Boeing 747 - The Early Years Pt1
This post is dedicated to Richard W. Lee, a long time supporter of the site who donated this wonderful Boeing 747 model to my collection.
The Queen of the Skies
Nowadays the Boeing 747 is deservedly lionised and seen as the groundbreaking success story for aviation it undoubtedly is. That wasn't always the case and for much of its early history the Jumbo risked being seen as a massive white elephant. In fact, it's service entry shares many parallels with that of the Airbus A380. Designed with the expectation of the continuation of the massive traffic growth seen in the 1960s the 747 entered service at a time of high economic instability.
Many airlines that ordered it would have struggled to fill it at the best of times and quickly found that the early 1970s weren't a friendly time to hugely increase capacity. Even some of those airlines that could fill the big Boeing all too easily got themselves into trouble by buying way too many of the type and incurring huge debts. Some, such as Pan Am, would arguably never recover from their investment in the 747, while several airlines quickly increased their Jumbo's seating densities or sold off their aircraft altogether.
In time the global economy would recover from the oil crisis and stagflation. The 747 would prove itself the cornerstone of long-haul travel, easily outselling the smaller DC-10 and L-1011, and remaining the primary widebody peoplemover well into the early 2000s when the big twin came into its own. Unlike the A380, which was struggling well before the COVID pandemic, the market grew to meet the size of the 747 and there were limited alternatives in terms of flying long distances.
As with the A380 the 747 was always a fine aircraft, albeit slightly hamstrung in its earliest years with underpowered engines, and the over-enthusiasm of some of its earliest customers was not the fault of the aircraft itself. Now in 2023 with the 747 finally ending production the arrival of this wonderful Aeroclassics prototype schemed 400 scale model gives me a chance to take a look back at the Jumbo's early years.
During the 1960s air traffic was booming. Between 1957 and 1967 the number of passengers crossing the Atlantic ocean went up by over 550% - from 1 million to 5.5 million. Passengers had quickly become accustomed to flying on the first generation of jets, which had reduced travel times substantially and introduced mod-cons like in-flight movies. Flying, although not cheap, wasn't just for the rich and famous anymore. The golden age of aviation may have passed but the jets offered lower priced travel for all.
Growth predictions indicated the need for larger airliners to cope with the anticipated 12% per annum capacity increases. Douglas was easily able to stretch its long-legged DC-8 its Super 60 series entered service in early 1967 as the first of the Jumbo jets, even if as a 250 seater it was only something of a stop-gap. Boeing's 707 could not easily be stretched due to its short undercarriage and this was one of the factors that led Boeing towards something altogether new - a true Jumbo jet.
As had been the case with the 707 Boeing benefitted from being able to leverage work it had undertaken for a military programme - in this case for the US Air Force's very large transport requirement. Lockheed won that battle and produced the C-5 Galaxy, but it would be Boeing that got the most benefit as its failure led to the 747.
Airline reluctance to countenance a full double-decker led to a single-deck layout with a much wider cabin for up to 10 abreast. The ability to create a freighter version necessitated the cockpit to be raised above the main deck to enable a hinged opening nose in that variant. Fairing the cockpit in to the fuselage created the classic 747 hump and gave space for an extra passenger compartment behind it. This was initially envisaged not for seats but as a lounge area.
It has always amazed me that the first widebody airliner would be the largest built for over 35 years, until the A380 finally took off in 2005. In comparison to existing airliners the 747 would be massive. The series 100 measured 70.7m (231ft 10in) with a wingspan of 59.6m (195ft 8in). The four Pratt & Whitney turbofans would stretch engine technology to the limit to provide the behemoth the non-stop Europe-West-Coast US range required.
The size difference is clear in the Pan Am borchure to the left, which shows a 'thrift' i.e. economy class layout. The 747 is nearly three times as large as Pan Am's existing equipment.
Under Joe Sutter's design and build team the design came together in an impressively short timescale. Following Pan Am's massive order (see below) William M. Allen, the Boeing President, officially launched the Boeing 747 in July 1966. Even though production required a completely new factory facility, including the world's largest building (in terms of volume), the first 747 was rolled out on September 30, 1968.
It remains a hugely impressive achievement considering the main assembly building was activated only in May 1967. Nonetheless, there were significant issues encountered - mainly with the skyrocketing weight of the aircraft and what that meant for the engine development. Although the weight issues were eventually contained it still required Pratt & Whitney to speed up development of their JT9D-3 engine so it was ready for the first production aircraft.
