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Boeing 747

By Patrick Mondout

In the mid-60s, Boeing - the company that set the jet age standard with the 707 and was busy working on a supersonic transport - had one more trick up its sleeves: A jumbo jet that became the biggest civilian production aircraft the 20th Century.


The sudden surge of air traffic in the mid-60s caught cities and airlines off guard. Air traffic was increasing by 15-20% per year and airports were becoming congested. Both bigger aircraft and bigger airports for them to land at were needed. All three of the big names in American civilian transport had solutions to the problem. So did the new European consortium Airbus. McDonnell Douglas announced the DC-10. Lockheed, which had sat out the jet age after making the popular L-1049 Constellation in the 1940s, announced the L-1011 TriStar. Airbus announced the only twin-engine widebody, the A300. Boeing announced a plane much bigger than either of them: The 747.

On Christmas Day, 1965, Boeing and Pan Am Airlines announced they were going ahead with the jumbo jet that would have a cabin almost twice as wide as a 707 and carry as many as 500 passengers. On April 13, 1966, Pan Am ensured the plane would be built by committing to a $525M order of 747s.


On September 30, 1968, the prototype 747 was rolled out of the Everett, Washington factory to an awed crowd of workers, reporters, and airline executives. While everyone had heard that Boeing was working on a jumbo jet, no one was quite prepared for the sheer size of it. Even Boeing employees were surprised.

This first 747 weighed 710,000 pounds - a bit more than the estimate of 550,000 from 1966! At a length of 231 feet and the height (at the tail) of a six-story building, some doubted whether it would ever get off the ground. It's most unique feature was that it was a double-decker. The cockpit and first-class section were above the first floor of passengers.

First Test Flight

On February 9, 1969, the second 747 prototype did fly. Boeing test pilot Jack Waddell lifted the behemoth off the Paine Field (Everett, Washington) runway with ease. With the ability to carry more than 400 passengers more than 5,500 miles, the 747 opened up economic long-distance travel to the masses. Its size caused problems for airports that had to make significant modifications to handle the 747.

Boeing 747

An early Pan-Am 747 at JFK in 1973.

NARA photo

First Commercial Flight

Pan Am, who made the first purchase in 1966, had the honor of taking delivery of - and flying - the first commercial 747Dubbed Clipper Young America by Pan Am, it was to make this first 747 passenger flight. However, its engines overheated (a common problem in early 747s) while taxiing and it was replaced by Clipper Victor. Sadly, this backup plane was fated to be in the worst aviation accident of all time. But it was all smiles on January 21, 1970 when the 747 took off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and landed later that day in London.

Safety First

Although it is expected that each new series of aircraft will include the latest safety features, the 747 exceeded all expectations. Until it was produced, no commercial aircraft had ever gone as many as 500,000 hours without a fatal accident. They 747 flew over two million hours before the first fatal accident in Africa.

"Honey, I Shrunk the 747!"

While the 747 was successful from the beginning, some airlines wanted a smaller version of the long range aircraft that would be more economical. Boeing had shown three-engine designs that made the 747 look like a double-decker DC-10, but eventually decided to stick same basic design but with a shorter fuselage. The aircraft became known as the 747-SP or Special Performance.

Boeing 747-SP

Here's one of the first Pan-Am 747-SPs on its first flight from LAX to London's Heathrow in April 1976.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at


Competition? What Competition?

The 747 was so big that it really had no competition. The L-1011 and DC-10 fought it out for a market that turned out to be only big enough for one of them while the 747 made it into the 21st Century without a serious competitor. Airbus has announced the A380, however, which will finally provide that competition at a time when Boeing is considering ending the program.

