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A Fond Farewell to the Boeing 747

January 19th, 2018 · No Comments · The Sun, tourism, Travel

The Boeing 747 was the first jumbo jet, and it forever changed the experience of flying. For the better.

No one under the age of 50 can have a personal recollection of this, given that the first commercial flight of a 747 was made on January 22, 1970 — from New York to London.

It was a big, glorious thing, the 747.

It seated more than 300 passengers and its four jet engines powered the plane at upwards of 570 miles per hour, faster than previous commercial jets. The 747 also had an unprecedented range, in excess of 8,300 miles.

Not only was a 747 enormous, fast and rangy, it was stylish, what with the upstairs mini-cabin, reached by means of a circular staircase.

It also was a breakthrough for anyone who felt too cramped in previous editions of planes.

The 747 had two aisles, and the ability to get out of a seat and walk around the plane, which was more that 200 feet long, was marvelous.

Its seats were arranged in a 2-5-2 layout, if I correctly recall the early versions of the layout, and it seemed quite spacious. (Later, models were shifted to a 3-4-3, which was less comfortable but reflected the modern demand for maximum passengers with minimal comfort.)

I loved that plane (though not as much as the Boeing 767, which has a shockingly pleasant 2-3-2 seating plan; airline executives must recoil in horror whenever they see a 767).

The 747 got me where I wanted to go, nonstop from Los Angeles, even if the destination was somewhere in Europe, or even Asia.

And why am I referring to the 747 in the past tense? Because today the last commercial flight of a 747 by a U.S. airline was made, and the New York Times has posted a story/photo gallery of that final flight.

This may be hard to believe, now, but until the 747 came along, anyone taking a long trip was forced to fly a single-aisle plane, typically with three seats on each side of the aisle, and could look forward (with dread) to having to change planes ahead of making the leap over the Atlantic.

The 747 looked like Gulliver among Lilliputians, when it first appeared. And, at first, we weren’t sure that it would be able to fly. How could something so big get into the air?

I have a vague recollection that my parents flew the 747 before I did, and they came back and reported that the experience of flying seemed muted, on the 747, but in a good way. They said the sometimes creepy sensation of takeoffs and landings seemed less eventful on the jumbo — and less stressful. This big monster just sort of powered into the sky … or floated on down to the ground from 30,000 feet.

I first flew on a 747 around 1977, when I was covering the Los Angeles Rams for the San Bernardino Sun. We attended road games, back then, and the 747 was often used on “semi-short” hauls like LAX to New Orleans or Atlanta or New York. (In later years, the 747 ceded mid-range flights to the Boeing 737.)

I believe it was 1988 that I was able to fly in the overhead compartment. The piano bars intended for first-class flyers had generally given way to “business” seating upstairs. One aisle, two oversized seats on each side, about 16 in the cabin.

Several of us going to Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympics, as part of the Gannett/USA Today coverage team, were able to sit upstairs, and it seemed almost sinfully expansive up there — with big storage areas under the windows and our own flight attendant, on what seemed to be our own plane.

Boeing apparently thought that supersonic flights were going to be the wave of the future and figured something like 400 747s would be built before they became obsolescent.

Instead, subsonic flying remains the norm and, as of late November, 1,540 editions of the 747 had been delivered to customers all over the world. And more remain in the pipeline, though, admittedly, it is slowing to a trickle, as lighter planes with greater fuel economy take over the long-haul market.

The Boeing 747 was the first in the air with a jumbo jet. No fewer than three other companies wanted to get into the “big plane” field.

Second in the air was the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, in August of 1971, followed by the Lockheed L-1011 in April of 1972 and the Airbus 300 (usually known as the A-300) in October of 1972.

For a time, it was hard to guess which one would be the biggest commercial success, but it turned out to be the 747. By far.

The number of jumbos delivered by the other three companies: 561 A300s; 386 DC-10s; and 250 L-1011s.

Together, they sold 1,199 planes. Boeing sold half again as many of its jumbos as did the other three.

The DC-10 had some early problems with reliability, and was pretty much doomed by that. The A300 was kind of clunky and generally remained in Europe, the home of Airbus. And the L-1011, despite being described to us by a pilot as “the Cadillac” of jumbos, never really caught on and fairly soon gave up its attempt to enter the civilian market.

Collectively, however, all those big plans made for faster, easier, less-stressful flying, with fewer plane changes just to get from one side of the U.S. to the other.

The 747 to date has been involved in 61 accidents/incidents, with 61 “hull losses” and 3,722 fatalities.

Much of the trouble was in the early years of the plane, and tended to involve cargo-door problems. The most deadly event — two 747s colliding on the ground at Tenerife — had nothing to do with the plane’s performance. The 583 dead there, the deadliest accident in commercial aviation history, account for about 16 percent of all 747 fatalities over four-plus decades of service.

I may yet get another chance at the 747. Some overseas airlines are still using them … though most of them seem to be migrating toward small airlines in remote locations.

The 747 already has done plenty for us. It made flying less of a chore and was a big part of the expansion of the global tourist industry. That we went from the little planes of the 60s to this gleaming behemoth in the 1970s … kind of amazing.





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