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The Queen of the Skies at 50

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Fifty years ago today, on 21 January 1970, the first Boeing 747 entered commercial service with Pan Am. The 747 ushered in a new era of commercial long-haul air travel. It became the most recognisable and successful passenger jet in history.

New Year’s Day in 1976 was a big day for me. I had just celebrated the last day of 1975, watching fireworks and burning sparklers with my younger brother. It would also be the last day I was to live in my native country, the Netherlands.

Ivo Vegter (right) with his brother Onne, on 31 December 1975. (Author’s personal archive.)

On 1 January 1976, we boarded a KLM Boeing 747 bound for Johannesburg, South Africa. My father was 30. My mother was 32. I was four, my two younger brothers were three and one, and my mother was pregnant. It was a momentous decision to uproot a young family to seek a better life 9,000km away. (It was also a decision that would bring regrets and guilt, but this article is not about that.)

What I remember most is the aeroplane. I hadn’t flown before, so any aircraft would have excited me, but this was the most glorious passenger jet the world had ever seen. It was magnificent!

PH-BUA, the first of seven Boeing 7470296B aircraft bought by KLM in 1971. (By Pedro Aragão under a Creative Commons Licence.)

KLM was the first customer for the new 747-206B passenger jet. This photo depicts the first of seven it bought in 1971. We flew in one of those seven, although I couldn’t say which one. I still think the KLM livery is the best on any 747.

Everything about the 747 was huge, and not only because I was a wide-eyed little boy. It stood almost 20m tall, was over 70m long, and had a wingspan of 60m. Its upper deck was six storeys off the ground, and its tailfin was six storeys high. At two and a half times the size of a Boeing 707, it was the largest passenger plane ever built. You could park 45 cars on one of its wings if they’d let you. It had a maximum speed of 969km/h. It carried 353 passengers in its initial configuration with KLM, but this could be extended to 539 passengers in an all-economy-class layout.

My parents gave me an electronic pocket calculator to keep me busy on the long trip. It worked. I went on to study computer science and applied mathematics, and covered technology in my early career as a journalist.

A highlight of the flight was when I was allowed to visit the cockpit. I was overawed at the number of lights, switches, gauges and dials – which numbered 971 in total – and the astonishing thought that the pilots between them knew what every one of them did.

The cockpit of a Boeing 747-200. (By Shahram Sharifi under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.)

The lovely cabin crew gave all the kids a goodie bag. The best thing in the bag was a red ViewMaster, through which you could view stereoscopic images in 3D.

A stereoscopic 3D viewer and popular children’s toy, ca. 1976. (By Victor Ramos under a Creative Commons Licence.)

Each disc contained a series of promotional images for the airline and the 747-200B. The image I most vividly recall was of the cocktail lounge,  in all its glorious burnt-orange 1970s décor on the upper deck, where we weren’t allowed to go. 

The first class lounge on the upper deck of a Boeing 747-200 luxury liner, ca. 1970s. (By Christian Montone, https://www.flickr.com/photos/christianmontone/4554652948)

How much more elegant could travel get? KLM’s advertising compared the graceful 747-200B to a swan. US president Ronald Reagan would later commission two highly modified 747-200B aircraft to serve as Air Force One. They are still in service to this day. When we landed in Johannesburg on 2 January 1976, having travelled from the dead of winter to the height of summer in a single night, that plane had changed my life.

Just over a year later, on 27 March 1977, one of the seven 747-200B aircraft that KLM bought in 1971 – perhaps the very one we travelled on – started its take-off run from Tenerife’s Los Rodeos Airport with 234 passengers and 14 crew on board, under the mistaken belief that it had clearance from the tower. The airport was blanketed with thick fog, and it was heavily congested due to a terrorist incident at the island country’s main airport, Gran Canaria.

As it left the ground, it collided with a fully-loaded 747, which had clearance to taxi on the runway because the taxiways were blocked by other aircraft. Of the 644 passengers on both planes, 583 died in the collision and subsequent fire. Only 61 passengers from the front section of the second aircraft survived.

Two loaded Boeing 747s collide on the runway in Tenerife on 27 March 1977. (Still from ‘Terror in the Skies’ S01E02 by Arrow Media for Channel 4.)

KLM is the oldest airline in the world, having been founded in 1919. It has had two accidents in its history, only one of which involved fatalities, but that tragic accident was also the deadliest aviation accident in history, and forever changed flight safety procedures.

As fate would have it, the other aircraft involved in the disaster was Clipper Victor, a Boeing 747-121 operated by Pan Am. Its claim to fame was that it was the very first Boeing 747 to enter commercial service, on this day exactly 50 years ago.

The first commercial flight of a Boeing 747-121, operated by Pan Am, lands at Heathrow Airport on 22 January 1970. (AFP/Getty Images.)

At the time, it was known as Clipper Young America, because the original Clipper Young America, which would have made Pan Am’s first commercial 747 flight, developed engine trouble and had to be replaced. It was renamed back to Clipper Victor after it became the first airliner to be hijacked, to Cuba, on 2 August 1970.