Boeing 747 at a Glance
Engines4 GE CF6-50E2 or 4 Rolls-Royce RB211-524D4-B or 4 Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7RG2 turbofans
Cruising Speed600
Range4600 (later models > 8000)
Span195ft 8in
Length231ft 10in
Height63ft 5in
BuiltGreater than 1200 (still manufactured)
Final ProductionN/A
Mesurements refer to 747-200B


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about the Boeing 747? Were you a member of the flight crew on one? Have you any interesting stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"Having grown up flying around the world on 707s, DC-8s, and other "narrow-body" aircraft, my first impression of the Boeing 747 was nothing short of awe. My first flight on a Jumbo was in 1971. Because the Pan Am terminal could not yet accommodate this newcomer, my family and I had to board a bus, which took us to our waiting aircraft. As the bus swung under the tail of our jet, this wide-eyed 11-year-old boy had to crane my neck to look way up to see the tail and lighted windows. The bus passed under the wing and an engine which appeared to be as large as our bus! Having flown a great deal in the 1960s, I was used to boarding an aircraft via an air stair, but the steps I was to climb had two storeys, twice as high as what I was used to. Upon entering the plane, I recall thinking how far the windows on the other side seemed. I was amazed by the grandeur of it all - those DC-8s and 707s I used to think were huge now seemed puny. Even today, to this 41-year-old wide-eyed boy, the 747 seems majestic, larger than life."

--Daniel B.

"My first memory of jet travel was a transatlantic flight on the beautiful 707. However, that was 1968 when I was 10, and I had already heard about the glorious new 747. Imagine, a plane with two decks and seating for more than 400!
It was 1976 before I was able to fly on one. I'll never forget walking into that cabin. My breath was literally stolen from me at the sheer size of it. The cabin seemed to be endless! I could walk around the plane like I could my own school building.
I've always been partial to this beauty. My business now affords me the opportunity to travel across the country and around the world. Much of my time now is spent in the new "efficient" 777, but as efficient and "nice" as the "triple 7" is, it does NOT have the romance of the 747.
I'll never forget the first time I was able to sit "upstairs." I always wondered what the world at the top of the little spiral staircase was like. I'll never forget the experience. It was an unforgettable taste of "the good life."
No matter if the 747 ever goes out of service completely. It will still rank as the most beautiful fleet to grace the skies in my eyes. To watch one land still takes my breath away."


"I flew the 747's in first class during the early, mid and late Super7Os when the upper deck was STILL the extra space devoted to FIRST CLASS. My first SHOCK when the upper deck was converted to seat/mile occupancy was on a flight from MILAN back to New York. I finished my gourmet meal and went up the stairs to relax, have a FREE CIGARETTE (!) and a snifter of brandy. Imagine my utter surprise when I saw rows of seats filled with...OTHER PEOPLE! I returned to my main deck forward cabin seat disappointed and a bit angry. That was the first indication of the reduction in service, elegance aloft and the general deterioration of the flying experience in this incredible aircraft."

--Syd Mead

"I first flew a 747 from Houston to Amsterdam (KLM, naturally). It was a very full flight and I was in coach, but I never felt uncomfortable. I was awe-struck at the sheer size of the plane, and still am. I love watching the big birds take off, and it never ceases to amaze me at its slow speed as it gracefully comes in for a landing. Boeing can be proud of the 747."


"The Boeing 747 is not for every major air carrier. At one time, TWA and American operated 747s, but they were phased out when it became clear that two-engine transports could be safely operated on long routes where there few or no nearby landing fields which could be used if necessary. Compared to such aircraft as the Boeing 767 or the A330, the Boeing 747 is often regarded as being too expensive to operate, especially on routes where not too many passengers will be flying. (Until the safety of the two-engine design was demonstrated, American, TWA and Delta would often use three-engine transports such as the L-1011 or the DC-10 or even smaller four-engine transports such as the Boeing 707 until they were retired.)
I understand that Delta briefly operated four Boeing 747s during the early 1970s, but they were regarded as being too big for the airline's routes."


"Absolutely thrilled. Every time I see one on the ground or in flight. First flew to Ireland in a 707 and was so impressed. Had three or so trips then boarded the 747. Too big to fly but taxied like a scolded dog. Wonderful. Wonderful. Later after retirement, flew to Australia, later to Germany and to Rome, and ended up in Singapore, home via Hong Kong, Tokyo, Alaska and Chicago. What a wonderful thrill. just to go back over the history and memories is teary and wonderful. Saw the Boeing plant in Seattle on our trip to the Canadian Rockies and Alaska inland water way. One big thrill of my life after the Corsair in WW2. Thanks to Boeing."

