Fifty years ago, the first Boeing 747 took to the skies
TU Delft Professor Richard Curran (Air Transport and Operations) from the Aerospace Engineering Faculty, vividly recalls encountering the Boeing 747 for the first time, although he was just a young boy in Northern Ireland at the time.
“I remember it as a really iconic aircraft because it was so recognisable with the double deck at the front, and of course the sheer size of it. It's an amazing aircraft. The tail is six stories high! Pet names like ‘Jumbo Jet’ or ‘Queen of the Skies’ have made the huge plane accessible to people’s imagination despite its size.”
The Boeing 747 was conceived in response to the exponentially growing air travel in the 1960s, especially in America. The American airline Pan Am had approached the airplane manufacturer Boeing to develop a larger successor to its 707 model which only had 140 seats.
The first successful test flight of the first Boeing 747 on 9 February 1969 occurred subsequent to Pan Am having placed an order for 23 passenger aircraft and two freighter versions worth 550 million dollars in 1966.
The first commercial flight after the test flight took place less than a year later in January 1970. The airplane had 370 seats, more than 2.5 times that of its predecessor. The flight marked the beginning of a new era: the era of mass tourism.
Bigger and faster
Growth in air travel has indeed risen exponentially since the first days of the Jumbo Jet. The number of passengers rose from about 400,000 per year in 1970 to four billion today. For both operators and passengers, the 1.548 Jumbo Jets have long been the undisputed choice for transporting large numbers of people over long distances. “You could say that the Boeing 747 has opened up the world to the people,” Curran resumes.
Less than a month after the Jumbo Jet’s maiden trip, the Concorde took off for the first time. It was the world’s first supersonic passenger aircraft with a top speed of about 2,200 km/hour. The question of which route the airliners would take, bigger or faster, was answered by the first oil crisis in 1974. Bigger aircraft with lower fuel consumption per passenger mile were favoured over supersonic gas-guzzlers.
The 747 has dominated mass air travel for almost four decades. It took until 2007 for Airbus to present a comparable and even bigger airplane: the Airbus A380. The Airbus typically features 575 seats, but in terms of fuel per passenger mile, it hardly outperformed the Jumbo Jet: 3.4 litres per 100 passenger miles for the A380 compared to 3.5 litres for the Boeing 747-8.
Premium airlines keep their aircraft for about 15-20 years, says Curran. After that, they're sold off to ‘lesser’ companies, rented out to leasers or they get converted for freight transport. A sizeable share of the first Jumbos, some 500, are still flying around. Otherwise they end up parked in the Arizona desert.
The so-called Boneyard in Arizona. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Frank Oliver)
The aviation industry has been tremendously successful and empowering, Curran says. “Travelling the world safely, cheaply and comfortably, either for work or for pleasure, has become the norm. Even for those like myself who prioritise the environment for future generations over and above my current expectations.”
We now have generations of people who regard intercontinental air travel as their birthright, which stands at odds with the international obligation to reduce fossil fuel emissions. According to Curran, making air travel more sustainable in the face of such anticipated growth is today’s big challenge, not only for the aviation industry, but it is a central theme for the Aerospace Engineering Faculty at Delft.