The 747-100 series had a shorter range than the subsequent 200 series 747s, which had already been announced when it went into service. It was, however, groundbreaking. It was the first aircraft to be described as “wide-bodied”. It was the first aircraft to be given the nickname “Jumbo Jet”.

It was built in a mere 16 months by 50,000 workers in what was then the largest building in the world by volume, the Boeing production line in Everett, 30 minutes north of Seattle, Washington. Its cargo hold could carry 3,400 pieces of luggage, and could be unloaded in an astonishing seven minutes flat.

The Boeing 747-100 was the jet that was modified for Nasa as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

A Boeing 747-100 modified to carry the space shuttle. (NASA, public domain.)

It was also the aircraft that brought long-range flight to the masses. It made the world smaller for trade and travel.

And who can forget the South African Airways Boeing 747-244B named Lebombo, which flew low over Ellis Park with “Good Luck Bokke” emblazoned on its belly, before the Rugby World Cup final against the All Blacks in 1995?

The 747 was far from a sure bet for Boeing, however. At the time, it was itself working on a supersonic jet, as were other manufacturers. Concorde made its first test flight in 1969, the same year the 747-100 first flew.

There was a widespread belief that planes like the 747 would soon be relegated to subsonic cargo duty, as passengers went supersonic. Boeing itself expected a total market for the 747 of perhaps 400 units.

The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde, a supersonic passenger jet in service between 1976 and 2003. (Museum of Flight.)

That never happened. The Concorde was an astonishing aircraft. I could write another whole column about how amazing it was. But it had serious drawbacks. It used just as much fuel as a 747, but had half the range and a fifth of the seating capacity. It simply was not economical enough for mass transport. It was also unpopular with those not flying Concorde (which was almost everyone) because of the sonic boom it produced as it crossed the sound barrier.

This left the 747 as the undisputed “Queen of the Skies”. It held the passenger capacity record for 37 years after its introduction and offered unmatched speed, efficiency and range. Between 1970 and 2019, 1,555 units were delivered, against 1,572 orders. It exceeded sales expectations by nearly a factor of four.

After the success of the 100, 200 and 300 series, all introduced in the early 1970s, the 400 series was unveiled in 1988. It incorporated many design elements from previous models, including the stretched upper deck from the 300 series, but introduced many new features too. It could carry more passengers and could optionally carry more fuel.

It introduced wing extensions and winglets that produced more lift, less drag, better fuel efficiency and increased range. With weight savings from improved materials in the rest of the wings, these did not add any weight to the aircraft.

The cockpit was modernised, reducing the number of lights, gauges and switches from 971 to a much more manageable 365, and dispensing with the need for a flight engineer.

The 747-400 would eventually overtake the 747-200 as the most popular Boeing aircraft ever built, selling 694 units variously configured as passenger jets, freighters, military aircraft and extended-range models. In its most dense configuration, used on short-haul routes in Japan, it can seat 660 economy-class passengers.

Boeing would eventually introduce newer, more efficient planes to replace the 747 for various applications, and demand for the 747 started to flatten out in the 21st century amid tough competition from rival Airbus. The first year in which Boeing received no new 747 orders was 2019.

The last 747 model, the 747-8 Intercontinental, is the most impressive model series yet, however. It can carry 51 more passengers than a 747-400 in a standard three-class configuration, has a range of 15,000km, is 30% quieter, has 26% more cargo capacity, offers 13% lower cost per seat-mile, and is the world’s fastest commercial jet at 1,047km/h. The US has ordered two modified 747-8I aircraft to replace the ageing 747-200B-based Air Force One.

First flight of the Boeing 747-8 in 2010. (Boeing Dreamscape under a Creative Commons Licence.)

The era of the 747 is slowly coming to an end, as more and more airlines are phasing them out. KLM has announced its retirement after 50 years of service, and Renata Beck, a cabin attendant, wrote a beautiful piece about why the aircraft was so beloved among crew.

Air France arranged an impressive farewell flight for its last 747:

There are, of course, always spoil-sports who denounce air travel because it is, supposedly, bad for the environment. That’s not really true, however. Only the rich and leisured can afford to sail anywhere. Only the rich world has access to a bullet train for intercity travel. For the rest of us, unless you’re travelling as a family on holiday, flying is not only faster, but also more energy-efficient than driving or taking a bus. The fuel efficiency of aircraft, per passenger-mile, has improved more than that of cars since 1980, and is now lower.

Don’t let anyone shame you into not flying. Passenger air travel in general, and the Boeing 747 in particular, brought about a revolution. It made intercontinental air travel a reality for the masses, and massively improved global business and trade relations. A Boeing 747-206B once irrevocably changed my life.

A Boeing 747-400 operated by KLM preparing for take-off at St. Maarten. (Still from https://youtu.be/san0vr6MbDU by user czposix79.)

The future of air travel is bright (although the future of Boeing is rather more cloudy, at present). Yet 50 years after the 747’s first commercial flight, it is only fitting to pay tribute to the Queen of the Skies. What a golden era it’s been. We will never see its like again. DM

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