--Paul Norderhus

"I should explain that I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, and 747s rarely landed there at the time. As I recall, Air Canada brought their first 747 thorough Winnipeg for a promotional tour, on a weekday, during school hours. (A lot of good that did me!) Anyway, in 1971 my parents took my brothers and I to Chicago for spring break. One of the places my brothers and I insisted on seeing was O'Hare Airport, where maybe we could see a 747.

This was in the last days before airport metal detectors were installed, and you could actually walk up to the gates without having a ticket. (Talk about more innocent times!) There we were gawking at a plane through a window, right next to the gate. My father asked the United Airlines official if we could have a quick tour of the plane. He tried, but they were just about to board the passengers, and it wasn't possible.

I had never been on any plane to that point, and it would have been incredible to see the inside of any jet aircraft, let alone the awe-inspring 747.

That summer an uncle who lived in Los Angeles invited me to visit and I'd be going by plane. The first leg of the trip was on a Northwest 707 from Winnipeg to Minneapolis. The Mppls-L.A. flight was on a 747. I still remember the wonderment I felt as I entered the plane. I couldn't believe that such a big enclosed space could leave the ground and was thrilled when it did. At the time people wandered around the plane, amazed that there was room to wander. I had a sense of wonderment that never left me. I was fortunate enough later to travel overseas and flew on the jumbo at least another six times. I never lost that sense of awe."


"My first flight on a 747 was on March 21, 1977. The airplane was CFDJC, the "PHIL GARRETT" a 747 100 operated by Wardair Canada, a charter airline. My family and I were travelling with friends to Honolulu, and I was terrified! I had flown before, in 1970 at the tender age of two, again to Honolulu on a CPAir DC863, however I was too young to remember much of the flight. Now at the age of 8, I was more aware of what was going on, and I was so frightened to get on board that airplane, but was too ashamed to admit it to my family. We experienced a two hour delay when the jetway failed to adjust its height during boarding and damaged the door, but after some pressurisation tests it was determined safe! I ws glad I wasn't sitting anywhere near that door. When we entered the cabin, my nerves were soothed by the colourful pink, blue, and orange seats. The airlane seemed so large, and I remember I kept asking my mum if we had taken off yet, while we were still on the gate!!

(On previous flights my mum had always said "the flight was so smooth you couldn't even feel it take off or land!") We taxied out, and I thought "this isn't so bad", until we lined up on the runway, and those mighty engines roared and shook the airplane. I felt as though I was pinned to my seat by the acceleration, and gripped my armrests for dear life! I remember my brother, who was sitting next to me, was scolding me and telling me to quit stealing his armrest! After about five minutes my dad got me to relax, and the pretty ladies came around asking me if I wanted this and that, and I soon fell in love with flying! After three weeks in Honolulu, I couldn't wait to return home, again on Wardair, this time 747 CFFUN "ROMEO VACHON". The flight was wonderful, but the headphones were all full of water, obviously from the cleaning method they used back then, but I remember thinking that the plane must have made a water landing recently!!! (I had just seen Airport 77 while I was in Hawaii)! I am now 35 years old, have worked in the airline industry for 15 years, and have been a flight attendant for Qantas for the past three. Things have changed a lot since 1977, and unfortunately, Wardair is no longer with us, but I am still excited every time those engines roar on our 747 400s and we take off, landing 12 hours later half way around the world."


"The B747 occupies a special place in my heart. I first remember reading about it as a young boy in The Weekly Reader at school. What facinated me was the fact that it was double decked,and ah! that spiral staircase.I didn't get a chance to actually fly on one until the mid eighties,by then the first class piano lounge and even the spiral staircase were history!I asked a flight attendant if it was ok if I went upstairs and have a look around,she looked at me quizzically and said sure.The upper deck was just more third class tourist seating.Despite being in service for over thirty years,I've noticed that the 747 is the only plane that people will stop whatever they are doing, and watch it as it passes low overhead."


