half a century ago this month, the cheers went up across Everett as the first Boeing 747 took to the air. Those celebrations were recognising not only the impressive engineering feat, but a commercial one too.

The 747 had scored an important public relations victory by beating a key rival for the airlines' affections into the air – Concorde. In the end, the Anglo-French supersonic transport (SST) flew around a month later. But while Boeing's jumbo jet was earning money for its customers within 12 months, it would be another seven years before supersonic air travel became a reality.

It is extraordinary to think that back in the 1960s, a 100-seat narrowbody and a 400-seat widebody were competing for the same airline spend. But they were – and the smart money was on supersonics.

Even Boeing was hedging its bets, with a "bigger and better" SST of its own in the works alongside the jumbo. "And many people here at Boeing thought that the 747 was an aeroplane with a limited future, ­because the SST was going to take all of the business," recalled the programme's original chief engineer, Joe Sutter, to Flight International in 1989.

But history shows that things turned out very differently. It was the 747 that started a global air transport revolution, with over 1,500 now delivered. And the jumbo's status as an aviation industry icon is as valid today as it was in 1969. Happy 50th birthday, 747!

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