The 747 was developed by Boeing in response to the massive demand for air travel in the 1960s. Pan Am World Airways, which was the largest international air carrier in the United States at the time, saw the success of the 707 and wanted to cheapen the per-seat cost of air travel and bring it to the masses. The airline requested a plane that would have 2.5 times the capacity and be able to take on true long-haul routes. Shelling out US$525 million in 1966 (worth over US$4.6 billion or AU$7.1 billion today) for 25 planes, Pan Am became the primary customer of what would be the first jumbo jet – the 747-100.
Built by a 50,000-strong team known as The Incredibles, construction of the first 747s began in December 1967. To accommodate the space needed to develop and build such large aircraft, Boeing built its iconic Everett Plant, which still to this day is the largest building in the world.
The 747’s design
Part of what earns the 747 its status as an aviation icon is its unique design. The aircraft had a capacity of 350 to 400 in the early models, achieving this by adding a second upper deck. Simple enough, right? Well, this addition held major implications for the image and status of the 747.
The wider decks, whilst originally planned to have only one walking aisle, opted for two for safety reasons. The result was a cabin that was spacious, with room enough for the kind of large luxurious seats typically now reserved for business class passengers. Walking down said aisles, passengers would see a 14-step staircase up to the top deck, or back down depending on where you were sitting. This added an element of grandeur and luxury, which whilst fitted with less, made it feel like a cruise ship with wings.
The true identifier of the 747, other than its gargantuan size, is its unmistakable ‘crown’. This allowed the aircraft to remain aerodynamic, whilst making room for the top deck. Much to the pleasure of passengers, this design seated a lucky few at the very front of the plane, even further forward than the pilots. Despite being a plane built to bring international to the masses at a lower price, it delivered a premium experience with its layout and ‘superjet’ aesthetic.
The love affair with Qantas
The 747 was much more than just a large plane but was a craft that would change the very fabric of air travel. Australia’s own Qantas played a major role in shaping international travel with the jumbo jet, and in turn, the 747 became as iconic for the airline as its own red kangaroo. Qantas ordered four Boeing 747s in 1967 to replace its 707s and received them later in 1971. The late delivery meant that the airline was able to choose the Boeing 747-200B, which had more powerful engines and a greater fuel capacity than the standard model, making it better suited to the long-distance flying needed to connect Australia with the rest of the world.
This allowed Qantas to launch routes to New Zealand and Los Angeles places it could not previously access due to ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operations Performance Standards). By 1979, Qantas had added two special long-range Boeing 747SPs to its fleet and dropped the final 707. Qantas was now an entirely 747 airline. During its time with the 747, Qantas set a number of firsts with the aircraft – famously claiming to have invented business class with its upper deck.
It also set the record for the largest number of people on an aircraft, using a 747 to rescue 674 people from Darwin when Cyclone Tracey hit in 1974. Qantas made use of 65 747 aircraft over a 40-year period, owning 57 brand new from Boeing, three 747-400s from another airline, and leasing five more to meet demand. Whilst the 747 has come and gone from the world of international travel, Australia was responsible for delivering a heartfelt final goodbye. The final 747 to leave Australia, flight QF7474 left Sydney to arrive in Los Angeles at 3:28pm on Thursday, July 23, 2020.
Bidding farewell to a loving crowd of onlookers, the VH-OEJ with pilot Captain Sharelle Quinn at the helm, took off from the east coast of Australia and drew a massive Qantas Kangaroo in the sky. The picture measured 275 kilometres east-west and 250 kilometres north-south and took just under 90 minutes to complete. When it finished, VH-OEJ climbed to cruising altitude and headed for Los Angeles, where it touched down at 1:23pm after 15 hours in the air.
The end of a flying titan
Over a period of 54 years, Boeing made 1,574 747s, a number comprised of a range of different models and variants. However, its time as the “Queen of the Skies” has almost come to an end.
As aircraft technology has improved, smaller, two-engine planes can make the same long-haul distances as jumbo jets, without the need for four thirsty engines that are worse for the environment and more expensive to run. There are also more airlines now than ever, meaning competition is fiercer, and filling a jumbo jet like the 747 is just much more of a challenge than it once was. The 747 and its rival, the Airbus A380, have been on the decline for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on international air travel served as the final nail in their coffins. There are now only seven airlines operating 747s in 2022, with German airline Lufthansa using the most aircraft of them all.
Where did they all go?
There are currently two 747s on display on Australia, sitting with open arms ready to welcome adoring fans to look upon her majesty. The first, which is the last surviving Boeing 747-200 with Rolls Royce engines, finds home at Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach, which is considered the home of Australian civil aviation. VH-EBQ, which began life with Qantas on December 10, 1979, was named “City of Bunbury to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Western Australia and Bunbury being declared a city. It carried 5.4 million passengers and flew over 82.54 million kilometres.
The other 747 on display in Australia sits in HARS Aviation Museum in Albion Park, NSW. “VH-OJA, City of Canberra” is a Boeing 747-400 that was donated to HARS by Qantas in 2015. It was the twelfth 747-400 produced and was accepted by Qantas on the 11 August, 1989. This aircraft holds the world record for the longest non-stop flight for a commercial aircraft, which lasted 20 hours and 9 minutes on a journey from London to Sydney in August 1989. More of which you’ll find in our next feature.
Overall, the aircraft carried 4,094,568 passengers and flew almost 85 million kilometres over 13,833 flights for a period of 25.3 years. This is roughly the same distance as 110.2 return trips to the moon. The rest of Qantas’ discarded 747s now collect dust in boneyards around the world. Nine of them, including VH-OEJ, sat in the hot California desert in the Mojave Air and Space Port, 150km north of LA. Close by, roughly 145km north-east of LA, is Victorville, one of the world’s most famous boneyards. Here, eight more Qantas 747s were left to decay. More 747s are dotted around the US, such as in Pinal Airpark in Marana, Arizona, and Tupelo Regional Airport in Lee County, Mississippi.