"I was watching a old James Bond movie the other day, Gold Finger an about hafeway threw the movie, not sure what air port on the run way there was a 747. That movie was made in 1964. How is that posible. Hope some body can explain this. Thanks. [Editor's note: It is indeed impossible since it was not even on the drawing board yet. The 707 has four enginees but is not a double-decker. It is most likely what you saw.]"


"While I have flown on 747's numerous times, the most memorable occasion was as a 15 year old, sitting in the waiting lounge at Logan airport, waiting to board a TWA 747 flight from Boston to London Heathrow. My parents, who lived in Kuwait at the time, told me "if the flight is overbooked, hop off and get a free ticket. " Well, I listened and offered my seat up. After everyone boarded the flight, the gate attendant thanked me for offering my seat, and changed my row seat number from 38B to 3A, FIRST CLASS! There, sat one wide-eyed 15 year old sipping champagne and eating beef tenderloin on the 7-hour flight "across the pond". I will never forget that experience. "

--Jeff Jones

"I remember going to Honolulu from Vancouver in 1978. I was more excited about going on a CP Air Boeing 747 than going to Hawaii itself! I was 8 years old at the time, and I was so happy to be going on the huge, orange jetliner! I remember asking my Mom if we could go on the 747 instead of the crummy old DC-8!!! I would count the days until we would leave on our trip. I remember seeing the huge entry door and that certain airplane smell, kind of a mixture of disinfectant and cigarette smoke. The "stewardesses" (as they were called then) let me see the cockpit. It was amazing going "upstairs". What great memories. Hawaii was a lot of fun, too! I still get excited when going on a Boeing 747 today. Although the seats are not as comfortable and the airline food isn't as good as it was before. The 747 just seems to float in the air. An amazing airplane!"


""I was just 10 years of age when I first flew on a Boeing 747 B-model belonging to SAS called 'Huge Viking' from JFK to Copenhagen back in December 1971, when my family and I were going to spend the Christmas holidays with family in Norway and Denmark. I was amazed of its behemoth size and comfort, and took a great liking to this enormous plane. I even ventured to the first class lounge in the uper deck with my dad. Since then I have flown several times with the 747, mainly with Pan Am. The best 747 flight I experienced was aboard TWA flight 711 from Chicago to Las Vegas back in April 1972 at age 11. There were roughly thirty passengers aboard and plenty of empty seats - enough room for my younger brothers and I to play hide-and-seek. There was also a wet bar and lounge - other than the upper first class deck - on the main deck behind first class with club seating. On another TWA flight from L. A. to Boston later that same month my family and I got to visit the cockpit after we landed and parked at the gate. The captain seated one of my brothers in the pilot's seat, pulled a lever, and the seat moved forward. My brother was wide-eyed when he felt the controls rushing up toward him. Even today, now at age 43, the 747 still remains my all time favorite. " "

--Harald A.

"My memory has a historical flair about it and dates back to the first commerical flight for Pan Am between New York and London.

When my grandfather (J. W. Gordon) first heard about the plans to build the 747 and Pan Am's contract, he wrote a letter to Pan Am requesting tickets on the maiden flight. As it turned out, the request was granted, and he purchased the first two sold.

As a child in 1970, I remember sitting up watching our black-n-white TV while my grandfather and mother were being interviewed on one of the three national stations prior to their departure from New York. At the time, I didn't realize the significance, but today I wish I had more information.

Our family has several of the photos dispersed among various households, but what I've always wanted was to acquire a copy of the newsreel report. Then, convert it to DVD format to present it as a gift to my mother. Unfortunately, that goal has not been accomplished."

--Andy T



Image courtesy of Boeing

Model: 747

Manufacturer: Boeing

Country: US

First Flight: Febuary 9, 1969

First Passenger Flight: January 21, 1970

Launch CustomerPan Am

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