NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 12:03
Erika de Jode
Erika de Jode
It is February 9, 1969 when a Boeing 747 takes off for the first time in the United States. It is a test flight: the first ‘real’ commercial 747 flight follows a year later.
After today, the 747 era is slowly coming to an end: tonight the very last new freighter will be delivered to an airline. Delivery of passenger 747s had already been stopped.
The crew of the first commercial Boeing 747 flight in January 1970:
Pan Am operated the first commercial flight of the Boeing 747
Boeing would not have dreamed 54 years ago that the 747 would become the Queen of the Skies and would be a leader in the aviation sector for decades, says aviation expert Joris Melkert of TU Delft.
“It was a big risk for Boeing to start on the 747,” he explains. The development of the aircraft cost the company many hundreds of millions. And that at a time when it was expected that the future of aviation lay in (extremely fast) supersonic aircraft such as Concorde.
Nevertheless, the gamble on the non-supersonic Boeing 747 ultimately worked out more than favorably for the American aircraft manufacturer. The first customer was airline Pan Am, which already ordered 25 copies of the aircraft in 1966.
From exclusive to affordable
After the introduction of the 747 to the world market, Boeing’s position took off enormously. “The aircraft led to a revolution in aviation,” says Melkert.
“Suddenly hundreds of people could be in one plane at the same time, which could also fly non-stop across the ocean. Where aviation was very exclusive at the time, flying became a means of transport for the masses thanks to the Boeing 747.”
See below the difference between the 747 and its predecessor, the Boeing 707:
CC BC 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A Boeing 707 (left) and an older variant of the Boeing 747 (right) at an aircraft museum in Australia
In addition, the 747 was the first aircraft with two or more aisles. Also new was that the cockpit is located high in the nose of the aircraft. “As pilots, we are, as it were, on the second floor,” says Christiaan van Heijst, who has been flying the Boeing 747 as a captain for more than twelve years and regularly shares photos of his view on Instagram.
That ‘bump’ on the nose of the plane is there for a reason. The Boeing 747 is the only aircraft of this size that can open its nose – handy for the cargo flights that Van Heijst carries out.
“The cargo can pass under the cockpit,” he explains. “This means that we can, for example, transport wings from other aircraft or windmill blades, which are slid into the hold in one go. This is physically impossible with other aircraft, including the newer Boeing types.”
This is what a Boeing 747 with the ‘nose’ open looks like:
A Boeing 747 with an open ‘nose’ for cargo transport
Van Heijst thinks the Boeing 747 is a very pleasant aircraft. “The device is very reliable, versatile and flies very pleasantly. It’s just like a nice car to sit in. Moreover, after twelve years I still think it’s a beautiful device to see.”
He thinks one of the nice parts is the “powerful” four engines that hang under the wings. “When fully loaded, a 747 is an extremely efficient means of transportation for large amounts of cargo.”
Not economical enough
Yet it is precisely these four engines that are one of the reasons that the aircraft is slowly disappearing from the aviation world, where twin-engine aircraft have become the norm. Aviation expert Melkert explains: “Four-engine aircraft are not economical enough, they make more noise and you have to maintain four instead of two engines.”
The aviation industry is therefore focusing on more cost-effective alternatives such as the Boeing 777X, the introduction of which has already been postponed several times. “It can cover great distances and transport large numbers of passengers, at attractive costs.”
Crashes and technical issues
And that is crucial for Boeing, which experienced glory days after the introduction of the 747, but has recently entered financially more unfavorable waters. Two plane crashes with the Boeing 737 MAX, technical problems with 777X test flights and the two-year corona crisis have not left the American aircraft manufacturer in the cold.
In March 2020, one of KLM’s last Boeing 747 aircraft landed at Schiphol:
As of today, the 747 will no longer land at Schiphol
Giants such as Boeing also remain sensitive to errors, says Melkert. He thinks the position of the aircraft manufacturer will improve if the 777X, of which many copies have already been ordered, is allowed to enter the market. That will probably be in 2025.
And although the 747 will no longer be delivered after today, the aircraft, which according to Melkert will easily last 25 to 30 years, will remain in the air for the time being. “The first test flight was a week after I was born, and on the day I die there will still be 747s flying around. And I plan to live a long time.”
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