Nifty at fifty

How many models of anything at all can you think of that have remained in widespread use for the last 50 years?  The Boeing 747 aircraft, which is also known as the Jumbo Jet, or The Queen of the Skies, is one of the very few that was first made in 1968 and is still in use today in an industry where making money depends a lot on how good the technology being used is. Of course, the Boeing has been updated over the years, but the basic form remains the same to this day.

By Abhijit Mitra
  • Published 12.08.18
  •  
The Boeing 747-8 is the latest version 

How many models of anything at all can you think of that have remained in widespread use for the last 50 years? 
The Boeing 747 aircraft, which is also known as the Jumbo Jet, or The Queen of the Skies, is one of the very few that was first made in 1968 and is still in use today in an industry where making money depends a lot on how good the technology being used is. Of course, the Boeing has been updated over the years, but the basic form remains the same to this day.

How far back was 1968? Well, that year The Beatles made Yellow Submarine and visited India. The year 2001 seemed sufficiently far out in the future for Stanley Kubrick to direct the sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the US government was still a year away from starting on the ARPANET, the first network of computers that became the forerunner of the Internet. 

So, now that we have the scale of what the Jumbo Jet has achieved, let’s take a closer look at the original giant of the skies.

BIRTH OF AN ICON

In September 1968, at Everett, US, aircraft maker Boeing took the wraps off its largest passenger airliner, the 747 (right). It could carry about twice the number of people of the commonly-used jet-engined passenger aircraft in service with various airlines at that time, mainly the Douglas DC-8 and the Boeing 707, both of which were about a decade old by then. Boeing also took advantage of the turbofan engines developed for the C-5A transporter aircraft which the US government had wanted someone to make for it. Boeing did not eventually get that order, but it wanted to use the engine in a plane that could be used in either passenger or cargo configurations. The 747-8 is the latest version of that aircraft.

REDEFINING BIG

200mm cu.ft (5.6 million cu. m)

That is the size by volume of the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington, where the 747 is made. The building was purpose-built since there was no place that was big enough to hold such a huge aircraft during its production. This factory is still the world’s largest building by volume

225ft (68.5m)
The length of the fuselage of the original 747

6 storeys
The height of the tail from the ground

1 tonne
The weight of pressurised air in the aircraft

3,400
The number of pieces of luggage that the hold can carry

7 minutes
Time taken to unload the cargo hold

4,700sq ft-plus
Total total wing area, which is bigger than the area of a basketball court

THE UPPER DECK

One of the most distinctive features of the Boeing 747 at the time of its launch in 1968 was its bubble-like top deck. This was to move the cockpit up to ensure that the aircraft could be given a nose door that would let it take in 8ftx8ft cross-section cargo containers. It was thought at that time that although the number of air passengers was increasing rapidly, there would not be enough demand for an aircraft that big. Initially, there was just a lounge — apart from the cockpit — and the the spiral staircase (left) to access the upper deck from the lower one became an iconic image for the aircraft. 

Over the years the upper deck has been used as the first class by many airlines and in the 747-400 and later aircraft it is significantly longer than it was on the original model. However, the idea of a top deck wasn’t entirely new and had been there earlier in sea planes, the French made Breguet Deux-Ponts airliner as well as Boeing’s own 377 Stratocruiser passenger airliner.

BEFORE & AFTER

Thirty-seven years passed between the time that the Boeing 747 took over the mantle of the world’s largest commercial aircraft from the Boeing 707 (above) and the time it lost the crown to the Airbus A380 (below). For almost a quarter century, nobody even tried making a competing product, such was the enormity of the task of developing and building an aircraft that big and making money selling it. 

Airbus — which is jointly owned by Germany, France and Spain — started working on a bigger craft in the early 1990s and finally displayed a twin-deck plane in 2005 that could carry 40 per cent passengers more. The 747 finally lost the crown of the world’s largest passenger aircraft after 37 years of being in the business!