The JT9D-3 was Pratt's first high-bypass-ratio engine and the 43,500 Ib thrust it could provide was just enough to enable the series 100 to meet its promised performance.
As with the Boeing 707 it was Pan American (or Pan Am as it would retitle its aircraft with the first 747) that really pushed the programme forward when Juan Trippe's airline put in a massive 25 plane order in April 1966 before the aircraft was even officially launched. The aircraft cost $20 million each resulting in an expenditure of over $500 million by Pan Am. Pan Am was an airline that defined hubris but at the time it seemed like a sensible order given the growth of air travel. Ultimately the order would be a massive mistake for the airline, but without it the 747 may never have been launched. It certainly massively benefitted Boeing and aviation in general.
This was a time when airlines were often run by charismatic individuals and used as a means of power projection by nation states. The heady growth of passenger figures and the global postwar economy had instilled a level of confidence in the industry. Additionally, in a highly regulated environment one of the ways airlines could compete was by advertising equipment and service. All these factors together with the massive order from Pan Am super-charged interest in the big Boeing as airlines saw they needed this massive competitor to go alongside their future Supersonic fleet.
By the end of 1966 Boeing had accumulated 88 orders from 11 airlines, even with the build process not yet underway. Two years later in September 1968 at the time of the first flight the backlog stood at 27 airlines with 158 aircraft on order. Each of these future customers had their badge added onto the forward fuselage of the prototype aircraft.
Below: The orders at rollout in the order shown on the aircraft.
The first 747, registered N7470, was ceremonially rolled out on September 30th 1968 - fully painted as Boeing cheated slightly by painting it and then returning it to the end of the assembly line so the aircraft wasn't bare when it emerged. The aircraft was resplendant in Boeing's quite reserved scheme of the time - a red cheatline and fin flash, with blue Boeing 747 titles.
First Flight and Flight Testing
The aircraft actually rolled out a day earlier than originally scheduled but missed the intended first flight on December 17, 1968 to mark the 65th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight. The first flight finally took place on February 9, 1969 from Snohomish / Paine Field with a flight crew of Jack Waddell (Pilot), Brien Wygle (Co-pilot) and Jess Wallick (Flight engineer). The first flight lasted just over an hour but was cut short due to a slight flap issue. The gear weren't therefore retracted until the second test flight
The prototype was joined by four other aircraft for the intensive year long flight testing programme with the other aircraft painted into airline colours. See below for the aircraft involved ordered by roll out date. Note that the third aircraft was last to roll out as it was fitted with a 32 ft aluminium boom on the nose for gust measurements and was fitted with special equipment to measure flight loads during excessive manoeuvering.
Another pair of airframes that would never fly were part of the static test programme. Alongside all these flight and structural tests Boeing had to convince the FAA that it was possible to evacuate such a large aircraft effectively. For the tests Boeing blacked out the windows and utilised only half the cabin doors. A selection of volunteers covering all age ranges were given the usual pre-flight emergency evacuation instructions and then were evacuated by a normal team of 13 stewardesses. The test was repeated multiple times with different passengers and proved the big Boeing could be evacuated within 90 seconds.
Over the 10 month flight testing programme the five 747s logged 1,400 flying hours and the result was that the aircraft was certified for passenger servie on December 30, 1969. Following this four of the five aircraft returned to Everett for refurbishment prior to delivery. The prototype, N7470, would remain with Boeing her entire life and is now on displat at the Museum of Flight, Boeing Field.
Pan Am, of course, had the honour of operating the first commercial 747, with its first service taking place on January 22, 1970. As is well known the flight was planned for the day before but the aircraft selected, N735PA 'Clipper Young America', developed engine troubles and was replaced by N736PA 'Clipper Victor', swiftly renamed 'Clipper Young America'. The service was only a few hours late but took off in the early hours of January 22nd.
The 747 would, as expected, have its own range of teething troubles - mostly associated with the new JT9D engines. These issues required some modifications, which in the second half of 1969 led to some aircraft being rolled out without engines. By March 1970 a new aircraft was being rolled out every three days and the widebody age had truly arrived. Initially seen perhaps as the ugly duckling carrying the masses while fleets of sleek supersonic transports would carry the elite in the end it was the 747, and its contemporaries the Tristar and DC-10, that would prove to be the future of air travel. In part 2 of this series I'll take a closer look at the early service history of the Boeing 747 with its US customers.
1981. Lucas, J. Boeing 747. Jane's Publishing
Boeing 747 production list. RZJets.net
Boeing 747 production list. RZJets.net