Boeing will make the final 747 delivery today, the end of a 50-plus-year span of building the revolutionary jet, which brought to the aviation lexicon the term “jumbo jet.” The final 747, a cargo version, will go to Atlas Air in Seattle.
It’s hard to discuss the 747 without buying into the marketing hype that helped create the giant plane’s distinctive brand. It’s little known or largely forgotten that the 747’s entry on the scene was far from an overnight success. There were great doubts about the plane. Its debut was a failure, in fact. The plane, developed as Boeing’s entry into a competition to produce a giant transport, lost out to the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. Boeing pivoted and developed a civil version, keeping the double-decker profile and opening the nose bay—two features that made the jumbo jet as distinctive as it was gargantuan.
Even after its introduction, Boeing wasn’t sure it would be able to sell many of the large, expensive planes, but it worked with customers and gave them what they were looking for. Those customers, including Braniff and Pan Am (the latter being the launch customer), worked their Madison Avenue magic on the plane’s image, making it over as both hip and space age, and touting its immense size and groovy upper deck, which some airlines outfitted as a lounge complete with piano and cocktails.
It worked, and the 747 became a hot seller for Boeing. Part of this success was well deserved; apart from the hype, the 747 was and is a remarkable plane—fast, long-legged and profitable for its operators—so after its pop-art launch, the plane began to sell itself. Over the 747’s production span, between 1970 and today, Boeing delivered 1,574 747s, a number that’s all the more remarkable when one considers the magnitude of the production effort and the plane’s high cost. The last 747s off the line retailed for more than $400 million.
The last delivery will be attended by thousands of employees, including many retired workers who helped launch the design in the 1960s. The writing has been on the wall for the 747 for decades with the introduction of highly fuel efficient, fast and large capacity intercontinental twin-engine aircraft, a configuration that was technologically impossible when the 747 was introduced. Boeing’s own 777 helped end the reign of the 747, though it took far longer than many anticipated.
Technically, the 747 going to Atlas Air today might not be the last one delivered to a customer. Boeing is currently working on a new Air Force One version of the famed jumbo jet, the first of its kind and, as it turned out, the last of its kind, too.
We take a look back at the 747’s first flight and its brush with failure.