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​RETROSPECTIVE: The day Boeing’s 747 took to the sky

The year 1969 marked a golden age for the post-war aerospace industry, in which Flight International was one of the leading communicators, for those 12 months witnessed three key events that were genuine landmarks in the evolution of flight – the maiden sorties of the Boeing 747 and Aerospatiale/BAC Concorde, and the first Moon landing.

And the year was barely a month old when the first of these key achievements occurred: the 747 took to the skies on 9 February, signalling the start of an air-transport capacity revolution that continues to this day.

The 747, of course, beat its supersonic rival into the air by a month – one of many victories it would go on to enjoy over Concorde as these two air transport icons fought to dictate the future strategy airlines would pursue for long-haul flying.

However, both these maiden flights should have been done and dusted before 1968 was out, as Flight’s staff writer Neil Harrison explained in his report from the 747's 30 September 1968 roll-out: "Less immediately threatening, but nevertheless having a distinct bearing on the 747 market potential in the mid-1970s, is the Concorde and nobody in Seattle is underestimating the importance of this advanced Anglo-French aircraft. There was a mild shock when it was realised that the publicity impact of the 747 first flight, scheduled for December 17 (weather permitting), could be eclipsed by the first flight of Concorde on or about the same day."

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First take-off on 9 February 1969

Boeing

PIPPED TO THE POST

But the year ended with both prototypes still firmly planted on terra firma and it was the 747 that took the honours to be first to fly. Flight’s news report on the debut sortie, headlined "Boeing 747 Airborne", appeared in the 13 February edition, accompanied by a "cabled picture" of the Pratt & Whitney JT9D-powered 747 "ship 1", RA001, airborne with its gear down escorted by its F-86 chase aircraft.

"A little more than seven weeks after the target date originally set, the first of the new generation of large-capacity airliners, the Boeing 747, made its maiden flight on February 9," reported Flight.

"Mr Jack Waddell, 747 project pilot, took the aircraft aloft from Paine Field adjacent to the new Everett factory north of Seattle where it was built. He reported over the r/t that the machine handled easily: a speed of about 300mph at 15,000ft was reached. However, almost half an hour after take-off, during preliminary handling trials, a 'bump' was experienced as the flaps were lowered to 30°. It was decided to make a premature return to Paine Field. The aircraft made a 'perfect' landing. One report suggests that misalignment of the flaps may have caused the trouble."

We reported that "the 300-ton prototype" was airborne within "only 4,500ft" at a speed of "about 162mph".

In his autobiography 747, the programme's original engineering chief, Joe Sutter described how on the day of the maiden flight he drove with his wife Nancy to an area adjacent to the runway, where he calculated that the behemoth would unstick. Sutter, who sadly passed away in 2016, said of the 747's successful first flight: "We were euphoric. Boeing had a real airplane, and it looked like a winner."

Waddell was accompanied for the first flight by cockpit crew Brien Wygle and Jesse Wallick, along with "60,000lb of instrumentation and 1,000lb of water ballast".

"Pilots are going to love it," reported Waddell after the landing. "Coming in for a landing it just sits there like a stable platform and the pilot has to keep telling himself to let it alone."

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Ship 1

Boeing

Flight reported that the 76min first sortie was "about an hour shorter" than planned and explained why in its following issue. Under the headline "Flap trouble on 747 rectified", the magazine explained that according to Waddell, the decision was taken to shorten the sortie because "we thought we noticed a slight misalignment in the leading-edge flap and we thought it would be prudent to come in and check it".

Flight added that "a sequential locking mechanism on a small forward flap segment did not function properly, and this allowed the flap to move slightly out of alignment. The flap section has since been re-inspected, adjusted and operationally tested."

RA001 took off on a second, largely trouble-free flight of 2h 20min on 15 February, wrote Flight. "The only reported failure was that of gauge recording pressure in one of the fuel tanks."

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First flight crew: left to right, Jack Waddell, Brien Wygle, Jesse Wallick

Boeing

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Joe Sutter, the "father of the 747"

Boeing

What lay ahead for RA001 and the 747 programme was an intense – and not trouble-free – flight-test programme of more than 1,400h, involving five aircraft that culminated in certification on 30 December 1969 and service entry with Pan Am on 22 January 1970. But that, as they say, is a whole other story…

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As reported in Flight International, 13 February 1969 - read the original archive article

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